Is local church membership biblical?

A few days ago, I discussed the link between baptism and membership. I noted that baptism has historically, across all mainline denominations, been understood to mark your entrance to the visible church. I argued that your faith-union with Christ marks your entrance to the universal, invisible church while your water baptism marks your entry to the visible, local church. From this, I suggested it was inappropriate to baptise those who were not prepared to come into membership. Both biblically and historically, baptism was your entrance to membership of the local church. So those who wish to be baptised but not members are, in effect, denying the very purpose of baptism which is to identify with Christ and his people.

Having made the case for baptism as entry to the church, I now want to take a look at membership. Specifically, I want to consider whether church membership is biblical. In a follow up to this post, I will then examine what church membership ought to look like in practice.

It is a relatively recent phenomenon for churches to separate baptism from membership. They want to permit baptism apart from membership or vice versa. There are groups who do not administer baptism or communion at all who may feel they escape the question altogether. Others would venture that not undertaking the two ordinances given to the church by Jesus calls into question whether they are even operating as a church at all.

John Calvin argued, ‘wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there it is not to be doubted a church of God exists’ [Institutes]. Luther similarly argued that a church was ‘a congregation of saints in which the gospel is rightly taught and the sacraments rightly administered’ [Augsburg Confession, 1530]. As Bruce Milne has noted:

The existence of Christian groups (e.g. the Salvation Army and the Society of Friends) who have no sacraments makes us hesitate before declaring sacraments essential to a true church. Nonetheless our Lord clearly saw baptism bound up most closely with the church’s message and human response to it (Mt. 28:19f) and sharing in the Supper as fundamental to its continuing life (Lk. 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24f). [Know the Truth]

Historically and biblically, the ordinances given to the church by Christ have marked out the existence of a true church. The question before us is not whether these things ought to be administered, but how they are linked. I will argue here that the link should be properly understood as church membership.

Jonathan Leeman has rightly said, ‘baptism and the Lord’s Supper are just signs of the thing. Church membership is the thing itself’. Baptism marks our entrance to church membership whilst communion (or, the Lord’s Supper) marks our ongoing membership with the church. Both speak to the same reality of church membership in a local body.

At this point, some might want to argue that baptism marks our entrance to the universal church invisible and communion is our ongoing identification with the universal church. There are several reasons why this idea is faulty.

First, it ignores the reality of how we come into the universal church. We are brought into the universal, invisible church the moment we are united by faith with Christ. The Holy Spirit then acts as a seal of our inclusion into the covenant (cf. 2 Cor 1:22, 5:5; Eph 1:13-14, 4:30). Just as in the Old Covenant the sign and seal was physical circumcision, so now in the New Covenant the sign and seal of our membership is receipt of the Spirit. All those who have received the Holy Spirit by their faith in Jesus Christ and consequent union with him are members of the New Covenant and thus members of the universal, invisible church. If we are already members of the universal church by faith in Christ and receipt of the Spirit, which have already taken place before our water baptism, how can water baptism mark our entrance to a church we have already entered?

Second, this view ignores the New Testament implications of local church membership. John Piper at Desiring God outlines five pieces of biblical data that demand local church membership:

  1. The church is to discipline its members (cf. Matthew 18:15-17). Jesus states, having outlined steps to discipline, ‘if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church’. If there is no membership, to whom do we tell it? This cannot mean the matter must be brought up before every single Christian the world over.
  2. Excommunication exists (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:12-13). Paul is quite clear there are times when we must put people out of the church. The question is how do we formally put people ‘out’ when there is no formal ‘in’? Paul also seems clear there is an ‘in church’ group and an ‘out of church’ group.
  3. Christians are required to submit to their leaders (cf. Hebrews 13:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; 1 Timothy 5:17). To which leaders must we submit? If there is only the universal church, must I submit to anybody with the title ‘elder’? Does that force me to submit to the Westboro Baptist Church and picket funerals because their elders say I must? How do I submit to the contradictory demands of different sets of elders? Apart from local church membership, these things are impossible.
  4. Leaders are required to care for their members (cf. Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-4). Here we have the same issue as #3 in reverse. For whom are the elders responsible? Am I, as a pastor in Oldham, accountable for the spiritual welfare of all Christians in Oldham, G. Manchester, Britain, the world? Apart from local church membership, it is impossible to know precisely who leaders have responsibilities toward. For whom will I give account before God? The biblical phrase ‘those in your charge’ imply a specified group.
  5. The analogy of a body (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). As Piper notes, ‘the question this imagery raises for the local church that Paul is describing in 1 Corinthians 12 is: Who intends to be treated as a hand or foot or eye or ear of this body? There is a unity and organic relationship implied in the imagery of the body. There is something unnatural about a Christian attaching himself to a body of believers and not being a member of the body’.

