Overview of Church Membership

The matter of formal membership in the local church is widely debated among Christians, – not simply the circumstances and terms of membership, but even the biblical basis and justification for it. At the one extreme are churches that reject the notion of formal membership, finding no reference to it in the New Testament. At the other are churches that require a membership commitment from those who’ve been attending for a predetermined period of time. Between these extremes are numerous nuanced views and practices, from churches that strongly encourage membership to those that treat it as entirely discretionary and largely irrelevant.

Looking beyond these core concerns, churches also vary widely in their approach to membership and the terms of it. Some require formal vows as the culmination of an extended process of instruction and examination, while others have as their criterion of membership little more than the person’s stated desire to become a member. Some require that prospective members be regular attendees for a certain period of time; others actively recruit prospects for membership virtually from the first week of attendance.

We at Sovereign Grace Community Church uphold church membership as important and biblically warranted, and do so in light of the following considerations:

  • First of all, we recognize that the New Testament makes no mention of a formal process or status of church membership. However, this doesn’t imply the Bible’s endorsement of the notion of a church “attender.” Much less does it justify the independence and autonomy that characterize so much of the American Christian community with its self-centered “consumer” mindset.
  • While not mentioning formal church membership as such, we find the New Testament to presume the sort of commitment to a local body of believers implied by it. The New Testament assumes commitment and solidarity within the local church, but it goes much farther. The reason is that it recognizes the Church as a spiritual organism rather than a religious organization.

    The Church is a spiritual community bound together by its members’ mutual union with Christ by His indwelling Spirit. Individually, every Christian is a member of Christ by sharing in His Spirit who is perfecting His life and likeness in them (cf. Eph. 1:13-14 with Rom. 8:9-11; 1 Cor. 3:16, 6:19; 2 Cor. 3:17-18).

    Christians are individually members of Christ, and it is their union with Him that determines and defines their relationship with one another. Spiritual union with Christ by His Spirit’s work of regeneration and indwelling defines the members of His Church, which is His Body (Eph. 1:22-23, 4:1-16, 5:17-30; Col. 1:17-24). And it is precisely and solely because Christians are members of Christ in this way that they are members of one another (Rom. 12:1-5; 1 Cor. 12:4-27).
  • What this means is that membership in a local church body is nothing more or less than the practical expression of the Christian’s participation in Christ Himself. If a person is joined to Christ – not by doctrine or practice as such, but by actual spiritual union with Him in His Spirit, then he is joined to everyone that is so joined to Christ. Whether or not they know, accept or practice it, every true Christian is a member of every other Christian.

    The New Testament insists that Christians are members of one another, and this is more than a theological concept. It is at the heart of their new nature and identity, so that living authentically as individual Christians involves joining together in local communities. As members of Christ, we are part of the “communion of the saints”; that is, we are spiritually and everlastingly joined to every Christian in every age and generation. But, in this life, we can only manifest and live out the truth of this “common union” in the context of local assemblies.
  • The very nature of what it means to be a Christian necessitates that Christ’s people commit themselves to a local church. But this commitment goes beyond the common conception of “church membership” as a formalized association with a church organization: It is a solemn commitment to intimacy, responsibility, accountability, service and love to Christ’s people.

    This is necessary first because it is the primary way in which Christians love and serve Christ Himself. But it is also the ordained means for the spiritual well-being and growth of Christ’s Church. The Spirit supernaturally transforms the Christian into Christ’s likeness (2 Cor. 3:18), but He does so through the gifts He imparts to those He indwells. Stated simply, the Body causes the growth of the Body (Eph. 4:14-16), and this means that Christ’s Church – individually as well as collectively – languishes and falters in impotence and immaturity where the saints aren’t bound together in authentic intimacy and committed mutual ministry.
In summary, we regard local church membership as fundamental to living the Christian life, not as a formal status that affords unique rights, privileges and responsibilities. The most basic justification for it is that all who are members of Christ the Head are members of His Body, joined together in vital interdependence by His Spirit. Church membership that reflects and nurtures this truth among Christ’s people honors the New Testament’s vision of the Church; every other conception and practice is of human invention.