Is Church Membership Biblical?

Tony is a loving father and a caring husband. He became a Christian at a young age.  He is a faithful employee and has always been faithful to his local church…until he started to notice a lot of problems within the congregation.  He grew tired of seeing the conflicts with other Christians. It appeared to him also that the church wasted a lot of resources. He knew a big building with a beautiful sanctuary took a lot of money to maintain, and he believed the church should be spending more of their resources on missions.  He became discontented with what he saw, so he pulled his family out of the church. He now prefers to do his own thing with his family at home on Sunday.
Susan was a devoted minister in a para-church organization. She regularly shared the gospel with lost teenage girls at nearby community center where she volunteered. She was not raised in the church, but came to know the Lord with a friend who lived on her hall during her freshman year in college. She loves reading the Bible with her friends, but has never seen the value of the local church.
George does not have a problem with the church, but does not get anything out of the sermon.  He believes that one can worship God anywhere and he finds his greatest enjoyment in playing golf with his friends on Sunday morning. They pray before the round begins and talk about family and God between shots.  They even occasionally invite one of their non-Christian neighbors to join their foursome in the hopes of talking to them about Jesus. 
The church has fallen on hard times.  I have a lot of conversations with people who are Christians, who believe the Bible, but do not see the value of the local church. They view church membership more as a distraction and inconvenience, rather than a biblical command. And knowing their experience in the church and knowing how many unhealthy churches exist, I can understand their perspective. They say things like, “I do not need the church or You can be a Christian without the church.”  They are correct. You can be a Christian without the church, but can you be a faithful Christian? Or another way to ask the question would be, “Is church membership biblical?”  (Granted, there are faithful Christians living in other parts of the world where there is no church within 100 miles because they may be one of the only believers in the area. This is the rare exception and not the rule, and certainly not the case here in South Carolina).
“Thou shall become a church member.” This verse is not in the Bible.  There is no explicit reference that an individual should be listed on a Church membership roll.  Although there are not explicit references to church membership that does not mean the idea of church membership is not in the Bible.  It is not only implied in the Bible, but the New Testament concept of “church” does not make sense outside of church membership. We are going to look at the biblical foundations of church membership. 

The Keys of Church Membership

            The first reference to church in the New Testament is in Matthew 16.  Jesus just warns his disciples about the leaven of the Pharisees. He then asked his disciples,
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. (Matthew 16:13b-20, ESV)

