One of the basic understandings among Baptists, and many other denominations, is that at some point a true and faithful follower of Jesus Christ will unite with a local body of believers of like faith and practice. We call it “joining the church” or “becoming a member.” In some churches this is a very simple, almost instant process involving an immediate acknowledgement by the congregation that this person has come to join the congregation. For others it is a more lengthy, and sometimes multiphase, process. Classes may be required, doctrinal statements of the church and the potential member reviewed, and at last a formal vote of the congregation. In fact, you will find churches which fit almost any point between these informal and more formal membership systems.
Perhaps this lack of uniformity is one of the reasons many churches have come to limit or eliminate membership requirements all together. Some have concluded that membership is no longer relevant, or that it is even contrary to biblical teaching. Others assert that it is purely a church tradition which was put in place by church leaders to give them control over the members of their congregation. In this case it is presented as corrupt, if not diabolical. For others, like the issue of using musical instruments in worship, this falls into the category of “If they did not have it in the Church in Jerusalem, then we are not supposed to have it today.” This discussion presents some critical questions for churches to consider. Is membership important? Does it serve a real and legitimate purpose? Is the practice of maintaining a membership roll relevant? Is it biblical? Is it wrong?
Membership Is Biblical
The first question for most Baptists is the issue of biblical foundations. Is there support for the concept in the Bible? This usually means the determination of whether the Scriptures give a direct teaching, or clear principle or illustration, which supports it. For these answers regarding this subject, one need not search far into the biblical record.
Though one cannot find “triplicate forms” and “transferred letters” in the Old or New Testament, we clearly see a definite identification of a chosen people. Specific ceremonial requirements and beliefs identified members of that group and were required of anyone who wished to become a part. Whether circumcision, or later baptism, or times and methods of worship, there were certain things which indicated that a person was always or had become a part of the group. At times the people were counted and identified by families or tribes (Numbers 1:1-3; Ezra 2; Nehemiah 7), and they had a clear sense of enrollment or belonging—or not. In Deuteronomy 23, certain restrictions were set for those who could not be a part of the congregation of God’s people. Nehemiah 13 addresses a similar subject regarding the exclusion of the Amorites from the congregation. God is a God of order and systems, you see it in creation, and you see it in all of His dealings with mankind.
In other contexts in the Old Testament there are instances in which the “congregation” acted in some way. In what might be called one of the first congregational conflicts on record, Korah led a rebellion inciting the congregation against Moses and his leadership. In Joshua 7, the people are assembled by tribes and then families to deal with the sin of Achan.
While these references are obviously dealing with the pre-New Testament period, there is a discernable pattern in the way that God has dealt with His people which demonstrates the concept and guidelines for “membership.” No one should be surprised that the New Testament applies this same principle. We first see this in the larger context of the body of all believers. Membership has requirements. There are those who are a part of the group and those who are not. One must be born again before he can see or enter the Kingdom of God (John 3). We see it also in the role of the Good Shepherd identifying His sheep in John 10. His sheep are known by name, and they know Him. Some of the sheep who are present may not actually be a part of His flock.
This concept is also seen in the local context as pastors are identified as shepherds of specific flocks. In 1 Peter 5:2-3 (KJV), the pastors are told to: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, … being examples to the flock. In Acts 20:28-30 (KJV), as Paul dealt with the Ephesian elders, he told them: Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.
The churches were also instructed to respect and follow the leadership of those appointed to oversee them. This occurs in Paul’s instruction to Timothy (1 Timothy 5:17) in a book written to give instruction regarding conduct and order in the church. He states: These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Timothy 3:14-15 KJV).
In the New Testament the earliest church, assembled by Christ Himself, took on an identifiable form, with leaders and decision‑making processes in place. Even though every believer who was present in Jerusalem was not necessarily a member, there was at least a clearly defined group who met and made decisions (Acts 6; 15). The understanding that some were not members, or fully identified with the group, implied that some were. On several occasions, recorded in Scriptures, the congregation was asked to make a decision or take a stand. Examples are the choosing of “deacons” in Acts 6, and the disciplining of members in Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5. We also see the Lord keeping records of the number of folks who were in the early church, whether the few, the one hundred twenty, or the three thousand who were added after Pentecost. After all, each number represented a person in the eyes of the Lord.
Throughout the New Testament congregations were identified, often by the location, the presence of selected leaders, and the fact that a decision‑making process was in place. Part of the question addressed here is the distinction between the body of all believers and the local churches which are the contextual manifestations of this larger group. Most of the references to church in the New Testament are in reference to a particular church in a particular location. In the Authorized Version, the plural is used to refer to the churches in different locations thirty-six times, thus indicating an identifiable group, or groups, which were referred to as a church(es). The plain fact is that there was more than one entity called the church. This is illustrated as the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in a particular city, or all the churches in a region as seen in Galatians 1:2 and 1 Corinthians 14:33. This also addresses the issue which some raise that one can find references to membership in the large body of all believers, but not in local churches. When Paul addressed leaders and decision making in the churches, he was writing to local churches.
In various places in the Book of Acts and the Pauline Epistles we find these churches meeting at a specific and regular time and place (Acts 2: 42-47), observing the ordinances (1 Corinthians 11), meeting needs within the congregation (Acts 4:32-35), electing or appointing leaders (Acts 6; 14:23), and worshipping together around common beliefs and doctrines. All of these things indicate that these folks were organized and related in a way that requires some form of commitment or covenant relationship like membership.
It is not always clear how many of those gathered in a particular place were considered members, but some were obviously connected in a formal way which gave them voice in the decision‑making processes. Though their names may not have been written in a cross‑referenced book or listed in a membership management computer program, there was a definite and identifiable group. This entity constituted the church membership and the members were a unified body of believers who worshipped and fellowshipped around a common faith, and who had the empowerment to make decisions.
