Membership in a Local Church

Last night Mary Beth and I attended one of the quarterly “All Members Nights” at Vintage21.  This is a night where all members and membership candidates join together for a time of worship, updates, and planning.  During the meeting the pastor made an unsettling comment: “All of you here tonight, the members, are the local body of Christ.”

Now, I am forced to give him the benefit of the doubt.  After all, Vintage21 is a church composed of Christians, doubters and seekers.  It would not be accurate to say that all these individuals are a part of the body of Christ.  But is it accurate to say that only the members of a local church are to be considered part of that local expression of the body of Christ?  Are individuals who have attended, served, given financial over a period of weeks, months, years not considered to be a part of the local body of Christ?

This forced me to consider my theology of membership in general.  Where does the concept of being a “member” of a local church come from?  I can’t recall any particular biblical text that lends to the concept of membership; believers gathered together weekly for worship, communion, baptism, fellowship, and song, but there is no mention of membership logs.  Where have we derived our theology of membership?

Please don’t misunderstand me.  The modern church practice of membership has many benefits.  Membership allows the church to distinguish between her regenerate and non-regenerate attendees (only God ultimately knows who is regenerate and who is not, but signs and evidences of true faith are usually required for membership).  Membership allows the church to exercise church discipline.  I remember an incident in a previous church I attended where a man was openly having an affair, refused to repent and was publicly disciplined by the church.  Later he attempted to sue for defamation of character.  Yet, in becoming a member the individual submits himself to the church’s authority.  Membership in congregational churches insures that only the regenerate vote for those who will lead the church.

Despite all these benefits and more, I struggle to find a biblical basis for the concept of membership.  That’s not to say it doesn’t exist.  I simply don’t have the answers.  Do you?  Does membership in a local church have biblical basis?  How has the concept of membership developed historically?  Drop me a line!

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5 Responses to Membership in a Local Church

  1. Mike Gore says:

    I think there has to be some type of membership for the church. How are elders to know which souls are under their care and are therefore are responsible for their discipleship and spiritual well being? As well how do fellow Christians know who they are in community with and are responsible to care for? I also think there has to be some type of list or how in 1 Tim. 5 could the widows be enrolled for care by the church. Just some thoughts!

    • jacobcerone says:

      I don’t necessarily want to throw out the idea of membership. Part of me has reservations against the concept because it has the tendency to breed a myopic perspective of the church. Sure, we believe that we are only a “part” of the church universal, but when it comes to how we interact with neighboring churches or other denominations many act as if there is no church but the one at which I hold membership. I also feel like the emphasis church leaders place on membership is partly an attempt to “keep the flock.” I recognize that these are broad generalizations and are inaccurate characterizations of many churches.

      For my presbyterian friends out there…how does the presbyterian church handle the issue of membership? Infants of believers are brought into the covenant community through baptism. If non-regenerate individuals who were baptized into the covenant continue to attend, do they hold membership? I guess my question comes down to this: Can a member of the covenant be excluded from membership in the local church? I realize that this might not even be a valid question.

  2. David Franks says:

    Hello Jacob. I am a friend of Mike and he asked my thoughts on your post.

    Here is a helpful article on church membership… Let me know what you think.
    http://www.alliancenet.org/partner/Article_Display_Page/0,,PTID307086_CHID750054_CIID2094578,01churchmem.html

    If I understand your question, I would think that an outside “non-regenerate individuals who were baptized into the covenant community” who starts attending a local church does not hold membership in the local church automatically just by showing up but should make every effort to actually join a true church. Also a member of the covenant (regenerate/ elect is what I am assuming you mean by that) can be excluded from membership because no church is perfect in all of their decisions. Or for example.. a true believer may for a time be living in unrepentant sin and be excommunicated from the body (which hopefully would be the means the Lord uses to bring repentance to that individual).

    I admire your desire to search the scriptures!
    Blessings,
    ~David

    • jacobcerone says:

      David,

      Thank you for the response and the link. I found them both very helpful.

      If I may clarify some points…

      I believe membership in a local church is brilliant. The article you sent sums up all the benefits derived from what we now call membership: 1) commitment to the authority of the church, 2) commitment to discipleship, 3) the ability of the elders and pastoral staff to know who is and is not under their care, 4) financial commitment to the church, and the list goes on.

      Also, I have and always will be a member of the local church.

      What I don’t see is, as Peter Kemeny says, a biblical mandate to become a member. That statement is loaded, I know. Let me clarify…There is a biblical mandate for giving financially. There is a biblical mandate for submission to the elders and pastors of the church. There is a biblical mandate to come into fellowship with one another and be discipled. There is a biblical mandate for all the things the membership entails.

      What then is my contention? Well, I don’t have much of a contention…I am just musing on whether or not the “local body of Christ” is synonymous with the “members” of a local church.

      Let’s take Mary Sue as an example. Mary Sue is a member of a local church in Austin Texas, but she moves to Chicago in order to go to college. She becomes intricately involved Covenant Presbyterian Church teaching children’s Sunday School. She has been doing this for the past 3 years, but she has not become a member. If membership in the local church is synonymous with being a part of the local expression of the body of Christ, Mary Sue has to be a bit schizophrenic. After all…she is part of the body of Christ in Austin Texas, a church she attends less than 1/4 of the year; and she acts as if she is part of the local body of Christ at Covenant Presbyterian 3/4 of the year.

      I realize that I am splitting hairs here…Also, the Presbyterian question is still on the table for any takers. Is there a point at which a child brought into the covenant through baptism must declare himself/herself a believer before becoming an official member of the church?

  3. David Franks says:

    Jacob,

    I will think more of your comment before replying again (which I do hope to do). I just wanted to say that I love how you nailed the typical name for any Presbyterian church. Not another Covenant church!!!! We are not the most creative bunch are we. 8^)

    ~David

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