As I reviewed the new church directory for this upcoming year, I noticed something very interesting. Several names that are listed as members I have never met because they never attend the church or no longer have any connection to the fellowship. On the opposite side I recognized names I see every Sunday who have yet to become members. Does membership to a local church consist of more than just having your name on a roll? What does the Bible indicate that membership actually entails?
Membership Entails Affirmation
In Matthew 16:18, we find the first mention of the term church in the New Testament. Right after Peter gives the proper identification of Who Jesus is, that He is the Christ, the Son of the living God (v. 16), Jesus states that He will use him as an instrument to establish the Church. He will serve as a rock for this living organism that He will build. The other apostles would also help lay this foundation with Christ serving as the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). Jesus also tells Peter that He will give him the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven (v. 19). This indicates an authority bestowed upon Peter and probably by extension, the other apostles. It is the authority of heaven itself. In a very real sense here Jesus could be indicating that the church that He will establish through the apostles will be the earthly representation of His heavenly kingdom. That the church will serve as an ambassador of heaven. An ambassador communicates the will and decisions of their king while in a foreign land. Any decision the ambassador makes is only the decisions that the king had already made. Thus, whatever the ambassador binds, will be only that which has already been bound by the king. (The Greek phrase used here is unusual. It is a combination of a future verb with a perfect participle. It appears to indicate a future reality that has already been settled in the past. One could translate it as whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven.) We see this ambassadorial work with the apostles as Jesus goes about the business of building His church throughout the book of Acts. When the first group of Samaritans came to faith in Christ, the apostles, representing this new church that had begun construction, had to come to pray for them, lay hands on them, and a visible manifestation of the Holy Spirit occurred (Acts 8:14-17). The question should be raised as to why a few of the apostles had to come from Jerusalem to do this. Why Philip did not take it upon himself to do it. I think the reason actually goes back to the authority that Jesus gave Peter and the apostles as Christ’s ambassadors. We are seeing here the keys and the binding and loosing at work. Peter and John merely affirmed the faith of these new converts through the prayer and the laying on of hands. God had saved them through their reception of the message but this sought to confirm their profession of faith. Likewise, church membership serves as a way that the church affirms one’s profession of faith based on the evidence of the fruit of a changed life which should be visible if one has truly been born again. It does not save but the church acts as God’s authority on earth, under the authority of Christ and His Word, to basically say with receiving one into membership: “We recognize you as belonging as part of us. You too join us in representing Jesus on earth.”
Membership Entails Commitment
God never intended for the Christian life to be lived alone. He does not save anyone individually and expect them to be “free agents,” roaming here and there. His desire is for them to be committed to each other in the context of a local congregation of His followers. How else can one live out all the one another commands in Scripture (Leviticus 19:11; John 13:14, 34, 35; Romans 1:12; 12:10, 16; 13:8; 14:13; 15:7,14; 16:16; 1 Corinthians 1:10; 11:33; 12:25; Galatians 5:13, 15, 26; 6:2; Ephesians 4:2, 16, 32; 5:19, 21; Philippians 2:3-5; Colossians 3:9, 13, 16; 1 Thessalonians 3:12; 4:9, 18; 5:11, 13, 15; 2 Thessalonians 1:3; Hebrews 3:13; 10:24, 25; 13:1; James 4:11; 5:9, 16; 1 Peter 3:8; 4:8, 9; 5:5; 1 John 1:7; 3:11, 23; 4:7, 11, 12)? Perhaps the clearest picture we have of this is found in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31. In this chapter, Paul describes the church using the imagery of a human body made up of its various parts. God’s Spirit has given each believer a specific gift that should be used for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7). The purpose of any spiritual gift is to edify or build up each other in the faith and to be used to serve one another (1 Peter 4:10). This indicates something that cannot be done at home away from other believers and something that would be difficult to do hopping from one church to the next. Committing to suffer with the members of a local congregation in their suffering and to rejoice with them in their rejoicing can only be done if you have taken the time to, in a sense, live among those members and get to know them (1 Corinthians 12:26). Keep in mind that Paul writes to a local congregation in Corinth when he gives this instruction. Sitting at home and not joining a church really is not an option that the Bible gives (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Membership Entails Accountability
In the second mention of the term church in the New Testament, Jesus explains the accountability the church has upon its individual members. As recorded in Matthew 18:15-20, He lays out the steps in the process of what to do if you notice a fellow member in sin. The first step would be the point out their fault to them individually (v. 15). The hope is that this will lead the believer to see the error of their way and run back to Christ in repentance. However, if he or she refuses to repent and leave the specific sin, we are told to approach them again, this time with two or more witnesses (v. 16). If this still does not result in their repentance, they are to be called before the church and the entire congregation should reach out to them in love, calling for them to leave such a sin behind. However, if they appear to be so hard hearted that he or she still refuses the reproach, drastically they are treated as if they were outside the church and thus do not belong to the body of Christ (v. 17). Jesus then mentions the authority that He has given the church in these matters with the mention once again of them binding and loosing on earth what will have been already bound and loosed in heaven (v. 18) and that He stands with them in such a decision (vv. 19-20) (assuming that the church followed His procedure as He had outlined of course). I must mention here that the goal of such a process is actually restoration. This can be seen in the fact that Jesus’ teaching follows His parable of the shepherd leaving his 99 sheep to retrieve the one that has gone astray (vv. 12-14) and that it precedes Peter’s question concerning forgiveness (vv. 21-35).
When one becomes a member of a local congregation, they are actually saying that they want that body of believers together to hold them accountable for the way in which they are living. If they have an area of unrepentant sin in their life, they want the church to lovingly point that out. Any true believer who desires to live the holy life that Christ saved them for (2 Corinthians 5:15) would want this. Being a member of a local congregation is to say that I submit to this congregation and want them to hold me accountable for my spiritual growth and discipleship. I submit to their teaching and discipline. And discipleship consists of both teaching and correction. As you can visibly see, disciple and discipline are closely related.
So membership certainly consists of more than just having one’s name on the roll at such and such church. It involves having a local congregation affirm their profession of faith and recognize them as one of its own. It includes a commitment given to others in the congregation and their work together for the sake of the gospel. It is submitting to the congregation’s authority, which it enacts under the authority of Christ and His Word, to be held accountable for one’s growth and discipline in grace. Is this true of you as a member of a local congregation? Have you found a good Bible teaching local church in which to join and labor for our Lord? If you have been attending a local church but never made steps to become a member, what might be holding you back? Let’s be obedient to Christ and become members of His body in the localities in which we live for the glory of His name.
Soli Deo Gloria!!!