The Question of the Need for Church Membership
When I lived in Texas during the 1980s I attended for a while a church that did not have official church membership. The thinking was that formal church membership is not found in the New Testament, therefore it is a manmade practice. Over the years I have encountered others who make the same point as to why they don’t join a church or have an official church roll of members. Years ago Dr. Edward T. Hiscox wrote a well-known guide for church polity and order. He wrote, “It is sometimes said that a church is a voluntary society…But it is not merely optional whether or not a believer identifies himself with the household of faith. He is under moral obligation to do that.” (The Hiscox Guide for Baptist Churches) I believe there are good reasons found in the Bible to support the importance of church membership as Hiscox believed.
Before we mention several Scriptural benefits of membership, let’s just consider how Paul uses the word “member” in connection with the Church as the body of Christ. The literal meaning of “member” is a part of a physical body. Paul uses this word metaphorically very effectively in Romans 12, 15; 1 Corinthians 12 & Ephesians 2, 3, 4 & 5 to compare the parts of the human body to the members in the body of Christ. New Testament word specialist W. E. Vine points out that Ephesians 4:25 means “the members of the whole Church as the mystical body of Christ.” Clearly the universal Church cannot have a worldwide membership roll. But Vine writes of 1 Corinthians 12:27 (“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”), that this means “the members of a local church as a body.” (Vines Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words)
Other Bible students have pointed out that 1 Corinthians 12 is emphasizing the local church body in Corinth. “As a local congregation they were Christ’s body in miniature, a representation of Jesus Christ to all of Corinth.” (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1 Corinthians) Clearly the local church at Corinth knew who their members were because baptism was the initiatory rite that welcomed believers into the local church of the worldwide body of Christ, 1 Corinthians 1:13. “Baptism is and always was the church’s initiation-rite.” (Jeff Reed, Becoming a Disciple) So there was a formal commitment procedure into the membership of a local church: baptism. It identified believers as members. They had made a public commitment to that church. (Note: The identification with the community of believers signified by baptism is often obscured today by emphasizing only the vertical relationship with the Lord that baptism symbolizes. American individualism is likely one of the root causes for this. But baptism also symbolizes our membership in a new family, the church.)
Since in our more mobile society where people are not baptized into the church in which they are currently attending, it makes sense to have a formal membership procedure to demonstrate the same commitment that baptism symbolizes. In fact, three Scriptural benefits of membership include: 1) community (“the members may have the same care for one another,” (1 Corinthians 12:25), 2) commitment (“the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’” (1 Corinthians 12:21), 3) accountability (“Obey your leaders and submit to them,” Hebrews 13:17). We will explore these benefits more fully later. But, for now, membership encourages all three. And that is important.
Your friend, in membership with you, Pastor Brian (:-}).