Is Church Membership Biblical?
Church membership can be a controversial issue. I have met a number of Christians who are strongly opposed to it, and others who are staunch supporters. As with anything, believers ought to let Scripture guide our beliefs and practices and submit to the truth of God’s Word.
In trying to answer the question “Is church membership biblical?”, we first need to define what one means by “biblical”. There are at least two possible meanings of this word:
- Biblical means that the Bible explicitly commands a certain thing.
- Biblical means that the Bible does not explicitly forbid a certain thing, meaning it is possibly acceptable but not required.
In the first sense, church membership is not biblical. Nowhere does the Bible say that church membership is required by believers or to be enforced by churches. So in that sense, church membership is not a biblical practice.
Yet, church membership most definitely is biblical in the second sense. Scripture does not forbid its use, and it can be argued that there are ways in which the Bible suggests it might be a good idea.
I am a supporter of church membership, not because I see it as being commanded by God, but rather I think it is both an acceptable and helpful practice. Here are a few practical arguments for the helpfulness of church membership.
It helps identify the flock and the shepherds.
The Bible states clearly that church leaders are to care for their flock, or those who are a part of their local church. It says plainly in 1 Peter 5:1-3
 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed:  shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly;  not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.
With local churches inevitably having turnover among attenders, as well as inconsistent attendance by some, the elders are left to ask, who is part of our flock? Who is the flock specifically “among us”? It is a matter of knowing by name those for whom church leaders are responsible. Now, you can go to an unhealthy extreme where elders might ignore those who regularly attend but aren’t enrolled as church members, or refuse to shepherd someone who is new to the church, and either one is to miss the intent of Peter’s charge. His meaning is clearly that elders are responsible for the spiritual nurturing of specific individuals, and formal church membership is one means to identify who that entails. It can help make sure people don’t fall through the cracks.
Perhaps more importantly and practically, church membership also helps believers obey the command of passages like Hebrews 13:17, which says
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
In this case, the job of identifying specific individuals is reversed: believers are to know specifically who their leaders are, and submit to their spiritual leadership. In some cases, this could include the practice of church discipline, where a church member is disciplined by church leaders for unrepentant sin. A believer is not to submit to the leader of another church with whom they have hardly any contact, but rather only to “your leaders”. Making the distinction between who are your spiritual leaders and who are not is an important one.
So, although church membership is not commanded, it practically helps to answer several questions. Formal enrolment helps church leaders to know their flock by name, and it helps church members know their leaders as well. This is a great tool to prevent loose church affiliation, which is all-too-common among Christians. There are many believers who jump from church to church. In such a case, who are the leaders they are to submit to? Which church is responsible for the care of that individual? Such questions are more easily resolved when formal church membership is in place.
It helps believers commit to one another.
The New Testament is packed with commands for Christians that involve “one another”.
- Accept one another (Romans 15:7)
- Forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32)
- Seek the good of one another (1 Thessalonians 5:15)
- Confess sin to one another (James 5:16)
- Serve one another (Galatians 5:13)
- Love one another (John 13:34)
- Bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2)
The list goes on and on. Roughly 15-30 verses in the Bible (depending on the translation used) include the phrase “one another” in terms of how Christians are to relate to each other.
This certainly means that every Christian is responsible to treat any other believer in such a way. Yet there is also a sense in which these commands are meant to be taken in the context of a local community, where Christians know each other in personal relationships. Especially in the case of attending the same church, believers ought to know each other and fulfill these “one another” commands within their fellowship. This can certainly happen without church membership; yet church membership does raise the level of accountability in terms of who we are to treat as a brother or sister in Christ.
It helps people commit to a church.
Sadly, the city in which I live is known for church-hopping. It is not uncommon for people to bounce around from church to church, nit-picking about details they prefer while never really establishing any solid, long-term relationships with other believers and putting down spiritual roots. This is a bad thing. Church membership encourages people to think about what church they want to attend a little harder. As I see it, choosing a church should be more like buying a house than picking a restaurant for supper. The former requires thoughtfulness, intentionality, a level of seriousness, and proper investigation. It is a long-term decision. The latter is a flippant choice that hardly matters. If joining a church requires an official membership process, a believer is more likely to take it seriously. They will learn about the church’s beliefs, style of ministry, relational atmosphere, as well as other things, before making a decision (to which I say, praise God!).
It helps to strengthen the volunteer structure.
Pastors are important, but most churches are built and sustained on the backs of volunteers. At our church, we have a number of volunteer positions that are only reserved for church members. This helps in a few practical ways, such as:
- Ensuring a non-believer is not in a role of spiritual leadership
- Encouraging uninvolved attenders to take the next step of commitment
- Helping volunteers remain accountable about their walk with Jesus, since they have officially confirmed they will do so
It protects the church from being run by the uncommitted and unqualified.
When churches need to make important decisions collectively, what is to stop the person who has attended for just two weeks from having the same voice as the committed 30-year member, especially in the case of a vote being taken? If there is no church membership in place, the answer is nothing! Having an enrolled list of members helps to make sure that important church decisions are made by those who have an invested, committed interest in the health of the church long-term.
It can help keep track of growth (or decline).
No method of counting attendance is without its flaws, but church membership is one practical way a church can keep tabs on how it is doing. In addition to tracking Sunday attendance, the church can track its membership. Are membership figures going up? Going down? Staying the same? Is the overall attendance going up but membership is not? Is attendance down but membership growing? Any of these scenarios show something about the health of the church and direction it is heading in. It’s clear that even the early church was keeping track of numbers in some fashion (Acts 2:41 for example), and church membership is one method of doing so.
In the end, no church should feel obligated to have a formal structure of church membership. It is a biblically optional model to have in place that a church may or may not find helpful. In my own estimation, I find it to be a helpful thing to use, though it is not without its shortcomings and potential dangers. Each church should decide for themselves if the good outweighs the bad in their own particular situation, based on the wisdom that God provides.