Church Membership: Who Needs It Anyway?
When you hear “church membership,” what comes to mind? Perhaps, “enigma”? After all, there is no commandment that says “thou shall be a member of the local church.” In our age, some call themselves Christians, yet refuse to join the visible, local church. In fact, many of these people believe their “Me and Jesus” approach to Christianity is more “spiritual” than being committed members of a local church.
This approach to Christianity is not supported anywhere in Scripture. It is an unbiblical phenomenon that is wholly rooted and perpetuated in individualistic American culture. The pervasiveness of this message cannot and should not be underestimated. Pursuing Church membership over individualistic Christian living demonstrates a clear understanding of the critical function that the church plays in the life of the believer.
Before we discover what the Bible says about church membership, it is necessary to define what it says about the Church. It consists of those who have been effectually called by God the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit and have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb through faith in Christ Jesus.
The Bible affectionately refers to the Church as the elect (Matt. 24:22; Rom. 11:7), the bride (Rev. 21:9, 22:17), beloved (Ps. 60:5; 2 Cor. 7:1), the people of God (Judges 20:2; 2 Sam. 14:13), and the body of Christ (Rom. 7:4; 1 Cor. 12:27). God’s love for the church is from everlasting to everlasting and nothing can separate the church from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:39). Jesus Christ came to earth in order to save his bride, the Church.
Church Membership in the Old Testament
It is important to note that church membership begun in the Old Testament. Exodus 19 is considered the first church gathering in Scripture, because God commanded Moses to consecrate and assemble the people of God before his presence. And in Deuteronomy we read a description of the church gathering at Sinai, “The Lord came from Sinai…he came from the ten thousands of holy ones…yes, he loved his people, all his holy ones were in his hand” (Deut. 33:2-3). This passage captures an eschatological glimpse of future glory where heaven meets earth at Mount Sinai.
Exodus 19 presents an eternal reality of the dynamic of the visible and invisible church. Edmund Clowney defines it this way: “the church invisible is as God sees it, and the church visible is as we see it.” Church members only interact with the visible local church, and have no access to the invisible church because God alone knows his elect ones.
A profession of faith does not necessarily indicate a possession of faith. Those who are members of the invisible church will indeed be members of the visible church if they are not already, but membership in the visible church does not guarantee membership in the invisible church. Therefore, the redeemed and the unredeemed will remain in the visible church until Christ returns.
Church Membership in the New Testament
During his earthly ministry, Jesus preached the message of the kingdom so that by faith, sinners would be saved and become members of his church.
The great commission in Matthew 28:18-20 shows the necessity of church membership. Jesus’ Great Commission presupposes the existence of the church. If this were not so, then baptism and teaching the whole counsel of God—as set forth in the Great Commission—would not be possible. In order to teach the full counsel of God, the people of God had to gather together consistently, so that new converts would learn to become disciples of Jesus. Jesus said, “I will build my church…” (Matt.16:18). And he is still building his church, through the gathering of the elect until the full number has been brought in. And he will not lose one (John 6:39).
A glorious picture of the early church is described in Acts 2:42-47. These members were committed to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, prayers, and the breaking of bread. The members were unified, did not neglect to meet together, and lacked nothing because they shared all that they had. And in verse 47, we see it was the Lord who added the members of the church through his sovereign election. They were not added for the sole purpose of enjoying their union with Christ exclusively, but also in communion with fellow believers in the church. As we see in the early church, God’s people are to glorify and image him in all that they do. God is glorified through his people assembling together in the community of the church.
Though our salvation does take place individually, there is a corporate aspect to our salvation clearly demonstrated in Scripture. The church is a corporate entity comprised of individuals whom God has elected with the intent to be glorified within this community of believers. Just as a mosaic tile piece is only a mere tile apart from the collective body of tile pieces, so it is with those individuals who practice their Christianity apart from the community of the church.
