In my years as a pastor, I have encountered people who join a church without any thought at all, people who join and take it very seriously, and people who refuse to join on the basis that the Bible doesn’t command them to join. How are Christians to understand the issue of church membership?
While it is true that there are no verses in the Bible that command believers to “join” a local church, it is still a biblical concept. In fact, I would suggest there is plenty in the Bible that indicates that church membership is assumed for the believer. This Scriptural support has led me to believe that church membership, while not overtly commanded, is clearly assumed, and as such, is a biblical concept to be embraced by believers.
Scriptural Support for Church Membership
Here are the passages of Scripture that I believe point to church membership being a biblical concept.
1- Hebrews 13:17, I Timothy 5:17, & I Peter 5:1-5
This verse in Hebrews instructs believers to submit to and honor the elder body. If there is no church membership, to which elder body are believers to submit? To all of them? Certainly that is not the case. This command only makes sense under the umbrella of church membership.
Likewise, elders are the overseers of the body. This is clearly their biblical responsibility. If there is no church membership, who are elders to oversee? All believers? All believers in a certain city? Again, this instruction only makes sense within an understanding of church membership.
2- Matthew 18:15-20
This is a passage that deals with the process of church discipline. The idea of removing someone from the church because of sin presupposes that there is some defined body to which someone belongs. You can’t remove someone from something to which they do not belong.
3- I Corinthians 5:1-12
In this passage Paul gives instruction for the church at Corinth to remove an immoral man from their church. As Matt Chandler stated, “How can you kick someone ‘out’ if there isn’t an ‘in’? If there is no local commitment to a covenant community of faith, then how do you remove someone from that community of faith? Church discipline doesn’t work if local church membership doesn’t exist.”
4- II Corinthians 2:6
In this verse Paul talks about the decision of the majority. “You can’t have a majority unless you have a definite set of people from which a majority is constituted.” (Michael McKinley)
5- Acts 5:12-13
In this passage people had to decide whether or not they would join the church in Jerusalem. It is clear that this joining was a public action, not a private decision.
6- Acts 6:1-6
In these verses we find an election being held to address a problem within the church. An election (a vote) only makes sense if there is membership.
There are other passages we could mention which further support the idea that church membership is a biblical concept. To quote Matt Chandler, “Local church membership is a question of biblical obedience, not personal preference.”