Is Church Membership a Requirement?
There is no Bible verse that says, “join a local church.” Many object to the idea of church membership for that reason alone. But is this argument even reasonable?
What is church membership?
In Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, Mark Dever, a leading advocate of church membership, wrote that the five following responsibilities of church membership includes:
- Regular attendance at services
- Regular attendance at communion
- Consistent attendance at members’ meetings
- Regularly praying for the church at which you are a member
- Giving to the church regularly
Dever is not alone in believing this. John Piper, D.A. Carson, John MacArthur, Albert Mohler, Ligon Duncan, and Timothy George all endorsed Dever’s teachings in this book. To be clear, listing big names does not prove that anything is biblical, but it is important to establish that Dever’s understanding of biblical church membership is supported by many well-respected Christian leaders. Let’s look at why they believe these things.
What did the Epistle Writers Assume?
Here are some introductions to the New Testament Epistles:
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.
–1 Corinthians 1:2
Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— and all the brothers who are with me, to the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,
Notice that Paul addresses these letters directly to churches which are assemblies of believers. He could address his audience in this manner because of their habit of regularly gathering together. He writes under the assumption that the church itself would be meeting together in a context where the letter would be read aloud.The concept of a Christian who did not belong to a church would have been foreign to Paul.
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.
And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.
The introduction and closing statement above assume that the believers will be gathered together to read the letter, and they confirm that there were specific churches receiving letters. Being part of a church, not a wanderer who comes and goes as he or she pleases, was the norm in the earliest churches and ought to be the norm in ours as well.
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
The writer of Hebrews commands believers to assemble regularly. Neglecting to meet prevents believers from encouraging one another to obey Christ as they eagerly wait for His return.
Biblical Commands for Church Leadership and Discipline
1 Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-9 teach the qualifications of church leaders. How would Paul appoint leaders if they were not going to preside over an assembly of Christians? Appointing leaders suggests that there is a group that needs to be led, and these leaders cannot fulfill their callings to teach, care for, and lead a group unless the members of the group are committed and submissive to the leaders’ authority. The apostle Peter explicitly commands elders (church leaders/pastors) to lead the congregation and the congregants to submit to leaders.
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 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; Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
-1 Peter 5:1-2, 5
Is it possible to obey God’s commands without Church membership?
1 Corinthians 12:7-26 is one of the clearest passages on how the members of Christ’s Body should function. We will examine chapter 12 verses 7-26 in two parts.
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. -1 Corinthians 12:7-11
Verses 7-11 begin with Paul saying that the Spirit gives to each believer a gift for the “common good” of other Christians. The last verse here, teaches that the Spirit freely chooses to distribute gifts to Christians so that they may serve other Christians. How can we be obedient to the Holy Spirit’s will without pledging to serve a community of believers with our gifts? It is incredibly difficult to devote one’s gifts to serving Christians if they do not commit to a church by means of membership. One who refuses to consistently serve with their gifts in a community of believers is not adequately caring for their fellow Christians. We should rejoice that we can serve in a way that pleases the Triune God, and that we can be blessed by the gifts of God directly through our Christian siblings.
If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
-1 Corinthians 12:17-20
Continuing with his discussion of spiritual gifts, Paul parallels the Spirit’s giving of different gifts to Christians with the various functions of the human body. Each person with particular gifts within the Body of Christ is represented by a body part. In verses 17-20 he explains that no Christian is truly separated from the others even if they claim to be, and that the body is made whole by all the parts being unified.
But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
–1 Corinthians 12:24-26
Since the body parts represent Christians, one of the points that Paul is making here is that Christians have need of each other. If one does not commit to serving the other through church membership, how can the body be complete and how can the eye receive the benefits of what only the hand can do. Committing to church membership is part of submitting to the Holy Spirit’s purpose in giving gifts. All Christians are bought with a price, born again for good works, and commanded to sacrificially serve the Body of Christ at all times (Philippians 2:1-11, Ephesians 2:10, 1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
Be mindful that you bring both problems and gifts into whichever church you join. Remember that your love toward other believers is proof that you love God (1 John 4:20) and that you are commanded to lay aside your own privileges for the sake of your fellow Christians (Philippians 2:1-11). Look diligently for a church that preaches the truth about God and the gospel. The gospel is that Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, took on human flesh died for the sins of all who recognize themselves as having fallen short of God’s standard (which is perfection) and trust in His sacrifice. All who repent and believe the gospel will be forgiven and adopted as God’s children. The sinner must trust in Christ and not his or her own works, since they cannot bring about forgiveness by their own deeds (baptism, church attendance, etc.). Whoever trusts in Him will worship God in Heaven for eternity. The church you join should practice the sacraments of baptism and communion as the Bible commands. Do not blindly rush to join a church, but if you are not a member anywhere you need to be looking. Also, college students, do not be deceived, you must join a church. You may only be in your college town for a few years, but God has still called you to submit under a body of elders and be committed to serve in your local church. God has died for us to enjoy Him through serving other Christians and being served. We should be obedient to this call at all times.