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The Importance of Church Membership

Why does Redeemer Church insist so strongly on the importance of church membership? Can the requirement for formal membership in a local church be justified biblically? Is church membership a biblical mandate, or a manmade tradition that should be cast aside according to the principle of Sola Scriptura? Is it perhaps a matter of Christian prudence, neither required nor forbidden, but deemed useful in our context to help us carry out other, more specific commands of Scripture?

The elders of Redeemer Church believe that visible, identifiable membership in a local church is the pattern found in the New Testament. Of course, this does not mean that all the particular details of this practice are spelled out in the Bible. We do not claim explicit biblical sanction for our six-week membership class, for example, or for our practice of hearing new member testimonies and then voting to receive them into membership at members meetings once a month. But we believe the central idea behind church membership is adequately supported by the text of Scripture. That support can be seen in the following ways.

Functions of the Local Church

The inspired records and instructions about many of the proper functions of the local church presuppose that New Testament Christians, living in a particular location, knew the names of the other Christians in their vicinity, with whom they were spiritually united and to whom they were tangibly committed. Financial support of those in need,[1] corrective discipline for the unrepentant,[2] the oversight of the flock of God by biblically qualified elders—all of these practices require a specific knowledge of the individuals to whom we are accountable and to whom we owe our specific forms of care.

To whom do spiritual leaders owe the responsibility of watchful care, and for whom will they give account? What leaders are Christians commanded to honor and esteem, and to whom are they supposed to submit?[3] Which widows are evaluated to determine their eligibility for financial support?[4] The assumption behind these descriptions of life in the new covenant community is that there is a visible, identifiable community that provides a context in which to carry out such practices.[5]

The visible expression of this community receives a fairly explicit mention in Paul’s instructions regarding church discipline in 1 Corinthians 5. Distinguishing between those inside and those outside the community of faith, he adds to his earlier teaching by clarifying who are the proper subjects of exclusion:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed… (1 Cor 5:9-11)

There is a clear distinction in Paul’s mind, which he assumes is evident to the Corinthian Christians as well, between those who bear the name of brother and those who do not.[6]

For the purposes of our discussion, the central question that must be considered is, “By what criteria did Paul (or the churches which he planted) consider an individual to ‘bear the name of brother?’” Is it anyone who claimed to be a Christian, no matter how faulty or limited his understanding of his own profession? Is it only those with genuine faith in Christ? Did Paul or any of his contemporaries have the ability to determine infallibly whose faith was genuine and whose was not?

The Role of Baptism

We believe the evidence of the New Testament demonstrates a practice intended to create a visible line of demarcation between those who bear the name of brother and those who do not, between those inside the community of faith and those without. That practice is the Christian ordinance of baptism.[7]

Consider how closely the command to be baptized is linked with the forgiveness of sins in Acts 2:38: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Baptists and other evangelical Christians are sometimes troubled by such a prominent and emphatic insistence on the necessity of water baptism.[8] Does this contradict the words of Paul and Silas in Acts 16:31? To the Philippian jailor, they simply declare, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Unless the apostles are contradicting one another, “Repent and be baptized” serves as some sort of functional equivalent to “Believe in the Lord Jesus.”[9]

This functional equivalence is not difficult to explain. Historically, Baptists have always considered faith and repentance to be two sides of the same coin. One cannot believe in the Lord Jesus without changing one’s mind and turning away from sin and false beliefs. Baptism, at least in the context of Acts 2, is the expression of that repentance. Luke identifies those who “received his word” with those who were baptized and added to the church—about 3,000 in one day.

The New Testament recognizes the danger that some may profess faith by the act of baptism without having genuine faith (Acts 8:18-23), and it records the example of one who believed under circumstances in which it was impossible to receive baptism (Luke 23:39-43). Nevertheless, the New Testament knows nothing of a Christian who refuses to be identified with his Lord in baptism.[10] Where it functions biblically, baptism is the sign of those who belong to Christ and his new covenant community.[11]

What does this have to do with membership in a local church? We believe the logical progression is straightforward. Faith in Christ requires public identification with Him. Union with Christ necessarily includes union with His body. Membership in His universal body requires visible expression in a local manifestation of that body. Baptism is the sign of our union with Christ and His body, both universal and local.[12]

Keeping a “List”

If this is true, it means that New Testament Christians in Jerusalem or Philippi or any other city did in fact have a list of names that they would think of as members of their particular church. We can be reasonably sure the list was not recorded in 12 point font on Microsoft Word; it may have been recorded on papyrus or parchment or wax tablets. In cities and towns where Christians were relatively few and knew all their fellow believers by sight, a physical, written list may have been unnecessary. But that list still existed in the minds of those members, and especially the shepherds giving account for them. It included (with a few obvious exceptions, to be mentioned shortly) all those names and only those names of those who had been baptized in that community.

