“It’s not a salvation issue,” the saying goes, “so why do Reformed churches make such a big deal about becoming a church member? Isn’t it just a piece of paper? Can’t I get all the same benefits of the church without joining it? Are you saying a person can’t be a Christian unless he or she becomes a church member? What about the people who worship regularly, participate consistently, and serve willingly, but aren’t technically members? Is it really that big of a deal?”
In this article I hope to answer these and other questions by showing how church membership is both biblical and practical. I have a growing concern that we are increasingly biblically illiterate about church membership. So while there remains a general commitment to church membership among our Reformed congregations, many of us aren’t sure why.
When we lose our biblical focus and depend on custom, we aren’t far from abandoning biblical practices altogether. If we fail to teach why church membership matters, then our exhortations and warnings and statistics ultimately ring hollow.
My goal is for you to walk away from this article persuaded that church membership is not only grounded in the Word but also God’s ideal for your spiritual and communal life. Like prayer and Bible reading, joining a church is what Christians do. So let’s get started.
Where in the Scriptures can we turn to find a direct command to become a church member? Or is this one of those issues where the best we can do is piece together a number of implicit verses until we build a responsible conclusion?
Admittedly, you will find no verse that says, “Thou shalt become a member of a church.” But neither will you find a verse that says, “Trinity.” However, one cannot be a faithful interpreter of the Bible without seeing that God has revealed Himself in three persons.
When it comes to proving church membership from God’s Word, we don’t have to do hermeneutical gymnastics. We’re not talking about an argument from silence. What the Scriptures teach is clear and cogent. Church membership isn’t just a possible deduction from one’s particular school of interpretation. It’s a practice that permeates the Bible.
We cannot read the book of Acts without being impressed by the number of times Luke makes mention of particulars. For example, in Acts 2:41 we read, “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” A few verses later he describes those early Christians as “praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). Later, in Acts 16:5 we read, “So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.”
When the Scriptures say “increased in numbers,” we should take that to mean actual, particular numbers. And to what were they added? To a pool of converts who were left to wander on their own? No. These new believers were added to the church. When they came to Christ they came to Christ’s body.
We also find biblical proof for church membership when we consider the role of church leaders. Whenever the elders are exhorted to shepherd the flock, the Scriptures assumes that they watch over particular souls. In Acts 20:28, where the apostle Paul leaves his final words to the Ephesian elders, he writes, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” Likewise, in Hebrews 13:17 we read, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” How can an elder faithful shepherd people who have not fully submitted themselves to the governance and ministry of the church? Again, the Scriptures point us to actual church membership.
A third rationale we find explicitly taught in the New Testament about church membership is the many exhortations about mutual love and service. Could a regular visitor use his gifts to bless others in the congregation? Certainly, to a point. But formal membership binds the church together in mutual love and loyalty. As we read in Romans 12:4–6, “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.” Paul is talking about members who have willingly bound themselves to a local body of believers.
Church membership permeates the pages of the New Testament. Far from being a good and necessary inference, it jumps off the pages, particularly as we read the book of Acts and the various letters written to actual congregations.
But becoming a member of a church also has practical ramifications. To begin, there is the important notion of accountability.
To be sure, just because you are a member of a church does not guarantee that you will take advantage of its accountability potential. Ours is an age in which membership is often a status more than a reality. For example, you can be a member of your local fitness club without ever going there to exercise, as long as you pay the monthly fee. The people who run the place don’t really care if you show up or not, just as long as youre holding up your end of the bargain.
Í hope that’s not the case in your local church. When you become a member, your church family will care if you choose not to show up. Church membership in a Reformed church is not just a piece of paper. It’s a commitment. It’s a promise, not only on the church’s part to you, but on your part to the church.
When a person becomes a member of a body of believers, he isn’t just in it for himself. The church isn’t like a drive-through restaurant, where you order what you want off a menu, then drive away at your own choosing. It’s a place where you covenant to receive and give.
You might need to rethink your whole concept of membership. The church is a place to practice stewardship. Making profession of faith isn’t the finish line. It’s a wonderful step in the race of the Christian life.
You and I need the church. It’s in the church where Christ gives His means of grace. It’s in the church where others help us grow. It’s in the church where Christ calls His people to fellowship together. But the church also needs you.
Don’t get a big head. You’re not that wonderful, and neither am I. We’re sinners in need of major redeeming grace. We’re so bad that it took God to come from heaven and die on a cross. Yet as a professing Christian, you are called to meet the needs of others. Which people? Yes, your parents. Yes, even your siblings. But what we consistently find in the New Testament about practical Christian living is given in the context of the church.
Whether it’s the fruit of the Spirit, or the many exhortations about using our spiritual gifts, or general reminders to love one another, we can’t ignore the emphasis placed on the church. And not just the church in general, but a local church in particular.
About a year ago, I asked my (then three-year-old) son if he could tell me the name of our church. “The holy catholic church!” he replied. Yes! He was so right!
Yet when we join the church, we join a church. While we’re called to pray for the church around the world, God gives us people right in front of us—living and breathing people—to love and serve. And here’s the thing. The people at your church aren’t always the easiest to love. Neither are you. But that’s what we’re called to do. That’s how we grow. The church has the perfect soil for sanctification. A group of needy sinner-saints. When you become a member, you are connected to them in the same way that your foot is connected to your body. You need it just like it needs you.
I’ll close with this challenge. Join the church. Profess your faith. Become a full member of your local congregation. Fully participate in the life and fellowship. Receive the Lord’s Supper. Submit to your elders. Serve the body. Pray for the members. Attend regularly. Find ways to use your gifts. Love Jesus by loving your church. For all its warts and weaknesses, the church is the place where Christians gather. Stop dating it. Isn’t it time to commit?
If you’re already a member, seek to become healthier. Do not equate membership with a piece of paper. You haven’t graduated from the need to learn. Get involved. Stretch yourself. Move away from your comfort zone. Ask yourself not what your church can do (better) for you, but what you can do (better) for your church.
And finally, a word to my younger friends. While full church membership may still be down the road, act as if you’re a full member now. Here’s what I mean. Come gladly to worship the King. Find ways to serve the body. Encourage the downcast. Welcome outsiders. Come to catechism prepared and humble. Pray for your leaders. Love Jesus. Serve the church. While certain benefits will have to wait (communion), no one said you have to wait to act like a Christian until you make a public profession.
Church membership is both biblically grounded and practically useful. May Christ cause us to love His body half as much as He does.
Rev. Michael J. Schout is the pastor of Grace URC in Alto, MI. He welcomes your feedback at: firstname.lastname@example.org