Biblical Church Membership
A Look at the Modern Practice of Church Membership
by Jamon S.R. Sorrells
[All scripture quotes are taken from the New American Standard Version (NASB) of the Bible, unless otherwise stated.]
Preface: This article is written with the believer in mind who attends a local assembly faithfully and is involved intimately in the work and service, and for conscience sake does not wish to 'join' the assembly or become a' member; yet they are compelled to 'join' the 'church', or considered 'unsubmissive', or' rebellious'. This is NOT written as a defense for those who make a habit of forsaking the assembly. To them I say the scriptures are clear, please do what you can to meet with other believers regularly, so that you may be 'encouraged more and more as you see the day approaching'. You are in danger of drifting away from the faith!
If a person says, "I am a member of 'such-and-such' church," what do they mean? What constitutes being a 'member' of a local assembly? Is our modern day practice of local church 'membership' ordained by God, or instituted by man? What are the advantages to our modern day practice of church 'membership'? Are there any drawbacks? Should believing 'members' of a local assembly, and believing 'non-members' of the same assembly, be treated differently? Should 'membership' have its privileges? These are some of the questions I wish to explore in this article.
This article is an attempt to honestly challenge the practice of church 'membership', and the requirement thereof. The challenge will be based upon the truth of God's word, rather than the traditions of men, no matter how old they are. This we must do, so that we do not, neglect the commandments of God, to hold to the traditions of men. -- Jesus (Mark 7:8)
The whole concept of church 'membership' in general, is one that has not in any substantial way been challenged, except usually by those who insist that no gathering of the saints is needed at all. As a result the logical conclusion is that one who challenges the notion of church 'membership' is one who is in the habit of 'forsaking our own assembling together." So, though some people clearly see no Biblical grounds for our current practice, they quietly adhere without question for fear of being labeled (i.e. non-submissive, rebellious, individualistic, etc.) Despite the threat of labels, I attempt to communicate what the scriptures teach on this subject.
Before we begin, it is important that we define a few terms so that we can be on the same page (no pun intended). Without diving into the etymology of foreign words, I will define the terms as I intend to use them in this article only.
- church -- God's elect people from every nation and tribe, scattered throughout the earth. All those who have been given the gift of faith, by God, to believe on His only son Jesus Christ as their only means of reconciliation with the Father. (for the remainder of this article I will refer to this meaning as, "the church"
- assembly -- the local gathering of 'the church', which is organized in a way so as to function within the parameters given in the scriptures, often described as "the local church" (for the remainders of this article I will refer to this meaning as, "the assembly"
- member -- one who, by his own volition, has declared allegiance, commitment, or submission to; or affiliation with a particular local assembly specifically and exclusively (exclusively meaning you can't be a 'member' of more than one assembly), and who has been accepted by the group based upon certain criteria.
- join -- the act of becoming a member (see above)
One Church, One Membership
It is of vital importance that we, the church, regain the proper understanding of this truth: There is only one church, and only one membership thereof. The New Testament is replete with expressions of this reality. The singularity of the 'body of Christ' is more than evident in Paul's writings:
Romans 12:4-5 "For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another."
1 Corinthians 10:17 "Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread."
1 Corinthians 12:12 -13 "For even as the body is one and [yet] has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit."
1 Corinthians 12:20 "But now there are many members, but one body."
1 Corinthians 12:25 "that there should be no division in the body, but [that] the members should have the same care for one another."
Ephesians 4:4 "[There is] one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling;"
Colossians 3:15 "And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful."
Ephesians 5:28-30 "So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body."
Throughout Paul's writings you hear the singularity of the body of Christ or the church repeated like a refrain in a song. You see it given much emphasis. This singular refrain comes to a crescendo in Ephesians when Paul pens, "being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all."
Notice that throughout the scriptures mentioned above, Paul is not making an analogy between the church and the Body of Christ. If he were, he would be using the words 'like' or 'as'; as Peter does when referring to "newborn babes" in 1 Peter 2:2. The believers were not actually newborn babies; they were to crave the word the way a newborn craves milk, so that they may grow. This was an analogy. However in referring to believers and the 'Body of Christ,' the words 'are' and 'is' are always used. This is because it is a reality that the church is the body of Christ. We (believers) are the body of Christ, and there is only one body. This is a reality or truth, not an analogy or illustration.
If it is true that there is only one church, then we must explore the membership of this one church. Paul says that all believers are 'members' of Christ's body or his church (Eph 5:30). How did we become members of Christ's body? How did we become members of the church?
