An Arising Concern
I overhear many young evangelicals discussing local church membership from time to time. Seemingly bewildered, they wonder where in the world such a concept originated from in the first place? How did we ever get the idea of an individual publicly joining a congregation listing their name with other members? Perhaps it is merely a tradition tacked on to a long list of others practiced by the church? Maybe it is a Western idea morphed into Christian practice? Alongside my young evangelical friends, I come across pastors who discuss individuals coming to their church with no desire for membership because they do not see it as a biblical practice.
Consequently, I see a need to set forth both the necessity of the fellowship of the local church alongside the biblical practice of church membership as revealed in the Scripture. My hope in this goal is to reach specifically two intended audiences. First, I pray this article is a resource that pastors will find beneficial while dealing with this issue within their local congregations. Secondly, I am afraid many evangelicals are confused about church membership, simply because they have never been taught the biblical concept. Therefore, my ambition is for this post to serve as a brief clarifying summary of biblical doctrine regarding the topic that encourages others to search the Scriptures further.
Local and Universal Church Fellowship
Before we can even begin talking about church membership, we must first outline both the existence of the local church and the universal church. When I discuss a local church I am merely referencing a gathered body of believers in one location. For example, there was the church in Colossae that was a specific fellowship of Christians meeting in a certain local area (Colossians 1:2). We can mark differences between these churches as Christ does when writing the seven letters towards the beginning of the book of Revelation (Revelation 2-3). He addresses strengths and weakness of the church in Ephesus that are distinct from the gathering in Pergamum (Revelation 2:1-7, 2:12-17). That occurs simply because these churches exist at different locations being constituted of unique believers thereby necessitating they have varying areas of growth needed and areas that they are commended for amidst the fellowship of the saints. Believers are not to neglect to meet together in the local church as an explicit command from Scripture (Hebrews 10:24-25). It is evident that the existence of the local church is well founded in the Word of God.
However, we are also right to speak of the church universal. The term universal here does not reference the idea that everyone who has ever lived is saved. Rather, we are talking about the church beyond simply one location and could even extend it further beyond one time period. When the universal church is being discussed, we are talking about all Christians at all times in all places. In Ephesians 4:4 Paul mentions the reality that there is only one body which is the church of Jesus Christ. This reference is being made to the fact that regardless of the local area where we reside, as believers, we are joined to our brethren across the globe because we are united in Christ. I am a part of the body of Christ as a believer living in America just as a Christian who resides in Africa is a member of this same body. We are certainly not a part of the same local church, but we are both members of the universal church that encompasses believers around the world. Now, Paul says that we are one body in Christ (Romans 12:4-5) which brings us to another point, every believer is a member of the universal church. Consequently, since we are members of the universal church, do we actually need to take the steps to become members of a local church? Or, can we merely fellowship in a local body of believers without ever needing to technically unite with that congregation in membership?
Biblical Examples of Local Church Membership
The initial illustration of this concept is perhaps best demonstrated in the book of Acts when we see roles being kept tracking the growth of the church. Acts 2:41 records there were about 3,000 souls added to the church on Pentecost and in verse 47 it is recorded that the Lord was adding to their number day by day. These texts demonstrate that someone was apparently counting the individuals who were being added to the church and keeping track of it. It was not simply a random pop-in to the church and rush out, rather, some sort of method for tracking individuals was clearly being utilized. In fact, if we come over to the book of Hebrews we see confirmation for this idea. Hebrews 13:17 says:
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” -Hebrews 13:17
Please pay careful attention to the specific emphasis on your leaders being made here that highlights the point they are keeping watch over the specific souls of individuals. A pastor in a city with 500 churches is not responsible for the soul of every Christian in each congregation, but the specific believers who have united with the local church where he has pastoral oversight. So, if the early church kept track of the growth of the church and the pastors were charged with keeping watch over the souls in their care, what does that sound like to you? It echoes of local church membership! It was the local church who appointed Paul, Barnabas, and some of the other believers to go to the Jerusalem Council to settle a theological issue (Acts 15:2-3). That text is pointing to individuals belonging to a specific local church (the church in Antioch) gathering together to make decisions and send out men for an intentional purpose. 1 Timothy 5:3-16 gives very detailed requirements for widows who were to be “enrolled” into receiving care from the church. Clearly, that is a very organized process whereby members of a specific local church would receive care if they were in need according to the parameters set by the Word.
Hitting It Home
All of these texts bring us to the point of a vital conclusion. Uniting oneself to a local church is a clear teaching of the Scripture. The early church kept track of growth, had lists of enrollment, and urged those united to local congregations to thank God for the men involved in pastoral ministry within that local context because they were caring for the souls of the believers. These texts set forth with crystal clarity that local church membership is a biblical practice and expectation. We are members of the universal church by the work of Christ and believers shall desire to be united to a local church on that basis. So, my friends, the testimony of God in His Word testifies to the beauty of the local church and the grace gift we have to be a member of it. I pray this exploration of Scripture’s teaching has been helpful for you and may you serve with steadfastness in the local church as you seek God’s glory and the good of your brothers and sisters in Christ!