In verse 18, we see the first reference in the New Testament of the church: the word is ekklesia, which means gathering.  It is taken from the Hebrew word, qahal, which means assembly.  We cannot read too much into this statement, because church has not yet been established when Jesus said it. (The church was established, however, when Luke wrote this gospel.)  We can at least establish that the basic meaning of the word indicates that Jesus intends for his people to gather together in worship as they did in the Old Testament.  One essential aspect of the church is the gathering of the people of God in worship.
Also, in verse 18, Jesus says that on this rock he is going to build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.  The question is what does Jesus mean by “on this rock I will build my church”?  Is he referring to Peter, Peter representing the apostles, Peter’s confession of Christ or Jesus Christ, Himself?
            In the Greek there is a word play here with Peter, Petros, and rock, petra. Many scholars want to dismiss the connection between Peter being the rock because they do not agree with the apostolic succession of the Catholic Church.  The idea of the pope in Roman Catholicism is birthed from this passage.  Although I do not think one can make the biblical argument for apostolic succession from this passage, I do believe the most natural reading is that Jesus is referring to Peter. We know that Peter was there at the founding of the church in Acts 2.  He preached the gospel of repentance by faith in Jesus Christ as the only way to salvation and 3,000 souls were saved.  The foundation of the church (at least in some way) was built upon the Apostle Peter, but it was also built upon his profession of faith. 
            Peter responded correctly in properly identifying Jesus Christ.  When asked who Jesus was, Peter responded, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This confession is the foundation of the church because Jesus the Christ is the head of the church.  He is the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ of God.  The only way anyone enters into fellowship with the church of Jesus Christ is confessing that Jesus is the Christ, the Savior of the world; to have fellowship with the church is to have fellowship with Jesus Christ.  Listen to 1 Corinthians 1:9, when Paul says to the church of God at Corinth (a specific local visibly identifiable congregation), “God is faithful, by whom you were called into fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Peter could also be referred to as the representative of the apostles. He was one of the prominent leaders of the church throughout the gospels and played the leading role in the first 12 chapters of Acts.  The teaching of the apostles and the prophets are referred to as the foundation with Christ being the cornerstone in Ephesians 2:19-21,
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 
And again in Revelation 21:14, we see John describe the New Jerusalem,
And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. 
The rock in which the church will be built is on the teaching and the confession of Jesus Christ as Lord done through the Peter and the apostles. 
            And we see the tremendous power given to the apostles through their preaching and teaching ministry in Matthew 16:19,
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 
This binding and loosing refers to a person’s acceptance into the kingdom of God and into the church in accepting or rejecting the teaching of the apostles on the person and work of Jesus Christ.  He has given the church the tremendous responsibility of being stewards of the mysteries of God. The keys of the kingdom of God are given to the church in the proclamation of Jesus as the Christ, the Holy One of God.  (The idea of “loosing and binding” we see here, I will discuss further in few weeks when we address church discipline.)
It takes keys to enter a locked door.  The door to heaven is locked from humanity because of our sin against God. Our sin has separated from God and shut us out of the kingdom of heaven.  Our sin keeps us outside of God’s fold and if we stay there, we will perish.  But God sent his son to give us a door into his kingdom.  John 10,
So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. 11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (John 10:7-11, ESV, emphasis added)
The only way to enter into God’s kingdom is through the door of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The church has been given the keys of kingdom in that we tell people the good news of the Good Shepherd who laid his life down for the sheep.  Jesus Christ lived a perfect life and died a sinner’s death.  His death paid the penalty for sin absorbing God’s wrath on the cross.  And after he was dead and buried, God raised Jesus from the dead conquering death for all those who would trust in him.  If you are here today and have not entered through into the kingdom through the door of Jesus Christ, you can today.  Turn from your sin and trust in Him.  He came to give you a way into the kingdom.
            From these verses, we can establish that Jesus wants his people to gather together (ecclesia) and to hear the teaching of Jesus Christ so that people can confess that Jesus is the Christ and be saved.  We also see here that the church is Jesus’s idea.  It was not invented by the apostles, but was established by the Lord himself.   
            But isn’t Jesus referring to the universal church? Jesus is not saying that I should be a member of the local church.  Let’s answer that through how the rest of the New Testament teaches this principle.

The Images of Church Membership

            The New Testament uses a variety of images to identify and explain the church.  One pastor explains it this way:
God has inspired multiple images, each of which offers different perspective and none of which should so dominate our conception of the church that the depth and texture of understanding is lost. Though all are inspired, they are not interchangeable, nor are they all as comprehensive in their presentation of the nature and mission of the church…None of these images negates the institutional aspects of the church, but their number and variety point to a degree of mystery in the nature of the church. [1]
None of the images of the church negate the institutional aspects of church.  We are never called to God
alone, but also to his people. 

The Body of Christ

 The church is called the body of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, Paul writes about communion in the church, “The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ. Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”  And again 1 Corinthians 12:12, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” Then after describing how this idea of membership creates unity, Paul writes 1 Corinthians 12:18, “But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them as he chose.  If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.” Romans 12:4-5, “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”  The body image is extensive in the New Testament. 
            And all those references are specifically written to a specific visible local body of believers.  Most of the books we have in the New Testament are written to churches. Romans 1:7, “To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints” 1 Cor.1:2 & 2 Cor. 1b, “To the church of God that is in Corinth.” Galatians 1:2b, “To the churches of Galatia,” (multiple churches in one region).  Ephesians 1:1b, “to the saints who are in Ephesus.” Paul writes also to the church in Philippi, Colossae, and Thessalonica. And in addition 3 more letters to pastors of a specific, visible local body of believers.  The body imagery is so readily used in the New Testament because it pictures the reality of one specific, visible, local body of believers who have many members, but are one body; the body of Christ.
The same image of “many individual parts with one collective whole” can also be seen the other images in the New Testament. The church is a building with many stones built into a house (Ephesians 2:21 and 1 Peter 2).  The church is one temple with many bricks built into that temple (1 Corinthians 3:16). The church also is referenced multiple times as the people of God, as similarly identified in the Old Testament.  There are many other images the New Testament employs, but they all do not negate the corporate function of individuals.  The people, who disregard the local church, disregard the entire thrust of the New Testament’s teaching on the church. As one pastor said, “Christianity is personal, but never private.”[2] 
            There are also several places where it would appear that there are actually lists of people that would resemble a church roll.  Paul encouraged Timothy (in 1 Timothy 5) to keep a record of the widows that the church was responsible to minister to with financial resources.  In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul encourages the church to put out a sinning member from the church.  How can one be put out of the church unless there is a clear understanding of who was in the church? Again, in 2 Corinthians 2, Paul refers to the “majority” of people who acted in discipline against a member within the church.  There cannot be a record of the majority of the church unless the church had a record of the entire church.  And even God himself apparently has a list.  Revelation 21:27, “But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life” (emphasis added).
            Church membership is biblical.  It may not be explicit, but it is very implicit throughout the New Testament.  You cannot explain certain verses and/or the encouragements and warnings of the New Testament without Christians beings a member of a specific, visible, local church. We must always remember that the church was not the apostles or the early Christians idea, but it was rooted and established in the mind of God.  Jesus said, “On this rock, I will build my church.”  The church is precious to God because as Acts 20:28 says it was, “obtained with his own blood.” Church membership is biblical, but it also a blessing. 

