If you are a Christian, then you believe in the trinity. You believe that there is one God and that God exists as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each person is fully God. And yet there is one God. That is the trinity. But the word “trinity” never occurs in the Bible. You can do a word search. It isn’t there. Nevertheless, we believe it. Why? Because even though the word isn’t there, the concept clearly is. You can see it at the baptism of Jesus where we see the Father, Son, Holy Spirit all distinct but working together. And you can see it in the great commission in Matthew 28 where Jesus commands his disciples to baptize believers in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And you can see it very clearly in the gospel of John where we see that the Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God, and there is only one God. And you could go on and on with different texts. So, although the exact word “trinity” is nowhere found in the Bible. The Bible clearly teaches that God is a trinity, he is a trinitarian God.
Well, like the word “trinity,” the phrase “church membership” never occurs in the Bible. But, like the trinity, that does not mean that the Bible is silent on the issue of church membership. In fact, church membership is necessary in order to obey all that the Bible commands. It is necessary to be faithful to what the whole Bible teaches. Though the phrase “church membership” never occurs, the Bible clearly teaches and requires church membership for every follower of Jesus.
Think about it like this. Recently I assembled some furniture from Ikea. Now if you have assembled furniture before, you know that they don’t explain everything in the instructions. The Ikea ones don’t even have words. They have pictures and arrows showing you where things should go but they assume that you know how to put them together. For example, one of the pieces of furniture that I got came with a lot of Phillips-head screws. But there was no screwdriver with the screws and the instructions never mentioned a screwdriver. But we know intuitively that you need a screwdriver to install the screws. Now, imagine someone came along and said, “Nope, it doesn’t say screwdriver so I’m not going to use one.” I would respond, “Yeah, but you clearly need a screwdriver. They are screws and you install screws with a screwdriver. You won’t be able to get them tight without it and the furniture will fall apart and maybe even hurt someone. You need to use a screwdriver.” To which they might respond, “No, it doesn’t say screwdriver.” Then I might say, “But look at other people who tried to put it together without a screwdriver. It fell apart and people got hurt. And look at the history of assembling this piece of furniture. Most people have interpreted these instructions as requiring a screwdriver.” What I want to show you this morning is that it is similar with church membership. The exact phrase church membership never occurs in the Bible. But the concept of church membership is necessary in order to follow the instructions and commands that we receive in the New Testament. It isn’t always explicitly there in the text. Instead, it is often assumed and implicitly taught by the authors of the New Testament.
Ben Merkle, a New Testament professor, says this about church membership: “Church membership is needed to ensure: (1) biblical accountability, (2) biblical discipline, (3) the biblical use of gifts, and (4) the advance of God’s kingdom” (or biblical mission) (Merkle, 33). Each of these basic biblical priorities teach and require church membership. We are going to look at each of these to see how they teach and require church membership.
1. Biblical Discipline Requires Church Membership
Matthew 16:17–19 and 18:15–20
First, we are going to begin with the words of Jesus. In Matthew 16:17–19, Jesus tells Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Then he goes on to say,
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Emphasis mine)
At this point you may be wondering, “What is he talking about?” Well, if we keep reading in Matthew’s gospel, we see exactly he was talking about because he uses those same words again in chapter 18:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt 18:15–18; Emphasis mine)
So, in Matthew 16, Jesus was talking to Peter about what we traditionally have called church discipline. The keys of the kingdom represent the authority and responsibility of the church to declare who is and isn’t a member of the church. Now they don’t do this based on their own feelings or desires, but based on what the Bible says. The church has the responsibility to say who is “in” and who is “out” based on what the Bible says. For example, if someone who claims to be a Christian denies that Jesus is God and does not respond to correction, the last step of the process is to remove that person from membership in the church. And by doing so, the church is saying that they no longer believe that person is a Christian. In Matthew 18, Jesus is saying that the church has that responsibility and authority.
Now, they do not have the power to make someone a Christian or to make them an unbeliever. I don’t believe that is what this passage is teaching. God does that, not the church. But the church has the responsibility to discern whether or not a particular person is a Christian, and the church has the authority to excommunicate (exclude) someone from the local church according to what God has said in his word.
So now how does this require church membership? Well, church membership is how the church seeks to fulfill this responsibility. In the process of church membership, we first examine a person’s profession of faith (what they believe) and their way of life (how they live) to discern if they are truly a Christian. The church then keeps them accountable to continue to follow Jesus for the rest of their life. And, when necessary, the church will enact formal church discipline by following the steps laid out in Matthew 18.
In order to practice church discipline, you must have some form of membership. If you get to the stage where you need to tell it to the church, you need to know who that is. And you need to have a way to exclude that person from the church if they refuse to listen and repent. Church membership is simply how the church seeks to obey Jesus’s words here. An example of this is 1 Corinthians 5.