We, who are the church, became members through faith in the blood of Jesus Christ. Ephesians 1:13 says that we were 'included in Christ' when we believed the gospel. When we 'united' our faith with the message of the gospel (Heb 4), we were marked in Christ with a seal, The Holy Spirit, guaranteeing our inheritance. So there is one 'door' into the church. That door is Jesus Christ who says, "I am the door. If anyone enters through Me, he shall be saved." (John 10:9)
Not many would disagree that there is only one way to become a member of the church of Jesus Christ. Membership in Christ's church is not based on your heritage, age, intelligence, knowledge of the Bible, local assembly attendance, keeping the 10 commandments, prayer, or any other work or attribute that can be attributed to one's self. Membership in Christ church is solely contingent upon God's sovereign choice in election (Rom 9), evidenced through the gift of faith (Eph. 2:8-9) that has been united with the message of the gospel (Eph 1:13-14). In other words, salvation.
So, from a biblical perspective, there is only one body, or one church. And its membership is comprised of all those who have entered the kingdom of God through 'the door', who is Jesus Christ, by faith. All those around the world, who have placed their faith in Christ are members of the one church. The church is the people. The people are the church. This can be seen in the following verses that refer to this one church:
Matthew 16:18 "And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church [singular]; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it."
Acts 9:31 "So the church [singular] throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and, going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase."
1 Corinthians 1:2 "to the church [singular] of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their [Lord] and ours:"
Colossians 1:18 "He is also head of the body, the church [singular]; and He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything."
Many Churches, One Membership
The Bible has many references that seem to suggest that there are many churches, instead of one church. After all, we see books in the New Testament addressed to more than one church (i.e. Corinth, Rome, Galatia, Ephesus, etc.) And of course, we have the first section of Revelations, which is addressed to 'the seven churches that are in Asia (Rev 1:4) (i.e. Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea). We see a plurality of churches here, as well as other places throughout the New Testament. Does this negate the previous conclusion that there is only one church, comprised of one membership?
The answer is no! The passages that seem to express a plurality of churches are, in actuality, only expressing a plurality of assemblies of the members of the one church. Let's look at a few examples:
Revelations 1:4 - John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace, from Him who is and who was and who is to come; and from the seven Spirits who are before His throne;
Notice that the letter is addressed to the 'seven churches'. However, Jesus does not stop there. He goes on to qualify which seven churches he is referring to, by including a geographical parameter; "in Asia". This letter was addressed to the seven churches in seven cities of Asia Minor during the time when John was on the Island of Patmos. These cities formed a horseshoe shape northeast of the island of Patmos. If John were to visit all of these churches, he would start with Ephesus (the closest to Patmos), and then work his way clockwise around the horseshoe "...to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea." This is the exact order Jesus dictated in 1:11.
If we understand the phrase 'seven churches' to mean something that would contradict the singularity of the church as taught throughout the rest of the New Testament, then we have misunderstood Jesus' words here. Instead, the correct way of understanding the phrase 'seven churches' is to understand that these seven 'churches' were simply geographical assemblies, or regions of multiple assemblies, of the one church or the body of Christ. When we understand that 'churches' is used to refer to local organized gatherings of members of the one church, or even the collective sum of all the church (believers) in a region, we see there is no contradiction.
So there are many churches. But these many churches are not churches other than the one church. Instead, they are the one church, meeting in many different locations throughout the world. Let's look at other examples:
1 Corinthians 16:19 "The churches of Asia greet you. Aquila and Prisca greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in their house."
Colossians 4:15 "Greet the brethren who are in Laodicea and also Nympha and the church that is in her house."
Philemon 1:2 "and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:"
These are some examples of Paul writing to or about the one church, with qualification, or with specificity. This time, the specificity is zoomed in even closer than just the city limits such as Ephesus or Laodicea. Paul is greeting and sending greetings to and from the church (believers) that meet in Aquila and Prisca's house, the church that meets in Nympha's house, and the church that meets in Archippus' house.
It is important to note that in the New Testament, the only distinction within the one church was geographical. For the contemporary Christian it is almost impossible to imagine that assemblies were not distinguished by doctrine, worship style, sectarian allegiances or any other distinction. The assemblies were addressed and identified only by their geographical locations or place of meeting.
Though the church in Corinth was abundant in spiritual gifts, Paul didn't refer to them as "Christ's Church of the Gifted", or the "First Gifted Church of the Holy Spirit," or "Abounding Gifts Ministries." Instead, they were just the church in Corinth. The church of Ephesus could have easily been deemed, "Second Persevering Church", or "Church of the Persevere-ers," or "Perseverance Ministries" (Rev.2:2-3), yet they were just the church of Ephesus. This pattern of geographical differentiation shows the singularity of the church. Because the church is one and world-wide, the only legitimate way to distinguish the different assemblies within the one church is by geography. To differentiate any other way would only prove to fragment the one church.
