Local Church Membership:

Is It Biblical?

American churches come in a variety of membership models, from formal membership required to participate in any meaningful way, to no membership rolls at all. Is there a Biblical pattern given to us in Scripture? Or is this merely a convention laid on us by American (non-profit) corporate law? I'm not a lawyer, but I think most states give a lot of latitude to churches in terms of what they can or cannot do. One church I was in, the legal corporation consisted only of the Board of Elders; the attendees were not members in any legal sense, and had no say in how the church was run. The Roman Catholic church operates on a similar model, except I think the corporation is at the diocese level; Catholic membership is in the world-wide church but still has no legal status. Many churches operate on a congregational model, where formal membership gives parishoners the right to vote and participate in Communion.

The Bible does speak of "members" in connection with the church in 1Cor.12:12 (KJV), but the Greek word (like English more than 400 years ago) refers to body parts only. Judging from its earliest usage as cited in OED, the idea of membership in a group was invented in the early Renaissance, and the word adapted from Paul's use here, where it's pretty clear it is not restricted to any particular local congregation. There seems to be a simple division of all people in the world into two disjoint classes: Christians who meet together regularly in whatever town they happen to be in, and everybody else, who are the unbelievers. There is no separate category for Christians who are not church members, nor even for unbelievers who come to the meetings. Voluntary membership in a group is simply not a first-century idea. The Roman Catholic church seems to come closest to the Biblical model.

Paul mentions occasional instances of unbelievers in the meeting [1Cor.14:23,24], as if it were an unusual event. Jesus told the parable of the tares [Matt.13:24] which seems to refer to unbelievers infiltrating the church, but the point of the parable is to leave them there and let God remove them on Judgment Day. If God intended formal membership to separate high-quality believers from the riff-raff within the church, there doesn't seem to be any support for it in Scripture.

Obviously, there were in Biblical times isolated Christians unable to meet with others in their local region because there weren't any others, but this was also considered a temporary situation, because Christians everywhere were evangelizing the people around them and forming local congregations, one per city (perhaps more in separate neighborhoods of large cities like Rome).

The question in my mind is this: Is there a Biblical mandate for going through some formal initiation process to become associated with a particular local congregation? There is clearly one for becoming part of the Body of Christ (independent of location), namely to repent and be baptized [Acts 2:38] in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (as taught by the Roman Catholics). I don't see any evidence in the Bible for a second initiation rite for becoming attached to a particular group of believers in a particular location. On the other hand, I don't see any prohibition either. A church constituted in the congregational model (as opposed to the more Biblical episcopal model) clearly needs some way to filter out from random attendees the voters making corporate decisions, but that should be understood as a practical choice or human tradition, not a Biblical mandate.

One pastor, arguing in favor of formal church membership, said that a "lone ranger" going from church to church could not attain spiritual maturity. I guess he didn't have a very high opinion of the Apostle Paul, who did exactly that. In any case, the problem with his "lone ranger" is not the lack of formal membership, but his travel; the criticism says nothing about the believer who consistently meets with other believers in one place yet without formal membership.

Matt Chandler, a Dallas pastor, argues that Hebrews 13:17 requires church membership, but fails to tell us why formal membership is a better context for that than merely the Christians who regularly meet together, although he obviously seems to think so. More important, if a pastor or elder is citing this verse as his authority for demanding that attendees submit to voluntary membership in his church because he (as the leader) says so, then he has violated the conditions specified in that verse, thereby nullifying any authority it might confer on him. His authority is defined in that verse as contingent on his submission to Christ, and Jesus told his Disciples -- and by extension all of us, but especially church leaders -- not to lord it over other people, but to serve them. Making demands on people is exactly what Jesus said not to do. Therefore Heb.13:17 cannot be used by the pastor (directly or indirectly) to insist on obedience, let alone to submit to membership as one of those precepts to be obeyed.

Chandler goes on to offer several other Scripture texts in support of his thesis:

He mentions church discipline [1Cor.5:1-12] as requiring membership, but again neglects to tell us how formal membership makes it better, especially in the modern American religious supermarket. A few churches require their members to sign a legal agreement to be bound by the church authority, but Chandler does not tell us his is one of them. Failing that, removing somebody from membership has no more effect than telling them to stop coming -- which they probably already did anyway. Roman Catholic excommunication and the Amish practice of "shunning" may be much closer to the Biblical model suggested in Paul's letter to Corinth than anything most Protestant churches in America might consider, whether they have formal membership or not. Note that Catholic excommunication applies to the entire (world-wide) church, not just the local parish. There really is no Biblical model for disfellowshipping at a local level.

