“Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem.” –Psalm 51:18
A Simple Definition
Church membership is a way of saying, “I am a Christian, and this is my church.”
To flesh that out a bit more, church membership means saying, “I am a Christian. I care about the local church. This local church reflects my view of biblical doctrine. Therefore, I want to commit to loving and serving at this church, and benefiting from the means of grace at this church, as long as the Lord wills it.”
Note that church membership does not need to be life-long. Church membership is commitment to a certain local church body, until God makes clear (through His providence, the Scriptures, prayer, and biblical counsel) that the Christian should move to another local church body.
New Testament reasons for church membership
Here are five New Testament reasons for church membership:
1) The “body” imagery Paul uses to describe the church
In 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12:4–5, and Ephesians 4, the image of a human body is used to illustrate that a church is made up of various “members” who contribute to a healthy “body.” In all of these New Testament examples, the spiritual union of believers is expressed in an actual local church (Corinth, Rome, Ephesus). It is not a virtual body, but rather an actual, living, mutually helpful community.
2) Church membership allows pastors to care for people
In Hebrews 13:17, we learn that pastoral oversight happens in a local church context where pastors can actually “watch out for souls.” Church membership helps pastors to know i) who those souls are, and ii) that those souls want their pastoral oversight.
3) The New Testament often mentions “lists” of believers
In 1 Timothy 5:9, Paul writes, “Do not let a widow under sixty years old be taken into the number, and not unless she has been the wife of one man.” Also, when Paul addresses a certain local church, he addresses actual people by name (see Romans 16, Philippians 4, 2 Timothy, Titus 3, etc.). These passages suggest that Paul saw it as proper for church leadership to have some sort of “number, list, or enrollment,” by which they could know who was under their care.
4) Church discipline
Since New Testament church discipline requires communication, correction, and restoration, it can only reasonably take place in a local church that is made up of committed members (1 Corinthians 5, Galatians 6, Matthew 18).
5) The “one another commands”
All the “one another” commands of the New Testament can only be carried out among a committed body of believers. For example, Colossians 3:13 says, “Bear with one another.” If I am church-hopping, or ready to get up and leave whenever someone irritates me, then I am not engaged in the sanctifying process of “bearing with others.”
What would church membership at this church involve?
Church membership is only for baptized believers. If one is not baptized, being baptized and becoming a member can happen on the same day. Here are some texts to study: Acts 2, Matthew 28, Romans 6.
2) Talk through the statement of faith with church leadership
While complete agreement with every point on our statement of faith is not required for church membership, widespread agreement is the goal. Disagreements and areas where you desire more teaching should be discussed with church leadership before becoming a member.
3) Testimony to the church
Some testimony of one’s faith and walk with Jesus is a wonderful part of being welcomed into a church community. This could involve telling the congregation how you came to know Jesus, and why you want to be a part of this local church. If a brother or sister does not want to speak publicly, one’s testimony could be given in written form, or to church leadership alone.
4) Church leadership takes note that you are now a member
Once someone commits to church membership, church leadership will simply write the names of church members on a list. In our church, this is nothing overly formal. This simply means that leadership is aware that this brother or sister is committing to our church, and therefore church leadership has a duty to lovingly watch over that person’s soul.
The church member’s duties
Attendance is the most basic and vital duty of a church member. This is what enables that member to grow through the means of grace, be sanctified by bumping up against other believers, and be part of the advancement of God’s gospel. Hebrews 10:24–25 says, “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the day approaching.” Also see our Statement of Faith, Section #14, on “Regular Times of Worship”: https://graceandgloryportland.church/about-us/statement-of-faith/
Hebrews 13:16 says, “But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.” The New Testament principle of giving is not tithing (offering 10%), but is rather giving from a cheerful heart as an act of worship. No specific amount of financial giving is required or expected at our church. See 2 Corinthians 9:7 “So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver.”
If you are a Christian, your sphere of care is larger than your family, friends, and workplace. It expands out to include your brothers and sisters in the local church. This is a joyous duty of church membership. Hebrews 13:16 says, “But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.” Galatians 6:2 says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
The church member’s rights
As a church member, you have the right to have godly leadership watching over your soul. Hebrews 13:17 and Jeremiah 23 speak to this reality. This care means that you will continually have pastoral help in: prayer, counsel, making sure you are on your way to heaven, and teaching you faithfully.
The church member has the right to enjoy the worship of God whenever the saints gather. Hebrews 13:15 says, “Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name.” The church member should find freedom in this church to express his or her worship in biblical ways. The church member has the right to benefit from preaching, singing, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the public reading of the Word, teaching, and church fellowship.
The church member has the right to be part of a spiritual home where he or she is truly loved. Joel Beeke says, “The Christian always has a place to go.” Church leadership and fellow church members should be working together to make the church a sanctuary for the weary soul, and a place of true spiritual belonging. Hebrews 12:22–24 says, “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.”
Hindrances to membership, and their solutions
Finally, we will briefly mention some potential hindrances to church membership, and their biblical solutions.
1) You don’t see church membership as biblical
Many people don’t see church membership as biblical. The solution to this is to study the New Testament texts mentioned above.
2) Perceived personal needs
Some people avoid church membership because of perceived personal needs. For example, you may say, “I need people like me. I need people my age. I need a certain ministry.” The solution to this is first to assess if these needs are in fact biblical. If these perceived needs are not biblical, one should then be exhorted to commit to loving sacrifice on behalf of others. One should also see the church as a place where we are challenged to accept the differences of others around us. Study 1 Corinthians 12, which spells out how differences are desirable and necessary in the local church body.
Some people are introverts, and that is just fine! Some want to be left alone. Some don’t believe they need fellowship. The solution to this is a healthy balance of individualism and fellowship. The Christian life absolutely necessitates weekly fellowship with other believers; there is no such thing as a “lone wolf Christian.” But the Christian life also requires that we meet with God alone, and tend to all the necessary personal duties of a godly life. Individualism should be swallowed up by a healthy balance of alone-time and fellowship.
3) Fear of accountability
Some people fear being accountable to others. Others want to avoid accountability because they know it will expose sin. The solution to this is to realize the absolute biblical necessity for loving accountability. See James 5:16, for example, where we are exhorted to confess our sins to one another. Without healthy, godly accountability, we tend to find our counsel from non-Christian sources, or we tend to minimize our sin and our need for the means of grace.
4) Fear of commitment
Finally, some people fear commitment to the local church. The solution to this is commitment to God’s will. The commitment involved in local church membership is commitment while the Lord wills it. Many people are called to other churches because of providence or because of doctrinal disagreements. It is best to commit to church membership for the foreseeable future, and to be in loving communication with the church when God directs you elsewhere.
For more on church membership, see these two sermons preached in 2021 at our church:
Church Membership: Commitment to People who are Not Like You https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bMAyHQnxPms&t=1840s
Church Membership: Your Duties and Rights https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QyMJeSl7x0w&t=48s