Paul even makes an appeal to the singularity of the church of Christ in his letter to the Corinthians. When discussing head covering, Paul concludes by saying, "But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God." (1 Cor 11:16)
Paul's conclusion on the issue of head coverings is not my purpose for this paragraph. You'll have to tackle that one some other time. Instead look at his argument. He is essentially saying, "Look, all the assemblies or the 'churches of God' do the same thing, you need to get in line with the rest of the body." Even the practices of the assemblies are universal and not locally relative. This is because we are one church, in many locations. Therefore we should be doing the same things, Paul argues.
Paul uses the same argument again in 11:33 when speaking about how to conduct an edifying, participatory, peaceful, confusion-less, church meeting. "...for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints."
Biblically there are many churches, or assemblies of the one church. Yet those assemblies have only one membership into them as well. The 'many' churches or assemblies are to be comprised of believers who are part of the one church of Jesus Christ and have entered through Him only. This is why Paul commanded the Corinthians to kick the sexually immoral person out of the church, and "... not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler-- not even to eat with such a one" (1 Cor. 5). By their deeds they were proving that they were not members of the one church of Jesus Christ, and therefore were to be removed from within the local assembly, and not fellowshipped with.
There is one church, and one membership of that church. Yet there are many assemblies of the one church, which meet in different places throughout the world. The membership of these assemblies is to be the same as the membership of the one church. This is the Biblical pattern.
To Join or Not to Join, That is The Question.
Given the singularity of the church of Jesus Christ and its membership, is it necessary to 'join' the local assembly? First, I would ask you to define 'join'. If by 'join' you mean to gather with the saints weekly (at least), in a geographical area, for the purpose of glorifying God by adhering to the apostles doctrine, to fellowship, the Lord's Supper, and to prayer. If by 'join' you mean being intimately connected with the saints in a particular region, and meeting with them to use the Gifts of the Spirit for mutual edification, and taking part in the consideration of how to 'spur one another on to love and good deeds'. If you mean being united with the believers, and being submitted to one another. If you mean being connected in such a way that your bond with the entire family of God supersedes any other relational bonds in this life, thus love is expressed. If by 'join' you mean these things, then the answer is a resounding, "YES!"
However, if by 'join' you mean taking an oath (verbal or written) that expresses your commitment to the description above. Or by 'join' you mean adding your name to the roster, and therefore gaining some added 'benefit' or 'privilege'. If by 'join' you mean making a declaration of your allegiance to some particular group, to the exclusion of another. If by 'join' you mean formally 'submitting' to the leadership. If by 'join' you mean any of these, then the answer is a resounding, "It depends!"
The Bible speaks of nothing of church 'membership' as we know it, other than the membership of the one church of Jesus Christ. The scriptures never divide the local assembly into two groups, the 'members' and the 'non-members', or make any other distinction between believers for that matter. Why then, is so much emphasis put on local church membership in our day? Why is the member of Christ body so pressured to 'join' something in addition to the family that he was already born in? Let's explore further.
Submission & Commitment
"Obey those who have rule over you & submit yourselves" (Heb 13:17). There you have it, church membership. Case Closed! End of discussion! This is one of the proof text for our modern day practice of church membership. The argument goes like this, "How can you obey those whom you haven't submitted yourself to." However if we examine it (the premise, not the text), we will see that it is faulty.
Those who use this scripture as an argument for our modern practice of church membership have at least two faulty assumptions. The first is that the submission of the 'member' is contingent upon pledges, commitments, or vows made by the 'member'. The second is that the authority of the leader is contingent upon pledges, commitments, or vows of the 'member'. So, unless one has made a commitment, pledge or vow to be submissive to the leadership, he is not submitted, and therefore the church can exercise no authority over that individual. You don't believe me, listen to what Stephen Pribble, a pastor in Okemos, Michigan and regular author for Reformed.com has to say on the subject:
"The Bible commands, 'Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves.' This does not mean to obey in some vague way, simply giving lip service. You cannot obey those empowered to rule in Christ's church if you never join. You simply cannot submit to the church's lawfully-constituted leadership unless you become a member."1[emphasis is mine]
In a sense he is right. However, you did join the church when God saved you. You did become a 'member' when you were reborn into the family. But Pribble is not talking about salvation. He is speaking of the traditional practice of church 'membership'. Therefore, his notion is completely false. You can obey 'those empowered to rule in Christ's church' without 'joining' (taking an oath or pledge or some other act) the local assembly. The fact that your obedience is commanded without qualification proves that it is possible. You can submit 'to the church's lawfully-constituted leadership' without becoming a 'member' (on paper) of the local assembly. Not only is this possible it also is commanded.
