Why East Asian Churches Need Membership
“Membership? What are you talking about? I don’t find words like ‘membership’ in the Scriptures.” “This is a worldly idea rather than a biblical one. It turns the church into a club.” “Churches should be family, and membership is too formal and impersonal.” “Membership is a Western concept that won’t work here. In fact it’s too dangerous to have formal membership, in case the government sees the names on the list.”
I regularly hear these objections when “church membership” is brought up in East Asian churches. These objections to membership aren’t unique to East Asia. They’re simply human objections that root in our sinful hearts.
In this article, I’ll explain that churches in East Asia need membership for biblical and pastoral reasons.
Why do East Asian churches need church membership? First, they need it because it’s clearly taught in the Bible. It’s essential to begin here because God’s truth transcends all human cultures.
One objection is that the word “membership” is not found in Scripture, but the concept permeates both the Old and New Testaments. Basically, church membership means that a local assembly of believers affirms what they believe about the gospel and who confesses that belief. If any church desires to faithfully obey passages like 1 Corinthians 5 or Matthew 18:15–17, they must have membership in some form, even if they don’t use the term. (For the biblical case for church membership, see here.)
Another common objection is that the church should be God’s family rather than a formal institution. East Asian culture is deeply influenced by Confucianism, which emphasizes the value of family. When the Bible talks about the church, various metaphors are used, and “family” is only one of them. To be sure, families are intended to be warm and relational—and yet, it also contains members, those inside and outside! In East Asia, we have a household registration system, and nobody will allow strangers to register under their resident booklets (name list of official family members). No one complains that this kind of boundary is “impersonal and cold.”
In addition to the biblical reasons, I want to present a few pastoral reflections that explain why East Asian churches need church membership.
First, membership strengthens our understanding of ecclesiology.
In East Asia, we have long suffered under various forms of persecution. Most evangelical, Bible-believing churches are “underground,” which means they are unregistered with the government and do not meet publicly. This has resulted in less formality on an institutional level both within specific local congregations and among churches that might have otherwise associated together.
This persecution has lasted decades and, until recently, generally disconnected East Asia congregations from churches in the West. We lost many of the good teachings and traditions on ecclesiology. For instance, since publishing was so tightly controlled, East Asia lacked many written classics from church history.
At the same time, church polity shifted. We no longer use biblical language to describe leadership, such as elders and deacons. Denominations also disappeared. Under the threat of persecution, older generations focused on protecting the core beliefs of the gospel, rather than ecclesiology which is valuable, but not essential.
If we teach the biblical idea of membership, it will help East Asian churches to rediscover the importance of ecclesiology, and ecclesiology protects and displays the gospel. Yes, the church is the family of God, but the church also displays the dominion of God’s kingdom on the earth. East Asian churches, like all churches around the world, are embassies of God’s kingdom. We shouldn’t treat the church too casually. If we want to protect the gospel across generations, we must protect the church, and membership is a necessary aid toward that end.
Simply put, Christians in East Asia can be edified that we not only need the church to provide benefits for me, but we need to glorify God and reveal his beautiful dominion in us through the local body.
Second, membership helps us avoid some pastoral dangers.
If our current political and social context were like 40 years ago, we might not need the more formal aspects of church membership because the concept was more evident. In previous years, church-going Christians risked their lives. As a result, simply attending an underground church revealed that an individual was willing to pay the price to follow Jesus. Furthermore, both church leaders and congregations knew who belonged to them and who did not.
But times have changed! Even though my country is not totally opened, the level is far lighter than it used to be. You’re not necessarily going to lose your life by going to church. It’s unlikely that you would even lose your job. So, many young people now come to Sunday morning services. Without formal membership, East Asian churches are facing a problem: the boundary between them and the world is ambiguous. Churches are now populated with more unregenerate people. This brings huge problems if membership is not clearly in place.
For instance, church discipline becomes an afterthought. In one church I know about, the leaders tried to discipline a person who pursued an unbiblical divorce, but the attempt eventually failed. Why? Because they simply didn’t know if they had the authority and responsibility to discipline him. He attended this church every week, but when he began to feel the threat of discipline, he claimed that this particular congregation was not his church, and the leaders had no authority to discipline him. After several months, he left that church. No one knew what exactly happened, people were confused, and the leaders were angry and frustrated.
This provides just a glimpse of churches in East Asia, especially in big cities. But if more churches practiced formal and meaningful membership, then the holiness of the church would be more easily protected. If churches maintained a boundary—if members could actually tell who does and does not belong to the church—then we’d have confidence and clear responsibility to obey biblical truth.
One more thing is worth saying. East Asia is becoming more and more modernized. Our society learns things fast and absorbs Western culture enthusiastically. Unfortunately, without the light of the gospel, people are deeply influenced by its fallen and unbiblical aspects. Individualism, post-modernism, and anti-institutionalism also lurk in Christ’s churches in East Asia. Globalization has increasingly made East Asia culture not that fundamentally different from the West. We should exercise biblical membership to correct my people’s growing misunderstanding of love, authority, and commitment.
We should remember that only the gospel can transform fallen hearts. Only the Savior who sacrificially died on the cross for undeserved sinners can turn around our selfish and sinful lives. Church membership puts this transformation on display.