No one needs to be a church member in order to attend the church’s worship services. There are many places where non-members can happily serve and participate outside of Sunday morning. The local church is not like a private golf course where you need to be a member, dress a certain way, and pay your membership dues in order to participate. But does this mean that church membership is unimportant and optional?
The Bible doesn’t contain a verse specifically commanding church membership, but Scripture routinely assumes that the people of God will gather together and be committed to each other. The early Christians did not have the ability to “church shop” or have a casual relationship with their local church. In the same way, Christians who live in the midst of persecution find themselves needing to choose whether or not they’re “in” or they’re “out” of the church, the family of God.
There is a growing trend in American Christianity to minimize church membership. It is certainly possible to be a genuine Christian who is not a member in a local church, but there are many reasons why it is healthy and good for every Christian to be a member in their local church.
The Heart of Church Membership
Church membership flows from our identity in Christ. 1 Corinthians 12:12-14 teaches that every Christian is made a “member” of the Body of Christ.
“For just as the body is one and has many parts, and all the parts of that body, though many, are one body—so also is Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and we were all given one Spirit to drink. Indeed, the body is not one part but many.”
1 Corinthians 12:12-14, CSB
Because every Christian is a member of the Church (capital C), it only makes sense for every Christian to be a member of the local church (lower case c). Our membership in the Church is the heartbeat behind membership in the church where you worship and serve. The local church should be a place where Christians are committed to each other (in good times and in bad), carry one another’s burdens, and encourage every member to drive deeper into God’s Word. There is a reason why baptism and church membership typically go together: because they both reflect membership in the Church.
There are multiple reasons people may avoid church membership. Perhaps they have been hurt by a previous church where they attended. Maybe they simply don’t see any benefit or value to it. It could be a lack of trust in the leadership, and they aren’t sure how they will be treated. Most of the time, I think our society’s suspicion of authority has led to a general sense of “why bother” because people can continue to attend services and ministry programs without membership.
Why Church Membership?
Church membership brings about a richer sense of community. Churches should not assume that everyone who attends is a Christian. Church Membership sets a clear line to mark those who have made a genuine confession of faith and in whom the fruit of the spirit are evident. When churches promote community without church membership, they can easily give off the idea that faith and repentance are only optional to be a part of this church community. Instead, the church must keep the gospel in the forefront, which means that while all are welcome to come, the defining mark of the church is faith in the good news of Jesus Christ. Another way of putting it is this: church membership shows Church Membership (remember 1 Cor. 12:12-14).
Those who do not know how to live under human authority will often rebel against God’s authority. Accountability is necessary, because none of us are meant to faithfully grow in Christ on our own. We all need brothers and sisters in Christ who can encourage us when we’re in need, help us grow in godliness and biblical understanding, and graciously point out the places where we need to confess and repent of sin. Sometimes we may even need the Elders of the church to warn us of church discipline in order to help us realize the seriousness of a sin that we are minimizing. Too often, this seems like a heavy-handed grab for power, but the truth is this: God has given instructions to the Church about how we should live under the leadership and care of pastors and elders in the local church (especially in 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus). Do we trust that God’s system for church leadership is good, or will we live as Christians who no not need accountability and leadership? At the same time, the church’s leadership is accountable to the members. Accountability, leadership, and servanthood all go hand-in-hand.
The final benefit of church membership to explore in this post has to do with the church’s ministry and identity in the community. Many churches require membership for various leadership and ministry roles because those leaders are public representatives of the church. To the parents who send their children to youth group, or for the friend who visits your small group… your ministry effectively represents your local church to them. That means the church leaders are giving a weighty trust to those ministry leaders. Entrusting someone with that responsibility who is not a member seems unwise. Membership brings freedom to serve, but it also brings a responsibility for the church leaders to equip and train church members to identify, develop, and use their spiritual gifts (Ephesians 4:11-12).
Other Helpful Resources
Here are a few articles that I have found helpful on Church Membership.
- Is There Such a Thing as Church Authority, Greg Gilbert
- A Pastoral Response to Millennial Autonomy, Kevin McKay
- How Important is Church Membership, John Piper (a sermon, video & text in link)
The following videos are only a few minutes long and may answer other questions not addressed above.