Biblically, both submission and authority are based upon position and not upon volition (i.e. oaths, vows or pledges). Whether or not one vowed to submit is never the question in the Bible.
Wives are to submit to their own husbands, not because they vowed to submit to them, but because the husband has a God-ordained position of leadership in the family and the authority that comes with the position. Her submission has nothing to do with her marriage vows at the wedding. If the phrase, "I promise to obey, " were left out of the wedding vows (as they are today), the wife would not be alleviated from he responsibility to submit to her husband. Her submission is related to her position in the family.
Children are to obey their parents, not because they vowed to do so when they were born, but because parents have the God-ordained position of leadership in the family and the authority that comes with it. The child's submission has nothing to do with his/her vow or commitment to the family. The child must be submissive by nature of his position in the family as a child. His submission is related to his position in the family. Just as the parents authority is established by God and based upon their position in the family.
The same principle holds in the civil arena. I don't remember vowing to obey laws and officials of the law, yet I am still expected to do so, based on the fact that I was born on American soil, and therefore a citizen. By nature of the fact that I am a citizen I am automatically subject to the government, and expected to obey it. This is why Paul wrote, "Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God." (Rom 13:1) Paul says that it is God who gives authority. It is not the subject who 'allows' authority. So the command is to submit to the authority that is already established, not to make a commitment to submit, or 'allow' some leadership over you.
The same is true in the family of God. "For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28). We are all members of the one church of Jesus Christ, if indeed we entered through Him and no other way. Within Christ's church he has ordained that a plurality of male elders should lead. Upon your re-birth into the family of God you are born into a role of submission. Upon your marriage to Christ, you were submitted to Him and the leaders that shepherd his church. This submission is not based upon any vows or commitment you make. This submission is based upon your position in the family of God. So the command in Heb. 13 is to submit, as opposed to rebelling. It is not a command to 'join' anything, so that you can submit and obey. You must submit and obey whether or not your 'join' because you are member of the family of God. Besides, in the church, we are to submit to one another (Eph 5:21), not just to leaders.
If we carry the same line of thinking to its logical conclusion, then we will only have expectation of obedience and submission from those who have 'joined' our local assembly, rather than expecting it from everyone that meets with us and is a 'so-called' brother. Thus we will only discipline 'members' and not 'non-members'. Moreover, we will not confront or rebuke professing believers in the work place, because they don't go to 'my church'. This is not Biblical. All those who profess Christ are subject to the authority of his church, and therefore must be confronted about sin, and not fellowshipped with if unrepentant (Matt 18, 1 Cor 5). 'Non-members' who profess Christ have the same standard as 'members' who profess Christ. This truth transcends church memberships, denominational lines, cultural differences, and any other distinction we have fabricated within Christ's body.
In Christ there are no distinctions, all the standards apply to all the members. Your submission to the leadership and other believers of the local assembly is based solely upon your position in the church (the body of Christ), and not based on commitments you make and vows your take; just as the leader's function is based upon the established position, rather than on oaths, vows or commitments.
American Express® Ecclesiology
A popular credit card company masterminded a marketing campaign that was extremely effective. "Membership Has Its Privileges!" When you just read that, you probably even heard the guy's voice from the commercial in your head. Isn't it interesting how that principle has been instilled in our minds, and in our culture? All you have to do is get on the Internet and you will immediately be bombarded with 'rewards' and 'prizes' and 'gifts' all in exchange for... you got it, membership!
This philosophy is correct, even Biblical. As a member of the body of Christ we have extreme privileges that those who are not believers don't share. We have the forgiveness of sins, access to the throne of God, the hope of glory, the precious promises of God, the indwelling Holy Spirit, a mediator that lives always to intercede for us... we could go on and on. However, these benefits are extended to all those who are in Christ, without distinction. There are no lines of division. In Christ there is no partiality. The scriptures are replete with the doctrine of the impartiality of God (Deut 10:10, 2 Chr 19:7, Pro. 24:23, Act. 10:34, Rom 2:1, Gal 2:6, Eph 6:9, 1 Tim 5:21, James 2:9).
The modern application of the "American Express®" philosophy has been grossly misapplied. Many assemblies today elevate their local assemblies above Christ's one Body as a whole. Have you ever been a part of a church that would actually deny certain 'rights' or 'privileges' because you were not a 'member' of their church? Some assemblies only allow 'members' to take the Lord's Supper, receive aid, get 'involved' in ministry, receive special services, etc. Some assemblies will not support missionaries that are not 'members' of their 'local church' or denomination, or if they do, it's a significantly lower amount. Some assemblies will actually not charge 'members' for certain services of the church, and charge 'retail value' to 'non-members', for the same services (i.e. marriages, counseling, education, etc.) Is this Biblical?