Individualistic Christianity is nowhere to be found in the pages of the Bible. If you say you love Jesus, you will love what he loves—his church. He died for his bride and gave himself up for her. Those who insist on practicing their Christianity individualistically are separated from the church. Hear the words of early church theologian, Cyprian, “Whoever is separated from the Church and is joined to an adulteress, is separated from the promises of the Church; nor can he who forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is a stranger; he is profane; he is an enemy. He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.”
For more about why the church matters, please listen to Truth’s Table’s episode entitled: “Why The Church Matters”
22 thoughts on “Church Membership: Who Needs It Anyway?”
Being a member of the body of Christ and a member of a money dependent church institution are two separate things. I love my fellow Christians and it doesn’t matter what church they go to. I have been making many Church of Latter Day Saints friends. I have even been attending their church but I do not want to become a member of their institution or any church institution for that matter.
People start and build churches and then expect their members to take on a financial obligation to keep the ‘business’ going. Every institutional church’s doctrine has been corrupted by the need of volunteers and money. I just don’t want to be trapped in that any more.
We can all use Christian friends and some encouragement to continue in the faith but where can you find this outside of the prison called (fill in the blank) church?
I’ve been having LDS missionaries coming over (except during this Covid) for almost a year now. I love and value the time with them in my home discussing all sorts of topics. It’s been a good thing. I go to church for them, to spend more time with these friends I make. Church itself is not all that exciting. If it wasn’t for my missionary friends, I wouldn’t go. I’m not going to go to church, just to go to church. If I can’t connect with anyone, it’s a none value-added waste of time. Of course my missionary friends want me to get baptized and join in membership but I have too many issues with their doctrine so actually they refuse to baptize me. I’m perfectly fine with that. I’ve been baptized in the past. I don’t need it again.
So I’m not against gathering with other Christians and the LDS missionaries ended up being my “church at home”. I know this won’t last much longer so I’m enjoying this while it lasts.
The question IS: why be a part of God’s church when or if they are SELLING HIS WORD. making paper with a deceased person on it isn’t money anyways. SHARE freely all that God has Given, not pimp His creation. Discuss this??
Carey A Grady
I enjoyed this article. Acts 2:40-47 is the litmus test of a true Church. In that text you can pull out 6 Commitments that every church should follow.
The 6 Commitments are:
Praise and Worship
This article could have done better to not conflate “membership” with being a part of, a committed, deeply engrossed part of. As you know covenant membership rules and singing agreements to do this or obey that have become part of the Christian landscape. So to admit the word ” membership” is not in the Bible then to suggest all these verses mean “membership” is not good. What is membership today? That is a key part left unsaid here but needed. Yes we all should fellowship with, encourage, and meet with others on a regular basis. But that is not enough “membership” to many churches today. The “lone-ranger Christian” vs the “member” is a tired binary.
Hebrews 10:25 gives biblical confirmation to the article:
Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.
P.S. Ms. Uwan, so glad to see you writing here again. I’ve always been blessed by your perspective!
The pre-eminent picture of redemption in the Bible is Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea. God did not deliver select individuals, He corporately delivered the entire nation (including some individuals whom He subsequently rejected, see I Cor. 10:1-5).
The New Testament explicitly states that the church IS the body of Christ (I Cor 10:16-17, I Cor 12:12-13, I Cor 12:27, Eph 1:23, Eph 4:16, Col 1:18, Col 1:24). This is not an ideal or mere metaphor, but a statement of reality. To say that you love Jesus but not His church, is akin to saying that you love your wife but not her body.
The church is the Bride of Christ. I am not Jesus’ bride, because I do not support same-sex marriage. Individual women are not Jesus’ brides, because Jesus is not a polygamist. I am not the church and you are not the church, WE are the church and WE are the Body of Christ. It is a corporate reality that transcends individuals.
Have no fear, you’re not alone in your thinking.
First and foremost, the Body of Christ, the Church, IS. NO. LONGER. VISIBLE.