The Blessings of Church Membership

            When you commit yourself to a specific, visible, local church you have church leaders who are committed to protect and care for your soul. God charges elder/pastors to protect the flock in Acts 20. They are called to labor in teaching sound doctrine and guard the flock from wolves that teach heresy.  Elders are called to be examples to the flock, pointing the members of the church to Christ (1 Peter 5).  Committing to a local church allows the church leadership to know who they are responsible to care for and to whom individuals are called to submit.  Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.”  Two things you should see in that verse, first, church leaders need to know who they will be held accountable for.  As pastors, Bill and I have a unique responsibility to care for the people of this church; as a father will answer for his children, so pastors will answer for their flock. Secondly, it allows Christians to know who they are responsible to obey.  The Bible commands you to obey your leaders.  It is easy to disobey this command simply by not committing.  Our world does not like talk of authority, submission and obedience, but Christians cannot live like the rest of the world.  Christians trust God.  I could give a whole list of caveats here: pastors aren’t perfect; the church has problems; the pastors are too young etc. But without church membership, how do you fulfill this command to obey your leaders and how do you know which leaders to submit?  Church membership is a blessing to Christians as well as Christian leaders.
            The world needs to understand what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be a non-Christian. The lines have been too muddled in the past.  Help clarify to the world what it means to follow Jesus Christ. Commit to a local church.  Church membership makes it more difficult for weaker sheep to go straying from the fold, while still considering themselves sheep.[3] Older Christians can help younger Christians clarify what it means to be a Christian disciple and protect them from walking astray. Church Membership helps guard people’s souls.
            Church membership is not only a biblical command, but it is also a blessing. The church is a family. We are family that God which have been charged to relate with one another in a very particular way.  We are called to love one another. And as a church member we have the great blessing of extending our love to one another and to receive love from one another.  We do not have time now to list all the blessings of church membership, but take a half hour this afternoon with your family and make a list of all the blessings you have and can experience by being committing yourself to a local church? Then pray that those blessings would continue to be the regular experience of the people in the church. Pray that this church would truly be a people, that loves one another.
The arguments that Christians usually give about being part of a church family are rooted in their own past negative experiences in churches.  And likewise, most people love the church because of their positive experiences in being part of a church family.  How we relate to one another will either foster a love for God’s church or cripple it? 
            The church has to raise its standards of church membership. We have to have high expectations for the Lord’s church.  We are fine with people remaining as members of the church when they have not darkened the door in years.  We are fine with people remaining members of the church if they are living in open and outright rebellion against God.  Doesn’t God deserve better than that? Romans 2:24 says, “For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” We should fight for the reputation of our God.  We must commit to the church of the living God which was purchased through the blood of Christ.   Beloved, we have to raise the bar for church membership. Church membership is biblical and God-honoring. I challenge you to obey God’s word by making a commitment and helping others to commit to a specific, visible, local body of believers.  The church is God’s idea.  It is precious to Him, will it be precious to you?

[1] Dever, Mark. The Doctrine of the Church in The Theology of the Church.  P.772-773. Ed. Akin, Daniel. 2007 Academic Nashville, TN
[2] Dever, Mark. Lecture at RTS 2.11.2014
[3] Dever, Mark. Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Booklet) 2005.IX Marks Washington, D.C.  p. 38