In Acts 2:37-47 there is a numerical record of those who have professed Christ and "an acknowledgement that the church was tracking the growth," but Chandler neglects to tell us that the church there in Jerusalem at that time was the whole, world-wide church. There are no comparable statistics for local congregations. The last verse of his citation even stops bothering with the numbers as if they are unimportant; it was only that one mass conversion that was impressive -- and still is!

In Acts 6:1-6 Chandler sees "elections take place" -- something of a stretch, since democracy was not a cultural norm there at that time -- but he fails to tell us how this argues for formal membership. Maybe somebody yelled out names, and others yelled out agreement. Or maybe people just volunteered. We are not told. In any case, it was the Apostles who made the final decision, not the ("members") laity.

In Romans 16:1-16 Chandler sees "an awareness of who is a church member." Does he really believe those 26 people (plus two families of unspecified size) are the whole membership of the (possibly three) churches in Rome? Why send separate greetings to the (unnamed) "brothers" and "saints" if his list of names is a complete list of members? Rather it seems more likely that Paul named everybody he could think of, then added a generalized greeting for the rest, whoever and however many they might be. There is no need to suppose an added structure of formal membership to account for this.

Chandler's argument for formal membership from 1 Timothy 5:3-16 is completely without merit. They need a list of who qualifies for widow support, but that has nothing to do with the other people meeting at that church. I know a woman who works at the local soup kitchen twice a week. She has a list of (mostly elderly) people who need meals, and drivers to take it to them. Most of those people are not members of her church; some of them probably aren't members of any church. The fact that they are on a list of charity recipients proves nothing at all about church membership, not now, and not in the first century. If church membership were an important issue in this distribution, I'm sure the Holy Spirit would have inspired Paul to say so. He did not.

There are numerous other Scriptures that various people cite in support of formal membership, but which are even less relevant than these. One reference of note is Eph.4:16, which I found in an on-line quote from Jonathan Leeman's book on the topic. If that verse were about local church membership, then "the whole body of Christ" is that one local church, and it excludes all other churches in that city and around the world. What a crock!

Nay rather, the Body of Christ is all Christians everywhere, small numbers of whom meet here and there in local groups for fellowship and encouragement and mutual building up. If all denominations were in fellowship with each other and accepted each other's disciplinary actions, then church discipline could be meaningfully exercised as in 1Cor.5, but that's not the case today. So only the Catholic church comes anywhere near the Biblical model. It's a pity their theology in other areas is so bad.

I found one web page that accurately gives the reasons for becoming a member of a local church: "Church membership is a statement that a Christian is in agreement with that local church." If none of the churches in a person's geographical area sufficiently complies with that person's understanding of what Scripture teaches, going somewhere is better than staying home, but it might not be appropriate to become a member there. But nobody is honest enough to say that.

It seems that all the people arguing in favor of church membership are themselves in church leadership. That is, they have a personal axe to grind. More importantly, the kinds of people who seek out leadership positions -- anywhere, not just in Christian organizations -- are of the MBTI "Judger" personality type. Judgers tend to gravitate to positions of ministry leadership, I suppose because they like the authority and power that comes with calling the shots, nevermind that Jesus said not to do that [Matt.23:8, Luke 22:26]. When you go through the effort to become a member of a group -- not just church, but any group with a formal membership, including citizenship in a country -- you are agreeing to conform to that group's policies, and their leadership has the power to tell you what to do in that context. Control freaks love that authority. If pastoral leadership were more Biblical, then it would not confer the power rush on its practitioners, and people who shouldn't be there wouldn't be demanding to get in on the job. And then nobody would be arguing that you should be a "member", because it wouldn't matter.

Tom Pittman
2014 October 16, rev. 2015 Sept. 10

The Idea of Voluntary Membership

Up until the time of the Bible, and for more than a millennium after, there was no such thing as voluntary membership in any group of people. You were in your family because you were born there. You married whoever your father arranged for you to marry. If you were a woman, you lived at home until your father married you off. Your source of income was whatever your father did -- unless God called you to be a prophet, in which case it still wasn't your choice. You were a "citizen" of whatever "city" or country you happened to be born in; most people could not afford to move -- Mary and Joseph went to Egypt because the Wise Men gave them a bunch of gold to pay for it; that ran out when they got home, and Joseph went back into the building trade (probably a day-labor stone mason in nearby Sepporis, which was being built at the time).

