Occasionally I run into people who make the claim that church membership is not mandated in the Scriptures and is therefore, optional for us in the Christian life. Is church membership biblical? Is it merely an optional choice for some people? Where exactly do we find the answer to this important question? As always, the sufficient source for such questions is the Word of God. As we turn the pages of Scripture, we learn that God places much emphasis upon His Church.
Church Membership and Shepherding
From the very beginning days of the church, we see evidence that the people knew who was “in” and who wasn’t. They numbered one another, as we see clear evidence in Acts 2:41. The church grew instantly from a group of 120 in the upper room to an astounding 3,120+ in just one sermon. There was a need to number and organize for shepherding purposes from the beginning. It seems clear that they knew who was part of the church and who wasn’t.
As the church continued to grow in Jerusalem, the numbers quickly escalated and multiplied. Deacons had to be appointed (see Acts 6) in order to serve the church. The language in Acts 6 indicates that the church was organized as a known group. The apostles encouraged the church to pick out from “among them” these seven men. How could they be chosen to serve a random disorganized group unless the membership of the church not random and disorganized? It’s clear that functional church membership was already in place.
In Ephesians 4:11-12, we see specific language about pastors equipping the saints for the work of ministry and the building up of the body of Christ. If there is no mandatory church membership, how are we to be equipped for the work of ministry? Are we to seek random pastors with random sermons and submit to their teaching? It’s clear from such passages that God has designed His Church to be manifested in local, tangible, visible New Testament congregations that have specific structures from government to discipleship. To avoid this God given model is a dangerous position to embrace.
Church Membership and Discipline
As we read of Jesus’ command to practice functional church discipline in the life of the church, how would this be possible if the membership of the church was not clearly known? How could a person be treated like a tax collector and publican (which means to be put out of the church and disassociated with) if there was no understanding of church membership?
As Paul wrote to the church at Corinth about the sin of adultery and incest, he instructed the church “Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (1 Cor. 5:2). How could a person be put out of the church if there was no definite boundaries for church membership? As Paul continues to admonish the church at Corinth, he makes a distinction between those who are “inside” and those who are “outside” the church. How would this be possible if church membership was not practiced from the beginning?
Church Membership and Authority
From a pastor’s perspective, how is he to care for specific souls under his authority if there is no explicit lines regarding church membership? In Hebrews 13:17, the text clearly speaks of the leaders overseeing the church and how the church should properly submit to authority. If there is no such thing as biblically mandated church membership, exactly who do we submit to? Do we submit to random pastors on YouTube or in our community? From my perspective as a pastor, who do I oversee and care for spiritually? Do I oversee my entire town or city?
As Paul finished his time in the city of Ephesus, he called a meeting with the elders of the church. Once again, just in that single statement we see specific elders serving a specific church. He charged them with responsibility to oversee the flock of God that the Holy Spirit had made them overseers (Acts 20:28). Paul then warned them regarding fierce wolves who would come in among them—not sparing the flock (Acts 20:29). Notice the terminology. Paul said, “among you” and talked of the wolves not sparing “the flock.” This language points to the idea of a known and functioning church membership.
Kevin DeYoung has accurately stated, “The man who attempts Christianity without the church shoots himself in the foot, shoots his children in the leg, and shoots his grandchildren in the heart.”  Church membership is, therefore; a mandatory privilege given to us by God, by His grace, and for His glory. The church is God’s will for your life—don’t neglect it. Don’t give your ear to fringe groups and subChristian teaching regarding the local church. God has not designed His children to live the Christian life alone. We need the church.
- Kevin DeYoung, The Hole in Our Holiness, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 132.