Many people today have all sorts of memberships. From monthly Netflix plans to smart phone contracts to fitness clubs to political movements, not many people hesitate to sign the dotted line that binds them to certain membership obligations. However, when it comes to being a public, professing member of a local church, quite a few people hesitate and even snicker: “What if I don’t want to join?!” To make a long post short, I strongly believe church membership of some sort is a biblical thing. I like what Marion Clark has to say about this in chapter four of The Communion of Saints.
“If the church is established by God, ruled by Christ, and governed by the Word of his Spirit, then how can anyone refuse to join it? For Christians so to refuse is to fail to meet one of their fundamental obligations as followers of Christ.”
“Christians who resist the idea of formal membership sometimes question whether the Bible says that they officially have to join the church. However, it is clear from the New Testament that the first Christians believed in church membership and kept careful track of their members. Already at Pentecost, new converts were described as ‘being added to their number’ (Acts 2:41, 47; 5:14). The appointment of the first deacons was in response to the danger that some members who were on the rolls of the Jerusalem church were being overlooked (Acts 6:1-7). Timothy’s church at Ephesus maintained a list of the widows under its care (1 Tim. 5:9), which is not surprising, given that the apostle Paul had addressed them as ‘members of God’s household’ (Eph. 2:19). When there was a case of grievous sin at Corinth, Paul instructed the church to ‘put out of [their] fellowship the man who did this’ (1 Cor. 5:2). He assumed that the elders could distinguish between those who were inside and those who were outside the church, a differentiation that requires fellowship on some sort of formal basis. Similarly the apostle John was able to discriminate between those who ‘belonged to us’ and ‘did not really belong to us’ (1 John 2:19).”
“It only makes sense: if elders must ‘give an account’ (Heb. 13:17), they must know for whom they are accountable. To put this another way, shepherds must know who their sheep are.”
There is biblical support for some sort of membership in a local church. What really makes this hard today is when churches themselves no longer worry about membership. People end up coming and going from church without anyone really knowing who’s who – there’s no accountability and it’s impossible to do solid shepherding in these types of situations. So I’m an advocate of church membership and the church I serve takes it seriously. I’d even suggest that if your church has been neglecting this aspect of its fellowship, contact your elders and/or pastor(s) and discuss this topic with them.
Of course, I recommend reading this chapter (four) of The Communion of Saints for futher stody. The entire book is also worth reading; it is a biblical and Reformed discussion of what it means to say the phrase in the Creed: “I believe…in the communion of the saints.”