Recently, I visited an assembly for the first time. As I was parking my car, I saw two large beautiful ponds with boats, fishing rods, picnic tables, all for someone to enjoy. "It would be great to come out here and relax with the family and other saints that we may meet today," I thought to myself. As I panned the scenery my eyes met the red-texted sign attached to the locked fence, which warned, "For Members Only!" It became very apparent to my wife and I that we were not welcome beyond those gates. On what biblical basis do they do this? None! In fact it is the exact opposite of what scripture teaches.
Let's hear James on the matter. In chapter 2, he speaks of a situation where the rich people in a local assembly were getting preferential treatment, and the poor treated with no regard. To this James chides:
James 2:4 -- "have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?"
James 2:8-9 -- "If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law, according to the Scripture, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF,' you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors."
Notice how James rebukes them for making 'distinctions among' themselves. They, in essence, took the one body of Christ, in which there are no distinctions, and made distinctions. Notice he didn't say, "You made unlawful distinctions," or , "unnecessary distinctions." Instead, he just said "distinctions" period. In James' perspective, the fact that there were distinctions at all necessitated rebuke. Further, the application of those distinctions revealed the 'evil motives' of those who made the distinctions.
Why is James making such a big deal out giving someone a good seat and giving someone else a 'not-so-good' seat in the church? This issue is much bigger than chairs. It is an issue of re-dividing what God has sent his only Son to unite. God makes no distinction in His body, and has removed the lines of separation among us. Whether nationality, socioeconomic status, or gender; these lines have been erased within the body of Christ, and we are all one.
Still unconvinced? Maybe Paul says it better than James:
Galatians 3:28 "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus".
Since God has united us in Christ we better be sure not to re-divide his sheep, and make distinctions among ourselves. This fosters a spirit of elitism and pride; two of the six things which God hates (Proverbs 6:16-17).
Galatians 6:10 "So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith."
There's only one household here. There's only one faith here. The 'especially' refers to all believers, not just those in your 'local' assembly, but to those in the household of the faith. And this is to be done 'while we have opportunity'.
Romans 12:5 and 10-13 "...so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.... Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality."
Would the Roman believers have thought that Paul was limiting devotion, preference, and giving, to just the saints in their local assembly? Since we are in Christ, we are 'members' of one another (Eph 4:25), and these things were to be done for 'one another' or the 'saints'.
1 Corinthians 12:24-25...But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, that there should be no division in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another.
Still not enough? Try Jesus:
Matthew 25:32-40 "And all the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right, 'Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.' Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? And when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?' And the King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.'"
Notice the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. Within the sheep there is no separation. Further, Jesus commends the sheep for what they did to His brothers, not to their church 'members'. Why does Jesus equate doing something to a brother of His with doing something to Him? He was expressing the reality of the union that exists between Christ and his people. We are one...in Christ, without distinctions. And that one membership does & should have its privileges! But the privileges are for everyone who is in Christ without distinction, for they are members of the Body of Christ. Take a look at this the following list taken from iLumina Bible Software Charts:
Why it is wrong to show favoritism [partiality]...:2
- It is inconsistent with Christ's teachings.
- It results from evil thoughts.
- It insults people made in God's image.
- It is a by-product of selfish motives.
- It goes against the biblical definition of love.
- It shows a lack of mercy to those less fortunate.
- It is hypocritical.
- It is a sin.
The argument goes like this, "The Bible does not explicitly command us not to 'join' or take vows or oaths with regards to 'joining' a local assembly, so I am free to 'join' if I wish." Or perhaps you've heard, "As a church, we have the right and authority set up rules and guidelines within which the church must follow, and 'church membership' falls into that category."
My response is, "You are absolutely right!" A person is free to 'join' a church, and the local assembly does have the liberty to make rules and guidelines (as long as they do not contradict scripture, or scriptural principles or patterns of Christ's church). With this I have no problem. However, the question is not whether or not it is 'permissible'. Instead the better question is, "Is it beneficial?" As long as we linger in the valley of the permissible, we will never arrive at the apex of the beneficial. Selfish ambition screams, "It's permissible!" But love gently says, "This is beneficial." Pragmatism practices the permissible. But love diligently seeks the beneficial. Isn't this our aim?
