The Case for Church Membership

Rev. Peter Kemeny

Many Christians faithfully attend a church for years but never take vows of church membership. They view church membership as an option rather than as a Scriptural mandate. Does the Bible command Christians to join a church? Consider the scriptural case for church membership.

Church membership is biblical

The Bible does not explicitly command Christians to join a church - it assumes it. The New Testament presupposes membership, for example, in the command, "obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account" (Hebrews 13:17). If you never join a church it is impossible for you to obey this command. Similarly, I Peter 5:2 directs elders to "shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight." How can elders identify the particular flock that God holds them responsible to shepherd unless Christians formally align themselves with particular congregations?

Suppose John Smith attends First Presbyterian Church for three years but never joins. Then he starts attending Elm Street Baptist Church but, again, does not join. After attending Elm Street Baptist for six weeks, is John now the under the pastoral care of the elders at Elm Street Baptist or the elders at First Presbyterian? How can the elders of a church know whom they are charged to shepherd apart from congregants taking vows of membership? How can elders know when they are released from their responsibility to shepherd an individual unless that individual informs them that he or she has made a formal commitment to another church? This may not seem like a big deal to some people, but it is a serious issue for conscientious elders.

I Corinthians also assumes that membership is the church's normal practice. There in verse two of chapter 5 the apostle Paul commands the church in Corinth to remove from their fellowship a man who was unrepentant of his immorality. The discipline of this man assumes that there is a public knowledge of who is in the church and who is not in the church. How do you put someone out of the church who never publically said he was in it? In I Corinthians 5:12 Paul asks, "What have I do to with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?" This manner of speaking tells us that there must be identifiable categories of those who are inside the church and those who are outside the church.

Throughout the Bible, God draws a clear line between those inside and those outside the community of believers. The Psalmist says that "the Lord records as he registers the peoples, 'This one was born there'" (Psalm 87:6). In other words, God has a clearly defined list of those who are numbered among his people. Likewise, Paul wrote a letter "to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons" (Philippians 1:1). This implies that the church in Philippi was a clearly defined body of believers with a formal governing structure: elders, or overseers, and deacons.

Church membership is also important because unbelievers need to know who are and who are not church members. I want everyone to attend our church: Christians, non-Christians, adulterers, thieves, even people who like cats. And if someone is not a Christian, we are not going to press him to live like a Christian; we are going to love him without condition and present to him the claims of Christ. But once a person becomes a Christian he should join a church. Now if we have all kinds of people attending our church, including some who may be involved in scandalous sin, how do we protect the testimony of our church when outsiders say, "Slick Louie, that crooked businessman, goes to Good News Presbyterian Church." If we have church membership, our response is, "Louie attends our church, but he's not a member. We're just glad he's coming and inquiring about Christ." If someone who is a member gets involved in scandalous sin and is unrepentant, our response would be, "We are presently confronting him about his sin. If he does not repent, the day will likely come when he will be put out of the church."

Some Christians justify their reluctance to join a local church by saying, "I am a member of the universal church." While the Bible does speak of the universal church (e.g. Ephesians 5:25 tells us that "Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her)" it also refers to local congregations such as "the church in Jerusalem" and "the church of God that is in Corinth" (Acts 8:1; I Corinthians 1:2). To claim membership in the universal church without joining a local congregation is to overly spiritualize something that Scripture makes concrete.

Church membership is good for you

We all need a group of Christians who will help hold us accountable. Taking vows of church membership invites fellow believers to hold you accountable to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Some may reply, "Well, that's all the more reason not to join a church. I don't want the church breathing down my neck if I fall into some sin." But the mutual accountability and discipline that flow from a covenant of church membership are intended for our ultimate good.

Earl Blackburn, a Baptist pastor in California, tells a story of a particular Sunday when his church excommunicated a man for beating his wife and not showing repentance. The church leadership announced the man's excommunication during the morning worship service. On that particular Sunday there happened to be a family visiting the church for the first time. After the service, the man of that family walked up to Pastor Blackburn in tears. He said, "I want to become a member of this church. I need to become a member."

When Blackburn asked him "why?" the man explained, "I've never seen anything like this, and I believe it is so biblical. Let me tell you about myself. I'm on a worship team in a big megachurch in this area. I've committed adultery on my wife two times. By the mercy of God, both times she's taken me back. The senior pastor and the pastoral staff all knew about me having an affair with the woman in this church, but they didn't stop me from being on the worship team. I had two different affairs with two different women. Everyone on the pastoral staff and everyone on the worship team knew about me having these affairs. I continued to play every Saturday evening and every Sunday morning on the worship team and no one said a word. I had no fear of God. And after they did nothing the first time it was easier for me to do it the second time. The church knew about it and the church condoned it. They didn't like it, but they didn't do anything about it. And no one came to me. It was a brother with whom I worked, who was not a member of this church, who kept confronting me with Scripture. This is what led to my repentance" (9 Marks Audio Interview).

We need to join a church because we need accountability. True accountability can exist only when we are under authority, in a committed relationship with others in a congregation. If there is no authority, there can be no true accountability.

Church membership is good for the church

Someone said that the difference between involvement and commitment is like the contribution that a chicken and a pig make to a ham and egg breakfast. The chicken is involved but the pig is committed. People who are merely involved do not build strong churches. People who make a blood earnest commitment to its people and mission build strong churches. Local congregations need people who will say to others in the congregation, "I'm committed to you. You are my family. I'm going to pray for you, encourage you, exhort you, love you, bear with you, and serve you. We may disappoint and even hurt one another from time to time, but I am committed to laboring in this section of Christ's vineyard."

Christian, are you a member of a church? You may have reasonable reservations that keep you from joining. I encourage you to examine your reservations in light of the Scripture.

Rev. Peter Kemeny is pastor of Good News Presbyterian Church, a congregation of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP). The church can be reached at P.O. Box 1051, Frederick, MD 21702, 301-473-7070. Pastor Kemeny holds a B.A. from Wake Forest University, 1983; and a M. Div. from Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, 1990. He is originally from NJ; married to Becky and they have 4 daughters.

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