The Biblical Duty of Church Membership

Many of us accept the practice of "church membership" without must question. Some of us, however, have difficulty with it because it seems so much like a worldly idea not found in the Scriptures. Clubs, societies and other organisations of the world have specific membership schemes. Their members earn their place either by paying a fee or by some accomplishment recognised by other members in the club. But Christians are who they are, solely by God’s grace. How then can there be any notion or implication of exclusivity by way of church membership? Moreover, isn’t the act of becoming members of one church in preference to another, sectarianism? Granted, church membership provides a practical means of accountability, but isn’t it purely administrative and so optional? These arguments seem so convincing that some of us who have been sorely disappointed and hurt by politics and other difficulties in the churches we come from may be tempted not to become members of any church at all—so that we may move from one church to another with great mobility whenever we feel a need to do so. We reason that as long as we are worshipping in some church, we are fulfilling the biblical injunction not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together (Heb 10:25).

Such thinking is, however, not only without a consistent biblical foundation, but runs contrary to the teachings of the Scripture. The Scripture does teach that every Christian has the duty to join a local church by way of membership. The Bible speaks of the church from two perspectives. In the first place, there is the universal church, which is sometimes known as the catholic church. The word ‘catholic,’ which is used in our Confession and in the Apostle’s Creed has nothing to do with the Roman Catholic Church. ‘Catholic’ simply means universal. From this perspective the church is invisible and "consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gather into one, under Christ" (WCF 25.1). The Apostle Paul, clearly, has this in mind in Ephesians 1:22-23 where he tells us that God has put all things under Christ and "gave Him to be the head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all" (Eph 1:22-23). Seen from this angle, every born again believer is member of the Church, and there is no need for additional membership arrangement. However, it is also very clear that the Scripture speaks of the church as visible local assemblies of Christians or better professing Christians. The Acts of the Apostles refer to the churches (note the plural) in Judaea, Galilee, Samaria, Syria, Cilicia (Acts 9:31; 15:41), etc. Paul referred to the churches at Cenchrea, Corinth, Galatia and Macedonia (Rom 16:1, 1Cor 1:2; 1Cor 16:1, 2Cor 8:1). The Lord Jesus also referred to the seven churches in Revelations 2-3 as individual local assemblies. The fact that not every member of a visible local church is necessarily regenerate is evident. Paul wrote to the "church of God which is at Corinth" (1 Cor 1:1), but he exhorts them to examine themselves to see if they are in the faith (2 Cor 13:5). If all were necessarily genuine believers, the call would be redundant. Similarly, the Lord …Cont. p. 3addresses the assembly at Sardis as a Church, though only a few in the church were genuine believers (Rev 3:4).

Someone may object: but these churches could simply refer to groups of Christians assembled on an ad hoc basis to worship the Lord. We have numerous biblical reasons to believe that this is not the case. Let me share four:

Firstly, we note that a structure of leadership is evident in these churches. The apostles not only ordained elders to oversee these churches (Acts 14:23), but listed the necessary qualifications for these elders (e.g. 2 Tim 3:1-7; 1 :Pet 5:1-3). Elders have the responsibility to feed the flock over which the Holy Spirit has made them overseers (1 Pet 5:2; Acts 20:28). If the church were simply an uncommitted gathering of believers, it would be difficult to determine what the flock is and so who the elders are responsible for.

Secondly, we read that during the days following Pentecost, "the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved" (Acts 2:47). In view of Luke’s particular references to the church at Jerusalem (e.g. Acts 8:1, 11:22), we have reason to believe that he was referring to the local church rather than the visible church as a whole or the universal church. Moreover, after Paul’s conversion, we are told that he "assayed [i.e. attempted] to join himself to the disciples." The disciples, however, "were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple" (Acts 9:26). The word ‘disciple’ does not refer to the apostles, but to the members of the church (Acts 6:1; cf. 9:26, 27). If Paul was merely trying to join an ad hoc congregation assembled on the Lord’s Day to worship the Lord, he would simply have joined them without having to attempt, and there would be no cause for disciples to doubt the authenticity of his faith and so objected to his joining them. In those days, unbelievers were always welcomed into the congregation to hear the Gospel (cf. 1 Cor 14:23). Furthermore, the word translated ‘to join’ is a Greek word (koll£w) which literally mean ‘to glue’ or ‘to unite closely.’ The word requires that there be an existing body of believer who are already united together. Paul was clearly trying to join the disciple in a deeper level of fellowship. He desired to be part of the existing body. In other words, he was trying to join the membership of the church.

