How Important Is Church Membership?

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. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. 14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. 27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But earnestly desire the higher gifts.

The next three sermons, Lord willing, will address the issue raised by the elders three years ago concerning the nature of church membership at Bethlehem and its relationship to baptism. Many of you are new since then and know nothing of this issue, and the rest of you may have hazy memories of what it was about. So today I want to explain the issue and tell you what the elders have assigned me to do and talk about the biblical foundations of church membership.

Not the Issue: Believer Baptism

We started with the strong and shared conviction that baptism in the New Testament is only for professing believers, not for infants. Here is Section 12 of the Bethlehem Baptist Church Elder Affirmation of Faith (PDF):

We believe that baptism is an ordinance of the Lord by which those who have repented and come to faith express their union with Christ in His death and resurrection, by being immersed in water in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is a sign of belonging to the new people of God, the true Israel, and an emblem of burial and cleansing, signifying death to the old life of unbelief, and purification from the pollution of sin.

That is what we believe the Bible teaches. That is the main reason we are called Baptists. We only baptize professing believers. That was not the issue. We are totally unified on that. We believe that’s what the Bible teaches.

The Issue: Church Membership

The issue was: How should our church relate to those who are born again, and deeply committed to the Bible and to Christ, but are not yet persuaded that their infant baptism is unbiblical and invalid? Should such believers be admitted in some cases to membership at Bethlehem? Or to put the question in the larger general way: Should the front door of the local church be roughly the same size as the door to the universal body of Christ? In other words, should we say to any person: We know you have truly entered into membership in the universal body of Christ, but you may not enter into membership in this local expression of the body of Christ?

How Important Is Membership?

Or another way to put the issue is: How does the seriousness of exclusion from local church membership compare with the seriousness of not being baptized even though, after studying the Scriptures and trying to be obedient, the unbaptized person believes that he is baptized? In the real world where genuine, Bible-believing, gospel-loving, Christ-exalting, missions-minded Christians do not agree on the meaning of baptism in the New Testament, how should we relate to each other?

On the one hand, if we say, “You may be a member of this church even though you are not biblically baptized,” that seems to undermine the importance that the New Testament puts on baptism. All Christians we know about in the early church were baptized (except the thief on the cross). That is how you expressed your faith publicly and became part of the visible church.

On the other hand, if we say, “Even though you are born again and a member of Christ, you may not be a member of this church,” that seems to undermine the person’s faith and the meaning of the local church. It seems to undermine faith because from one angle, exclusion from membership is like front-end excommunication before membership has happened. When you excommunicate a member from the church, according to Matthew 18:17, you “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” In other words, you love him and try to win him as an unbeliever. That sounds really serious. Are we saying to those we exclude from membership that they are in the category of an unbeliever?

And saying no to a genuine believer who is part of the universal body of Christ seems to undermine the meaning of the local church as an expression of that universal church.

Clarifying the Issues and Calling for Prayer

So, the elders spent several years on this issue before bringing it to the church. In September of 2005 we brought the recommendation to allow some exceptions to our membership requirement of baptism. This recommendation was withdrawn in December before a vote was taken because there was uncertainty on the part of enough elders that we should ask for a vote on this so quickly, when understanding and agreement were too limited.

So my job in these messages is not to call for any vote or lay down any timetable or introduce any motion. My job is to try to clarify the issues and stir you up to pray and think so that in the future you and we might together discern the leading of God.

The Seriousness of Exclusion

One of the key convictions behind the elder proposal (that was made and then withdrawn) is that excluding from membership a truly born-again person who gives credible evidence of his saving faith is a more serious mistake than receiving into membership a true believer who is not biblically baptized though, according to his own conscience, he believes he is. But that conviction assumes church membership is really important, so that excluding a person from it is very serious.

So one of the arguments against the elder proposal was that membership in a local church like Bethlehem does not matter very much—certainly not as much as baptism—because a non-member can worship and take the Lord’s Supper and go to Sunday School and be a part of a small group and be visited by a pastor in the hospital; or he can simply go to another church that shares his view of baptism.

So if membership is not that important, then excluding someone from membership will not seem a serious problem. That would mean that the elders are trying to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist. This is one of the most crucial issues we need to think through as a church:  How serious is it to say to a regenerate person: “You are not permitted to be a member of this church”?

We think it’s very serious, and so the rest of this message will be to consider with you some of the biblical support for church membership. A lot of people don’t even think the concept of membership is even biblical or expected by God.

Five Strands of Evidence

I will point to five strands in the New Testament of evidence for church membership. Each of these reveals something in the New Testament which would be minimized or denied if there were no definable local church membership.

1) The Church Is to Discipline Its Members

Church membership is implied by the way the church is supposed to discipline its members. Consider the implication of Matthew 18:15–17 where “the church” (ekklesia) appears to be the final court of appeal in matters of church authority as it relates to membership.