The obvious exceptions would be those who had passed on in death (fallen asleep, as early Christians preferred to say), or those who had professed faith in Christ in one city or town and later relocated to some other place. In such cases, we have good evidence that the leaders of a member’s former church would write a letter of commendation or transfer to that member’s new church, vouching for his or her testimony and urging that church to receive the new member into their congregation.[13]

The New Testament & the 21st century

Even though we want to follow the New Testament example as closely as possible, there are some glaring contrasts between church membership as we see it in the New Testament and as it is practiced today, at least in the United States. To be a Christian in Corinth or Philippi or Thessalonica in the first century was to be a member of the church in that particular city or location. First Baptist Church did not compete with Second Baptist Church or with the Presbyterian Church down the street.[14]

Perhaps this concern is at the bottom of some objections raised by those who dispute the necessity or even the wisdom of church membership today. By formally or officially joining a particular church in one geographical area and not joining another in that same area, are we saying that Christ is divided? Are we perpetuating the exact kind of division that Christians ought to abhor?

For centuries, most Christians followed an enforced form of unity that made it possible for them to claim, “We are not causing division. We are members of the true church. It is the heretics who divide the church, and we deal with them by putting them out of the church.” At least among Protestants, this attitude is rare today, and though we would do well to recover some of that passion for doctrinal rigor and theological truth, we do not believe that any one denomination can claim to be the only true church. Yet matters of conscience often prevent Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists from joining and working together in the same local church. We seem to face a situation similar in some respects to the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas at the end of Acts 15. We are not told in so many words who was right and who was wrong, but Paul seems to have changed his mind later in his writings.[15] Perhaps both were wrong in the vehemence of their arguments, but we may assume each one strongly believed at the time he was acting out of biblical conviction.

While we sympathize with the difficulty experienced by Paul and Barnabas, and grieve over the ongoing lack of resolution of serious conflicts in our own day, we can rejoice and take confidence that God is still building His church, and using flawed servants to do so. One day, we know that all such conflicts will be resolved and the unity of the true, universal church will be made evident.

In the meantime, how shall we respond to such divisions? Should we choose to alternate our attendance to various churches in our vicinity from week to week? Should we join in all the worship and fellowship of one particular church and refuse to make a public, definitive commitment to that congregation? Does such a practice aid or hinder the pursuit of biblical unity? For those who refuse or neglect to affirm publicly a covenantal commitment to the church they have been attending for years, we cannot help making the comparison to couples who live together without the covenantal commitment of marriage. A marriage license, they would say, is an empty formality—just a piece of paper. But God does not see it that way.

Though the customs, circumstances, and ceremonies that mark a covenant may differ from one culture to another, the basic concept of a covenant as a formal declaration of the terms of a relationship between two or more parties is thoroughly biblical.[16] In fact, it is impossible to accurately describe the relationship between Christ and His bride without referring to the covenant. We live under a new covenant, the Bible teaches us, different from the covenant of condemnation given through Moses. This covenant is inaugurated by the shed blood of Christ, and is attended by covenant signs: baptism, which marks our entrance into the covenant, and the Lord’s Supper, which displays our continued participation in that covenant.

Conclusion

Our union with Christ and His people cannot be carried out in an abstract way; it must be lived out in the context of a local, visible church. Because the covenantal signs that portray our union with Christ and our inclusion in His body must be carried out by a local church,[17] we believe that those same signs also serve to mark the members of a local congregation. That is not to say that members in good standing in one church may not participate in the Lord’s Supper administered in another congregation they happen to be visiting (though some have so argued). But participation in the Supper is not for those who have yet to commit themselves to Christ’s body. Such a commitment must not be merely outward and formal, but where God’s Word has prescribed the formal sign of that commitment, we must not neglect it. Local church membership is not a manmade addition to that sign; it is implicit in the sign itself.[18]

For Further Reading

Anyabwile, Thabiti. What is a Healthy Church Member? Wheaton: Crossway, 2008.

