Is church membership biblical?
There are many who make the argument that church membership is unbiblical because it is not specifically detailed or explicitly mentioned in the Bible. We believe this understanding to be shortsighted. Although it is true that explicit instruction for receiving members into local churches is absent from the biblical text, the concept of church membership can be clearly seen through both descriptive and prescriptive biblical texts.
A descriptive passage describes what happened. There are no prescriptions, or direct instructions, about church membership in these texts. However, many of these texts seem to indicate some method of membership existed in early local churches. Churches in the New Testament were named by city or region and Bible readers can easily infer an organized structure, complete with membership rolls, in many localized assemblies from the biblical text. For example, in many of his letters, the apostle Paul identified individuals at specific local churches.
Consider the following list of descriptive New Testament passages that suggest an organized membership within local churches:
- Acts 6:1–2 – A dispute arose among the church in Jerusalem because “their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.” This implies a list of registered widows among the organized, believing body.
- Acts 14:19–23 – Paul and Barnabas visited Antioch, Inconium, Derbe, and Lystra and “appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (v. 23).
- Acts 14:27 – Paul and Barnabas arrived in Antioch and “gathered the church together” to declare God’s faithfulness on their journey (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:18).
- 2 Corinthians 2:6 – A leader at the church in Corinth had been excommunicated “by the majority.”
- 2 Corinthians 6:14 – In a passage on the topic of church discipline, Paul warned the church not to be “unequally yoked with unbelievers.” This suggests regenerate church membership at Corinth.
- 1 Timothy 5:9, 11 – Certain widows were “enrolled” in the church’s benevolence distribution (vv. 9, 11). Clearly, there was a list of widows belonging to Timothy’s church who needed corporate care.
While we can infer an organized list of members in each of these New Testament churches, these passages only describe what took place in the early church. Other passages give us explicit instructions for local church order.
In prescriptive passages, the Scripture teaches us explicitly what to do in certain situations. Several New Testament passages make God’s plan for local churches clear. In many of these instances, we can see the need for an organized, local church to maintain membership. Consider the following examples:
- Acts 20:28 – Paul laid a solemn charge on the elders of the church at Ephesus: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” The elders had specific people entrusted to their care by the Lord.
- 1 Corinthians 5:1–13 – Paul rebuked the church at Corinth for allowing sexual immorality among them. He urged the church not to associate with them and to “purge the evil person from among you” (vv. 9, 13).
- 2 Corinthians 2:5–11 – Paul gave instructions to the church in Corinth about how to exercise church discipline with reconciliation being the ultimate goal.
- 1 Timothy 3:1–7 – Paul instructed the church on the qualifications necessary for a man to serve in the “office” of elder (v. 1).
- 1 Timothy 5:1–16 – Paul instructed Timothy as a church leader. In verses 9–15, he taught how to care for widows, including which widows should be “enrolled” in the church’s benevolence distribution (vv. 9, 11).
- 1 Timothy 5:17–25 – Paul instructed Timothy to show honor to elders who labor in preaching and teaching (v. 17) and he gave counsel on how to handle accusations made against an elder. Timothy was to rebuke the unrepentant elder “in the presence of all” (v. 20).
- Titus 1:5–9 – Paul left Titus in Crete with a task: to “put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town” (v. 5). Titus was to group believers by town and place them under the care of godly, qualified elders.
- Titus 3:10–11 – Paul instructed Titus on how to deal with divisive people. He was to warn them once, then twice, and then expel them from the congregation.
- Hebrews 13:17 – In perhaps the most compelling example, the writer of Hebrews urged believers to obey their leaders and submit to them. His reason? “For they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” Godly elders are responsible for the souls placed in their care. Membership makes it possible for an elder to know for whose souls he will be held accountable.
- 1 Peter 5:1–4 – Peter issued a solemn charge to elders throughout the universal church: “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; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” How will an elder know who to lead in this way? Organized, local church membership helps.
We have established that church membership is not explicitly commanded or detailed in the Scriptures. However, the concept is thoroughly biblical.
Believers need other local believers to spur one another on in the faith. Christians need elders to lead, guide, and protect them. Elders need to know for whom they are responsible. Churches need to maintain purity. Widows need corporate care.
All of these examples suggest the biblical necessity of church membership.