Church Membership and Choosing a Church
by: Brian Schwertly
edited for this publication by: Bill Wright
The honest study of church government and discipline clearly demonstrates that the New Testament church was not a mere voluntary association, or merely a loose aggregation of individuals. The Church was created by divine institution with a definite form of church government and strict rules of discipline for its own propagation and preservation. The New Testament speaks of pastors (Eph. 4:11), shepherds of the flock (Ac. 20:28), teachers (1 Cor. 12:28), and elders, overseers or governors (1 Cor. 12:28; 1 Tim 3:2; 5:17). There are also deacons (Ac. 6:1-6; 1 Tim. 3:8-13) who handle the financial affairs of the church. Elders are responsible to teach (Eph. 4:11-12), exhort (1 Tim. 6:2), admonish (1 Thess. 5:12-13), “rebuke with all authority” (Tit. 2:15), and preach (2 Tim. 4:2). Church leaders receive their authority from Christ to edify the church and not to destroy it (2 Cor. 10:8). As guardians of the flock they have a responsibility (after following the necessary levels of admonition) to “reject” (Tit. 3:10), “put away from” the church (1 Cor. 5:13) and regard as “heathen” (Mt. 18:17) those who do not repent of immorality and heresy. They also must re-admit into church membership all those who repent (2 Cor. 2:6-8). Calvin writes, “We see how God, who could in a moment perfect his own, nevertheless desires them to grow up into Godly maturity solely under the education of the church. We see that all are brought under the same regulation, that with a gentle and teachable spirit they may allow themselves to be governed by teachers appointed to this function.”
We live in a time in which many professing Christians regard church membership as optional. Some believe that church membership as something that men devised for pragmatic reasons; that it has nothing to do with the requirements of Scripture.
One often hears statements and questions such as:
- “Where does the Bible say ‘Go join the local church?’”
- “Church membership is legalistic. It was devised so that corrupt church officials could gain control over the people.”
- “I’m a Christian but I don’t believe in the institutional church.”
- “The institutional church is totally corrupt so I worship at home with my family.”
- "My relationship to God is a very private and special matter. It is between me and my Savior. I don’t want to impede this relationship by joining a church with all its problems.”
- “I’m part of the invisible church. Therefore, there is no need for me to join the visible local church.”
- “The local church is a good thing, but joining it is a purely voluntary affair and I am simply too busy to get involved with it right now. Maybe I’ll join when I’m not so busy.”
Is membership in a local church purely voluntary like joining the Lion’s Club or the Boy Scouts? Is it something men devised to lord it over other men and gain control over their money? The biblical evidence for church membership is abundant, overwhelming, and contrary to these beliefs as enumerated here.
Reasons for Disbelief in Active Church membership
There are reasons why so many people who claim to be Christians have such a negative, unbiblical view of church membership:
- First, many churches have not instructed people regarding this issue and many churches themselves regard membership as optional. When churches do not instruct Christians on this subject or they hold to an unscriptural view then there need be no surprise when Bible ignorance and unbiblical views abound.
- Second, our post-industrial society coupled with the American view of individualism has not contributed to the cohesiveness of our society. Adults spend most of their waking hours away from home and community at the corporation. Americans move often and thus many times cannot set down strong roots in a community or kindle long term personal relationships.
- Third, many people have had bad experiences with church officers who were heretical, arbitrary and dictatorial toward their members. Many churches today teach heresy (incorrect or wrong Doctrines) from the pulpit and are legalistic regarding ethics.
- Fourth, many people reject church membership because they don’t want to do anything that interferes with their autonomy, missing church for sinful, self-centered reasons.
The solution however is not to abandon membership in God's Church in its local expression but to join a biblical church. That is, join a church that strictly holds to Sola Scriptura (God's Holy Word alone) as the authority for our Faith and practice. A church where church officials acknowledge that they only have authority delegated by Christ and thus can only declare and command what is revealed in the Scripture. God’s word strongly condemns all the unscriptural views regarding church membership, for these constitute rebellion against God's Word and therefore rebellion against God.
The Truth about the Necessity of Church Membership
There is no Biblical excuse for refusing to be identified with the local (Bible-believing and teaching) visible church. While there is no explicit commandment in the Bible which says, “Go join the local church.” But, even so, the mandate for active church membership is clearly understood from other biblical doctrines.
The first area of biblical teaching that infers church membership is church government. Christ instituted the church and through his Apostles set up church officers and laws for the government of His church. The existence of ecclesiastical rulers, governors or overseers presupposes not only some sort of ecclesiastical power (right to rule) but also that there is a group of people to be governed.
Jesus, who is the Good Shepherd of His sheep (cf. John 10:7-18), has placed under-shepherds over His flock for their protection and edification. “The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock."
“And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that...administrations...” (1 Cor. 12:28). “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12). “Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops [literally overseers] and deacons” (Phil. 1:1). “From Miletus he [the apostle Paul] sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church. And when they had come to him, he said to them...‘Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood’” (Ac. 20:17, 18, 28).
Elders are appointed by the Father (1 Cor. 12:28), given to the church by the Son (Eph. 4:11-12), and made elders of the church by the Holy Spirit (Ac. 20:28). Church elders (presbuteroi) or overseers (episkopoi) were the pastoral leaders of the various congregations.
Elders were appointed in every church (Ac. 14:23; Tit. 1:3) and were lawfully ordained by the laying on of the hands of a presbytery (1 Tim. 4:14; cf. Ac. 13:2-3; Rom. 10:14-15). The name elder denotes that a man must be a mature Christian (i.e., a man of experience and of biblical wisdom) in order to be a leader in the church. The designation overseer speaks of the type of work that elders do. They oversee the flock.