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

If there is no church membership, how can you define the group that will take up this sensitive and weighty matter of exhorting the unrepentant person and finally rendering a judgment about his standing in the community? It’s hard to believe that just anyone who showed up claiming to be a Christian could be a part of that gathering. Surely, “the church” must be a definable group to handle such a weighty matter. You know who you mean when you “take it to the church.”

2) Excommunication Exists

Church membership is implied by the simple fact that excommunication even exists. Paul implies this in 1 Corinthians 5:12–13 where he deals with the necessity of putting someone out of the church. He says, “What have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you.’”

There are two implications here: One is that there is an “in the church” group and an “outside the church” group. Being in the church is definable. The other implication is that a person can be removed from being “in the church.” Such a formal removal would not be possible if there were no such thing as a clear membership—who is an accountable part of this body, and who is not?

3) Christians Required to Submit to Their Leaders

Church membership is implied in the biblical requirement of Christians to be submitted to a group of church leaders, elders, or pastors. The point here is that without membership, who is it that the New Testament is referring to who must submit to a specific group of leaders? Some kind of expressed willingness or covenant or agreement or commitment (that is, membership) has to precede a person’s submission to a group of leaders.

Consider the way the New Testament talks about the relationship of the church to her leaders.

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)

We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you (proistamenous humon) in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. (1 Thessalonians 5:12–13)

Let the elders who rule well (hoi kalos proestotes presbuteroi) be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. (1 Timothy 5:17)

How is this leadership and this submission going to work if there is no membership defining who has made the commitment to be led and who has been chosen as leaders? If we downplay the importance of membership, it is difficult to see how we could take these commands to submit and to lead seriously and practically.

4) Shepherds Required to Care for Their Flock

Church membership is implied in the way the New Testament requires elders to care for the flock in their charge. Of course elders can extend their love to anyone and everyone, and should, within the limits of their ability. But the question is whether the Bible tells elders that they are to have a special responsibility and care for a certain group—a group of members. Consider Acts 20:28 where Paul tells the elders how to care for their flock.

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.

This verse does not say elders cannot visit unbelievers or those who are not yet members. But it does make clear that their first responsibility is to a particular flock. How are they to know who their flock is? Who are we as elders and pastors responsible for? For whom will we give an account to God?

The way Peter speaks to the elders in 1 Peter 5 is even more clear on this point. Verses 2–3: “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge (tov kleron), but being examples to the flock.”

“Those in your charge” (your portion, your lot) implies that the elders knew whom they were responsible for. This is just another way of talking about membership. If a person does not want to be held accountable by a group of elders or be the special focus of the care of a group of elders, they will resist the idea of membership. And they will resist God’s appointed way for them to live and be sustained in their faith.

5) The Metaphor of the Body

Church membership is implied in the metaphor of the body in 1 Corinthians 12:12–31. The original meaning of the word member is member of a body, like hand and foot and eye and ear. That’s the imagery behind the word member in the text. Verse 12: “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.”

So the question this imagery raises for the local church that Paul is describing in 1 Corinthians 12 is: Who intends to be treated as a hand or foot or eye or ear of this body? There is a unity and organic relationship implied in the imagery of the body. There is something unnatural about a Christian attaching himself to a body of believers and not being a member of the body.

Expectation for All Believers

So for these five reasons and more we believe that membership is a New Testament expectation for all believers. Each of us should be a member of a local body of believers.

  • We should take responsibility to discipline those of the body who do not repent from public sin that brings reproach on the name of Christ.
  • We should declare ourselves part of the body so that if we are wayward, we ourselves would be liable to such exclusion.
  • We should take our position under the leadership and authority of a particular group of elders.
  • We should declare ourselves part of a group who expect to be watched over and cared for by a particular group of elders.
  • And we should find our place in the organic whole as a body part—a member—of a local body of Christ.

That is God’s plan for us and for this church. That’s what we mean by membership. All of those aspects of membership are rooted in the truth that the local church is an expression of the universal church. Part of what it means to belong to the body of Christ is to belong to a body.

A Blood-Bought Gift of God’s Grace

I close by urging you to pray and to think this through for your own life. The New Testament knows of no Christians who are not accountable members of local churches in the sense that we have just seen. “Lone-Ranger Christians” are a contradiction because becoming a Christian means being united to Christ, and union with Christ expresses itself in union with a local body of believers. It seems to us that in the New Testament, to be excluded from the local church was to be excluded from Christ. This is why the issue of membership is so important.

Are you an accountable member of a local church? Not just: Is your name somewhere? But, are you committed to discipline and being disciplined according to biblical standards? Have you publicly declared your willingness to be shepherded and to be led by the leaders of a local church? Do you see yourself and your gifts as part of an organic ministering body? Do you show by your firm attachment to Christ’s body that you are attached to Christ?

Church membership is a blood-bought gift of God’s grace. More than most of us realize, it is a life-sustaining, faith-strengthening, joy-preserving means of God’s mercy to us. I urge you not to cut yourself off from this blessing.