Is church membership biblical? Like so many questions that is one Christians have debated for a long, long time. The reason for the debate is quite understandable. After all, there is no Book of Membership in the Bible that explicitly tells us. Because of that reason, for twenty years I argued against church membership, even though for the sake of peace my wife and I joined a church when my pastor friend asked us to.
In spite of all those years of arguing, I have come to believe that the Bible upholds formal church membership. Here’s why:
There is Spiritual Membership in Christ’s Invisible Church
What does that mean? A traditional way of understanding Christ’s Church, well at least in the Protestant traditions, is to describe Church in ways that the Bible does. God’s people are both here on earth and with Christ in heaven. They are scattered throughout all time but are present now. They are around the world and are local. The Church is militant (in spiritual warfare now) and victorious in Christ. They are in Christ and Christ is in them.
One of the ways to speak of the Christ’s Church is to say that it is invisible. Theologians use this to mean that we can never really see the reborn soul or spirit of a person so we cannot absolutely know if someone is a true believer in Jesus Christ. Only God can see the soul of who is saved and who is not, so in this sense the true Church is invisible.
Many Bible teachers will also use the term “invisible Church” to talk about those believers who have gone on to be with the Lord. Hence, since they are only spiritual beings now, who will get their new bodies at the great resurrection, we cannot see them. Again, they are the invisible Church.
Certain mystical groups, as well as some denominations such as the traditional Anabaptists speak in terms of the Church as only being invisible. They will generally conclude that if you really believe in Jesus you are a true member of the Church and that is all there is to it. Of course I’m being simplistic in representing this position. The Christian Gnostics and other heretical groups claimed that faith in Jesus was all and only about the invisible soul and the unseen heart. They were against anything material (stuff that could be seen) because they believed that all things material were evil.
The Lord’s Old Covenant Community (Israel before the time of Jesus) was, in its truest form, invisible. Believers in the One True God (Deut. 6), were later called God fearers or the Remnant. They were believers in God by a faith that was from the depths of their souls. How did anyone know? By their faith-filled actions and especially by their faith-filled obedience to God’s Law-Word (Deut. 6:1-9; Deut. 10:12-13; Psa. 19:11; Psa. 119:101, etc.). Just as today, where there are many who claim to be Christian, all who were of Israel claimed to be real believers. They would make that claim because they were born into a Jewish home, were circumcised (if male), and followed the Law. Yet, only those with genuine, saving faith in the One True God of promises were the true Israel (Rom. 9:6; Gal. 3:8-11; Heb. 10:38; Heb. 11).
Genuine membership in the Lord’s New Covenant Community is also invisible. It is by faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 2:8-9), worked out in obedient loving acts (Gal. 5:6; James 2:14-26). God continually but invisibly adds new souls to the Body of Christ (Acts 2:42, 47; 11:25f; 14:21, 23). Those who have genuine faith in Jesus Christ also become members of that invisible and universal Church (e.g. Acts 2:47; 1 Cor. 12:27; Eph. 4:16).
There is also Spiritual Membership in Christ’s Visible Church
While real spiritual faith in the heart-mind-soul of an individual cannot be seen, it can nevertheless be observed. God can only see the inner being and absolutely know if that person has a living and saving faith in the Lord or not. Merely saying one is a believer does not make it so. However, real faith has credentials for genuine membership in God’s invisible family. That means real faith is observed by outward signs, symbols and actions such as spiritual fruit and good works.
The Old Testament Covenant Community had outward credentials of membership
Who was a member in the Old Testament community of Israel? First, one who was born into a Jewish family. An authentic Jewish family was descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and who followed the Laws of Moses. Next, a male child of Israel or a male convert who was circumcised in the name of the One True God. The sign of God’s covenant with a special people (Israel) was circumcision. Back then, males were covenant and federal representative. Wives and daughters of these representatives had a bonded allegiance to their God (Gen. 17:7,10; Ex. 12:43-49; Rom. 11:17-20). If you were not circumcised (as male) you were cut off from God’s community. Circumcision was to be a sign of God’s covenant promises made initially to Abraham, yet also given to God’s people. It was expected that any person with that physical, visible sign would attach real faith (read Romans 3:28-30; Rom. 4:11; and Galatians 3). Every believer in the Old Testament was required to identify himself outwardly and visibly with God’s covenant people (Gen. 17:9-14; 23-27; 34:14-17). That’s how they knew a person had faith in the only true and living God.
