By Pastor Stephen Coleman

In recent days, it seems that the very importance of church membership has been diminished in Christian circles. There are many questions now being asked by well-meaning Christians that must be addressed concerning the importance or necessity of church membership. Is it important? Is it necessary for a Christian to be a church member of any assembly? Many churches do not even offer, much less encourage, church membership. It is more of a “come and go as you please” mentality to put it one way. Some say, “We are all part of the body of Christ anyway, so what is the purpose of joining any particular church?” My objective in this post is to deal with these questions, perhaps not comprehensively, but I hope adequately. I will take it in several phases.

What is church membership?

The answer to this question will, of course, vary among Christians. Some churches require membership as a prerequisite for partaking in the Lord’s Supper (I will have a separate post that deals with the connection between membership and partaking in the Lord’s Supper), or use membership as a determiner of who can vote in business meetings, or they may have additional perks for members. But let us try to define membership. I will admit that you will not find the exact phrase “church membership” in the Bible, so there will not be an explicit definition in terms, but the principles will be present there. From my experience in Baptist Churches and from being around others of a few other denominations, I believe an across-the-board definition is possible. Church membership could be defined as “An official joining of a local assembly for the purpose of attending, supporting, and participating in the gatherings and activities of that church. This membership may include rights and privileges such as voting, teaching, serving or other responsibilities.” This definition will be expanded upon in this post.

Is church membership Biblical?

As stated above, the term “church membership” does not appear in Scripture, but that doesn’t mean the idea of it or the principle of it is absent from Scripture. For example, Acts 2:41 says, “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.” And in Acts 2:47: “And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” In Acts 5:13 we read, “And of the rest durst no man join himself to them: but the people magnified them.” Even the unbelievers seemed to notice there was a fellowship, a unity, a comradery associated with these Christians. Again, in chapter 2, verse 42, “And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” This fellowship, breaking of bread, prayers, distributing to the needy (Acts 2:44-46), and mutual encouragement that they had with and for one another was absolutely essential, especially in the challenges and persecutions they faced in the first century. I would submit that in order to follow this pattern to its fullest in our churches, and to preserve the fellowship, edification, and Biblical and doctrinal integrity of the church, church membership is the best option. Many times, when you become a member, you may need to agree to a statement of faith or set of beliefs, and thereby subscribe to what that church believes and teaches. If everyone attending your church believes differently, thinks differently, interprets differently, and practices the Bible differently, could there not be confusion? I believe church membership does not remove, but rather helps to prevent some of these problems. I would also like to point out that in Scripture, you see the apostle Paul speaking to “the church of God which is at Corinth,” or “the church of the Thessalonians,” and John writing to “the seven churches which are in Asia,” specifically dealing with each one, giving commendations or rebuke, thereby indicating that there was a particular group of people attending each church that he could speak to. If the church attendees were constantly in flux, and one would go here one week, and there another, how would the apostle speak specifically at all to individual churches? This seems to hark back to my previous observation that churches in the New Testament seem to operate as units, distinct from others, autonomous, and consisting of faithful members that attend at least on a weekly basis. There is a final question to ask that must be pondered. If you are not a member anywhere in a particular assembly, how can your faithfulness be measured? How do you show faithfulness when you are attending sporadically here and sporadically there? Faithfulness is an absolute requirement for the New Testament Christian. See 1 Corinthians 4:2.

What are the requirements for church membership?

This will also be subjective, but as we look at Scripture, I believe it will become plain. Some churches accept everyone as members. Others require a verbal testimony of salvation, and some require you to agree to the doctrinal statement of that church, and perhaps even go through a training class to become a member. But I believe there are a few obvious requirements.

First, in order for someone to join a Biblical New Testament church, they must be saved. This is an obvious requirement, because you cannot be a Christian without being saved. Furthermore, if there are unsaved members in the church, how would we maintain the purity of the church, or much less, maintain doctrinal integrity. It is impossible to be a truly Christian assembly with unsaved members. Now, to be clear, you may have many unsaved attendees, and this we would desire! But they could not be members of that assembly unless they are truly saved. This is clear from Acts 2:47: “And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” Many times, the word “saints” is used interchangeably with “church” and “brethren” is used for those in the church. See Eph. 1:1, Col. 1:2, et al. We must remember that the church is the body of Christ, and will one day be taken from this world to be with the Lord, and therefore is only comprised of saved believers (see 1 Cor. 12:27, Eph. 4:4-16, Rev. 21:9-10 et al.).

