Currently, our church elders are examining what it means to be a member of our local body of believers. We’ve searched the Scriptures, pondering the various aspects of church membership, and we’ve presented our conclusions to the church body throughout several of our members’ meetings. A few questions arose out of those meetings that I think are good and helpful for all Christians to consider:
Is church membership biblical?
Church membership, as we know it today, would look much different than it did in New Testament times when there was only one assembly in a given community. It is clear in Scripture, however, that local congregations kept lists of people who were connected to the church, as seen in 1 Timothy 5:9-16, which talks about a list of widows who were supported by the local body of believers. Additionally, 1 Corinthians 5 tells us that there were some who belonged to the church and others who did not, while 1 Corinthians 12:14-26 explains that there are many members within the body, and these members are “those who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:2). As a baptist church, we hold in high regard a regenerate church membership; therefore, we view formal church membership as the way for us, as fallen creatures saved by grace, to discern who does and does not belong to the local church. However, even the best membership processes will never fully prevent tares from growing among the wheat.
What is meant by the term “covenant membership”?
Covenant membership refers to the practice of formally covenanting with one another as a body of believers in order to encourage, admonish, and help one another as we seek to stay faithful to the Lord and to His Word. Covenant membership is drawn from all the “one another” passages to which Scripture calls us, which are mostly given within the context of the local church: Be kind to one another (Ephesians 4:32), bear with one another (Colossians 3:13), forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32), admonish one another (Colossians 3:16), do good to one another (1 Thessalonians 5:15), and many more (see Romans 12:6, Romans 15:7, 1 Corinthians 11:33, Galatians 5:15, Ephesians 4:2, Philippians 2:3, plus many other passages). These commands, along with the biblical evidence for church membership, show us that joining the local church is entrance into a covenant community.
Will you ask non-members to leave the church if they refuse to join?
No, no one will be asked to leave the church if they refuse to join, but we do encourage professing believers to find a church where they can covenant together with the body in church membership, even if it’s not at our church. Doctrinal differences or other reasons may prevent a believer from joining a certain church, but it’s important to every believer’s spiritual health that they find a church where they can, in good conscience, enter into covenant membership. Of course, every case is different, so there is no “cut and dry” answer, but we believe that covenant membership is the example found in the New Testament and that it is good for both the individual and the local body of believers. And after searching the Scriptures, we are convinced that there should be a definite and distinguished difference between members and non-members within the local church.
Are there benefits to church membership?
Yes, church membership includes many benefits. First of all, church membership is an affirmation to the watching world that you identify with Jesus Christ and His church. Second, church membership places you under the authority and discipline of the church, which is good for your soul (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13). While I have spoken with many who fear church discipline, their fear generally stems from a misunderstanding of what it is or from an observation of church discipline abused. When church discipline is administered for the good of the saints, it is truly a God-given means of grace. (For more on biblical church discipline, click here.) A third benefit of church membership is covenant community. Not only are you covenanting together with the body, but the body is covenanting together with you. Covenant membership implies a body of believers seeking the good of one another and striving to build up each other, and it is certain that you will not find this sort of sweet fellowship anywhere else in the world.
If you are interested in pursuing these types of questions further, feel free to contact me, or check out this book from 9Marks:
Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesusby Jonathan Leeman