An Important Mark of a Healthy Church: A Biblical Understanding of Membership

By Mark Dever

(Originally published as chapter 10 of What Is a Healthy Church?)

Is church membership a biblical idea? In one sense, no. Open up the New Testament, and you won't find a story about, say, Priscilla and Aquila moving to the city of Rome, checking out one church, then another, and finally deciding to join a third. From what we can tell, nobody went "church shopping" because there was only one church in each community. In that sense, you won't find a list of church members in the New Testament.

But the churches of the New Testament apparently kept lists of people, such as the lists of widows supported by the church (1 Timothy 5). More significantly, a number of passages in the New Testament suggest that churches did have some way of delineating their members. They knew who belonged to their assemblies and who did not.

On one occasion, for instance, a man in the Corinthian church was living in immorality "that does not occur even among pagans" (1 Cor. 5:1 NIV). Paul wrote the Corinthians and told them to exclude this man from their assembly. Now stop and think about this. You cannot formally exclude someone if he is not formally included in the first place.

Paul appears to refer to this same man in his subsequent letter to the Corinthians by referring to the "punishment inflicted on him by the majority" (2 Cor. 2:6 NIV). Stop and think again. You can only have a "majority" if there is a defined group of people, in this case a defined church membership.

Paul cared "who was in" and "who was out." He cared because the Lord Jesus himself had granted churches the authority to draw a line—as best as they humanly can—around themselves, to mark themselves off from the world.

Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matt. 18:18; see also 16:19; John 20:23)

Healthy churches, we have said, are congregations that increasingly reflect the character of God. Therefore, we want our earthly records to approximate, as much as possible, heaven's own records—those names recorded in the Lamb's Book of Life (Phil. 4:3; Rev. 21:27).

A healthy church aspires to receive and to dismiss individuals professing faith, just as the New Testament authors instruct. That is, it aspires to have a biblical understanding of membership.

Biblical Membership Means Commitment

A temple has bricks. A flock has sheep. A vine has branches. And a body has members. In one sense, church membership begins when Christ saves us and makes us a member of his body. Yet his work must then be given expression in an actual local church. In that sense, church membership begins when we commit to a particular body. Being a Christian means being joined to a church.

Scripture therefore instructs us to assemble regularly so that we can regularly rejoice in our common hope and regularly spur one another on to love and good deeds (Heb. 10:23-25). Church membership is not simply a record of a box we once checked. It's not a sentimental feeling. It's not an expression of affection toward a familiar place. It's not an expression of loyalty or disloyalty toward parents. It should be the reflection of a living commitment, or it is worthless. Indeed, it's worse than worthless; it's dangerous, as we'll consider in a moment.

Biblical Membership Means Taking Responsibility

The practice of church membership among Christians occurs when Christians grasp hold of each other in responsibility and love. By identifying ourselves with a particular local church, we are telling the church's pastors and other members not just that we commit to them, but that we commit to them in gathering, giving, prayer, and service. We are telling them to expect certain things from us and to hold us accountable if we don't follow through. Joining a church is an act of saying, "I am now your responsibility, and you are my responsibility." (Yes, this is countercultural. Even more, it's counter to our sinful natures.)

Biblical membership means taking responsibility. It comes from our mutual obligations as spelled out in all of Scripture's one-another passages—love one another, serve one another, encourage one another. All of these commands should be encapsulated in the covenant of a healthy church.

Church members will grow to recognize their mutual responsibilities the more they cherish the gospel, understand that conversion is God's work, and evangelize by instructing "seekers" to count the cost. Less will Christians regard their churches with a come-as-you-please and get-what-you-can attachment—one more store to peek your head into at the Christian mall or market. More will they view them as a body in which all parts care for one another—the home in which they live.

Sadly, it is not uncommon to find a big gap between the number of people officially on the membership rolls and the number who regularly attend. Imagine a church of three thousand members with only six hundred regularly attending. I fear that many evangelical pastors today might be more proud of their so-called membership than distressed by the large number of members not attending. According to one recent study, the typical Southern Baptist church has 233 members with only 70 attending on Sunday morning.

And is our giving any better? What congregations have budgets that equal—let alone exceed—10 percent of the combined annual incomes of their members?

Physical limitations can prevent attendance and financial burdens can prevent giving. But otherwise one wonders if churches are making idols out of numbers. Numerical figures can be idolized just as easily as carved figures—perhaps more easily. Yet God will assess our lives and weigh our work, I think, rather than count our numbers.

Week 1 The Need for Membership

Getting Started

1. Do you think it's important for Christians to be members of local churches? Why or why not?

Digging In

Before we examine a passage of Scripture which shows us our need for church membership, let's clarify what exactly it is we mean by "church membership."

Here's how Jonathan Leeman defines church membership in his book The Church and the Surprising Offense of God's Love:

Church membership is (1) a covenant of union between a particular church and a Christian, a covenant that consists of (2) the church's affirmation of the Christian's gospel profession, (3) the church's promise to give oversight to the Christian, and (4) the Christian's promise to gather with the church and submit to its oversight.

Let's unpack these four elements a little bit:

  1. Church membership is a covenant. That is, it's a solemn agreement between a Christian and a local church. In this covenant:
  2. The church affirms the Christian's profession of faith in Christ. That is, by extending church membership to an individual, the church is saying, "As far as we can tell, you're a Christian. We're putting our seal of approval on your claim to follow Christ."
  3. The church promises to oversee the Christian's discipleship. This comes through teaching, preaching, the elders' oversight, and the mutual building up which all members of the church are to engage in (see Eph. 4:11-16).
  4. The Christian promises to regularly assemble with and submit to the church. By committing to a church through membership, an individual Christian promises to regularly gather with this church and to submit to its authority and teaching.

1. Before we jump into the passage for this study, let's reflect a little on this understanding of church membership:

a) How does this definition differ from what you've thought or experienced of church membership?

b) Does this understanding of church membership make it more appealing to you or less? Why?