Secondly, church members should be scripturally baptized. In order for someone to properly join a church, they should have been already scripturally baptized by immersion, or they must be willing to have that done if they have not already done so. Why should this be a requirement? Baptism is the first step of the believer after coming to faith in Christ. It identifies you with Jesus Christ, and His death, burial, and resurrection. It would not seem to be reasonable to join a church publicly if you have been unwilling to make the public profession in baptism. Baptism pictures our being placed into Christ. Besides, a weightier reason is that we see in the Biblical account that baptism is the immediate first step of the believer before allegiance is formally made to a church. I will reiterate Acts 2:41. “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.” They were not added to the church until they had received the word and been baptized. See also Acts 8:12, 36-38, 16:29-33, where baptism is an immediate first step. Baptism, therefore, must be completed before a person can be a proper member of a Bible believing church. In some churches, the baptism itself then becomes the act of joining that church. Nonetheless, true salvation and scriptural baptism are the two requirements for church membership.

Moreover, I would give further suggestions. To be a fully supportive member of a church, you ought to agree generally with all the beliefs of that church. How will you recommend that church to others, invite others, etc., if you do not agree with them? The pastor or the leadership of the church should provide copies of their doctrinal statement to prospective members for their review. Finally, an expectation of the members of a Biblical church should be to live holy lives. I do not call this a requirement for two reasons. First, when you take a person in to the membership, it would be impossible to know for sure if they will live a holy or exemplary life. And secondly, who will judge if someone is living a life that fully meets this requirement? Therefore, I say, it would be an expectation for all members to live holy lives so as to preserve the purity, testimony, and Christlikeness of that local assembly (Eph. 5:27).

Should one get rebaptized when joining a church?

A question that is debated among denominations and can be rather confusing is that of rebaptism. What does this mean? Some churches will baptize you by immersion when you join their assembly regardless of whether you have been baptized before or not. I suspect that this may have its origin in the Anabaptists, whose name means “rebaptizers” and who baptized people who were converted from Catholicism. But why did they do this? They baptized people again because they did not accept or recognize the infant baptism or baptism by sprinkling, neither of which were ever used in Scripture. Therefore, when people were converted, the Anabaptists would baptize them properly by immersion, understanding that the only baptism that is valid is the baptism by immersion after one comes to faith in Christ. Therefore, I wholeheartedly affirm and agree with this practice of the Anabaptists. But what about churches today who will rebaptize people even if they have previously been baptized properly by immersion since their conversion, but have been baptized in a different denomination? This seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the very nature and purpose of baptism. If a person has been truly saved, and properly baptized by immersion, they do not need to ever be baptized again, no matter what denomination they were baptized in. If it was done scripturally and was done after they were converted, then it is valid and does not need to be repeated. Would a person need to be “re-saved” if they came from another denomination to a Baptist church? Certainly not if it was a valid conversion! So why would not the proper baptism count as well? I believe we can conclude that the only reasons we should rebaptize a person are if they were not saved when they were originally baptized, or have not been baptized scripturally since conversion.

How do we receive someone into the church membership?

There will be varying opinions on this topic, so I will only give my own thoughts and suggestions. If someone comes with a desire to formally join the church, they should have a meeting with the pastor, or a church leader that he appoints to discuss the requirements and expectations of the prospective member. Some churches might require a written testimony of salvation. I think that is good, but a verbal testimony should suffice in most cases. They will discuss if the prospective member has been properly baptized, if they agree with the church’s statement of faith, and if they are willing to and intend to live a wholly life in representation of that church and of Christ. If these things have been discussed and satisfied, the person may be presented before the church by the pastor or leader that he appoints. The prospective member would then be formally voted on by verbal agreement within the church body, led by the pastor or whomever he appoints. Their membership would then become official. Membership includes, among other things, voting privileges so that they can then be involved in the affairs of the church. Oftentimes leaders, such as deacons, have to be chosen by the people, and members can vote during this process (Acts 6:1-6).

Is church membership necessary?

As seen earlier, I believe the idea of church membership is certainly Biblical, that it safe-guards a church doctrinally and practically, and that it enables individual Christians to trust in the leadership and members of a particular assembly and show faithfulness to the Lord by their support and attendance in that assembly. Furthermore, the Word of God seems to affirm the importance of these ideas through the practice of the early church to join together, pray together, fellowship together, encourage one another, band together during persecution, and to stay faithful to the doctrine and practice commanded in the Word of God. Therefore, I believe it is imperative that every Christian become a faithful member of a Bible believing, Bible preaching, and Bible practicing church.