From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard Him thus no longer – 2 Corinthians 5:16
So when you approach ANYONE, ANYWHERE in this world you are to see beyond the mask of their disappearing flesh. It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all – John 6:63.
People greatly underestimate what Paul is saying in Galatians 3:28. He is telling us that even when people present themselves to you with self-proclaimed labels, such us “Jew”, “Master of Divinity”, “Doctor”, “Protestant”, “Homosexual”, “Lawyer”, “Homeless”, “Genius”, “Leper”, “Celebrity”, etc., you are to see beyond that label and instead seek to discern their spirit – 1 John 4:1
Many times those who are rejected by “Christians” (yet another self-proclaimed label) have more Love in their hearts and live more according to Truth than many within the prison walls of the institutional church.
Being in Spirit we now discern others Spiritually. We now have the Mind of Christ – 1 Corinthians 2:16
It is not difficult to discern another person’s mind, simply because most people who are still confused about their own True Identity quickly betray themselves with their own distinctive choice of words. Those who believe that they cannot possibly be friends with someone who, in their eyes, leads an “anti-Christian” lifestyle, betray that they have not yet fully witnessed the True Power of Love.
The Body of Christ, the Church, is everywhere where the Spirit of Truth speaks. Whenever two or more meet in My Name (Truth, Love, Hope, Faith).
Finally, the (visible) institutional church is broken on an number of levels.
But I only need to address one critical issue that reveals the true nature of the institutional church.
Jesus asks us to be not of the world, yet the institutional church patterns itself according to every other institution out there. If you read any membership covenant on any given church’s website it reads like a legal document. Moreover, the bigger churches with more money coming into their coffers require of their members to sign the membership covenant – which equates it to a legal contract.
Without taking too much space let’s look at one of the more prominent churches and the contractual obligations from its members. Bethlehem Baptist Church, formerly pastored by none other than John Piper (council member of The Gospel Coalition). If you look at their “Church Covenant” notice the last point, 6, mentions “Relational Commitments” with an asterisk:
But the asterisk is not referenced and you have to do your own investigative work to find out that “Relational Commitments” is simply a veiled term for “Play By Our Rules because you’ve signed the legal contract”. I quote two sentences that reveal that the true nature of an institutional church is a legal corporation that will resort to worldly means in order to protects its own interests:
“We require our members to handle these misunderstandings in a Biblical way. This includes being willing to submit to legally binding arbitration rather than filing a lawsuit and also not attempting to require a “spiritual counselor” to appear in court or to provide his notes.”
I very much appreciate your article Ekemini. Since the move to the new website, a lot of older articles are being shown. I would have missed this otherwise. I clicked on the link for the podcast and it took me to the iTunes Apple website. For future reference, the majority of smartphone users use Android. So, you may want to include the Google Play Music link as well.
I find it disconcerting that anyone would suggest all of the nation of Israel was a part of Christ’s elect church, given that He opened the earth to swallow thousands of them when they defied Him.
But, as you wish, I thank your for your time.
This will be my last response to you, because I believe in the sufficiency of Scripture. No amount of skillful exegesis and hermeneutcial precision on my part is going to cause you to join the local body. Only the work of the Spirit and the living Word of God can draw you back to the visible local church. Yes, it is appropriate to use the nation of Israel as a primary definition of the church, because God chose them out of all of the other nations according to (Deut 7:6-7). Now not everyone who is Israel is true Israel (Rom 9:6-8) and I made reference to this truth in the OT section of my article saying, “the redeemed and the unredeemed will remain in the visible church until Christ returns.” Additionally, my article started by defending the church in the OT and seeing it unfold more clearly in the NT, so I’m not sure why this wasn’t apart of your initial remarks.
“In short, the church (elect) was in Israel, but Israel was not the church (elect) in whole, not even close.”
