When is the last time you heard a sermon on church membership?
When is the last time someone asked you about joining a church?
When is the last time you read an article on church membership?
Have you ever considered what church membership is, let alone whether or not it is biblical?
Perhaps church membership, in your eyes, is more a societal mark of good morals and upstanding character. Maybe you think church membership provides you with a good mark in the courts of heaven.
Whatever your views of church membership are, or others, it is important as we consider the health of the church, to have a biblical understanding of church membership. The health of the church is tied directly to the health of the members.
Consider the human body. It is a remarkable work of God’s creative goodness. Our bodies are designed to fight infections and heal injuries. Have you ever gotten a papercut, only a few days later to realize it is gone? Your body healed itself.
However, what about a splinter that is never removed? While the small piece of wood will likely either (a) work itself out or (b) simply “disintegrate,” what happens if it causes an infection? Without treating it, it can lead to death. One small incision from a splinter that brings about an infection can kill a human being. The splinter can be in a foot or a finger, both small extremities, but both locations can lead to death.
This is a perfect illustration of the importance of the health of a church in relation to membership. A sick member (or, unsaved, as the potential case may be) can bring about an infection in the body (i.e., the church), and could ultimately bring about serious health issues in the overall health of the church.
So, what is church membership? And, why does it matter?
What is church membership?
First we need to answer the question, “What is church membership?” To this we provide, first, an answer to, “What is a church?” Mark Dever helps us with a thorough answer, “Accoridng to the New Testament, the church is primarily a body of people who profess and give evidence that they have been saved by God’s grace alone, for His glory alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.” That gives us a succinct and thorough way to view the church.
But what does church membership mean? Jonathan Leeman has written a small book on this topic. In this book, Leeman gives what he calls a “clunky definition,”
“church membership is a formal relationship between a church and a Christian characterized by the church’s affirmation and oversight of a Christian’s discipleship and the Christian’s submission to living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church.”
There is much that we can say at this point, but I want to simply his definition with a few bullet points:
· Church membership is a serious matter
· Church membership is a mutual commitment
· Church membership gives assurance
· Church membership is an avenue of growth
· Church membership requires leaders and followers
· Church membership is a commitment to serve
Church membership is a serious matter because it a commitment to relationship. The individuals gather together and make a covenant to be there for one another, encourage one another, and rebuke and correct one another (when necessary).
Church membership is a mutual commitment. That is, both the individual and the church to which he or she seeks to become a member must agree to join together. That is, a church should not let anyone join without some discussions. In other words, if an individual who is not a Christian, nor claims to be a Christian, desires to join the church, should the church allow this? The answer is no. Primarily because the church is a place of gathered believers, between the church (individuals) and the individual.
Church membership gives assurance. We see this in passages like 1 John 4:20, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (NAB) In other words, in a body of believers, one can see if one is a believer based on one’s love (or, lack thereof) of his or her brothers and sisters in Christ. Mark Dever remarks, “Church membership does not save, but it is a reflection of salvation.”
Church membership is also an avenue for growth. One need only look to the New Testament epistles to see how our individual lives are tied directly into the lives of our brothers and sisters in the church. People can help us when we struggle. People can encourage us when we are struggling. We could go on, but this helps us see how the church is a greenhouse for the believer.
Church membership requires leaders and followers. Perhaps my language is a bit confusing. Church membership does not require leaders and followers per se, but it does involve leaders and followers. Passages like Hebrews 13:17 and 1 Timothy 3:1-13 demonstrate the leadership structures and the requisite need for members to follow said leadership. We will deal with this facet more in the future, but church membership is a commitment to follow those leaders of the church.
Finally, church membership is a commitment to serve. When you join a church, you are making a commitment to those members that you will serve them in love, as they will do the same for you.
Why does church membership matter?
Let me answer this question with an illustration. There is a small church located in a rural town. The majority of the members of this church are related in someway. The church has been there since the early 1700s, and the people who have lived there have be born there, grown up there, and have died and been buried there.
Now imagine that not everyone who is a member of this church is a Christian. How does this affect the health of the church? Well, for one, you have someone involved in the work of the church who is not filled with the Spirit and redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. That is, they are “You were dead in your transgressions and sins in which you once lived following the age of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the disobedient.” (Eph. 2:1-2, NAB) Can you see how this will affect the church?
Now imagine a church where membership is not something someone simply chooses to be a part of at their whim. Imagine a church that is filled with people who are committed to Christ and to one another. Imagine a church where people are in love with God so much that it bursts out into the community.
That, briefly, is why it matters. Unfortunately, church membership is treated more like a country club membership than it is a committed group of believers under the sovereign rule of God. This, in turn, has led to a host of “infections,” leaving the church sick.
For the sake of the health of our church, let us recommit to biblical church membership!
 Cathy Johnson, “Burning Question: What happens if you don’t remove a splinter?” ABC Health and Wellbeing, 27 June 2017, https://www.abc.net.au/news/health/2017-06-28/what-happens-if-you-dont-remove-a-splinter/8656250#:~:text=Leave%20a%20thorn%20or%20splinter,alone%20isn't%20without%20risks., accessed 2 February 2021.  Mark Dever, 9 Marks of a Healthy Church New Expanded Edition (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 149.  Jonathan Leeman, Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).  Leeman, Church Membership, 64, emphasis original.  For the biblical support, which is a nuanced discussion, I recommend Leeman’s chapter, “Membership Sightings in the New Testament,” Church Membership, 35-48.  This focuses on the individual’s salvation and growth in Christlikeness only.  Dever, 9 Marks, 152.