Church Membership and the N.C.L.H.G.A.
In our previous article, we traced the theme of inclusion and exclusion throughout redemptive history. From the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem, God promises to create a people for himself. This new people should be distinct from the rest of the world, both in their confession and in their conduct. Ultimately, we concluded that church membership was consistent with how God has worked through redemption history.
Now it remains to be seen whether the contemporary practice of church membership accurately reflects the New Testament pattern for the life of the church. By church membership, I mean the formal agreement between an individual and a congregation to be committed to one another in life and discipline.
If we conclude that church membership is consistent with the Bible’s commands for the church, we are obligated to pursue it in our churches. To that end, we will consider two main questions in this article: First, was church membership practiced by the apostles and the New Testament church? Second, is church membership required by the commands of Scripture?
WAS CHURCH MEMBERSHIP PRACTICED IN THE NEW TESTAMENT CHURCH?
Was church membership practiced by churches in the New Testament? Scripture gives us indications that the answer to this question is “yes.” While none of these examples are overwhelming on their own, taken as a whole they form a substantial argument. Let’s look at three.
1. Those Reluctant “to Join” the Church
In Acts 5:12-13 we are told,
Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem.
In the wake of the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira, fear gripped both believers in the church and the non-believers who heard of the events. The trepidation was such that many did not dare “to join” the church , presumably for fear that they would suffer a similar fate.
What does the word translated “join” in the English Standard Version mean? The Greek word is kollaô, the semantic range of which includes “to bind closely,” “to join together,” and “unite.” This same word occurs in 1 Corinthians 6:17 to refer to the union that occurs between a believer and Christ. At the very least, the use of the word “join” in Acts 5:13 refers to more than casually showing up, as you or I might speak of “joining the dinner party for dessert.” It indicates some sort of formal connection, more like joining a club.
2. The List of Widows
In 1 Timothy 5:9-12, Paul gives Timothy a set of instructions for enrolling widows on the list of those receiving support from the church. He writes:
Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, and having a reputation for good works…But refuse to enroll younger widows…
The verb translated “enroll” (katalageô) can be either specific (“to put on a list”) or general (“to consider as part of a certain group”). The former meaning would make the point more marked in that the church was clearly keeping an accessible list of widowed members. Yet even the latter meaning would mean that the church was distinguishing between people in a way consistent with the practice of church membership.
Why mention the widow’s list? It’s difficult to imagine the church keeping a list of widows but not keeping a list of members. If it didn’t keep the latter list, what group of widows would even be consider for inclusion on the former list? Any widow in the entire city of Ephesus? The widow who showed up three times four years ago? Of course not. The church would have some specified pool that it was drawing from.
3. The Punishment of the Majority
In 2 Corinthians 2:6, Paul refers to the discipline the church inflicted on an individual as the “punishment by the majority.” While we will think of church discipline more in just a moment, it’s worth observing for now that the existence of a “majority” means that there was a defined set of people from which the majority is constituted. There cannot be a majority of an unspecified group; it must be a majority of something.
Was it the majority of people who happened to be present the day the vote was cast? Could non-Christians then vote? Could any Christians who happened to be visiting from another city who didn’t know the situation vote? The most natural assumption to make is that Paul meant the majority of an acknowledged membership of the church.
Among other pieces of evidence, these three examples suggest that participation in the life of the church body wasn’t casual or easily dissolved. It was a relationship that one entered into (joined) and that came with responsibilities (determining punishment) and privileges (support for the widows). It is hard to imagine how this was accomplished without a clear sense of the membership of the church.
IS CHURCH MEMBERSHIP REQUIRED BY SCRIPTURE?
The Westminster Confession of Faith states that “The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture.”  Since scripture does not expressly set down the practice of church membership (in the contemporary sense), we are left to investigate whether the Bible assumes church membership in any of its commands. Is it a “good and necessary” deduction from the biblical evidence? Again, let’s look at three examples:
1. Church Discipline
In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul instructs the church on how to deal with a man living in open and scandalous sin. For the sinner’s good and for the health of the church, the congregation is told to exercise church discipline against the man by “delivering the man to Satan”.
In verse 2, he tells them that rather than letting the man remain among them, they should “Let him who has done this be removed from among you.”
There are a few things for us to notice from this passage:
First, this punishment is described in verse 2 as removing this man “from among you.” The result of the church discipline is the removal of the sinner from the congregation. This necessarily implies the presence of a formal membership. How else could someone be removed if they did not belong in a formal sense in the first place?
I cannot be removed from the Northern California Left Handed Golfer’s Association because I have never been a member of such an organization. Now according to their website, the NCLHGA will remove people from membership for several reasons (like right-handedness, perhaps?). But I am in no danger of being subject to such an action, because you can’t kick a person out who was never a member to begin with.
Second, the church’s discipline is to occur when “you are assembled together” (v. 4). For our purposes, simply note that there was a definite and formal assembly of the church, and they knew who to expect when it gathered.
Third, Paul means for the church to discipline only those “inside” the church (v. 12). Obviously, the church knew who was an insider and who was an outsider. Proper church discipline is impossible without defined church membership.
2. Accountability to Leaders
The New Testament warns church leaders to discharge their responsibility for oversight diligently. In Acts 20:28, Paul instructs the Ephesian elders to “Take heed to yourselves, and to all the flock.” In Hebrews 13:17, the church is told to respect elders since “they watch over your souls, as those who must give account.”
Who constitutes the flock over which the elders watch? For whom must the leaders of the church give account? The citizens of their city? Anyone who ever attends their church? Of course not. They must be accountable for the members of the church, those whom everyone recognizes have been committed to their care. Church leaders cannot function properly without church membership.
3. Metaphors for the Church
The New Testament makes use of several metaphors to describe the local congregation. We’ve seen in Acts 20:28 that the church is referred to as a flock. In 1 Corinthians 12:12, it is compared to a body. In 1 Peter 2:5, the church is pictured as a building.
In each of these metaphors, there is an obvious relationship between the individual and the congregation as a whole. The individual Christian is a member of the body and a sheep in the flock. The individual believer is, in Peter’s words, “a living stone” in the spiritual house.
Each of these word pictures, so vital to our understanding of the church, demand more than a casual commitment from the individual. There are no informally connected stones in a building. They are cemented together unambiguously. Sheep do not hop from flock to flock; rather, the shepherd knows exactly how many sheep he has in his care. Body parts do not relate to each other informally; they are intricately connected to each other and are mutually dependent. Surely, we best reflect these metaphors when we formally tie ourselves to a local congregation.
Church membership is a thoroughly biblical concept. There is strong circumstantial evidence that it was practiced in some form by the New Testament church. More compellingly, the Bible prescribes a certain organization and inter-relation within the church that is inconceivable without formal church membership.
In our next article, we will consider the relationship between church membership and the ordinances.
1.It is grammatically possible that the “them” of verse 13 refers not to the church but rather to the Apostles. The context of these verses, however, demands that we understand Luke to be referring to the church.
2. Westminster Confession of Faith, I.iv