2. Biblical Accountability Requires Church Membership
Next, biblical accountability requires church membership. Look with me at Hebrews 13:17: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” The command in this verse is very simple and straightforward: “Obey your leaders and submit to them.” Now the question for you to answer is, “How am I obeying this command?” It doesn’t say, “Be friends with your leaders” or “listen to what they say once a week.” There is nothing wrong with that. Those are good. But this is talking about something more.
It shows us what that more is in the next part of the verse. Look at the reason why we should obey and submit to our leaders in the church: “for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” This is submitting yourself to their spiritual care for your soul. So have you done that? Have you submitted yourself to the watchful spiritual care of elders in a local church? How do you do that?
Now this is also a challenge for leaders (elders/pastors). Leaders must be faithful to keep watch over the souls that are in their care because one day they will have to give an account. They will have to answer to God for how they kept watch. So the question that leaders need to ask is, “Who must we keep watch over? Who will we have to give an account for?” Is it every Christian in the world? Is it every Christian in Chelan? Is it every person who ever walks through those doors? Who must church leaders give an account for?
Church membership is how we answer all of those questions. Church membership is necessary to identify who it is that leaders must keep watch over and give an account for. And it is how you as a believer begin to obey this command. At its most basic, church membership is the commitment of a member to submit to the spiritual care of a particular church and its leaders. And it is the formal commitment of the church and its leaders to care for you. It is how we as a church and as leaders seek to obey this verse.
Church membership also provides accountability for leaders. The elder requirements and job descriptions in the Bible were given to the church so that they would hold leaders accountable to them. Membership not only helps you to be accountable to your leaders but it also helps your leaders be accountable to you. If there was no membership, then the leaders could just do whatever they wanted.
Just as you need a screwdriver to drive a screw, we need church membership too keep each other accountable and be faithful to what the Bible teaches.
3. Biblical Use of Spiritual Gifts Requires Church Membership
1 Corinthians 12
Next, the biblical use of spiritual gifts requires church membership. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul uses the metaphor of a body to describe the church in Corinth. The church is the body and each individual member of the church is a part of the body. Paul, writing to the members of the church in Corinth says, “You are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor 12:27).
The reason Paul wants them to think of themselves as members of a body is so that they do not elevate one part of the body over the other. Listen to what he says in verses 24–26: “But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” Every local church is a body made up of members. And those members should value each other and care for each other.
Now the question arises, “Who is a member of this body, this church?” Is it every Christian everywhere? Is it every Christian in Chelan? Is it anyone who attends this church? You see, if we are going to care for each other and be unified, we need to know who is part of this body and who isn’t. That is what church membership does. It identifies who wants to be part of this body and who is willing to commit to be a member of this body. Church membership clarifies for Christians what body they are members of and who else is a member of that body with them.
Additionally, church membership also establishes the New Testament vision of accountability and oversight necessary for the healthy use of each particular gift and for the protection of each Christian against the abuse of gifts. Church membership is necessary to ensure the healthy and biblical use of spiritual gifts in the church. The biblical use of spiritual gifts requires church membership.
4. Biblical Mission Requires Church Membership
Next, we see that biblical mission requires church membership. In Acts 2, we see the Spirit being poured out on the day of Pentecost. Then Peter gets up to preach and explain what is happening. And when he is done preaching, a number of the people are cut to the heart and ask him, “What shall we do?” Peter responds, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” Then verse 41says, “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”
First, notice that the early church kept track of who was saved. They counted them (Leeman, Church Membership, 38). They didn’t just have them make a decision in their heart and then go their own way. They knew who came to faith and who didn’t.
Then they were “added.” Now what were they added to? You might think they were added to the book of life, the list of those who are enrolled in heaven (Heb 12:23). But according to the book of Revelation, that happened before the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8; 17:8). So what were they added to? Well in verse 47 he uses the same word again: “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” So those who received the word and were baptized were added to those who already believed. They were added to the church, the community of believers there in Jerusalem.
We see this in the verses that follow verse 41. Look at verse 42: “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” And look at verse 46: “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.” They were living in community together. They were led by the apostles. They were gathering together to worship. And they were loving one another. They were a local church. So being added means being added to the membership of that church.
You see, God does not just save people to follow him. He also adds them to a local church with others who are already following Jesus. This was and is God’s intention for every Christian. And church membership is the process by which we acknowledge God’s work in a believer and formally add them to a particular community of believers (a local church). That is God’s mission in the world. And that should be our mission as a church. Biblical mission requires church membership.
Biblical discipline, accountability, use of spiritual gifts, and mission all require church membership. Church membership is not something we made up. It is not a tradition of men. It is from God, not because we find the exact phrase “church membership” in the Bible, but because it is implicit in what the Bible teaches. It is necessary in order to be faithful to all that the Bible teaches. Church membership is a necessary and biblical tool that we need in order to follow the instructions we have in the Bible.