Dever, Mark. Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, 3rd ed. Wheaton: Crossway, 2013.

________. The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel. Wheaton: Crossway, 2005.

Hammett, John S., and Benjamin Merkle. Those Who Must Give an Account: A Study of Church Membership and Church Discipline. Nashville: B&H, 2012.

Harris, Josh. Stop Dating the Church: Fall in Love with the Family of God. Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2004.

Jamieson, Bobby. Committing to One Another: Church Membership. Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.

________. Going Public: Why Baptism Is Required for Church Membership. Nashville: B&H, 2015.

Leeman, Jonathan. The Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline. Wheaton: Crossway, 2010.

________. Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus. Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.

________. Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus. Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.

Schreiner, Thomas R., and Shawn D. Wright, Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ. NACSBT. Nashville: B&H, 2007.

Stott, John. The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2011.

White, Thomas, and Jason Duesing, eds. Restoring Integrity to Baptist Churches. Grand Rapids: Kregal, 2008.

[The previous post was written by Wes Duggins, but all resources on membership and the following endnotes were respectively compiled and written by Bret Rogers]

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[1]E.g., 1 Cor 9:8-10; 2 Cor 8; Gal 6:6; 1 Tim 5:18 [cf. Deut 25:4].

[2]E.g., Matt 18:15-20; 1 Cor 5. The context of corrective discipline when unrepentance characterizes an erring member suggests that “the church” in Matthew 18:15-20 is an assembly of believers that is visible (“on earth”), identifiable (“tell it to the church”), has known boundaries from which one may be excluded (“bind… loose”), and executes the authority of Jesus (“in my name, there I am;” cf. Matt 28:18-20; John 20:23). Church membership functions to define the assembly, in order that the unrepentant member may be disciplined meaningfully. Yes, the invisible, universal church exists (e.g., Matt 16:17; Heb 12:22-23). But if we ask where the universal church gathers now, before the Second Coming of Christ, Matthew 18:17-20 implies that the universal church gathers now in earthly, visible, local churches—identifiable assemblies of disciples who collectively submit to and exercise the authority of Jesus. While the universal church is an eschatological reality in Matthew 16:17, the local church in Matthew 18:17-20 is a present day reality that is seen, known, and submitted to in very concrete ways. See further the discussions in D. A. Carson, Matthew, EBC (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 455-58; Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 174-92.

Similar inferences apply to the case of 1 Corinthians 5. The gathering of the church to discipline a brother living in sin reveals that a defined group of Christians is in mind, namely, the assembled believers in Corinth and no one else in particular. Yes, they join a host of other saints who “call on the name of the Lord in every place” (1 Cor 1:2), but the saints “in every place” do not assemble to cast out the immoral brother. Only those saints who identify themselves publically with the church in Corinth assemble to exercise corrective discipline according to the apostle’s command and cast out the brother. Only the believers in Corinth gather in Jesus’ name (1 Cor 5:4; cf. Matt 18:19-20). Thus, as in Matthew 18:17-20, Jesus’ authority is put into effect through local churches (cf. 2 Cor 2:10). The formal removal of an unrepentant person from being “inside” the church to being “outside” the church only makes sense if there exists an identifiable gathering of believers, who are accountable to one another in submitting themselves to the reign of Jesus Christ. Thus, church membership is crucial to enforcing corrective discipline. The universal church cannot enforce corrective discipline, but only the local church can. This means that every Christian not submitting themselves to membership in a local church endangers their own souls by not subjecting themselves to the rule of Christ exercised through biblical leadership and the mutual submission of members within the local church.