1 Corinthians 10:23 " 'Everything is permissible' -- but not everything is beneficial. 'Everything is permissible' -- but not everything is constructive." [NIV]
Notice Paul contrasts the 'permissible' with the beneficial and the constructive. The NASB uses the phrase 'not all things edify'. In the Greek the word 'edify' literally means to be a house builder, or to construct. Isn't it interesting that Paul uses that word throughout his epistle to the Corinthians, with emphasis. In fact he tells them that in the church all things are to be done for edification (14:26). So Paul is telling them to focus on building up or the construction of the church of Christ. It is true that 'not all things edify,' or build up the 'house' of God (the people, that is). We are to specialize in what edifies.
The modern practice of 'church membership' is not a beneficial practice. It does not edify, or build up the church. It is not beneficial to make 'distinctions' within Christ's body. It is not edifying to show partiality to certain members of Christ body to the exclusion of others. It is not beneficial to perpetuate the notion that unless you are a 'member' of a local assembly you are not the 'connected' to the body of Christ, or you are not in 'good standing' with a local 'assembly'. It is not beneficial to demean the oneness of the Body of Christ. It is not beneficial to exalt the authority of the 'local church' above the unity and oneness of the Body of Christ. It is not beneficial to substitute Biblical models for pragmatic traditions. These things are not beneficial, nor do they result in the edification of the one body of Christ.
"Our church doesn't do those things," replies the local 'membership' pusher. A few questions will determine if this is so. Do you, your church, or your members only practice biblical accountability and confrontation only within the 'members' of 'your' church, or within the entire household of God, regardless of their local assembly status? Is your devotion to the believers limited to those within your congregation? Do you withhold aid for struggling believers because they are not of your 'fold'?
Let's get even deeper. Do you have any affinity for, or devotion to the believer that is on the opposite side of the denominational line you've drawn in the sand? Or are they on your evangelistic list? Is your fellowship limited to those who share your 'membership' within a local 'assembly' or denomination? Do you always yell, "Truth" as a justification for division? when by "Truth" you are not referring to The Truth who is Jesus Christ, but instead, Your truth, whatever you deem it to be. Do you strive to 'preserve' the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace?
I know I can't answer yes to all those questions! Perhaps it is because I have such a low view of the oneness of the Body of Christ, and a much higher view of my 'local' church 'membership' or affiliation. Perhaps you and I both don't understand the reason for Christ's emphasis on oneness within his church in his prayer in Matt 17. Perhaps we have been living in the practical and permissible without regard for the benevolent and beneficial. I can think of one thing that would be beneficial right now...introspection.
Our contemporary practice of church 'membership' did not evolve from a Biblical model. God did not prescribe, describe, or model the modern 'membership' practices, or the process that we attach to local assembly 'membership'. So where did we get it from? Honestly, I cannot give a specific answer to that question. My research has come up lacking (if someone does know specifically, please educate me). I can give a general yet true answer: tradition. Somehow, between the time of assemblies we read of in the Bible (apostolic churches) and today, we picked up this practice. Not only have we picked it up, we have elevated it to an unimaginable position, especially for a doctrine or model that is nowhere in scripture.
What we do have in scripture are some principles and commands that when understood from a fleshly or worldly perspective and not of the Spirit, cause us to try and manufacture ways preserve 'unity' and sustain the apparent 'purity' of Christ's church. It is inevitable that the carnal mind will try to come up with fleshly, contrived ways to arrive at a desired, and sometimes Godly or biblical end. The spiritual mind always looks at God's means to arrive at God's ends. This is the difference between the church, the organism, and a 'church', the organization. Here is a chart that list of differences between the two:
Member chooses to join or not based upon personal preferences
Members have no choice in belonging -- they are born into the family
The group chooses its members
Organism has no choice in selecting its members, member are chosen by God
Member chooses to separate, or can be separated by the choice of whole
Members cannot separate themselves from whole nor be rejected by whole (unless member is sick and is damaging the whole organism)
Chooses its purpose and goals
Has no choice on its purpose
Members choose their function and position, and maneuvers to obtain it
Member have no choice on their function or position or place in the whole
Special rights, privileges bestowed on members that non-members cannot have
No special rights or privileges to any, other than those of function
Is inanimate, non-living
Is alive, possesses an internal life
Driven by self-interest of members
Is driven and motivated internally
Reproduces by cloning itself. The passing on of its rules and regulations to others interested in establishing another group
Reproduces itself by the process of birth
Doesn't need any internal source of life to continue; external rules and regulations are sufficient to maintain organization as long as some individuals maintain interest. Rarely dies as there are almost always some with sufficient self-interest to justify group's continued existence.
Without internal LIFE, dies.
-From Richard Hanes3
How much of our practice of church 'membership' resembles that of a man-created organization, rather than the God-birthed organism?
