Church Membership

February 21, 2008

What does it mean to be a “member” of a congregation?

We read of quite a few congregations in the New Testament. Paul wrote two letters to “the church of God in Corinth.” Galatians was written to “the churches in Galatia.” Romans chapter 16 mentions multiple churches (Gk ekklesias, or assembly). The term “church” referred to the people who assembled together regularly in a particular place. It was obvious who was a part of a particular church. What made a person a member of a certain church was that they were a Christian, and that they assembled with that group.

When a person went from one congregation to another, there seems to have been a practice of sending a letter of recommendation:

Act 18:27 When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. On arriving, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed.

1Co 16:3 Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem.

2Co 3:1 Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you?

Php 2:29 Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor men like him,

Col 4:10 My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.)

3Jn 1:10 So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.

The purpose of those letters was to confirm the fact that the person was a faithful Christian. The letter did not add another requirement for church membership. Diotrephes apparently was refusing to accept some from another congregation who came with a proper recommendation — and was publicly “called out” for his refusals.

Shepherds need to know who is part of the flock under their care. So there needs to be some kind of communication to let the shepherds know the sheep, and to let the sheep know the shepherds. But what should be the process for accepting a member into a local congregation?

It seems reasonable (and there is biblical precedent) to confirm with the previous congregation that the person is a faithful Christian. But a Christian’s “membership” in the congregation should not be contingent upon the leadership exercising that option. It also seems reasonable to explain to the new member what the local leadership expects of all the Christians (Heb 13:17). But again, their “membership” should not be contingent on leadership getting around to having that conversation. As soon as a Christian begins assembling with the rest, he or she is a part of the assembly (aka church.) A Christian should not be expected to jump through hoops to become a member of the local congregation. There should be no probationary period!

Once someone is a member of a congregation, they should be considered a member until they move to another congregation, or until they fall away. If they move, there should be a positive communication with their new congregation to be sure that shepherds there are aware of their new sheep. If a person is showing signs of falling away, multiple persistent attempts must be made to bring them back. A sheep does not cease to be the responsibility of the shepherds when the sheep wanders away! (Eze 34:2-6 Eze 34:12 Eze 34:16) It is not the responsibility of the sheep to seek out the shepherd. Rather the shepherd is responsible to retrieve the wandering sheep. Wandering sheep are still part of the flock, and are still the responsibility of the flock’s shepherds.

The modern concept of church membership is not found in the scriptures. It seems to have been invented to simplify the job of shepherds. But in effect it gives shepherds an excuse not to do an important part of their jobs. I don’t think that excuse will stand up on the day of judgment.

Those are my thoughts on the question. I am interested to know how other congregations handle this.


  1. Alan-Very interesting topic and one that I never hear people discuss. Thanks for bringing it up. To me, the churches I have been in treat “membership” more like we are in a country club or something. Again, this is not something that you find in the Bible so every church is probably different. In the church I served previously I treated the people who were there consistently as members whether they had “placed membership” or not. And I convinced our elders to do the same and it worked well. In the church where I am currently I have adopted the same philosophy. Here we actually have two couples who have been here around 5 years who have never placed membership officially but they are two of our most active couples. They do everything you could ever want them to do. They are as involved as anyone else. They just never placed membership. I didn’t actually know this until recently so I am unsure if the topic has ever been raised with them or not. I guess for me, the membership thing is interesting because I consider those two couples to be better members than many people who have placed their membership with our church but who rarely, if ever, show up around here. I guess I don’t really have a point to make other than to tell that example. I just think that membership is a deeper thing than we have made it and we probably need a more defined theology of membership than we have had in the past.Kent

  2. Hello AlanGreat TopicHave you considered the difference between being a member in a small church and being a member in a large church?

  3. Hi Kent,I think the widespread concept of church membership is a side effect of the splintered nature of the church into hundreds of denominations. Since there are so many flavors, the general approach is to shop around for the one that seems best to the individual. Maybe that’s the way to make the best of a bad situation. But ideally I think there should only be one option in a given place, and that option should be entirely sufficient in every way. Hi anonymous,I’m not sure what the difference would be between large and small. Maybe this is what you’re getting at: It’s easier to get lost in the crowd in a big church. You might not know whether a stranger at the service is “one of us” or not. So people might hang around for quite a long time without ever getting on the radar of church leaders. More needs might go unmet — both spiritual and physical.

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