A Primer on Church Membership

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The language of membership is drawn from those scriptural passages in which a local church is identified as a body or household with formally recognized and identifiable members, covenanted together for mutual service, edification, and accountability: “that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another” (1 Cor 12:25); “you are … members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19; cf. Rom. 12:4, 5; 1 Cor. 12:12, 18, 25, 27; Eph. 3:6; 4:25; 5:30.) Through local church membership, “those inside the church” (1 Cor. 5:12) are clearly distinguished from “outsiders” (1 Cor. 5:12) who may enter or even regularly attend the church’s weekly gathering (1 Cor. 14:12). A local church is comprised only of those who have been received into its membership and added to its number.

Through local church membership, “those inside the church” (1 Cor. 5:12) are clearly distinguished from “outsiders” (1 Cor. 5:12) who may enter or even regularly attend the church’s weekly gathering (1 Cor. 14:12).

Churches have the apostolic authority and responsibility to receive and exclude members: “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 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” (Mt. 16:18–19); “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” (Mt. 18:17–18). No one has the right to opt themselves into a local church or claim to belong to its number.

Churches ordinarily receive members through baptism, the rite of initiation into Christ’s Body the Church (Acts 2:41); however, it is also necessary to formalize the relationship between the church and the baptized, since a baptized person may relocate and need to transfer his membership to a different local body. Furthermore, if a baptized person falls away through neglect or apostasy, it is necessary to exclude that person from the church’s number in a legally binding way. Without a formal system of church membership, it is impossible to obey Scripture’s commands concerning church discipline and excommunication: “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” (1 Cor. 5:12).

It is the duty and privilege of every Christian to belong to a local church and to eagerly seek that church’s affirmation of salvation through baptism and church membership. Jesus entrusted the church with the authority to represent him in forgiving or withholding the forgiveness of sins: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (Jn. 20:23). While the church can err, and a person’s final salvation is not absolutely dependent on the church’s exercise of the keys, there is no ordinary possibility of salvation outside of the visible church (Acts 2:47; Westminster Confession of Faith, 25.2).

As those who will give an account to Christ, it is incumbent upon the church and its leaders not to raise the standard for church membership any higher or lower than our Lord himself has set for belonging to the visible Church which he called “mine.”

As those who will give an account to Christ, it is incumbent upon the church and its leaders not to raise the standard for church membership any higher or lower than our Lord himself has set for belonging to the visible Church which he called “mine.” Whatsoever is not read in Holy Scripture, nor may be proven thereby, is not to be required of any person, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, thought requisite or necessary to salvation, or used to deprive any true believer of membership in the visible Church (see Articles of Religion, VI). “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). God’s Word stands fixed in the heavens and is our sure and certain hope on earth.

Resources for Further Study

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is a husband, father, and aspiring pastor-theologian, as well as the founder and president of holyjoys.org. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.