What Is Church Membership?
In the last post, I answered the question, What Is the Local Church? That brings us to the next question: what is church membership?
Answer: It’s a declaration of citizenship in Christ’s kingdom. It’s a passport. It’s an announcement made in the pressroom of Christ’s kingdom. It’s the declaration that a professing individual is an official, licensed, card-carrying, bona fide Jesus representative.
More concretely, church membership is a formal relationship between a local church and a Christian characterized by the church’s affirmation and oversight of a Christian’s discipleship and the Christian’s submission to living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church.
Notice that several elements are present:
- a church body formally affirms an individual’s profession of faith and baptism as credible;
- it promises to give oversight to that individual’s discipleship;
- the individual formally submits his or her discipleship to the service and authority of this body and its leaders.
The church body says to the individual, “We recognize your profession of faith, baptism, and discipleship to Christ as valid. Therefore, we publicly affirm and acknowledge you before the nations as belonging to Christ, and we extend the oversight of our fellowship.” Principally, the individual says to the church body, “Insofar as I recognize you as a faithful, gospel-declaring church, I submit my presence and my discipleship to your love and oversight.”
The standards for church membership should be no higher or lower than the standards for being a Christian, with one exception. A Christian is someone who has repented and believed, and that’s who churches should affirm as members. The only additional requirement is baptism. Church members must be baptized, a pattern that is uniform in the New Testament. Peter said to the crowds in Jerusalem, “Repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). And Paul, writing the church in Rome, simply assumes that everyone who belongs to the Roman church has been baptized (Rom. 6:1–3). (I’ll consider this requirement of baptism further in the next post.)
Church membership, in other words, is not about “additional requirements.” It’s about a church taking specific responsibility for a Christian, and a Christian for a church. It’s about “putting on,” “embodying,” “living out,” and “making concrete” our membership in Christ’s universal body. In some ways, the union which constitutes a local church and its members is like the “I do” of a marriage ceremony, which is why some refer to church membership as a “covenant.”
It’s true that a Christian must choose to join a church, but that does not make it a voluntary organization. Having chosen Christ, a Christian has no choice but to choose to join a church.
This article is excerpted not from Church Membership (pictured above), but Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the name of Jesus (Crossway, 2012). A longer discussion is found in the former book.