Those who hold unswervingly to the practice of church 'membership' are in essence saying something (though perhaps unknowingly, and some knowingly) that when brought to light, they will quickly deny. They will deny it because they are familiar with the truth, yet they refuse to forsake their traditions to walk in the light of the truth. So, they agree with the truth intellectually, but practically they are content to trust and walk in their devised methods.
What the 'membership' pushers are essentially saying is, "God's word is too vague on the administration of the assemblies, and therefore we must compensate for the ambiguity with our own methods." It is the same thing that is essentially being said in regards to strict adherers to church covenants, confessions, and by-laws, "God's word is too vague and insufficient, and we must delineate the truth more clearly and precisely, so that clearer lines of distinction may be drawn." This is at the root of one who pushes a non-biblical method or means for accomplishing a biblical end. You've heard that same sentiment before in scripture?
You remember when Israel wanted a king to rule over them, instead of having God to rule over them exclusively. They had a worldly, fleshly perspective, "Now appoint a king for us to judge us like all the nations. "(I Sam 8:5). They wanted to be ruled, which was a good desire, yet they wanted to be ruled in the way the rest of the nations were ruled. They wanted to exchange the divine for the popular and pragmatic.
What was God's commentary on the situation? He told Samuel "Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them" (8:7). What sobering words from God himself! They rejected God! He was not enough. His design for the ruling of Israel was insufficient to them. They wanted to be like the world, rather than be the one's called out from the world. Is this not, in essence, what we are doing with our hair-splitting covenants, confessions, by-laws, codes...and finally 'membership' practices and policies? Loud is the cry, "Sola Scriptura!" Common is the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture. Yet rarely is it truly believed or practiced.
God's ways are higher than ours. They are better than ours. His word is not vague in terms of the administration and organization of His church. It is very clear and sufficient. We have just decided that it is not sufficient. It is not enough. We come to that conclusion because we are looking and understanding through our carnality rather that with the understanding that is from the Spirit of God.
There's a strong possibility that you may be saying right now, "There's no way 'non-membership' will work," or, "how on Earth is 'church' possible, if not by 'membership' as we know it?" Think about that question. It suggests that God left out a vital part of the organization and administration of His church, only to be discovered hundreds or perhaps a thousand years later. Further, they suggest that God's church will not and cannot function the way He intended without the practice of church 'membership' which God did not command or model in the scriptures. The better question is, "What is God's better way?" Then we must trust God, it will 'work'. It will just look at little different than what we are used to.
The Biblical Alternative
In the Bible, when a person believed the gospel, they were immediately baptized, and began to fellowship with the saints in their geographical region. The saints would accept them, on the basis of their profession of Christ, and that was it. The Bible speaks of no oaths, or commitments. The commitment and allegiance was to Christ, and the fellowship and commitment to other believers was a natural result of the believer's fellowship with the Lord.
God's way has already been spelled out in the first section of this article. However, I will reiterate it here. There is only one body. That body has one membership. It is comprised of all those world-wide, who have been adopted into the family of God through faith in His son Jesus Christ. We are to accept any member of Christ's body as a 'member' of ourselves ( Rom 12:5, Eph 4:25) on the basis of their profession of Christ. On the basis of their birth into the family of God we are to fellowship with them and share all the rights and benefits and privileges of being in the family of God, without partiality.
Our local assemblies (which are actually not 'local' at all, since most drive many miles to attend a 'church' that is not in their neighborhood, because of some doctrinal preference), should be comprised of those who profess Christ within a certain proximity. Our fellowship should be with the believers in our neighborhoods (not exclusively, but especially). There should be no divisions within the body (1 Cor 1:10). The only divisions should be that of geography.
When a 'so-called' brother (one who professes Christ), is in unrepentant sin, the Body of Christ is to kick him out (1 Cor 5) of the fellowship. The saints are not to fellowship with him anymore, until repentance takes place. The so-called brother is kicked out because his life does not match his profession. The local assembly is only comprised of believers. They are those whose lives are consistent with their profession. Not that they are perfect, and without sin. But they repent (turn away) from sin and dead works, and believe on Jesus Christ alone, and follow Him.
Membership in the local assembly is ONLY contingent upon membership in the Body of Christ. And if indeed one is a member of Christ, they are automatically member of those within that fellowship (Rom 12:5, Eph 4:25). It is an automatic reality. Nothing else needs to take place. The submission of the believer is to Christ, and submission to Christ, is expressed in the believer's submission, commitment, love, devotion, etc. to the family of God with which he meets locally.