When people became Christians, it was because God called them out of darkness into light. It was not so much a choice as a gift. They became a "member" of the Body of Christ, but that was thought of as like a physical body. The hand does not decide whether to be attached to this body or that one, it just is. It was Truth. Paul described himself as a "slave" to Christ, and the unbelievers were "slaves" to sin. Slaves have no choice in the matter. People agreed to do whatever God laid on them, but that is no more voluntary than people choosing not to rob a bank today: to do otherwise in the face of authority is foolish.

With Martin Luther the Reformation introduced a smorgasbord of "Christian" religions, but there was still no choice of membership. "Cuius regio, eius religio" basically meant that whatever the local king decided was the True Religion, everybody under him had to believe. There were always dissidents, but they got burned at the stake. Their followers did not consider their dissidence to be a personal choice, but rather that the king happened to be Wrong. When the Pilgrims came to America, it was to escape a king who happened to be Wrong; the colonists had no freedom to choose any religion at all, but only the religion of their leadership (soon governor). It was only after different colonies started with different imposed religions that people began to realize that a larger (Federal) government might try to impose a Wrong religion on the different religious communities, so that they insisted on the First Amendment forbidding the (Federal) government to do that; the states were still able to do that until after the Civil War.

Freedom to go across the street to a different denomination did not become a Constitutional right in this country until less than 200 years ago, so there was no need to identify oneself with any particular local church by "membership" as we understand it today. The town I live in in has three or four churches all the same formal denomination, which would have been absurd 200 years ago, let alone 2000 years. If there were three separate "churches" in the Rome Paul wrote his letter to, it was because Rome was too big to walk all that distance to a single church, and nobody had a house big enough for them all to meet in. They started making church buildings big enough for large congregations after Constantine made it legal to be a Christian, but it was still only one church within walking distance, not a matter of choice.

We must be careful not to read into Scripture modern ideas, and especially careful not to claim them as doctrine.

2014 November 3, rev. 15 Sept 14

Personal Perspective

I personally have nothing against church membership as such. I have nothing against driving a car as such.

I used to live in a town where the grocery story and the post office were walking distance. If that was all I needed, and the weather was agreeable, I walked. Today the nearest grocery store is 15 miles, and the city has chosen to offer only a high-speed highway (unsuitable for walking) from where I live to the center of town, although the distance is reasonable. On several occasions in my life I lived within walking (or bicycle) distance from church, so I preferred not to drive the car. Although there is a church within walking distance from this house, they have no hours posted, and when I showed up at a credible meeting time, nobody was there. So I drive a longer distance to church than I would normally prefer.

Twenty years ago I needed to make a clean break with a previous church, and formal membership in another church was the obvious way to do that. Eleven years ago my situation was fluid and temporary -- I hoped to leave town (and the state) to take employment -- and having no local membership was a way to signal that quality. Before settling on a church for the duration, I asked the pastor if he had a problem with that, and he did not. He eventually took early retirement on disability, and I neglected to discuss the matter with his replacement, who began pointedly preaching against me. That was when I did the research reflected in the first part of this essay.

As a consequence, I can no longer give assent to the notion that local church membership is a necessary component to being a fully functional Christian, any more than I can give assent to the notion that circumcision or driving a car is necessary to it. If any pastor wants to make that case, then like the great Apostle, I will probably resist. If my conscience offends them to the extent that they disinvite me (either explicitly or implicitly, as happened last year) then I will quietly leave as instructed. My policy is never to fight a pastor in his own church.

If on the other hand, the church leadership sees formal membership as a way of controlling the message that is taught by and in the church, they have that right and obligation. If it also seems reasonable for me to be involved in that teaching ministry, I will join the church for that reason, just as I also drive my car to church when that is the reasonable locomotion for arriving timely, and just as the Apostle Paul also had Timothy circumcised. But the leadership needs to understand the difference.

I see it as coming down to this: Because membership in a local church is not a Scriptural requirement, if you want me to formally do so, you need to tell me why. Some possible reasons I can think of:

a. You believe I would be more spiritually healthy if so. Then you need to tell me exactly what spiritual benefit I would derive from membership that is not available to me from regular attendance alone.

b. Your church practices closed communion. If so, then I need to find a church without this unBiblical restriction. 1Cor.11:28 tells us that the communicant should examine himself (not be examined by a membership committee or pastor).

c. The pastor cannot track attendees who are not members, thereby to shepherd the flock. That seems to be his problem, not mine. May I suggest Jethro's advice to Moses? Anyway I've never known a pastor who was not tracking my presence, member or not, because I'm too much of a high profile Christian.

d. I can think of a few unethical reasons, but I won't insult any pastor by suggesting them. I cannot think of any others at this time, but I'm open to suggestion. Email me.

2015 September 10