As time and available resources and equipment have become advanced and available, the formal recording of membership has not diminished its significance, but has just made its tracking more efficient. It seems likely that ignoring or discounting the biblical record on the matter of membership may be simply looking for a way to support a predetermined preference in order to avoid the work or impact of formal membership. It is a bit like saying that there were no electric lights in first century Jerusalem, so there must not have been any lights at all.
Membership Has Its Benefits
Another important part of this discussion leads to the questions, “Why should one want to be a member of a church?” “What benefits are gained from the concept of membership?” Several rise from both the biblical and modern era. The benefits of membership are significant both to the congregation as a whole and the individual member.
One of the basic needs met by the concept of membership is the inherent need for “belonging” which God built into human nature. He did not create us for isolation, but immediately announced that it is not good for us to be alone. In the creation of the family, the chosen people, and the church, He acknowledges this basic need. It is also clear that when people do not find this sense of belonging in the family and the church, they will seek it in other groups. This has been widely documented as one of the reasons young people join gangs in which they voluntarily go through extreme rituals of membership.
A second significant factor is the matter of “doctrinal identity.” While a large assembly of believers of many evangelical labels may worship together, fellowship together, and even serve together in common causes, there are some reasons why they are separate to begin with. At the heart of this matter is the significance of doctrine. What one truly believes is, or at least should be, important to them. This becomes the basis for their worship, teaching, and life practices. If one does not have a clearly defined set of beliefs, and a method of maintaining that doctrinal identity, broken and divided fellowship can easily result.
The church in Corinth experienced this reality as they struggled over leadership, doctrine, and the exercise of spiritual gifts. Similar situations have been experienced in many modern day congregations. The reports are all too common of congregations without clear doctrinal identity being infiltrated or coincidentally populated by members of a doctrinal variant. In time the group was influenced toward, or divided into factions around, some new teaching or practice which was inconsistent with their original positions. One of the best safeguards against false doctrines, and factiousness over doctrinal variants, is to maintain a membership process which clearly identifies who we are and what we believe. The membership process is the time to determine whether one wishes to be a Baptist or just fellowship and worship with Baptists for a convenient time.
Another related factor is the concept of accountability. Without a membership process which sets in place some doctrinal basis for the group, and some expectations in matters of faith and practice, there is no basis for holding members accountable in these areas. Under these conditions membership becomes somewhat insignificant. This factor leads one to the point that, if membership is to be meaningful, then the process must include some measures of responsibility and accountability. This process must involve more than just signing them up and expressing a hearty welcome. It requires both time and tools for helping the prospective member understand the significance of their decision to become a member of the church. If it is both biblical and relevant, the membership process should be important enough to be taken seriously by both the candidate and the congregation. The criteria should be clearly stated and followed. For most congregations these criteria will involve the issues of a biblical personal salvation experience, believers’ baptism, a clear presentation of doctrinal identity, and a forthright discussion of what is expected of members.
When a person is claimed as a member of a church, the congregation is to some degree endorsing this individual to the world. If a person says that they attend a particular church, while living a lifestyle which does not well represent the church or the Lord, without membership there is no platform for effectively dealing with the issue. If everyone who attends is considered a member, then all of their beliefs are blending into the public identity of that congregation.
A trend has developed among many people who want to attend a great church and benefit from its ministries, while offering resistance to actually seeking formal membership. It seems that one of the reasons for this is that it leaves the person with the freedom to go and come, to pick and choose—a participation with little or no sense of responsibility or loyalty. This can create a very vulnerable condition under which one is easily influenced to stop attending or begin to attend elsewhere. The rationale may be something as simple as no longer enjoying the worship experience, or disagreeing with a decision made by the congregation.
Being a member of a church provides one with a community of committed fellow believers of like faith and practice in which there is encouragement, mutual support, and accountability (Hebrews 10:24-25). This is seen in Paul’s instructions concerning the mutual care by the various members (parts of the body) in 1 Corinthians 12:25-27 (KJV) That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it. Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.
Mutual care within the body is best done in the context of an identifiable group. An example of an intentional plan for ministering to specific needs is seen in the care given to a group of widows, a list of which was maintained by the early church. (Acts 6; 1 Timothy 5).
Membership in a local group of believers also gives one the privilege of being a part of decision making and influencing the nature and direction of the group. It also provides for them the safeguards of many counselors and, when needed, for guidance and corrective actions. Both the Bible and time have proven that everyone needs these things. Membership provides the system or mechanism for maintaining doctrinal, ethical, and moral purity.
Membership? Why Not?
Another question which deserves some attention in this discussion is simply, “Why not be a member?” Since there is a pattern for the concept throughout the Scriptures, and since it has many practical benefits for fellowship, worship, ministry, and missions, why should anyone not be a member? Though it is not the strongest argument for membership, one might simply determine that since it is not prohibited by the Scripture, and it is beneficial to the members and the leaders, then there is no reason not to join together in a formal way. After all, church membership is a group of people who voluntarily commit themselves to the Lord and each other in a covenant relationship for the purpose of accomplishing a specific purpose in, or from, a specific place. It also provides a natural path for voluntary personal and corporate accountability.
Christ is still the head of the local body, and body life is best experienced in the local assemblies where members are covenanted together around the cause of Christ. One could determine that maintaining church membership is, for the personal member and the congregation, one of the best acts of faithful stewardship in which disciples of Christ may engage. It helps us do more effectively and efficiently everything Christ, the Head of the Church, has called us to do.
Ed Gregory is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Anchorage, Alaska.