“Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28).
How do local pastors guard or protect the flock? Many pastors are oblivious to this basic command. Other pastors struggle to adequately meet this heavenly demand. One helpful tool that practically facilitates obeying this pastoral charge is to have a formal church membership process. Church membership ensures that the shepherds know who their sheep are and that the sheep know who their leaders and spiritual family are.
Ever since we started our church plant in 2006, I’ve met hundreds of believers who have visited or joined our fellowship. I have been exposed to a wide variety of church experiences that these people have had. And I’ve learned that there are many Christians who are not familiar with church membership; some even question whether it is in the Bible. Many churches simply don’t have any kind of formal membership, including some very popular and large denominations. So, for many believers, church membership seems like a new or foreign concept. I would posit, however, that church membership is actually biblical and not at all ambiguous or secondary. Membership in the local church is fundamental if you are a Christian.
Before discussing church membership it is vital to first define some key terms. Most of the uses of the word “church” in the New Testament (there are over 100) refer to the local church. For example, Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers saying, “Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, to the church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Cor 1:1-2).
The local church refers to local assemblies of Christians throughout the world. Each assembly is both an autonomous spiritual family in one location and a temporal manifestation—or satellite—of the universal Church. Each local church is like a separate outpost for the Kingdom of God. Each local church is to have its own elders and deacons, functioning as an independent entity while at the same time working in concert with all other true biblical churches.
Second, the term “membership” must be defined. This word is a stumbling block to some people because it conjures up troubling membership associations with man-made (and not biblical) organizations such as fitness centers, Costco, the local country club or the Moose Lodge. But that is not the kind of membership we are talking about.
Church membership is simply a formal commitment to a local church family of believers in Jesus Christ, and to its leaders. This is the church with which you affiliate and identify; this is the place where you are going to serve, be fed, are held accountable, and invest the spiritual resources (time, energy, talents, spiritual gifts and the blessings) God has given you. There is a definitive leadership at this church that knows you by name and vice versa. You can identify with this church as your spiritual family, locally speaking. If someone asks you who your pastor is, hopefully you are able to give a specific name. This is what I mean by “church membership.”
To the chagrin of a few, there is formality to local church membership. “Formality” is not a dirty word. There is a time to be formal and a time not to be formal. There is a time for everything under the sun (Eccl 3:1-8). Formality simply means having an objective and clearly delineated process where all interested parties have a common understanding and commitment to the cause. As such, I would propose that Scripture instructs Christians to proactively pursue membership at a local church. I’m not arguing for everyone to immediately become a member of the church they are currently attending; I am arguing from Scripture that a genuinely born-again Christian needs to be a part of some local church at a formalized level.
Membership in the Early Church
The early church that Jesus’ apostles established had a definitive local church membership pattern. In the early church, conversion to Christianity was immediately followed by joining the local assembly of believers. Such joining happened in a formal, accountable, long-term manner.
Today it is commonplace for Christians to go to church, but to never become formal members of any local body. Countless Christians all over the world never “join” the church, and many are even passionately averse to such a notion. Many others engage in “church-hopping.” Many times the mindset is, “What will this church do for me—how will my needs and desires be fulfilled?”
The Church started with Jesus; He is the Head of the Church (Eph 5:23). He predicted that He would build His Church (see Matt 16:18). He first built His Church through the twelve apostles—the men who would serve as the ministerial and doctrinal foundation of the Church through their teaching ministry (Eph 2:20). Even in His own teaching, Jesus laid the groundwork for church membership in a parable in Luke 15. You may be familiar with this parable, but there’s a good chance you’ve never thought about this parable in the context of church membership.
The word “pastor” is synonymous with the word “shepherd,” and a shepherd is someone who cares for sheep. In the church, God calls elders or leaders of the church “shepherds” and the people “sheep” (see 1 Pet 5:1-4). The parallel is clear. Elders, bishops, overseers, pastors, or shepherds (these words are used interchangeably in the New Testament) of the local church are supposed to know their sheep. Pastors are to know who their sheep are, how many they have, what their needs are, and so on. That is in keeping with this parable that Jesus gave in Luke 15:
What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders rejoicing (vv. 4-6).
