Membership in the local church is increasingly seen as optional for Christians. Some churches don’t practice membership at all.
There are two primary ideas associated with this idea of optional membership, both of which undermine the local congregation. The first is the notion that a person’s spiritual health is not dependent on gathering with other believers. In this view, someone can be Christian without attending corporate worship or Bible study regularly with the same group of believers, or without attending at all. The second is the idea that even if a believer is attending in some fashion, he need not be formally joined to that congregation through membership. In other words, she doesn’t need to be on a list of “members” to satisfy the communal aspects of her faith.
It is this second idea that I address here, because if the need for formal membership is demonstrated, then so is the need for regular gathering.
Admittedly, there is no Eleventh Commandment that says “Thou shalt join the local church.” But we don’t need such an expression to conclude that membership is vital to a believer’s discipleship.
In many places the Bible describes aspects of a believer’s life in terms that imply church membership, such as references to the decisions of a majority and to various sorts of lists. These certainly suggest an identifiable group of believers joined together for a certain purpose, which we call “membership,” but what is more compelling is that there are certain clear commands and expectations of discipleship that are made impossible without membership.
Additionally, these things are not possible with merely a loose, informal association of people, despite how committed they may consider themselves. Spiritual health requires a more recognizable group of mutual doctrine-holders and commitment makers, formalized into what we call “membership.”
SUBMISSION. Some call this “the dreaded S-word,” and there is obviously the potential for abuse. But God has clearly expressed his wishes for each believer’s relationship to leaders and to other believers. “Obey your leaders and submit to them” (Hebrews 13:17). “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). These key commands refer to our mutual relationship commitments with other believers (See also 1 Peter 5:2, Acts 20:28, and Matthew 18:15-20).
Without formal membership that reveals precisely to whom we are to submit and whom we are to lead, neither believers generally nor leaders specifically can obey this command.
SOUL-CARE. God has established that your elders “watch over your souls” (Hebrews 13:17) and that certain other believers (“one another”) help you mature in Christ (Colossians 1:28-29, Ephesians 4). Further, to be put outside the formal congregation, unable to take the Lord’s Supper, is to be in Satan’s realm of influence (1 Timothy 1:20-21, 1 Corinthians 5:5).
Without formal membership, believers have insufficient soul-care.
ACCOUNTABILITY. God has a design for each believer’s accountability. Believers “submit to one another” (Ephesians 5:21). Part of this mutual submitting is being accountable to others for how we live, so that our behavior matches our profession. This is expressed in Jesus’ instructions for what we call church discipline (Matthew 16:13-20, 18:15-20) and in how the church administers the ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 28:18-20; 1 Corinthians 10:16-22; 11:17-34).
In Matthew 18, for example, Jesus tells us what to do “if your brother sins.” If intermediate steps fail to bring about repentance, then we are to “tell it to the church.” But which church? The only meaningful answer is the church for which it is recognized by all involved which brothers (“yours”) are subject to being confronted with their sin; those who are in something they can be put out of.
Without formal membership, it is impossible to know whom to confront, and it is impossible to complete the process, if necessary. We may prefer such church relationships, that have no possibility of accountability, confrontation, or expulsion (and, hence, reconciliation), but it is not what Jesus commands.
RESPONSIBILITY. We are told to love one another (Matthew 22:34-40; John 13:34-35), which includes sharing the obligations, responsibilities, and duties of congregational life. In fact, we are told to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). Congregational duties include approving how resources are used, affirming leaders, admitting or excluding members, and ensuring doctrinal integrity.
Without formal membership, some believers avoid the duty and privilege of the burden-sharing aspect of loving one another.
WITNESS. You may have noticed that once a person has attended a congregation long enough without joining, others will assume that he is a member. Those who attend and participate long enough to be assumed a member are nevertheless saying that the congregation is worthy of everything except for formal commitment: some worship like a member, give like a member, receive instruction like a member, take the Lord’s Supper like a member, but something prevents their becoming an actual member. Some will ask, so what’s the problem with that?
Without formal membership, a consistent witness about the relationship to the congregation, either by the congregation or the individual, is not possible.
CONTRIBUTION. If you are in Christ, you have a particular contribution to make to the congregation through the Holy Spirit who is in you (1 Corinthians 12 & 14; 1 Peter 4:10; Romans 12:6). This contribution is expressed in Scripture in relation to a specific body of brothers and sisters in Christ. Furthermore, many roles in the life of the church are limited to members in those churches that practice membership.
Without formal membership, believers deny others the biblical contribution they owe them.
Conclusion. Many promote church membership by touting its benefits. But this is not compelling, because we don’t all see benefits the same way. There are certainly advantages to formal membership, but someone might decide that the cost of membership outweighs the benefit, and that he would rather do without the advantage in order to avoid the obligation.
By contrast, these six reasons are offered as compelling, because without formal membership certain aspects of a believer’s walk with Christ are not possible.
Feedback. What would you add as compelling reasons for membership? As benefits (or detriments)? What do you think is an invalid reason? I’d like to hear from you.