While the outward sign of membership in God’s community was circumcision there was also the practice of defining who were indeed members by recording or “numbering” them. A registry of names was based upon federal headship (fathers of each family in clans and tribes in Israel). This is where we get the book of Numbers. This practice of keeping a registry of members reflected the universal, eternal Book, the archetype of the earthly register of God’s people (Ex. 32:32f; Mal. 3:16). Also, recording the names of the priests and their families who would “inherit the Kingdom” served to separate and exclude those who were outside of the community (Deut. 23:1-3). This anticipated a time when the names of Gentiles who came to trust in the One and Living God would be placed on the rolls of Zion (Psa. 87:4-6). Zion was the symbol for the gathering of God’s true faithful.
Now, if you lived back in those days it would have been unacceptable for you to tell others that you believe in the one, true and living God because you know this in your heart of hearts, but did not need anything else to prove you were a God Fearer. God’s Old Covenant “church” (by the way, the term church means ‘called out ones,’ which Israel most certainly was) required visible symbols of your membership. Without them they could not accept that you had any real faith in God; and they had lots of Bible verses to back up their claims. For centuries leading up to the time of Jesus, to be a real God Fearer meant that you had to have those outward signs.
But then Jesus came along and after he sent the Holy Spirit (Acts 2) the truth was made clear: members of God’s true community of faith were members because of faith in the Messiah, Jesus. Jesus, as it turned out, was the point of all God’s promises. Those outward symbols Israel had should have demonstrated real invisible faith, but those outward elements did not give true faith. This, by the way, was a key debate that was settled at the New Covenant community’s first general assembly (Acts 15). It is first and foremost about real heart-mind-soul faith in God through Jesus Christ. Faith in Christ redeems you and places you in God’s Church. Not the outward works of Law or the symbols of faith (like circumcision or the Passover).
The New Covenant Community has outward credentials of membership
Jesus and his apostles (namely Peter and Paul) set the record straight: those who are made right with God are made right through faith in Jesus Christ. Faith’s outward credentials were seen in things like circumcision, participation in worship such as the Passover, and doing good works as defined by God’s Law. Invisible faith with outward signs. However, outward signs did not necessarily prove real, inward faith! For the most part, the Jews thought it did. Paul wrote the letters of Romans and Galatians to set the record straight.
The New Testament Bible also tells us that:
- God’s “called out ones” (Church) are also outwardly visible and local (Mt. 18;20; Acts 11:26; 14:23; 20:17; 1 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:2; 1 Thess. 1:2). Isn’t that obvious? You and I can see corporeal beings who claim to believe in Jesus Christ. We just don’t see what’s in their hearts.
- New Testament believers are the building blocks of the new Temple of God on earth (Mt. 16:16; 1 Pet. 2:5; Eph. 2:19ff; 2 Co. 6:16). This temple, though not made with hands, is the visible display of God’s glory on earth today.
- The visible Church consists of all people who make a profession of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 10:9-10), who are baptized, along with their children (Acts 2:39; Eph. 6:1,4), and are drawn into local assemblies of the Body of Christ (Acts 2:47).
- To enter into Christ’s visible Church (Acts 2:38-39; 16:31) was and is by a credible and verbal profession of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, and by being baptized in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19; Acts 2:38-39). Baptism is the true initiation rite. This does not happen singularly and personally, but expressed outwardly to a local group of God’s people.
However, there comes another question – How is one recognized as a genuine member of the universal and invisible Church when he enters into union with a local and visible church? The answer passed down the generations since the early church is:
- By hearing their confession of faith in Jesus Christ, witnessing their baptism, and observing their faith-filled lives in action (Mt. 10:32; Acts 2:37-42; Heb. 10:25; 1 Jn. 2:10).