Such attentive, sacrificial care for one’s sheep was commonplace 2,000 years ago in Israel, and it is commonplace in Israel today. Notice how this shepherd knows that he has exactly 100 sheep. If he has 100 sheep and loses one of them, a good shepherd who is in tune with his sheep and his responsibility over them knows when one has wandered off.
This parable lays the foundation for what a church is to be like and how church leaders are supposed to care for their people. They are supposed to know their sheep—this fact is presupposed by Jesus.
Jesus said in John 10 that the Good Shepherd “calls His own sheep by name” (v. 3). Notice, they are called His “own”—the sheep belong somewhere, and there is a definite affiliation that is personal and intimate. Because they are members, this allows the pastor to “know them by name.” If you don’t join a church and become a full-fledged, accountable member, then how is the local church leadership supposed to know you by name and thus protect, provide, nurture, teach, and lead you as one of Christ’s sheep? It’s ultimately impossible.
The next thing to consider is that church membership is the biblical model. That is clear from the book of Acts, which chronicles the birth and growth of the first church in Jerusalem. This church began on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1) when the Holy Spirit came down from heaven and took up residence in the first believers.
Initially, the church had “a gathering of about one hundred and twenty persons” (Acts 1:15). The fact that the Bible gives a specific number of people is significant. It means that someone in charge was keeping a formal head count of who constituted the First Church of Jerusalem. There were clearly identifiable members. Names are even mentioned in Acts 1:13-14. This formal pattern of tracking specific numbers of believers continues through Acts as the early church continued to grow. Luke, the author of Acts, gives repeated updates of how many people were members of the first church in Jerusalem. Someone was counting heads and writing this important information down in the church ledger.
I have no problem telling Christians that they need to “join” a local church. Occasionally some will say, “The Bible doesn’t say we have to ‘join’ the church.” And then I will say, “Actually it does. Acts 5:13 says that very thing.” Luke says in 5:13 that local unbelievers did not “join” (KJV; NIV) the church at Jerusalem. Luke meant that Christians did “join” the local church at Jerusalem—and in a formal way. The NASB uses the word “associate” instead of “join.” The Greek word here for “join/associate” is kollasthai, from the verb kollao, which means to cleave to something like glue—a permanent attachment (cf. Acts 17:34).
This same word is used in 1 Corinthians 6:16 when describing a man and a woman being “joined together” through sexual intimacy. It is also used to describe the relationship between a believer and Christ when they are “joined together” at the point of salvation (1 Cor 6:17). This word “joined” is the strongest word-picture possible to describe a formal, intimate, inextricable joining of two parties entering a mutual relationship of the highest commitment. This is what the first Christians did—they “joined” the local church in Jerusalem as formal, “baptized,” identifiable members!
A Theology of Membership
Even though the word “membership” is not in the New Testament, the concept of local church membership and the principles of membership are clearly taught in the New Testament. One passage suggesting membership in a local church is Hebrews 10:24-25 which says the following:
Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds (v. 24), not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another all the more as you see the day drawing near (v. 25).
The author of Hebrews wrote his epistle to believers in the early church, and he exhorted these Christians to keep meeting regularly for corporate worship and fellowship. He was issuing two commands or expectations in this passage, and they are inseparable. The first command is that Christians need to regularly encourage one another. The second command is that Christians need to stop ditching church. If believers routinely skip church and miss corporate fellowship on the Lord’s Day, then they can’t fulfill the first command of regularly encouraging their fellow Christians.
