Should I Join a Church? or Is Church Membership Biblical?

Why join a church? I saw a friend recently tweet something like, “Trying to convince someone to enter into membership at church is like trying to convince a man he should kiss his wife. Why wouldn’t you?”

I think he was trying to communicate that church membership for him is “just obvious” – of course you should become a member.

However, when I considered the idea I thought, “That’s part of the difficulty.” At least for me, I find it very difficult to explain something to someone that I find simple or that “I have just always understood.”

Church membership is like that for me. I have always attended churches that practiced formal church membership. I have gone through the membership process and joined several churches in my life. I have studied the subject and taught the subject. However, even still when someone says to me, “Why should I become a member?” I still fumble over my words. So, here is an attempt to think through this subject in an organised fashion. Clearly none of these points will carry the weight of the argument alone, some are stronger than others, and they are best when understood together.

  • The concept that God would have a particular people called out for Himself and a way to identify them from others is common to all of Scripture. This isn’t just a New Testament concept.

In the Old Testament God called particular people from particular families and then gave circumcision as a sign that certain people belong to His covenantal family and not others.

Even among the circumcised there were times in Israel’s history when God would separate the faithful from the unfaithful. Were you going to be on Moses’ side or Korah’s? Were you with Joshua & Caleb or against them? Were you with David or Saul? Just being circumcised wasn’t enough.

After the destruction of the Temple, during the time known as the Inter-testamental period the Jews established Synagogues. Any town where there were 10 adults, Jewish males would establish a Synagogue. To be a Jew and not part of the Synagogue was disobedience and see as public shame.

I say this, because today some will say, “I’m a Christian isn’t that enough?” Throughout the Old Testament claiming to be a Jew wasn’t enough. I would suggest we should expect to see something similar in the New Testament. Just claiming to be a Christian or a follower of Christ isn’t enough.

  • The term “Christian” was not a term that was used in the New Testament to describe or identify individual/independent followers of Christ. We first see this word being used to describe the disciples who were part of the “church” in Antioch (Acts 11:26).
  • One will be hard pressed to find a follower of Christ in Acts who is not part of a particular local church. I am not saying there are none (the Ethiopian Eunuch for example, though tradition holds that a church in Ethiopia was formed about this same time), I am saying the overwhelming evidence suggests that when a person became a follower of Christ they became part of a church or established a church.
  • Most of the New Testament is letters (including the seven letters in Revelation) to local churches.
  • In the selection of deacons (Acts 6) the Apostles instructed the people to “choose from among yourselves” certain men. There seems to have been a way for the people in the church to know who was “a part of them” and who was not.
  • When the first missionaries are sent out (Acts 13) this is an activity of the church, not just a group of independent Christians who think sending out Paul and Barnabas is a good idea.
  • In 1 Timothy 5:9-16, Paul gives instruction on “enrolling” certain widows and not “enrolling” others. There seems to be some kind of system where a list is kept of which widows from the church (this group would need to be identifiable) should be on the list of those who are to be cared for by the church and which are not.
  • In the instruction on Church Discipline both Jesus (Matthew 18) and Paul (1 Cor. 5) give the final responsibility for the enforcement of discipline to the church. In 1 Cor. 5 Paul speaks of a particular action the church is to take when they “gather together” and that this man is to be “put out from among them”. There seems to be some why of identifying who is “among them” and who is not. We learn from 2 Cor. 7 that this man repented and was later added back into the church!
  • In Paul’s teaching on the church and the Spirit’s gifts to the church he uses the analogy of a body and even states, “Now you are all the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Cor. 12:27). This is contained in a letter to a particular local church. The analogy of the body would make no sense if there wasn’t a way of knowing which body I am connected to.
  • In the selection of Elders and Deacons in 1 Timothy 3, Paul says he is giving this instruction so that Timothy might know how things are to be conducted within the church (1 Tim. 3:15). These offices are church offices.
  • In Hebrews 13:7 we are instructed to remember our leaders and in verse 17 to obey them. Surely this doesn’t mean Christians are to obey and “remember” any Christian anywhere who is a leader of some kind.
  • Also in Hebrews 13:17 the leaders are said to give an account for the souls of these people. Surely the leaders are not held accountable for jus anyone who enters their church on occasion. How are the elders to know with clarity who they are accountable for?

Some might say here, that’s all good and well, Joe but still the New Testament doesn’t give any clear command or instruction to individual Christians to “officially” join a particular local church. I agree that’s true.

However, there are a lot of things churches do which are not specifically commanded in the New Testament. What time do we have our services? How long should they be? Should we have children’s Sunday School? Should there be a Youth Group? Do we have Communion every week, once a month, once a quarter? What musical instruments do we use? Do we use hymnals or PowerPoint? Can we use PowerPoint for preaching?

A question is do we find in the New Testament any instruction that clearly prohibits the practice of formal church membership? A second question is do we find in the New Testament principles or practices that point us in the direction of some kind of formal church membership?

I would suggest there are no commands or instructions in the New Testament which prohibit the practice of formal church membership. Furthermore, I am suggesting that the 12 points above (and more could be given) are principles and practices which do point in the direction of some kind of formal church membership.

At this point I would like to suggest another principle that, I think plays a part in this. That is the overriding Biblical principle of deferring to others and seeking others interests over my own (Phil. 2:1-4).

Clearly a church having a formal church membership process isn’t sinful; the New Testament in no way prohibits this. There do seem to be some New Testament principles and practices which open the possibility that a church having a formal membership process might be a good thing. Therefore, am I going to insist that a church which I am attending because I am benefitting from its ministries (teaching/preaching, mercy ministries, evangelism, discipleship, music ministries, etc.) and which has historically established a formal process of church membership change their practice (even though I cannot point to any New Testament teaching which prohibits this) or that they make an exception just for me? Or, will I joyfully set aside my preferences, defer to others in an area which is clearly not sinful, setting others interests above my own and therefore join the church?

Three final points which are related to the practical aspects of modern churches:

  1. As church leaders, I believe we must ensure all those serving in positions of leading and teaching especially understand the gospel have repented of their sins and are demonstrating clear faith in Jesus Christ. A formal membership process is a helpful tool to provide orderliness and clarity in this.
  2. As church leaders, I believe we are responsible to ensure, to the best of our ability the safety of the children under our care. Therefore it seems wise to use membership as the first bar of evaluation for anyone who would work with children. Before someone is allowed to work with children we have tested them to know of their testimony of repentance and faith in Christ. In addition we would insist on police background checks, not due to a lack of trust, but to wisely seek to eliminate potential dangers for our children.
  3. In the 21st century a church will often own assets as well as other legal responsibilities before the government.  We are told (Romans 13) to submit to our earthly authorities. Due to these legal requirements it is often necessary to have a way of formally identifying who is a member of the church and who is not for the purpose of voting, decision making, and legal liability.

Much more has been said by others (see some links below). I will stop here. I do pray this is helpful to some.

A Sermon Series:

Sermon Mini-Series: Church as Family, Body, and Building

Some additional online reading:

Twelve Reasons Why Membership Matters

Is Church Membership Biblical?

Helpful Books:

Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus

Stop Dating the Church

Life in the Father’s House: A Member’s Guide to the Local Church