The Importance of "Church Membership"
The Sequoia National Forest in central California is home to some of the most amazing and oldest trees in the world. Sequoias are the world’s largest single standing trees by volume. They grow to a height of 164-279 feet and a diameter of 20-26 feet. The oldest known Sequoia is 3,500 years old. They have clearly been around for a long time and do not buckle easily to the harsh conditions of nature. What makes all this so amazing is that despite their incredible height, Sequoias have a shallow root system and only goes down 12-14 feet deep and they have no tap root. Yet how have they been able to stand for so long and not be toppled by the strong winds that often come across the Sierra Nevada Mountains? They have a matting root system that can occupy as much as one acre of ground and interlock with the roots of dozens of nearby Sequoias. In other words, they hang on to each other and support each other and thus have been able to remain standing for thousands of years. Christians could learn a lot from Sequoias.
For instance, the question of church membership often comes up in my conversations with other believers. There is a trend making its way across much of the western world that the idea of “official” church membership is not biblical. There are no examples in the Bible and no scripture texts to support the notion of formal church membership or so the argument goes. But is this really the case? On the contrary, there are at least four reasons from scripture and history that can be made to support the idea that there is and should be such an idea as official church membership.
First, the assumption is made by the apostles in nearly every letter written to a specific church in the New Testament that those within the visible church are all believers. To the church in Rome, Paul writes: “To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints” (v.7). To the church in Corinth, Paul writes: “To the church of God that is in Corinth” (v.2). Most Bible scholars believe that the letters written to churches in the NT would have been read aloud to the congregation as most people at that time were illiterate. The apostles certainly knew this and yet they regularly address all those present as being “beloved by God and called to be saints”, and then throughout the letters continue to address the hearers as believers in Christ. This was possible because in NT times those who attended Christian churches on Sunday morning typically were genuine believers, since being a Christian was not the cultural norm, but rather the exception.
However, what happened when a person demonstrated by his actions that he was not a genuine believer? That person was to be put outside the church. This is the second argument that church membership certainly existed in the NT, because people were considered to either be inside the church or outside the church. And those allowed inside the church should only be believers. In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul condemns the church for allowing someone to remain inside the church who was actively engaged in sexual immorality. His instruction to the church is to put that person outside the church (vv.7, 9-10). Note the stark contrast Paul makes in vv.12-13. Paul’s point is that those inside the church should be believers and it is they the church is to judge (i.e., hold accountable). Those outside the church are unbelievers and God will judge them. Thus, church membership consisted of believers and their children being allowed to be present inside the visible church. This made sense in a pagan culture where Christianity was the exception, not the norm. At a time when attending church could endanger one’s life, it was fairly safe to assume those present on Sunday morning were serious about their faith. However, in our modern American society (particularly in the South) where attending church and owning a Bible is a way of life, how is the church to deal with unbelievers wanting to attend church and hear God’s word proclaimed? How does a church determine who are genuine believers and who are not? The only certain approach is to ask each person for a profession of faith. However, what does a church do with those who do not profess saving faith? It would be a stretch and a contradiction of the Great Commission to argue that unbelievers should not be allowed to attend church and hear God’s word proclaimed. What is important is that a distinction be made between those who are saved and those who are not, those who are a part of the church and those who are just visiting. Once that distinction is made, it stands to reason that a register be compiled so that all may know who the believers are and who they are not, who is a part of the church and who is just visiting—i.e., membership.
The third biblical argument for church membership is that only believers should participate in the spiritual life and ministry of the church. Biblically grounded Christians agree that unbelievers should not engage in the preaching or teaching of God’s word; they should not lead the saints in worship; they should not administer the elements of the Lord’s Supper, etc. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul makes this statement: “what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (vv.20-21). Paul posits that unbelievers cannot participate in the spiritual life and worship of the church because they do not worship the same God as believers. Hence, it is imperative that churches establish some formal method of determining who the saints are and who they are not. To that end, professing believers who steadfastly refuse to become members of a local church should not be allowed to participate in the spiritual life and worship of the church, for by refusing to join they are indicating some significant disagreement with the church or they are expressing a desire to not be held accountable by their fellow saints.
Fourth, church membership is a means of protection through mutual accountability. In Matthew 18 Jesus lays out the steps of church discipline (vv.15-20); that is, he lays out the process through which believers are to hold one another accountable and look out for each other. The NT tells us in numerous places that believers are to hold each other accountable out of love and concern for the brethren (Acts 5:1-11; 1 Cor 5; Gal 6:1; 1 Tim 5:19-21; Titus 1:13). However, in Matthew 18 the steps of church discipline are as follows: (1) one-on-one private rebuke, (2) if unrepentant, then a private rebuke in the presence of one or two witnesses, (3) if still unrepentant, then the sin is made public before the church; i.e., the body of believers, and (4) if still unrepentant, they are to be treated as a “tax collector and a Gentile”; i.e., they are to be placed outside the visible church. Once again, however, at a time when formal church membership consisted of being present on Sunday morning, it made sense to place impenitent persons outside the visible church. However, in our modern context, where churches allow the blatantly unsaved to regularly attend church, it would be inconsistent—at best—and hypocritical—at worst—to place someone outside the visible church for unrepentant sins when half of those in attendance on any given Sunday morning are living in unrepentant sin. Instead impenitent persons should simply be removed from church membership, be treated as an unbelievers (i.e.; “tax collectors and Gentiles”), and be allowed to continue attending church in order to hear God’s word and hopefully be brought back to repentance. Thus, church discipline is a means for believers to hold each other accountable and protect one another from going down the wrong path. However, all of this accountability collapses in on itself without formal church membership, unless of course a church is willing to prevent unbelievers from gathering with the saints on Sunday morning.
In the end, like the Sequoias of central California, church membership is a means for believers to interlock with one another as we stand against the hurricane force winds this world and this life will undoubtedly throw at us. Living the Christian life in a fallen world is hard, but it is not quite as hard when we stand together.
*This article was previously published on June 14, 2014, under the title "We Can Learn a Lot from Sequoias."