If you’ve been a pastor for any length of time, you’ve had to answer the question of why someone should join the church. If we’re honest, many pastors don’t have a good answer to this question. It’s obvious that pastors want people to join, but it’s not as obvious why a person should choose to join.
Over the last couple of decades, I’ve witnessed a drastic over-simplification of what church attendance and church membership are supposed to be. And the result is quite concerning. What was once called “church hopping” in a negative sense, is what many now do on the average weekend. The 2022 State of Theology study found most Americans (56%) don’t believe every Christian has an obligation to join a local church. Only relatively small majorities of evangelicals (51%) and churchgoers themselves (62%) believe all Christians have that responsibility.
When asked what benefit a church member receives that a non-member doesn’t, many are left scratching their heads. Anyone is allowed to attend a Sunday morning service. Anyone is allowed to visit, attend small groups, give a financial gift, or attend special church events.
If the only reason for church membership you can come up with is that it’s required in order to serve on a committee, you’ll likely find most people choosing to never join your church! Some may say there’s no evidence of church membership in the New Testament. Put plainly, that’s simply not true. Although there’s no Bible verse that commands church membership, when we look at the evidence, it’s clear that being a member of a local church is understood and assumed. Here are five ways the call to church membership is evident in the Bible.
1. The majority of letters in the New Testament were written “to the church.”
Before anyone says that these letters were written to the universal church, consider the wording of the letters to the churches in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:2), Galatia (Galatians 1:2), Philippi (Philippians 1:1), Rome (Romans 1:7), and so forth. These letters were written to a specific group and were addressed that way. Otherwise, they could have been written with no addressees or simply “to those who are called by God,” with no locale mentioned. Even the letters written to individuals (Timothy and Titus, for example), were written to leaders in the church. It’s clear that when the Holy Spirit wanted to address believers, He knew they would be found in the church.
2. The offices of leadership show church membership is assumed.
These positions were to be chosen from those who were members of the church. When the first deacons were chosen, they were selected from within the church body. These were men who were known by people of the church and possessed certain qualifications. Those who are leaders, pastors, and elders of the church, had certain responsibilities to those under their care. They were to care for the widows and the sick and “have charge over” the congregation (1 Thessalonians 5:12, NASB). The members are to “submit to” these leaders (Hebrews 13:17, CSB) and to honor them as such (1 Timothy 5:17). This only makes sense if there are members of each local church.
3. Letters of membership were often sent when a member of one church traveled to another.
We see this explicitly in Acts 18:27 when Apollos went from the church in Ephesus to the church in Achaia and in Colossians 4:10 when Mark went to the church in Colossae. And we see Paul reference this in his question to the church in Corinth (2 Corinthians 3:1).
4. Jesus taught church discipline in the context of church membership.
We see this in Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 18:15-20. This is the passage commonly referred to as the teaching of church discipline. We see a clear process whereby a person found in sin goes through steps to either restore them or remove them from the church. This only makes sense if there is membership in a local church. Otherwise, from what would they remove the erring brother? Also, why would the erring brother agree to go through a process at all?
5. Church membership cultivates spiritual growth for the individual.
As a person comes to faith in Christ, it’s vital to their growth that they place themselves under the teaching and authority of the Word of God. By joining a local church, each person is making a statement that they identify with a particular doctrinal position of who God is and what role His Word has in their life. It’s there, within the body of the church, that they exercise the spiritual giftings they receive from God. Those gifts given to the individual were also given, in a sense, to the local church. Each local body is healthier if they have ears, eyes, a nose, and so forth (1 Corinthians 12:12-24). Church membership isn’t simply for the benefit of the individual but also for the benefit of the local assembly.
As you communicate the significance of church membership to your congregation, seek, first, to point out the evidence of church membership within the New Testament. Next, seek to point out that membership is not just for the individual but for the greater good of the whole body.