Beyond this, there is the example of the early church. It is quite clear in Acts 2:41 that those who became believers and were baptised were counted. Later in 2:47, the phrase used is that those being saved were ‘added to their number’. Whatever else we might want to say about this, there was clearly a counting of figures. More than that, there was clearly a counting of figures that deemed them ‘added to their number’. It is clear that this is the local church when we read 2:42-46 which tells us precisely what they were doing having been added to their number. They met as a church, focused on the Word and took part in the sacraments.

Matt Chandler further notes:

In Acts 6:1-6, we see elections take place in order to address a specific problem and accusation.

In Romans 16:1-16, we see what appears to be an awareness of who is a church member.

In 1 Timothy 5:3-16, we see a clear teaching on how to handle widows in the church… In this text we see criteria for who would or would not qualify for Ephesus’s widow care program. The local church in Ephesus is organized, and they are working out a plan.

Scripture gives us a combination of example and imperative that suggest the existence of local church membership in the early church and the requirement for local church membership today. Not only did it exist in the early church, scripture commands and instructs us to do things that cannot be done apart from local church membership.

In the next post, we will consider what church membership ought to look like in practice.

You can read the previous post in this series by clicking the link – Why we shouldn’t baptise those who won’t join in membership


  1. People read 1 Timothy 1:10 and ignored it for hundreds of years. That’s why from the time Christianity became the official religion of the Holy Roman Empire (roughly 325 a.d.) until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, generation after generation of Christians believed slavery was o.k. because it was in the Word of God, and therefore it was the Will of God. There were Christians on both sides – pro-slavery and anti-slavery, they both used the Bible to bolster their side while tearing down the heretics on the other side. Even Frederick Douglass wrote that his master viewed it as his Christian duty to provide charitably for his slaves – when he wasn’t disciplining them. If they could be wrong about that – then it’s certainly with the realm of possibility that the whole theology we have of Membership is just as equally flawed; particularly when it results in bad fruit – abuse, people being chased out of churches, pursued relentlessly, lied about, sued by their churches – Something tells me that if a tree produces bad fruit, then it’s a rotten tree.

    1. With respect, I’m not here to answer for the actions of those who choose to ignore the plain reading of scripture. At best, you’ve reached the not-so-startling conclusion that sometimes people take the Bible and abuse it and/or ignore it (which I already acknowledged earlier).

      But, once again, the abuse of scripture is not a reason to jettison it. It is a reason not to follow the abuse.

  2. Matt Chandler had a famous membership problem in his own church – a missionary discovered that her husband was addicted to child pornography while they were in the mission field. She reported that he had been disqualified from ministry to the organization that was in charge of them and both were pulled from the mission field. When they returned to Matt Chandler’s church, the wife was put into formal discipline for seeking an annulment from her husband who had lied to her for the entire duration of their marriage about his child pornography addiction. The elders of her church disciplined her, but not her husband who was “walking in repentance”. The woman really didn’t want have anything to do with her ex-husband or his church, so she opted to resign; hoping to go quietly. The elders of the Village Church decided that she wasn’t allowed to resign her membership while she was under discipline, and they continued to send her letters telling her as much. By this time, word had gotten out all over the internet of the situation – a woman who had a legitimate reason for leaving her husband and her church wasn’t allowed to do the latter because the elders wouldn’t let her. With all the bad press, they eventually changed their minds. This kind of membership / discipline, legally binding contract and all – it’s nothing like Jesus would have wanted.

    1. It’s not really for me to comment on the goings on of other churches that I know little to nothing about. Likewise, it’s not really for me to see things that are not as they should be and take my cue as to whether membership is or isn’t right from them. We look to scripture, not to examples of where things have worked well or gone wrong.

      1. Matt Chandler supposedly had some of the most Biblical membership policies out there – he had elders and deacons disciplining it’s members as the Bible says they should. But whenever sin enters the picture, even the most beautiful Biblical regulation can become a strangling tool of authoritarianism, the point is that membership goes wrong in even the most Biblical churches of all – in such a way that it destroys people’s faith in God. It doesn’t matter if a church claims to hold to the Scripture if they kick out 100 year old grandmothers for asking too many questions, if they excommunicate shut-ins for missing too many meetings or those fighting cancer for going to chemo rather than church. Membership in that club is definitely not Biblical, even if it’s all about the Bible and it’s what they use to rule over and control others. How many stories of misuse and abuse will it take about this Biblical Membership before you question how biblical Biblical really is?