Amplitudo, I must respectfully disagree with you on based on your statement. We, the Gentiles were grafted into Israel, because of God’s hardening of Israel (Rom.11:13-25). In that same passage Paul warns against our arrogance and refers to us as ” a wild olive tree and contrary to nature,” so I would tread carefully when you call Israel “wicked” and the church a “broken system.” Romans 11 does not support a dispensationalist understanding of Israel and the Church. The church (the elect) is true Israel, we were grafted into one “olive tree;” one tree with many branches–again unity and diversity. “There is one body and one Spirit–just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call–one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all in all.” (Eph. 4:4-6)
I hope that my answer will suffice if it does not I trust that the Spirit will bring clarity to you. Stand firm in the faith and don’t abandon the church. Jesus died for her and He loves her, you should love her too.
Grace to you,
As I don’t want to derail the discussion I will just briefly mention this, but there are a great many Christians, past and present, who believe several things concerning the great commission. Some believe it was only given to the apostles and is now completed. Some believe it is only relevant for those who are gifted and called by the church to preach and teach. Some also believe that the great commission is fulfilled in doing activities as simple as being diligent in your labor, or raising children in a Godly way. There have been many variations and blendings of these positions, but those are the main positions shortly summarized.
As to our topic at hand, could you please define “corporate sense” for me? How am I, if I sit in a church room full of professing believers, in the church in a “corporate sense” in a way that I am not when I’m alone? I truly don’t understand this distinction. What’s more, will any church do? What if I’m in a church full of believers who are false and I don’t know it? I don’t mean to be absurd, I just can’t understand what you are saying.
As for special circumstances, friend, if our theology derived from Holy Writ cannot reconcile every possible situation one may encounter, our understanding may be faulty. We cannot build a worldview based just on normal situations, we must consider the abnormal as well. Personally, I have found the abnormal situations to be the best test of a hermeneutic; if I can’t fit them in, I discard the hermeneutic.
Thank you for the gracious response.
As usual with me, an answer only prompts further questions.
The primary being: is it appropriate to use the nation of Israel to support the definition of the church as a corporate entity? I truly cannot see the nation of Israel in the OT as any sort of picture of the church, nor a model I would want to emulate. God’s everlasting covenant with Abraham was with his spiritual descendents, spiritual Israel, of which you, me, and Bryant are a part. There were those amongst the nation of Israel who were a part of this spiritual Israel and looked to Christ’s coming, but the vast majority of them were never a part of this covenant relationship, even though they enjoyed the benefits of being under the law of Moses for a time.
In short, the church (elect) was in Israel, but Israel was not the church (elect) in whole, not even close.
So with this in mind, is there reason to reevaluate the concept of church as a corporate entity? Or do you have a better approach that does not require me to try and view all of corrupt and wicked Israel as the church?
This matter is both pressing and personal because I find myself completely outside any local church, and am at the point of abandoning it, as I can find no reason in Scripture to cling to what seems a broken system that has no place for me in it.
I am pleased to continue this discussion with you. It is crucial that we all come to a deeper understanding of truth. When you say that “there are a great many Christians who do not consider the great commission having been given to all of the elect.” Please explain who these Christians are. As far as I know, all Christians (if by Christians we mean those who have held to historic Christian orthodoxy) have believed that the elect are meant to carry out the great commission under the authority of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Now concerning your question. Yes a believer sitting in a room remains a member of the church. Is he the Church, no. Not in the corporate sense. This is why the believer must seek to be a part of a local church community. But, I think it is safe to say that sitting in a room by oneself is not the situation the NT envisions. It is a special circumstance. Yes there may be special circumstances where believers are alone, but this is not meant to be the norm. We cannot build our theology on abnormal situations.
Thank you for reading my article, I really appreciate it.
Looks like Bryant beat me to the punch, but the nature of your question
requires a response. With regard to the two definitions of the church, neither
contradicts the other. In fact, the second definition serves to expound upon the first.
