Perhaps you or someone you know has asked one of the following questions about church membership.

Q. Did the early church really have formal membership?

membership handsMany Bible teachers say there was membership in the New Testament church. Other Bible teachers go further when they teach that the early church practiced a formal membership in local churches.

What’s the difference? First Corinthians 12:27 says, “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it.” All believers are members of the universal body of Christ. All believers being members in the universal church is easy to see. It’s also easy to see that there was membership in local churches i n New Testament times. Consider the Apostle Paul’s comments to the church at Corinth, especially the words underlined.

1 Corinthians 5:11-13
(11)…I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person…(12)For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? (13) But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.

The church at Corinth, without a doubt, was a well-defined entity – one body made up of many members. We know this simply because it was possible for the church to distinguish between members and non-members of the body (those “within” and those who were “outsiders”). So, both membership within the universal church and membership in the local church are plainly taught in Scripture.

Some teachers go even further and say that New Testament local churches practiced a formal membership and had a formal membership roll. They point out that “the Lord was adding to their number,” and “there were added about three thousand souls” (2:47, 41; see also 5:14). However, these passages (and other similar ones) do not indicate that the members of the body were actually numbered. In fact, Acts 2:41 says there were about 3,000 people added to the church. The number was approximate.

While Scripture does not indicate that there was formal membership in the early church, it is clear that the members and leaders of local churches knew clearly who was and who was not a part of the local body. That’s the crucial issue: mutually recognized membership in the body (mutual recognition, meaning both leaders and members understood who was a part of the church). The early church didn’t need a formal membership process to accomplish this. Why? Because there were no denominations (Baptist, Methodist, etc.), nor was there a church on every corner. Every Christian was (1) baptized and (2) a recognized part of the local church in that location. Church leaders knew that every baptized, professing believer was a member of the church. Every Christian knew who his elders were. Every member of the body knew that every baptized, professing believer was a member of his church.

Circumstances are different today. For obvious reasons, church leaders and members cannot consider every baptized, professing believer in town to be a member of their church. That puts today’s church leaders and members in a difficult position since they need to know who is and who is not a part of their body. This is why we are convinced that formal church membership is necessary for us, but was absolutely unnecessary for the early church.

Q. Isn’t it legalistic to require formal membership?

If there was no formal membership in the NT church, then isn’t it legalistic to require it in the church today? For clarification, I understand the word “legalism” in this context to refer to “exceed[ing] what is written” in the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 4:6). We exceed what is written when we judge others according to non-biblical standards, or require others to live by non-biblical standards – standards that we wittingly or unwittingly add to Scripture.

Is formal membership legalistic? The short answer is, “No.” But, how can we say it isn’t legalistic if we don’t have a Bible verse that says, “Every Christian must formally become a member of a local church?” That is a good question, but the principle that shepherds must carefully fulfill their responsibilities provides the answer.

The principle
God gives leaders (in this case, church elders) the responsibility and the freedom to use necessary means to fulfill their responsibilities before God.

Consider a similar responsibility with parenting. I may say to my son, “Silas, you must go to bed at 8:30pm.” If Silas does not obey this command, he is sinning against God even though there is no Bible verse that says, “children must be in bed by 8:30pm.” God gives parents the responsibility and the freedom to “set standards” for their own household and in doing so they are not “exceeding what is written.” The same freedoms would apply to husbands or employers. Could an authority ever “exceed what is written” in Scripture? Yes. Here are a couple ways they may go beyond what is written. They exceed what is written when they…

  • Require something that is contrary to Scripture (going beyond the bounds of Scripture).
  • Judge others who do not follow the same non-biblical procedures they do. For example, I would “exceed what is written” if I said, “All children must be in bed by 8:30pm,” but it is still acceptable to say to my children, “You must be in bed by 8:30pm.”

Application to church life
Now, let’s apply this to life in the church. God charges church elders to “feed the flock of God…exercising oversight…according to the will of God” (1 Peter. 5:2). Exercising oversight requires more than simply teaching the Bible, but also organizing, planning, caring for people, meeting specific needs, etc. God gives church elders the responsibility and the freedom to determine appropriate means to carry out God’s will for His church. In regard to organizing and planning, elders are responsible and free to determine meeting times, the “order of service” for those meetings, and many other things necessary for functioning properly as a church. Likewise, church elders, are responsible and free to determine a way that will enable Christians to become a recognizable part of a particular local church in order that the members (including the elders) of the local church can fulfill their God-given responsibilities of loving and caring for one another.

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