Thirdly, the biblical practice of ex-communication (i.e. expelling an unrepentant person from the communion or fellowship of the church) clearly points to the fact that church membership is a biblical concept. In Matthew 18:15-17, the Lord instructs us how we should relate to a brother who trespasses against us. If the brother remains unrepentant after we approach him with other witnesses, we are to tell the matter to the church, or as it were, a representative of the church, namely an elder. If he would not listen to the elder, then, he should be regarded as an "heathen man and a publican," i.e. an unbeliever. This clearly suggests that there is a difference between believers and unbelievers in a church. Unbelievers may attend the worship of the church, but are not considered as part of the church. Paul explicates this idea when he urges the Corinthians to excommunicate anyone who is called a brother who lives in sin (1 Cor 5:11). Yet the unbeliever and the professing believer may both attend the same worship service. We know, therefore, that excommunication is not about being barred from the worship services. Rather, it is about being deprived of the privileges of being a member of the church. Indeed, the practice of excommunication is meaningful only if the church has a formal membership arrangement and that under normal circumstances, all who are believers worship-ping with the church are members of it.

Fourthly, that church membership is a biblical requirement is seen in the fact that Paul likens the local church to a body: "For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ" (1 Cor 12:12). So tightly bonded to each other is each member of this body that when one member suffers all suffers with it (1 Cor 12:26; cf. Josh 7). An ad hoc assembly of worshippers can hardly be described in this manner. Paul, …Cont. p. 5 MEMBERSHIP: Cont. from p. 3… moreover, speaks about the members of the body as being "fitly joined together and compacted" (Eph 4:16). This description will hardly make sense without a definite membership in the church.

These reasons, I believe, show us clearly that church membership is a biblical idea, which also implies that it is imperative that every Christian be a member of a local church. A local church is like the pods in which peas must grow. The pea farmer knows full well that he cannot have the peas without the pods until it is time to harvest. In the same way, as long the present age continues, the local church is necessary, though it is the members of the church invisible which God is ultimately concerned with.

Moreover, it is clear that church membership is not merely an administrative exercise so that a person may be administratively a member of a local church but worshipping and serving in another church. To be a member of the church is to be glued or united with a body of believers. No member of a living body can function as part of the body in absentia—unless the member is sent as missionary or a theological student. Paul speaks about spiritual gifts as being given "For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ" (Eph 4:12). The context of the verse suggests that he is referring to the local church.

Brethren, most of us have left our original churches of membership for various reasons. As far as I know, the majority of us left not without an intense struggle in our souls, and some even face persecutions from the brethren in our former churches. For the sake of peace and for prudential reasons, I do not wish to recount nor enumerate the reasons that I am aware of. However, I am convinced that most who are with us have at least one major and valid reason. I am therefore not urging you return to your church of membership unless you are convinced that you had left on invalid grounds. Neither am I urging you, per se, to align with Pilgrim Covenant Church though those of us who are already determined to cast our lot here would be delighted if you do. Your decision must be something between you and the Lord. But I am urging you to align yourself and become a regular, active member of a local church which is consciously seeking to obey the Lord in all areas, in which you can worship the Lord with a clear conscience bounded to the Word of God and to serve Him by considering one another to provoke unto love and to good works. No local church is perfect. Pilgrim Covenant Church does not claim perfection at all. But that does not negate our biblical duty to be members of a local body of Christ wherein we may glorify God.