God not only called Abraham as an individual, He has also called an entire
nation, Israel. There is an aspect of unity and diversity with regard to
election, when viewed from a biblical theological perspective and through the lens
of the church. This is not surprising, because there is unity and diversity within
My point is that church membership is a good and necessary consequence
of our election. As His elect ones we have new hearts (Ez. 36:26-27) and seek to glorify
our great God in all that we do. Our lives are not our own (Gal 2:20), and we
were not saved unto ourselves, but to a corporate body; which is the invisible
and visible church. It is imprudent for God’s elect ones to draw a false
dichotomy between the two, because there is some overlap between both of them. If
a person professes to be a Christian, but refuses to join the visible church, one
would have to wonder if his/her profession of faith is truly genuine.
**Note that this response is within the context of America,
where we enjoy religious freedom and have a plethora of choices when it comes
to choosing a church. I understand that church gatherings take place in
different settings (i.e. house churches), especially in other (closed) countries where
Christians are persecuted.
Grace to you,
Thank you for your continued engagement.
There is nothing to forgive her for, and I am not at all trying to be critical! I am merely trying to understand what she wrote, as it caused me no small amount of cognitive dissonance on my first read. I assure you, it is my lack of understanding, and not her argumentation, that is at fault.
But if the body of Christ is by definition a corporate entity, what of those throughout history who have not been able to participate in its corporate nature? That is the main thrust of my question. And again, it is off-topic, but I hope you are at least willing to admit that historically, and presently, there are a great many Christians who do not consider the great commission having been given to all of the elect. That is a topic that warrants further intense analysis, but is beyond the scope of our present discussion.
Thinking about it, I suppose what I’m driving at can be clarified in a question:
When one child of God sits alone in a room, is he any less the church than when a congregation gathers to worship? I would say absolutely not. I’m curious to hear your response, and the reasoning behind it.
Thanks for responding. Firstly, I think it is important that you recognize the nature of this medium. This is a blog post with hardly the space allowed to flesh out every point made within it. So forgive the author if you don’t see ample argumentation to back up each point made. It wasn’t meant to be a dissertation.
Secondly, The body of Christ is by definition a corporate entity. The body is made up of many parts each coming together to edify one another and accomplish the great commission. To say that the early Christians were only concerned with Christianity’s survival is again, another misreading of the New Testament. Do any of the apostles exhibit fear that the Christian movement was going to be stomped out? The apostles had complete confidence that God was going to take care of this movement. They were relying on the very words of Christ himself that he would be with them until the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). Paul prophesies over and over about end time scenarios (2 Thess. 2; Romans 11:25-36). This hardly seems to be the language of a man who is afraid that the Christian movement won’t survive.
Now, back to 1 cor. 12. We can see that Paul understood that the body of Christ came together to accomplish the great commission because in the passage, he speaks of apostles and teachers. He lists these as spiritual gifts. What is an apostle but one sent to proclaim the gospel? And what is a teacher but one responsible for teaching right doctrine to believers? These gifts along with the gift of evangelism is given to the church in order to help them carry out the great commission. So to say that Paul was advocating corporate unity simply for Christian survival is to not take into account all of what the NT teaches. Paul was vigorously missional minded. He wanted other believers to be so as well.
Thank you kindly for the detailed response.
My statement that her two definitions are not reconcilable was from a purely logical standpoint. She defined the term “church” as an individual reality and then as a “corporate entity” without explaining how or why. She deviated from her own stated definition almost immediately after making it. I agree with the first definition absolutely, but I don’t understand the second. I’m not trying to criticize, I just honestly cannot follow the leap from the church being the individuals that make up the body of Christ to church as a corporate entity, and want to understand her (your) position better. Is your position that the church corporate is more than the sum of its whole, the church that is the individual believer? If so, what makes the church corporate more?
As for your exegesis of 1 Cor. 12, I’m afraid I don’t see it that way. The prevailing theme throughout the NT is not unity and harmony so that the early Christians might engage in fulfilling the great commission (and it is debatable that it was given to Christianity writ large), but rather harmony and unity so that Christianity survived at all. The constant emphasis on one body, identity, and unity, was not due to the church being a “corporate entity” but because they were living in a unique and momentous time of change, where what was once only for Israel was now, by the grace of God, available to every tribe and tongue. Paul especially was constantly exhorting both Jew and Gentile to embrace one another as brothers in Christ and to put aside their differences in the name of fellowship and brotherhood.