[3]E.g., Acts 20:28; 1 Thess 5:12-13; 1 Tim 5:17; Heb 13:17; 1 Pet 5:2-3. According to these passages, believers must submit to the leaders God has placed over them in particular. The implication is that every believer knows which leader(s) he/she is directly accountable to obey under the Lord (see esp. 1 Thess 5:12-13; Heb 13:17). In other words, intentional membership is the assumption behind knowing to what leadership a believer submits him/herself. The flip side of this picture is that the leaders will also know which saints are directly under their pastoral care and which are not. So, for example, Acts 20:28—“pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers…”—and 1 Peter 5:2-3—“shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight…not domineering over those in your charge…”—both imply that the overseers know their particular “flock” or those “in their charge” as an identifiable local gathering of saints distinct from others (cf. Acts 14:23; Tit 1:5; Jas 5:14). Having a definable membership makes believers’ submission to particular leaders and leaders’ oversight of particular believers explicit. In light of other examples where definable local congregations are in view, such an understanding of membership makes even further sense (e.g., Acts 13:1; 14:23; 15:3-4, 22, 41; 20:17, 28; Phil 4:15; Col 4:15-16; 2 Thess 1:4; Phm 2; Jas 2:2; 5:14; 2 John 10).

[4]The enrollment of true widows in 1 Timothy 5:9, 11 implies that local churches (perhaps house churches implied by “house to house”) kept track of particular members on a roll—in particular members who were widows—in order to aid in caring for their members as well as keeping the health of every assembly. So when Paul writes in 1 Timothy 5:16, “Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows,” he has in mind local churches, the same local churches who are exhorted to support their particular elders in 1 Timothy 5:17-18. Thus, keeping track of specific members for the overall health of an identifiable local church is in line with how Paul instructs Timothy. That’s not to say it is a direct argument for a membership roster, so to speak, but it strongly supports enrollment of certain saints as a matter of prudence. Making membership to a local church explicit using a membership roster (using roster not as mere list but as a theological assertion regarding the care of those gathering regularly) may also fit within this category of prudence.

[5]The very nature of the Christian life assumes an identifiable congregational context in nearly all the letters. For example, the life described and the commands issued in Rom 12:4-16 assume a local body that regularly interacts with each other in these specific ways (see also 1 Cor 12:25; Eph 5:19-21; 1 Thess 3:12; Heb 10:24-25). Even those letters that do not use the word “church” assume an identifiable group or groups of saints living in regular submission to one another (e.g., “one another” in 1 Pet 4:8-10; “they…us” in 1 John 2:19; “anyone…you” in 2 John 10).

[6]See again note 2 above.

[7]For a more thorough study connecting baptism with local church membership on both systematic and biblical-theological grounds, see Bobby Jamieson, Going Public: Why Baptism Is Required for Church Membership (Nashville: B&H, 2015).

[8]See also 1 Peter 3:21, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” To clarify, Peter’s focus is on the internal appeal and the power of Jesus’ resurrection, but that doesn’t keep him from asserting the baptism saves. As Jamieson puts it, “baptism is part of becoming a Christian” (Jamieson, Going Public, 39-40). See also Robert H. Stein, “Baptism in Luke-Acts,” in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright (Nashville: B&H, 2007), 51-52, who argues that “‘repentance’ is an example of synecdoche in which ‘repentance’ refers to ‘repentance-faith-baptism.’ Similarly, ‘faith’ refers to ‘faith-repentance-baptism’ and ‘baptism’ refers to ‘baptism-repentance-faith,’ i.e., a baptism preceded by repentance and faith.” Cf. also Rom 6:3-4; Gal 3:25-27; Col 2:11-12.

[9]Again, see Stein, “Baptism in Luke-Acts,” 35-66.

[10]One exception in the New Testament comes with the Ethiopian Eunuch, though not as an example where a Christian refuses membership. It’s simply an example where someone was baptized without a local church to join. After he is converted, Philip baptizes him, but we are then left without the rest of the story (Acts 8:26-40). However, if the Ethiopian Eunuch, and others like him, are true believers, then, based on the rest of the New Testament’s teaching, it is safe to assume that their pattern of life would be in accord with the New Testament pattern for baptism and membership. So, for example, we find that Lydia and her household believed the gospel and they were all baptized in Acts 16:14-15; but not long afterwards, Paul finds her with the brothers in 16:40. Can someone be a baptized Christian and not a member of a local church? Yes. Will he/she remain isolated from a local church where a local church exists? No. Obedience to all that Jesus commanded will compel them to gather with other local believers whenever possible.

