Believers become members of the universal, invisible Church the moment they are born again.
Richard Dresselhaus writes, "Membership in this Church is automatic. We believe every person who is born again becomes a member of that Church at the time of his or her salvation experience.
There are no membership cards to fill out−as such. Your acceptance of Christ as Savior and Lord−your commitment of your life to Him−means you are a member of His church, born into the family of God." That salvation experience must never be equated with the act of joining a church. To join a church without being born again leads to the deception that one is a Christian when he is not.
The Lord has planted local churches on earth, however, to serve as a means through which He ministers grace to believers who belong to the universal Church. Christ, the Head of that universal Church, provides guidance, instruction, and strength to the members of His body through apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers whom He has set in the local church (Ephesians 4:11-16). The believer who identifies with and regularly attends a local assembly receives things from the Lord in a way that would be most difficult, if not impossible, should he or she always worship alone. As John Schaver writes, "It is good for the individual Christian to be a member of the worshiping, nurturing, caring, sharing community we refer to as a Christian congregation. Christians are called to live in communities−not hermits [sic]."
The Bible affords guidelines on membership in the local church.
Formal membership in local congregations has been a part of the life of believers since the beginnings of Christianity, and both congregations and individuals receive significant benefits from the practice. Evidence indicates that membership in the local church of the first century was formal in nature, with names recorded on an official roster.
By establishing a list of members in this way, the local church was continuing a custom that most of them had already followed in the synagogue. Membership in the synagogue began at an early age for the Jewish lad. Edward Marshall writes, "The membership in the synagogue began when the boys reached thirteen years of age at which time each by initiation became a ‘Bar-Mitzvah,' a ‘son of commandment.' He then became responsible to the law himself."
It seems logical to conclude that synagogue officials recorded the names of members on a formal list. Membership must have been formal since each synagogue practiced a strict form of discipline, and experience teaches that such is difficult or impossible without formal membership. Expulsion from membership is the most severe form of punishment for offenders in any religious body. Since, logically speaking, a group cannot take away what it has not first given, one must have been granted formal membership, or the threat of its removal would have no meaning in discipline.
Since what they had experienced in the synagogue worked well, wisdom dictated that early believers follow a similar pattern in Christian group structure.
Continuing experiences gave them additional good reason for organizing themselves. For example, Edwin Hatch declares that believers who traveled in the first century needed proof of church membership in order to obtain the much-needed hospitality of fellow Christians along the way. To curb abuses of such hospitality, Hatch says, "A rule was adopted that although the bodily necessities of travelers might continue to be relieved, no one should be admitted to hospitality, in a fuller sense of earlier times, without a certificate of membership from his own community."
Evidence of formal membership, for both synagogue and church, appears in Scripture.
Offending members of a synagogue were formally dismissed from membership. John makes clear reference to this procedure in his account of the healing of the man born blind. He explains, "His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had agreed already that if anyone confessed that He was Christ, he would be put out of the synagogue" (John 9:22). John refers to it again later, declaring that sympathetic Pharisees feared to identify themselves as followers of Jesus for the same reason (John 12:42). This punishment included the removal of the name of the disciplined individual from the membership list. Jesus referred to the practice when He warned His disciples that synagogue leaders would "cast out your name as evil, for the Son of Man's sake" (Luke 6:22).
In a similar way, local Christian churches of New Testament times disciplined members, sometimes removing their names from the roll of the assembly. This is what Paul had in mind when he instructed the Corinthians to "put away from yourselves the evil person" (1 Cor. 5:13). Such disciplinary procedures require formal membership in the church. Even those congregations that declare themselves "free" from the bondage of any organizational structure have a way of determining who their members are. For example, they would not allow sinners or members of a cult to have a voice in their business meetings. Only those recognized as members may vote in making congregational decisions or electing officers. To practice the discipline of the New Testament church requires a formal membership. Carl Laney declares, "Obviously it is not technically possible to excommunicate one who is not a church member."
Of course, any Christian may offer brotherly counsel to a fellow believer. He or she may confront the fellow believer about observed sins in the latter's life, warning of eternal consequences. To follow the biblical steps of disciplinary procedure fully, however, requires that the person being disciplined officially belong to a body of believers. The most powerful tool in organizational discipline is the threat of expulsion from membership. Obviously, it cannot be used in the case of those who do not belong to a church. Edward Carnell recognizes the necessity of formal church membership in order to facilitate church discipline. Looking at the truth from another angle, Lynn Buzzard and Thomas Brandon write, "Church discipline tells us that membership means something. It says that membership is commitment. It teaches that membership is participation in a community with shared values and common, mutual obligations. It informs us of the obligation of membership to spiritual responsibility."
Apart from scriptural evidence linking formal church membership with discipline and responsibility, experience provides additional logical reasons why every believer should seek to have his or her name recorded on the roster of a local congregation. Having a formal membership is necessary to the very life of a church--no members, no church. Thus, the minister who accepts the call to pastor a congregation comes under ethical responsibility to promote membership for the group actively.
To own property, to secure the services of public utilities, and to borrow money require a legal organization with a formal membership. Business and government institutions relate to groups only as groups, rather than to their individual members. If all Christians took the position of some who want no responsibility in joining the church, there would be no facilities in which to gather for worship.
Pentecostals traditionally have given little emphasis to local church membership. As members of a revival movement, they feared equating church membership with salvation. Their resistance to that threat made them appear to be opposed to joining the church. Consequently, membership in their churches is often but a fraction of their average attendance. William Menzies speaks of a "propensity of Assemblies of God people to disregard church membership, membership figures always being much smaller than active participants, contrary to the pattern of many denominations." Indeed, churches of old line denominations tend to experience the opposite. Their membership is noticeably larger than their attendance. Seeing this as undesirable, Davis Huckabee remarks, "There is something gravely wrong with a church which has a much greater proportion of enrolled members than attending members."He counsels that such a problem needs correction.