Now here come all the practical questions. But what if they don't come regularly? Rebuke them (Heb 10:25). How do we 'monitor' attendance and activity? Usually this practice stems from a motive other than genuine care for the missing believer. But if love is the motive, maybe your church is too big? How do we budget for our 'fiscal year' if there is no roll or commitments to base numbers on? You don't. The church was never intended to be a corporation. Take another look at New Testament giving as modeled by the churches set up by the apostles. I cannot answer every question that may arise here and now. However, a reconsideration of how we assemble and what we do when we assemble, in light of the Biblical patterns God left us, will eliminate most if not all the questions.
The worldly, fleshly alternative is to re-divide Christ's church into 'members' and 'non-members', the 'bourgeoisie' and the 'proletariats'; to further foster distinctions among the body of Christ; to further perpetuate a spirit of elitism and pride; to further show partiality within the body Christ; to further foster a false notion of unity that is no unity at all; to redefine the body of Christ to mean 'my local church', so that I don't have to fellowship with other believers; to further exalt our own biblical preferences above the oneness of Christ's body; to continue to put 'asunder' what God has join together; and on and on.
Given the truths communicated in this article, why on Earth would I say, "It depends," when being asked the question, "should I 'join' a local assembly or not?" The reason it depends is because your motives for 'joining' and the motives of the church requiring the membership are in question. You will have to determine your motives for 'joining', as well as discern the reason why you are being required to 'join' the assembly. Why is your inclusion in the body of Christ, not enough for your inclusion in the local assembly?
If when searching your motives and the church's reasons you find a biblical reason that I have neglected within this article, by all means 'join', and then contact me and let me know your reason so I can adjust my thinking. However, if you understand the truths communicated in this article and your motives or the church's reasons fall into one of the areas spoken of above, then by all means, DO NOT 'join'!
Sounds radical, I know. But if having a more biblical understanding of the body of Christ, and walking in the light of that understanding by faith is radical, then wear the label proudly. Further, if you are treated different in any way because you have not 'joined' their local assembly, yet you are faithful in attendance and devotion to the brothers and sisters there, then I would question why you would want to 'join' a local assembly that exalts their 'membership' above Christ's 'membership'. Find a local assembly of believers that accepts you fully and solely on the basis of your inclusion in the family of God, and treats you accordingly, and understands Jesus' heart on the oneness of His church, as expressed in his prayer in John 17:
"Father, the hour has come; glorify Thy Son, that the Son may glorify Thee, even as Thou gavest Him authority over all mankind, that to all whom Thou hast given Him, He may give eternal life. And this is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent. I glorified Thee on the earth, having accomplished the work which Thou hast given Me to do. And now, glorify Thou Me together with Thyself, Father, with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was. I manifested Thy name to the men whom Thou gavest Me out of the world; Thine they were, and Thou gavest them to Me, and they have kept Thy word. Now they have come to know that everything Thou hast given Me is from Thee; for the words which Thou gavest Me I have given to them; and they received them, and truly understood that I came forth from Thee, and they believed that Thou didst send Me. I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom Thou hast given Me; for they are Thine; and all things that are Mine are Thine, and Thine are Mine; and I have been glorified in them. And I am no more in the world; and yet they themselves are in the world, and I come to Thee. Holy Father, keep them in Thy name, the name which Thou hast given Me, that they may be one, even as We are. While I was with them, I was keeping them in Thy name which Thou hast given Me; and I guarded them, and not one of them perished but the son of perdition, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. But now I come to Thee; and these things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy made full in themselves. I have given them Thy word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not ask Thee to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; Thy word is truth. As Thou didst send Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth. I do not ask in behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us; that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me. And the glory which Thou hast given Me I have given to them; that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them, and Thou in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, that the world may know that Thou didst send Me, and didst love them, even as Thou didst love Me. Father, I desire that they also, whom Thou hast given Me, be with Me where I am, in order that they may behold My glory, which Thou hast given Me; for Thou didst love Me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, although the world has not known Thee, yet I have known Thee; and these have known that Thou didst send Me; and I have made Thy name known to them, and will make it known; that the love wherewith Thou didst love Me may be in them, and I in them. " --Jesus
- Stephen Pribble, "Is Church Membership Optional?"; available from http://www.reformed.com/pub/church.htm ; Internet ; accessed April 19, 2005.
- iLumina Bible Software Charts
- Richard Hanes, "Church Membership -- What Does Scripture Say?"; available from http://www.el-shaddai.org/ChurchMembership.htm; Internet; accessed April 20, 2005.
Jamon S.R. Sorrells (Shaun) is a software developer / project engineer for a detention security electronics company. He resides in Montgomery, AL with his wife, Felicia, and children, Elisha (3), and Jailyn (2). You may email Jamon at Sorrells97@bellsouth.net, with any questions or comments, or request articles on other topics concerning Christ and/or His church.