What Does the Bible Teach about Church Membership?
The concept of church discipline can make a lot of Christians uncomfortable for several reasons. Either they have seen it practiced and exercised in an improper way, or the very idea of a group of people holding each other accountable for how they live is offensive. As Americans, we live in a very independent culture. Individuality is esteemed and independence is encouraged. The concept of “we” and “our” as pertains to community and a people in a covenant relationship with each other is lost in the vastness of American independence. Because of this seemingly unhealthy emphasis on autonomy, we lose much as Americans when to pertains to living in community. As American Christians, this feeling of isolation can follow us into the church. Perhaps this is another reason that church membership is important specifically as it relates to American culture. A sense of belonging and having a community devoted to each other is rare indeed. Yet when such a community exists, it is a true refuge and shelter when the storms of life erupt.
Jesus tells his disciples in the book of Matthew, “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” (Matthew 18:15-18). This passage is paralleled in Galatians chapter six, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Galatians 6:1).
These two passages provide a fairly detailed overview of the process and heart behind church discipline. Church discipline should have several characteristics. First and foremost, it must be done in a spirit of gentleness and a desire to see the individual at fault come to repentance.
Church discipline that is exercised for the purpose of shaming is not found in Scripture. Unfortunately, many churches who incorporate church discipline do not administer the command given in Galatians chapter six to “restore in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1) and as a result, more harm than good is done to the heart of the individual. The end goal of restoration is completely lost by the wayside.
Secondly, church discipline should involve as few people as possible. As Matthew 18 lays out, an individual in sin should be restored through the attempt of one brother if possible. However, if the one in sin is unrepentant, two or three individuals should approach the individual concerning his sin.
Finally, if unrepentance continues, they are to bring the one in sin before the church. The church is to plead with their brother or sister to repent of his or her sin in a spirit of gentleness and an earnest desire to see their brother or sister restored and to turn from their sin. This is echoed in the book of Isaiah, “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked man forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:6-7).
When the church has done all they can do to plead with and pray for the one in sin but unrepentance still remains, the church, according to Matthew 18, is to excommunicate the unrepentant person from the church. This concept can be found in 1 John 2, “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore, we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:18-19).
All this is done while continuing to pray for the individual to repent. If and when God grants grace leading to repentance, the brother or sister is to be joyfully accepted back into the church and restored. This process is designed by God to protect the purity and righteousness within the local church body. “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:14-16)
An outflow or “consequence” of a biblical practice of church discipline is community, and vice versa. These two ideas are interconnected. One cannot (or should not) exist independently of the other.
The Metaphor of the Body (1 Corinthians 12)
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ… for the body does not consist of one member but of many” (1 Corinthians 12:12, 14). This is the classic “church membership” passage and with good reason. However, the case can also be made that 1 Corinthians 12:12-26 describes how the members of a local church should interact with and relate to each other through acknowledging the need for varying gifts within the body of Christ. This makes sense in the larger context of chapters twelve through fourteen.
In 1 Corinthians 12:12-26, Paul expounds what it means for the body to consist of many members – not all of equal function but of equal value. The ideas found within this portion of Scripture can be applied to each individual local church. “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). We all have roles to play and gifts to use within the church.
Where does church membership fit into this context? Perhaps this goes back to the idea of living in community, which involves all members suffering with those who suffer and rejoicing with those who rejoice (1 Corinthians 11:26). The concept of individual members of a church body being able to exercise their gifts according to the grace of God can also be deduced from the larger context. The key to an individual exercising his or her gifts is to be in the context of a local church body.
A final observation in relation to this text is the term “member” used repetitively throughout 1 Corinthians 12. A common objection to church membership is that membership is akin to membership in a country club or something similar. However, that is not how the term “member” is used in this passage of Scripture. The idea of a member as portrayed throughout this passage is that of being joined to others within the church just as members of one’s body are joined to each other. Any severing to that relationship will be painful and unnatural.
Submission to Church Leaders
Submitting to church leaders is another concept in Scripture that points to church membership. “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” (Hebrews 13:17). Unfortunately, in the independent and individualistic American culture in which we live, submission to authority of any kind is deemed weak and as if the one in submission is unable to think for him or herself. This idea of submission in the American culture at large is not surprising considering how often the term “submit” is used in abusive situations and by those who do not biblically exercise their God-given authority in a loving and gentle way.
Church membership could be viewed as a “practical application point” for Hebrews 13:17. Pastors will stand before God on judgment day and be held accountable for the souls in their care. How do these pastors know whose souls they are commanded to keep watch over if people come and go without formally committing themselves to a local church body? On the opposite end of the spectrum, the author of Hebrews commands his audience to “Obey your leaders and submit to them…” Who are church “attendees” to submit to if they come and go from a church body almost “at will” without committing themselves to a particular church body and agreeing to submit to the leaders of that church? Church membership in the context of submitting to authority and the leaders being held accountable by God makes a lot of sense and certainly makes it easier on both the church members and the church leaders.
In conclusion, church membership can be deduced from Scripture through what to says in regard to how a local body of believers should live in community with each other and what submission to Christ looks like within that body. Membership in the body of Christ is one of the gifts of grace God gives us as we follow Christ. Church membership is seen in the commands given in Scripture to practice church discipline and excommunication, the metaphors of the body Paul gives in 1 Corinthians 12, and the commands to submit to church leadership.
Brittany Proffitt lives in southern Ohio and holds a BA in Religion. She is passionate about Scripture and how God’s Word impacts individuals’ hearts and lives.