- By ultimately uniting with a local church by making a covenant with God that involves a public commitment to be a part of the local assembly (Rom. 14:7; 15:7; 1 Cor. 12:27),
- And by affirming their commitment to the local church and the local church’s commitment to them through public vows of mutual love and support (1 Tim. 6:12 cp. Psa. 50:5),
You should know that the Orthodox (Greek, Russian, Coptic, etc.) Church and the Roman Catholic Church strongly emphasize the outward expressions. Some of their theologians have gone so far as to dismiss any notion of an “invisible Church.” These denominations, taking their understanding from some of the early Church Fathers, such as Augustine, will say that one is only a true believer who has the Church as his or her spiritual mother, and who has received Christian baptism in their denomination and has been confirmed in the Christian Faith by their patriarch or bishop.
The First Century Church practiced formal membership by having the names of believers “added to the rolls” (which is the same meaning of “numbered” in the Old Testament). By the mid to late second century there were so many people claiming to be followers of Jesus that church elders around the world began a practice that remains in most churches and denominations today. As we have seen, merely claiming to be a believer in Jesus does not make it so. Only God knows with certainty.
Many people were professing Jesus and even being baptized. Yet, there were people who had an unbiblical understanding of Jesus (for example, he was just a prophet or he was merely a good spirit-ghost or he was a magical philosopher). To guard God’s Church the leadership wisely put into practice two things: making simple statements of faith (creeds) and catechizing children and new converts. Catechism is a question and answer method of teaching. That’s why we have the Apostle’s Creed (“creed” means “I believe” and is a statement of faith), the Athanasian Creed, and other confessions of faith.
Even in the latter part of the first century we see churches requiring new converts to be catechized before they are baptized and before they were allowed to partake of the Lord’s Supper. In large part, they based this on 1 Corinthians 11. As an aside, this practice led to having two separate parts of worship. The first part focused upon singing psalms, hymns, spiritual songs, prayers, reading God’s Word and the preaching or explaining God’s Word. The second part was having the Lord’s Supper, often in conjunction with a fellowship meal. Between the first part often called The Order of the Word, and the second part called The Order of Communion there was an intermission. The ushers, deacons, or leadership of the church would literally usher out those who were new or who had not finished their Bible training or who were merely curious inquirers.
This practice led some people to spread the rumor that Christians were cannibals who ate body parts and drank blood. This rumor, became the basis for some of the local non-Christian civil authorities to accuse, arrest, charge and prosecute Christians with cannibalism and other barbaric acts.
Since the very early days of the New Covenant Church, the practice of showing credentials of a true and living faith in Jesus continued. Most churches have it today: public confession or testimony of faith in Jesus Christ, baptism, a commitment to Christ’s local church, etc.
So, is Formal Church Membership Biblical?
Well, this is a long way around to answering the question: Is church membership biblical? In other words, can it be shown by the Bible that having formal membership in a local church of Jesus is justified? Yes.
Ultimately, the question comes down to whether one is in fact spiritually identified with Jesus Christ (Phil 4:2-3; Acts 1:26; 2:41; 4:4). As pointed out, this invisible aspect is only properly known by God. Here the key question is not so much where our names are written but where His name is written (Mt. 28:19; Rev. 14:1).
At the same time, the visible credentials for professing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is not left up to the individual. True believers are part and parcel of the visible Body of Christ, the one new Nation, the People of God, the Family of the Father (Eph. 2:20-21; 1 Pet. 2:4-5; 1 Pet. 2:9-10). The only evidence we have, which God has given to us, is a person’s verbal profession and testimony, baptism, living out good works of love that prove a living faith (James 2:14-26), and a commitment to the local body of Jesus (Heb. 10:25; 12:23).
This rather “both-and” (invisible and visible, universal and local, in heaven and on earth, etc.) understanding goes way back to the first century Church. At times groups have emphasized one expression to the exclusion of the other (as already pointed out: the traditional anabaptist favor the invisible while the Roman Catholics place an emphasis upon the visible). The broadly and biblically orthodox (meaning “right belief”) Church has held to a both-and view and practice. It came to be more clear during the time of the Reformation of the Church and has remained so in most Protestant and Evangelical churches today.
Are you a member of a local church? If you claim to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ then you ought to find a good, biblical, healthy church and join it!
For Christ and His Church;