In contrast, Pentecostals have a problem with low percentages of constituency in formal membership. Since having a list of formal members is necessary to the very life of the church, the pastor of a congregation has a responsibility to promote membership. The pastor's concern must be to keep the church alive and healthy. He or she is ethically bound to work to that end in the ministry. When a minister accepts a church's call to be its shepherd, one of the duties he or she takes on is that of encouraging new members to join the church, as well as doing everything possible to retain those who already belong.
Some pastors do this through offering a membership class as an elective in Sunday school. Terry Raburn reports a more indirect approach by one minister who gives that group the title of the New Friends Class. He does so in the hope that a bonding takes place there. If that happens, those attending will more readily desire formal membership in the church. Raburn suggests a three-step process for integrating new people into the church. He writes, "It becomes evident that a careful process of developing new people produces superior members.First, contact is made (attraction), then involvement (building), and finally leadership is produced (commissioning)." Raburn stresses the importance of getting new people involved in Christian service as soon as possible after they join the church in order to strengthen their ties to the body of believers.
It is to a church's advantage, and often to an entire denomination's advantage, in a number of circumstances for its attendees to be formal members.
For example, a congregation attempting to borrow money needs to be able to show the lending institution a healthy membership roster. Also, when a denomination has a low formal membership but much higher attendance at its churches, the government gets a false picture of the denomination's size and strength as it compares to the nation's population as a whole. Finally, every individual who joins a church strengthens the numbers of military chaplains allotted to that denomination since those allotments are based on membership numbers. Thus, if a church or a denomination desires to be healthy and influential, it needs a strong membership.
What benefits does formal church membership have for the individual, or as people of today might put it, "What's in it for me?"
James Hinkle and Tim Woodroof take note of the fact that the present generation has been taught to think of everything primarily as it relates to self. They observe that "the Church is faced with teaching the ‘me' generation how to think in ‘we' terms.
People born and reared in a culture that worships individualism must now learn how to behave in a group−the Church." They note further, "Dependency, we have learned, is weakness; accountability is slavery; submission is demeaning." Such attitudes obviously run cross-grain to those of true Christianity.
Nonetheless, being a formal member of a church does provide personal blessing. It brings a sense of belonging in place of the persistent feeling that one is an outsider. Joining a church opens the door for Christian service since wisdom dictates that many positions of leadership in a congregation must remain closed to those lacking the commitment necessary to identify as members. Dresselhaus, a noted pastor, says, "It seems best to me that individuals be chosen for leadership positions when they have demonstrated their commitment to the church through church membership."
Being a formal member of a church also serves one well in providing a helpful sense of accountability. Of course, all will answer to God one day for their conduct on earth. The thought of being judged by God in a faraway heaven in the sweet by and by, however, can leave a person with a false sense of getting by with misconduct in the present. As the wise man of old said, "Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil" (Ecclesiastes 8:11).
Knowing that one may have to give account to men in the here and now often stirs a person to resist temptation. As Laney says, "Every Christian ought to be a member of a local church where he can be under the oversight and spiritual watchcare of church elders."
Further, to secure a license to preach from a denomination, one must first be a member of a church of that denomination.
Religious bodies depend largely on the recommendations of local churches when granting credentials to ministers. Thus, they usually consider the signature of the pastor of one's church as essential to the application.
Clearly then, the Bible affords guidelines for membership in the local church. Formal membership in local churches was a part of the life of early believers. In addition, both logic and experience argue in favor of the practice. Through formal church membership, both congregations and individuals receive important benefits. Thus, for the sake of the church as well as themselves, any who have not yet joined a local church should immediately take steps to do so.
Buzzard, Lynn R., and Thomas S. Brandon. Church Discipline and the Courts. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 1987.
Carnell, Edward J. "The Government of the Church." Christianity Today, 22 June 1962, 18-19.
Dresselhaus, Richard L. The Joy of Belonging. Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1978.
Hatch, Edwin. The Organization of the Early Christian Churches. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1901.
Hinkle, James., and Tim Woodroof. Among Friends: You Can Help Make Your Church A Warmer Place. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1989.
Huckabee, Davis W. The Constitution of the Church: Studies of the New Testament Church. Little Rock: The Challenge Press, 1973.
Laney, J. Carl. A Guide to Church Discipline. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1985.
Marshall, Edward A. The Synagogue. Kalamazoo: Tract Evangel Society, 1933.
Menzies, William. Anointed to Serve. Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1971.
Raburn, Terry. "The ABCs of Membership." Advance, December 1991, 8.
Schaver, John L. The Polity of the Churches. Vol. 1. Chicago: Church Polity Press, 1947.
About the Author
Dr. Charles Harris is a recently retired Professor of Bible and Pastoral Ministries as well as the Chairman of the Division of Church Ministries at Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. He was associated with the college for thirty-eight years.
In addition to his duties as an educator, Dr. Harris is also an author. His writings have appeared in The Sunday School Counselor, God's Word for Today, and The Adult Teacher. Among his works are three books, What's Ahead, Proofs of Christianity, and Under the Glass: An Analysis of Church Structure, as well as a commentary on Second Corinthians in The Complete Biblical Library. He was a contributing author of Power Encounter, A Pentecostal Perspective.
Dr. Harris holds a bachelor's degree in Bible, a master's degree in counseling, and a doctorate in education.