If you’re like most people, the word “membership” probably doesn’t cause you to well up with any deep spiritual emotion. For most of us, membership is something most associated with junk mail from credit card companies or a high-pressure sales pitch at a gym. When it comes to the church, perhaps it’s viewed as a bureaucratic tool for keeping track of people. Some consider it irretrievably Western—a faintly imperialist concept that really ought to be abandoned when we begin to plant churches in other cultures.
I understand that impression, especially given how many churches treat the concept and reality of membership. But what’s needed is to return to the Bible itself and see whether it talks about church membership, and if so, what the nature and meaning and purpose of that concept is in the first place.
Church Membership According to Jesus
The idea of church membership began to take shape in Matthew 16 and 18 when Jesus first began to constitute his church. There he gave the church the keys of the kingdom, which means that he gave it authority to speak in his name both to what the gospel is and who is rightly confessing the gospel.
If someone understands and confesses the gospel rightly, the church is given authority by King Jesus to say, “Yes, you’re a genuine believer in Christ,” and therefore to be baptized and join in the life of the church. If not, the church also has the authority, granted by the King, to say, “No, you don’t understand the gospel, you’re not confessing it and living according to it, and therefore we will not continue to affirm that you’re a Christian.” That’s the power of the keys Jesus gave to the church, and that ability to affirm who is confessing the gospel rightly and who is not is the outline of what we mean by the term “church membership.”
Church Membership in the Book of Acts
You can see that reality casting its shadow in the story written in the Book of Acts from the beginning of the church. On the day of Pentecost, Peter preached the gospel and told people to be baptized. Then, in Acts 2:41, “three thousand souls were added to their number.” Even at the beginning, then, the first Christians knew who they were. The life of the church wasn’t just a matter of “come when you can.” There was a defined, recognized group of people who believed, were baptized, and were part of the number.
It’s not just that they knew each other, though. Those early Christians lived life together. They attended the temple together (2:46) as more and more were “added to their number” (2:47) until in Acts 4:4 the number had risen to 5000 (and that’s just counting the men)! To be a part of “the number” wasn’t just a lifeless bureaucratic reality, either. Acts 4:32 reports that they were “of one heart and soul.”
Amazingly, even with upwards of 5000 people in “the number,” that earliest church in Jerusalem continued to meet together. Acts 5:12 says that they were “all together” in a large place called Solomon’s Portico; 6:2 even says the “full number” of them came together in a business meeting to discuss how to care better for widows. And through all of this, those early Christians called themselves a “church,” that is an assembly, a gathering.
So, in the very first church in Jerusalem, even as large as it was, the first Christians knew who they were. There were those who were part of the number, and there were those who were not, and the dividing line between the two was baptism. A person would become a believer, the church would exercise the keys and say, “Yes, you seem to be a genuine believer,” then he or she would be baptized and thereby join the life of the church—its joys and pains and problems and solutions. That’s membership.
Church Membership Throughout the New Testament
Membership casts its shadow in other places in the Bible, too. It’s seen in Matthew 18, for example, where Jesus explained how the church is to use the authority of the keys to remove its affirmation of someone’s profession of faith. The end of that process is that the person is made an outsider; that is, they’re not longer one of “the number.”
First Corinthians 5 gives us a look at another similar situation in which Paul tells the church in 5:2 to “remove this man from among you.” Obviously, that doesn’t mean they are supposed to physically toss him out of the room or bar the doors against him. No, they wanted the man to attend the gatherings of the church, to hear the word and repent. What it means to “remove” him is that they are to make it clear that they are withdrawing their affirmation of his claim to be a Christian. When you assemble, Paul told them, “hand him over to Satan.” That’s keys of the kingdom language: They are to transfer him out of the church (the realm of King Jesus) and into the world (the realm of Satan).
Sometimes, I think we assume that because all that we find in the New Testament happened 2000 years ago, the early church must have accomplished it in some way that’s more interesting, more organic—than the way we might accomplish it now. But apparently, they did it exactly like we might.
Deciding by Majority Vote
In 2 Corinthians 2, Paul returned to the situation he faced in 1 Corinthians 5 (in which he told the church to remove the unrepentant man from among them) and told the church to bring the man back into the number of disciples. He repented and, therefore, should be restored. But look in 2:6. Paul said that the church took the action of disaffirming the man’s profession of faith “by the majority.” And how did they determine a majority? They counted! Apparently, the church voted, whether by voice or hands or ballot, and that vote was the church’s way of speaking and acting—of exercising the authority of the keys that had been granted to them by King Jesus.
The Boundary around God’s People
When you pull it all together, the important thing to see is that the Bible consistently talks about the church having a boundary. There are people who are in and people who are out. Definitively. There is “a number,” and a person is part of it or not.
What’s more, that reality is a formal and recognized relationship. Both the church and the individual Christian recognize that such a relationship exists, and the church acts in a formal way both to create and dissolve it. To create it, it baptizes (or recognizes a prior baptism); to dissolve it, it votes to “hand someone over to Satan.”
Membership Means Relationship
But still, the question remains, “does the Bible ever explicitly talk about church membership?” Yes, it does. It even uses the word. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul addresses a particular local church in the city of Corinth, explaining to them that instead of being divided and jealous of each other they should be united. In the course of that argument he says in 12:27, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”
There it is. All those shadows in the New Testament—of making someone part of the number, of putting someone out of the number, of life lived together in mutual commitment—those shadows point to this biblical image of the local church being the Body of Christ.
Membership Means Commitment
What that means is that membership is not a cold, lifeless word having to do with names on a list. It’s a flesh-and-blood, lively word that describes the parts of a body. That, after all, is what the word “member” means. It’s a fascinating image, really, because it captures vividly what it means to be part of “the number” of a church.
For one thing, it simply underlines the truth—which we see again and again in the Bible—that a local church has a boundary. Think about it—it’s actually very clear what is a part of your body and what is not. Maybe you wear a wedding ring. I do, and it almost never comes off my finger. It’s about as close to my body as anything can possibly be; you might even call it a regular, committed attender and participant in the life of my body! But I also know that it’s not a part of my body. What’s more, as close as that ring may be to my body, it doesn’t really share in my body’s life, its pleasure, or its pain. If I stub my toe, my ring doesn’t react; my finger does though!
Membership Is Not a Modern, Western Concept
The point and heart of church membership isn’t necessarily signing something, or having your name on a list or in a booklet. The point is a mutually recognized, formal relationship between a Christian and church in which both of them say—in a way that’s recognized by both—that “I am committed to you.” I will share your joy and your pain; I will take responsibility for you; I will love and care for you. That’s the meaning of membership. It’s not a modern, Western concept, but rather a deeply biblical reality born of the spiritual union between Christ and his church—the reality that each local church is the body of Christ, and we as individual Christians are members of it.
(This article is adapted from articles originally published by IMB at https://www.imb.org/2017/01/25/why-every-healthy-church-practices-membership-part-1/ and https://www.imb.org/2017/01/26/bible-teach-church-membership-2/ )