Also, I agree with you that a Christian who wants to live apart from other believers would be alien to Paul and is not Biblical. My questions are entirely focused in the concept of church membership, which is the topic of this blog post. She seems to present two options, membership in a local church, or rogue believers. I’m merely curious if there might be another way, one that is not so heavy handed in its application of church membership.
When Ekemini criticizes Christians who wish to separate from the body of believers, she is not calling into question God’s sovereign work in election but only how it plays out practically in the lives of believers. Yes, if you have been called and elected by the Father, then you are a member of the church, even if you have not committed yourself to a local body. But to deny the corporate nature of our membership of the church is to virulently misunderstand massive passages in the Bible. Amplitudo, you call into question the Christians need to identify with a “specific denomination or organization.” Where did Ekemini say that we need to be associated with a denomination or organization? Denominations are nice, and organizations are nice, but you can have a Biblical local church community that isn’t a part of an official denomination or organization. And to concede this point does no damage to Ekemini’s thesis which seeks to establish the need for Christians to identify with a local church body.
When u say that Ekemini’s definition of a corporate entity is irreconcilable, you must explain how this is so. The New Testament is clear that we are individually elected into a corporate body of believers. Look at the language Paul uses in 1 Cor. 12:12-31. In verses 12-14 Paul says, “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. 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. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” If our election does not have practical corporate implications, then how do you explain this passage? Paul is seeking to have the Corinthians understand that they are all members of the one body of believers who have been given different spiritual gifts in order to work together to edify one another and to carry out the great commission. If a Christian lives apart from the body of Christ, then he cannot use his gift in harmony with other believers in the body to accomplish the work of the church. This is clear corporate language.
This is just one of many passages which highlight the corporate nature of our election. When Paul writes epistles the commands are often addressed to the collective because Paul expects Christians to understand that their behavior effects one another as a whole, so a Christian who wishes to live apart from other believers would have been completely foreign to Paul and the early disciples.
Thank you for carving out time to read my article, brother! Yes, you are right when you say that, “church membership is a topic that can never be spoken about too much.” This is especially true given the statistics that indicate a decline in church membership among those in my generation. In spite of this fact, there is an eternal truth that prevails, Jesus Christ is still building His church. Astute observation regarding my subtle reference to 1 Corinthians 12;-) Grace to you!
John Coakley, Jr.
I enjoyed this article. In an age where technology is bringing us closer together in regards to those whom are physically distanced from each other, but are distancing those whom are in close proximity with each other, Church membership is a topic that can never be spoken about too much.
Our Pastor is preaching on this very topic, which I believe is so appropriate for the New Year. Most recently, he preached from 1 Corinthians 12 with emphasis on the church being one body and the necessity of all members in order for the body to function as designed. I can see you alluding to the very same concept in your last paragraph.
Again, good article. Great points of discussion. Thank you for your words. I look forward to reading more from you in the future. Blessings to you in your studies.
John Coakley, Jr.
“It consists of those who have been effectually called by God the Father
through the power of the Holy Spirit and have been redeemed by the blood
of the Lamb through faith in Christ Jesus.”
Does it not follow then that those whom Jesus elected, called, and died for are in the church, members in full, regardless of their relationship to a specific denomination or organization?
Your later redefinition of church shown below cannot be reconciled with your initial correct and Biblical definition give above:
“The church is a corporate entity comprised of individuals whom God has
elected with the intent to be glorified within this community of
What’s more, you have added a concept of “corporate entity” that is nebulous and undefined.
I wish to understand your point, as I have never been able to establish it with consistent hermeneutics on my own. If you could provide clarification I would be grateful.
A seeker of truth