        1. Inevitably, as you say, sin will lead people to do things that are wrong. For the stories of sin in churches practising biblical membership, I could show you similar stories of sin in churches that eschew it. The issue here doesn’t seem to be the Biblical data nor the implementation of membership, it is the sin that exists inside each one of us. I would want to say that just because people abuse good doctrine and good Biblical practices for their own ends doesn’t mean the doctrine and practice is at fault. Too many people have a knee-jerk reaction to sin and link it to doctrine and practice. That, in my view, is a mistake.

          1. Yet it remains true that these elders and pastors and deacons used doctrine and practice for their own ends, in such unbiblical ways. That gives us two options, stick our hands in our pockets and say “Gee, that’s awfully sad. We can’t do anything about it. Let’s cross our fingers and hope it doesn’t happen ever again.” Or “Perhaps we have to question how this happened and how we can keep it happening over and over again. There’s got to be a problem somewhere – a wrinkle that we can iron out.”
            I don’t care what people say, Churches don’t have the right pursue it’s members from one church to the next, spreading lies and rumors about them and you won’t convince me that it’s a biblical practice.

            1. Where did I argue that it was biblical practice to spread lies and rumours about former members? That is clearly not biblical membership and is obviously anti-biblical. You can point to the fact that such has happened if you like, but I haven’t argued for that anywhere, so you’re attacking a straw man here.

              If what you describe has taken place in the way you describe it, we can all say that is wrong. The problem remains that you are jumping from what you have seen go wrong – an issue of sin – and are using that to deny the clear and direct Word of God on the issue. We simply don’t do theology nor take our practice by copying places we’ve seen do stuff well and shunning the practice of places we deem to have acted badly. We look at the Biblical data and we draw our theology and practice from it.

              What you have described may be wrong, but it is not a reason to jettison what scripture clearly teaches. You aren’t offering any scripture for your position, you’re simply pointing at cases of abuse (as you perceive it) and then rejecting the Biblical call for functioning membership based on bad experience. I’ll say again, that is not how to read and implement the Word of God. We take our cue from it, not from those roundabout us based on pragmatism.

              1. It’s part of membership – high commitment means a lot of stiff consequences for crossing the leaders. I’d link you to a place where people talk openly about their experiences with church membership that went south, but you’ve already said you don’t care about people’s testimonies on the subject. And if you won’t take their own word – well, there’s no convincing you that membership can be and often is abused just because of the way it’s structured.
                Here’s the thing about that – slavery is in much the same category, people used the Word of God to bolster the institution of slavery and said that anybody who didn’t believe in it was a no-good heretic abolutionist. They said that it wasn’t their fault that there were bad masters out there who were too harsh with their slaves, but the theology itself was sound because it’s what God wanted. God ordered masters to have authority over slaves, God ordered slaves to submit to their masters. It was good, what people did with it was bad. Membership says God ordered elders to have authority over the believers, God ordered the believers to submit to their elders. It’s good – what people do with it is bad. What did we do with slavery? We realized that people can’t help but abuse having authority over others and decided not to help them use the Bible to abuse others in the name of God. Can the same be said about this membership?

                1. Maybe read 1 Timothy 1:10 and then tell me that people can legitimately point to the Bible and endorse slavery.

                  Nor did I say I am not interested in hearing people’s stories. What I am saying is personal testimony of abusive leadership does not trump the clear imperatives of the Word of God.

                  The issue as you framed it creates a false dichotomy. The Word of God says much more than just ‘obey your leaders’. Whilst that one, out of context, stand alone command might lead to all kinds of abuse, the question is whether the other Biblical imperatives on leadership and membership are also being followed.

                  You are quite right that I will not take my cue on Biblical membership based on pragmatic concerns. I am less interested in seeing ‘what works’ and ‘what doesn’t work’ in other contexts than I am in what God’s Word says on it. Though I may look at those other places and compare them to the Bible (are they acting in line with it? If not, where have they gone wrong? If so, what works well that I might emulate?) but I wouldn’t look at the Word of God clearly commanding us to do, or not do, something and jettison it because some church down the road did something and it blew up. That’s just not how ecclesiology works.

                  What we need to do is take the whole counsel of God. We look at what it says on membership and leadership in the round and we seek to implement it.

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