Church Membership Obligations

Why we should be members of a local church

This is why the Lord’s Day became so important in the early Christianity. It was the time for the formal, public gathering of Christians to worship. In Acts 20:7 we read: “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them.” Had they not gathered together, they would not have heard Paul’s message and would not have been instructed in the things of God properly.

 

I see so many Christians in America who have disassociated themselves from particular church membership. They do not see any reason for or value in joining a local congregation. So what is the biblical argument for formal church membership? Though there are many arguments, here are four that should encourage us in seeking church membership.

First, Scripture teaches that believers are to associate themselves together in worship. In Hebrews the writer is discouraging Jews who have professed faith in Christ not to leave the church and return to the synagogue: “not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Heb 10:25). In fact, in the earliest appearance of Christianity we see the disciples doing just that: “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).

This is why the Lord’s Day became so important in the early Christianity. It was the time for the formal, public gathering of Christians to worship. In Acts 20:7 we read: “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them.” Had they not gathered together, they would not have heard Paul’s message and would not have been instructed in the things of God properly.

In 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 we read Paul’s directive regarding taking up offerings. His question assumes churches do gather together in their various localities, and that they gather on the first day of the week: “Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I directed the churches of Galatia, so do you also. On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper, so that no collections be made when I come.”

This, of course, does not mandate formal, vow-taking church membership, but it is a foundational point upon which we can build a case for church membership. Too many Christians are lone gunners for Jesus, sleeping in on Sundays, and declaring they can worship God just as well at home with their own families. Usually all it takes to explode this assertion is to ask a simple question: “But do you”? And if you meet the rare person who does actually worship with his family alone, ask them: “Do you take the Lord’s Supper which Jesus commanded us to do until he returns (1 Cor 11:26)?”

Second, the New Testament establishes elders and deacons as officers in the church. In Acts 14:23 we read: “When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” In Acts 20:17 we read of Paul: “From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church. In Acts 6:1-6 we see the first deacons established in church office by election. In 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 Paul gives the pre-requisites for church office, for both elders and deacons.

But now the question arises: How are we to elect church officers if there is no formal church membership? Can just anyone vote for church officers? Could Muslims come into our gathering and vote to elect officers to govern Christ’s church? Certainly not. The very concept of elected church office requires formal church membership, just as nations require citizenship to vote for rulers.

Third, church officers are to exercise a real governmental oversight in the gathered body of Christ. In Hebrews 13:17 we read: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you. But how can this be if there is no one formally under that oversight — as in formal church membership?

Fourth, the New Testament speaks of church discipline whereby some Christians are put outside the church. In Matthew 18:15–18 excommunication is established in which a person is put out of the church. But if they are not members of the church, how can they be put out? If the church body has no formal oversight of them, how can they put them outside the church? Paul speaks of the necessity of church discipline so that one “would be removed from you midst” (1 Cor 5:2).

This important factor of church government requires some form of formal oversight, and therefore membership. I cannot simply self-excommunicate someone from the Christian faith. This requires an organized and authorized body of officers who are elected to office. And this requires church membership.

In the final analysis, formal church membership is implicit in how the church operates, according to the New Testament.

Dr. Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. is a minister in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Assembly and pastor of Living Hope Presbyterian Church in Greer, S. C.