The office of elder was carried over into the church from the government of the Old Testament synagogues. Christ made some changes in it to meet the needs of the New Covenant churches.
What needs to be noted is that elders had certain specific responsibilities that presuppose a group of church members who were under their care. One of their primary responsibilities was to rule, govern or lead the church:
- “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine” (1 Tim. 5:17).
- “And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. Be at peace among yourselves” (1 Thess. 5:12-13).
- “Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you.... Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you” (Heb. 13:7, 17).
Note that all these passages assume that a special relationship exists between church governors and the members of the churches that these men have a responsibility to shepherd. Consider, elders are not responsible to look after the affairs of Atheist, Buddhists, Hindus, and other idolaters. Nor are they responsible for unbelievers and professing Christians who are not members. Such can ask the pastor and other elders for counsel and advice but are not under the elders’ authority and cannot be subject to discipline. There are a number of statements in the above passages that presuppose a covenant of church membership. First, “brethren,” professing Christians. Unbelievers and immoral persons who like to occasionally attend a church service are excluded.
Second, established ecclesiastical authority over a specific group of people. Elders are “over you in the Lord” (1 Thess. 5:12). They “rule over you.... They watch out for your souls” (Heb. 13:7, 17).
Church elders have a rule only over a set group of people. They “labor among you” (1 Tim. 5:17). That is they labor, rule over their own congregation.
They must "give an account” before the Lord regarding their performance of oversight. A shepherd is responsible for his own flock, not for all in the forest.
Third, the brethren are commanded to “obey those who rule over you, and be submissive” (Heb. 13:17). They are “to recognize” and “highly esteem” their own elders.
Apart from the concept of a church covenant in which professing Christians place themselves under the authority of elders in a local church, and are specifically under their care, these New Testament passages make no sense and are unworkable, for Christians who do not submit to just anyone who claims to be a pastor or elder, but to their own Elders.
An ecclesiastical (church) function that presupposes church membership is church discipline. A person cannot be cast out of an organization without first joining and being a part of that group? A person who is not a member of a church cannot be disciplined by that church.
Jesus taught that the church (the Elders) when functioning a ruling body has the final determination in disciplinary matters. “ Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like an unbeliever and a corrupt official. Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mt. 18:15-18).
The intention is clear, the local church only has jurisdiction over professing Christians who are under its care. That is, professing Christians who have taken a vow of church membership.
The apostle Paul also taught the necessity of discipline. After rebuking the Corinthian church for not disciplining a man living in gross sexual immorality he wrote, “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor 5:4-5).
Paul’s explanation of the necessity of immoral persons being removed from the Body is about Professing Christians, who are immoral in behavior, can corrupt a church as leaven permeates a lump of dough (1 Cor. 5:6-7). Believers are not to keep company with anyone who professes to be a Christian yet who leads an immoral lifestyle.
Paul makes a clear distinction between the world and the church. “For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore ‘put away from yourselves the evil person’” (1 Cor. 5:12-13). Church discipline is not only the proper and necessary course of action toward immoral church members it also must be applied to church members who are divisive and/or heretical.
“Reject a divisive man (one follows teachings and practices that are contrary to Scripture) and after the first and second admonition, knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned” (Tit. 3:10-11). Heretical teachers are divisive for they seek followers of their own perverted understand of Scripture. In this, Paul is not referring to atheists and pagans but to people who are part of the church. Such men who refuse to heed the admonition of their appointed Elders and repent are “self-condemned” (Tit. 3:11). They are to be considered sinners and wicked men (Mt. 18:17).
The apostle John wrote, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine (teaching, Biblical understand), do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds” (2 Jn. 10-11). “Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them” (Rom. 16:17).
“I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars” (Rev. 2:2).
Further evidence of church membership is found in 2 Corinthians where Paul (once again) used legal terms when he urged that church to receive a repentant person back into full fellowship. “This punishment which was inflicted by the majority is sufficient for such a man, so that, on the contrary, you ought rather to forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow. Therefore I urge you to reaffirm your love to him” (2 Cor. 2:6-8).
Questions You Should Ask Yourself
- “Am I under the authority of church rulers? Is it possible for me to be removed from a church? Is there a group of elders that I ‘recognize,’ ‘highly esteem,’ ‘obey’ and ‘submit’ myself to?”
- If I have a problem with dangerous heresy or gross immorality is there a church court over me that will hold me accountable to God’s Holy Word?
- If I have a conflict with another confessing Christian that I cannot resolve, is there one in my church that I may appeal to (i.e.: COE)?
The New Testament assumes that every Christian (under normal circumstances) should be able to say yes to these questions. If not, then why not? If the problem is simply one of ignorance then now that you know what the Bible says, be corrected.
If you know the truth regarding this issue yet still refuse to obey clear teaching of the Scripture, then you need to seriously consider these questions:
- If a person who claims to be a Christian knows a requirement of Scripture yet continually refuses to submit himself to Christ’s word, has that person really submitted himself to Jesus as Lord?
- Does such a person have any reason to believe that he is really even a Christian at all? (1 Jn. 1:3-5). “Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him”
Reference: Church Membership and Choosing a Church, Brian Schwertley; http://reformedonline.com/view/reformedonline/membership.htm. Is Church Membership Optional? By: Stephen Pribble; http://www.reformed.com/pub/church.htm.