[11]See esp. Matt 28:19; 1 Pet 3:21. Based on his exposition of these passages, Jamieson asserts in summary, “Baptism is a sign of the new covenant and embodies the newness of the new covenant (Isa 54:13; Jer 31:33). Baptism pictures God’s promises fulfilled. More specifically, baptism is the initiating oath-sign of the new covenant. It is an enacted vow whereby a person formally submits to the triune Lord of the new covenant and pledges to fulfill the requirements of the new covenant (Matt 28:19; 1 Pet 3:21). The new covenant creates a visible people, and one becomes a visible member of that people through baptism. One may not be counted among the people of the new covenant until one has undergone its initiating oath-sign” (Jamieson, Going Public, 80). Cf. Stephen J. Wellum, “Baptism and the Relationship between the Covenants,” in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright (Nashville: B&H, 2006), 97-162.

[12]Additionally, all Christians are commanded to be baptized (Matt 28:18-19). Paul’s letters also assume that the members of the local churches to which he is writing have all been baptized and know the theological connections he intends (e.g., Rom 6:1-4; 1 Cor 1:15-17; Gal 3:26-27; Col 2:11-12; 1 Pet 3:21). Further, baptism, as a visible oath-sign, is linked very closely with entrance into the Messiah’s visible new covenant community (Matt 28:19). In fact, as mentioned above, the 3,000 mentioned in Acts 2:41 are “added to” the local church in Jerusalem upon baptism. The visible sign of baptism marked off the visible church. Where a local church already exists, believers are added to that number upon baptism (cf. also 1 Cor 12:13, where incorporation to the body is present in “baptism” even if primary reference is to Spirit-baptism). Again, the situation with the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 seems to mitigate the connection between baptism and membership to a local church. Nevertheless, it seems that this situation falls into an exceptional category in the gospel’s advance. Philip was in a frontier missionary context, in which there were no other believers to involve. Moreover, while the case with the Ethiopian Eunuch certainly renders immediate baptism permissible, it doesn’t necessarily make it normative for all contexts. Where a local church is already established, baptism and membership to that local church go hand-in-hand.

[13]Paul’s recommendation of Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2 may have been an example of this very practice, and may serve as a useful precedent. Paul seems to be aware of those believers who belong, presumably as members, to particular churches. Phoebe is going to visit the saints in Rome, but she herself is a “servant of the church at Cenchrea” (Rom 16:1-2). There is an identifiable group of believers meeting in the house church of Prisca and Aquila (Rom 16:3-5a; cf. 1 Cor 16:19). Paul’s greetings to everyone else named indicate that everyone knows which people and families belong to the local church in Rome (Rom 16:5b-16). Cf. also the places where the apostles commend faithful saints as they traveled from one church to another, regardless of their short-or long-term services: Acts 15:22; 1 Cor 4:17; 16:10-11; 2 Cor 8:18; Eph 6:21-22; 2 Tim 4:20; Tit 3:12-13; 2 John 10-11; 3 John 8, 9-10, 12.

[14]We may even see the roots of such divisions in 1 Corinthians 1-3, but apparently they had not progressed to the formal, ecclesiastical divisions we suffer in the modern era.

[15]2 Tim 4:11.

[16]See a similar and more extensive argument in Leeman, Surprising Offense, 247-70.

[17]I.e., how would the universal church baptize someone, or give him the Lord’s Supper, or enforce discipline when one’s life is out of step with the meaning of both ordinances?

[18]Jamieson builds a similar case in three parts. (1) “‘Membership’ makes explicit what is implicit in the two ordinances…‘membership’ names the relation the ordinances imply and normally create. To call someone a ‘member’ is to say that they have been baptized, they partake of the Lord’s Supper, and they are welcomed into, and responsible for, the ecclesial life these effective signs entail…” (2) “The concept of ‘membership’ distinguishes the ordinances from the relation they normally imply when, in legitimate though exceptional circumstances, the two are separated.” Here Jamieson brings in the exception of the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8, and continues, “The relationship between the ordinances and membership is not automatic; it is just theoretically possible but occasionally legitimate to have one without the other. ‘Membership,’ therefore, is a valid and necessary theological concept because it describes the durable relation between a church and a Christian which is normally, though not invariably, sealed in the effective signs of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.” (3) As an inference Jamieson then says, “Church membership…fulfills the crucial role of protecting the ordinances as practices of the church…without membership the ordinances are in danger of becoming the spiritual accessories of autonomous consumers rather than the church’s authoritative seals of a credible profession.” All taken from Jamieson, Going Public, 145-47.