The Obligation to Church Membership

PMT 2013-042b by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

This is the second and final article in response to a reader who responded to our blog article “Why Must We Join the Church?” (PMT 2013-036b Dr. Jeffrey K. Boer). In the previous article I dealt with his concern with theological labels. In this one I will get to fundamental point which he states:  “One thing that concerns me about this article is that there is barely, if any, support of your idea of “joining” a church found in Scripture.”

Again since he has brought up an important issue, I believe it worthy of a slightly extensive response.  I must be brief, but I believe a brief reply will help you understand the importance of formal church membership as clearly implied in Scripture. I see so many people in America who have disassociated themselves from particular church membership.

So what is my biblical argument for formal church membership?

First, Scripture teaches that believers are to associate themselves together in worship. In Hebrews the writer is discouraging Jews who have professed faith in Christ not to leave the church and return to the synagogue: “not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Heb 10:25). In fact, in the earliest appearance of Christianity we see the disciples doing just that: “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).

This is why the Lord’s day became so important in the early Christianity. It was the time for the formal, public gathering of Christians to worship. In Acts 20:7 we read: “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them.” Had they not gathered together, they would not have heard Paul’s message and would not have been instructed in the things of God properly.

In 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 we read Paul’s directive regarding taking up offerings. His question assumes churches do gather together in their various localities, and that they gather on the first day of the week: “Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I directed the churches of Galatia, so do you also. On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper, so that no collections be made when I come.”

This, of course, does not mandate formal, vow-taking church membership, but it is a foundational point upon which we can build a case for church membership. Too many Christians are lone gunners for Jesus, sleeping in on Sundays, and declaring they can worship God just as well at home with their own families. Usually all it takes to explode this assertion is to ask a simple question: “But do you”? And if you meet the rare person who does actually worship with his family alone, ask them: “Do you take the Lord’s supper which Jesus commanded us to do until he returns (1 Cor 11:26)?”

Finding a Vision (by Michael Milton)
Presents a biblical vision of church ministry and involvement

Second, the NT establishes elders and deacons as officers in the church. In Acts 14:23 we read: “When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” In Acts 20:17 we read of Paul: “From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church. In Acts 6:1-6 we see the first deacons established in church office by election. In 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 Paul gives the pre-requisites for church office, for both elders and deacons.

But now the question arises: How are we to elect church officers if there is no formal church membership? Can just anyone vote for church officers? Could Muslims come into our gathering and vote to elect officers to govern Christ’s church? Certainly not. The very concept of elected church office requires formal church membership, just as nations require citizenship to vote for rulers

Third, church officers are to exercise a real governmental oversight in the gathered body of Christ. In Hebrews 13:17 we read: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you. But how can this be if there is no one formally under that oversight — as in formal church membership?

Godly Worship” 7 CDs by Ken Gentry
The Church of our Lord is to be a worshiping community. But today we are so experience-oriented and entertainment-driven that worship has been washed out. In this study we emphasize the significance of proper worship according to biblical principle. At the same time the study seeks to counter-balance those who would claim that we may only sing psalms in our worship service.

Fourth, the NT speaks of church discipline whereby some Christians are put outside the church. In Matthew 18:15–18 excommunication is established in which a person is put out of the church. But if they are not members of the church, how can they be put out? If the church body has no formal oversight of them, how can they put them outside the church? Paul speaks of the necessity of church discipline so that one “would be removed from you midst” (1 Cor 5:2).

This important factor of church government requires some form of formal oversight, and therefore membership. I cannot simply self-excommunicate someone from the Christian faith. This requires an organized and authorized body of officers who are elected to office. And this requires church membership.

I hope you can see that church membership is implicit in how the church operates, according to the NT.

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One thought on “The Obligation to Church Membership

  1. Jeffrey K. Boer December 20, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    If I may, I would also like to reply to the reader who questions the fact that church membership is required in Scripture. First of all, I agree with Dr. Gentry’s reasoning in his last two posts on this subject. Second, I would simply like to remind the reader of the two major points that I made in my two articles on this subject, which I will summarize:

    1. BAPTISM IS INTO CHURCH MEMBERSHIP. When the apostle Peter preached at Pentecost, he said, in Acts 2:36, “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” In v. 37, the Jews were cut to the heart and asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?” In v. 38, Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise [referring to God’s covenant promise to be their God and to take them as His people] is for you and your children [as in the OT] and [even] for all who are far off [Gentiles] – for all whom the Lord our God will call.” Then v. 41 says, “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” God’s command is that we repent and receive the sign of covenant membership (baptism). And those who were baptized were counted (numbered) among the members of that covenant. Acts 5:14 makes the same point: “Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.” Membership in the covenant is not simply having inward faith, but also having outward membership in Christ’s church.
    2. PUBLIC PROFESSION OF FAITH IDENTIFYING OURSELVES WITH CHRIST IS NECESSARY. In Romans 10:9-10, the apostle Paul speaks of the necessity of public profession of faith: “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.” We need to publicly identify ourselves with Jesus Christ, not simply believe in our hearts. Jesus said, in Matthew 10:32-33, “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.” This is what those who were baptized at Pentecost were doing. Believing is not enough. John 12:42-43 says, “Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him [inward faith]. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith [outward, public profession of faith] for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved praise from men more than praise from God.” Publicly identifying ourselves with Christ is necessary. We do that when we join ourselves to the church, the body of Christ, publicly identifying ourselves with Him. God’s covenant promises belong only to those who are in covenant with Him. God can save those who are outside the visible covenant, but such people have no promise of God that He will do so.

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