Countless professing Christians simply “attend” church like mere spectators waiting to be entertained at a sporting event, or like movie-goers who darken the theater doors occasionally and leave immediately as the credits begin rolling on the big screen. “Going to church” for such people is all about fulfilling the following narcissistic notions: “What will church do for me? Will I get what I want on Sunday morning? Was I satisfied with all the elements that came my way? Did the music entertain and soothe me? Did the preaching give me warm fuzzies and tickle my ears? Did people notice me and make me feel good? Was everything done to my liking?” Such questions fly in the face of Hebrews 10:24-25. Going to church is primarily about giving God His due and about serving others, not about being served.
Having the priority of loving and serving others in corporate fellowship is basic biblical Christianity and Christlikeness. Jesus said that He came to earth not to be served, but to serve (Mark 10:45). Believers are called to follow Christ’s example (John 13:14-15).
Another verse that clearly assumes a commitment to a specific local church is Hebrews 13:17:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.
The context makes it clear that the leaders to which this passage is referring are those who currently “watch over your souls.” “Watch over” is one Greek verb (agrupnousin), and is in the present tense in this verse. Therefore, this verse talking about the spiritual leaders who are presently in your life trying to help you grow spiritually—your present-day local church leaders and pastors.
Notice that the text refers to them as “your” leaders—church leaders with whom you have personally identified and with whom you have an understood reciprocal relationship. This is not possible unless you are regularly committed to and involved in a local church where you are known personally by the church leaders who shepherd that local congregation. These are your spiritual leaders at your local church that you are accountable to. They know you by name and you know them by name (cf. John 10:27). And since they are your leaders that means that you are their sheep.
The verse goes on to say that local church leaders will have to “give an account” for how they watched over your soul. This is a sobering and even frightening prospect for me as a pastor. All church leaders will have to give a personal account to Jesus the Judge for how well they pastored the souls He entrusted to their care. And the Bible says that spiritual leaders will face a stricter judgment (James 3:1) because of the authority delegated to them and the spiritual nature of the work—for eternal souls are at stake. In light of that truth, as a church leader I want to know who exactly my sheep are, by name, and which ones I have to give an account for. In order to identify specifically who those sheep are, our church uses the mechanism of a formal church membership process to fulfill this biblical mandate.
Another priority to note in this verse is that there are two commands given to every believer. Every Christian is obligated to “obey” and “submit” to their church leaders. These are imperatives, not suggestions. To neglect these actions is to sin against God and His Word.
Following the leadership of local church leaders is a basic biblical discipline (1 Cor 16:16). Being under the authority of local pastors is foundational to spiritual growth (1 Tim 5:17). Respecting your church leaders is a rudimentary Christian obligation (1 Thess 5:12-13). Being accountable to your local church elders is a healthy safeguard and what God expects (Acts 20:28).
Admittedly, the words “obey” and “submit” scare a lot of people. That’s because we are all sinners by nature, and we want to serve and please ourselves. Sinners don’t want accountability nor do they want to be told what to do. So only changed, regenerate, Spirit-filled believers will want to obey and submit to other people and find joy in doing it. This requirement is by God’s design, for it is His Church, and He has chosen to guide and direct His Church through fallen, finite, redeemed under-shepherds (leaders) who wield God’s delegated authority to lead the Church in accordance with His revealed will found in Scripture.
“Obey” means “to listen to” and “submit” means “to yield under.” The two words together mean, “do what they say” or better, “listen to and follow their advice.” God expects Christians to obey and submit to their church leaders. But it does not mean obeying and submitting in every area of life; it means obeying and submitting in the limited appropriate jurisdiction of church and spiritual life as delineated and outlined in the Bible. Those parameters of obedience are clearly revealed in Scripture. Church leaders need to give an account to God for how they led; church people are going to give an account for how well they obeyed and submitted to their church leaders. If you are not committed to a local church, then you can’t fulfill this basic heavenly mandate of Hebrews 13:17.
So, at our church, our elders are committed to specifically shepherding our members—the believers in our local assembly who have entered into a mutual relationship of commitment with us as defined by key biblical mandates in Scripture. At our church there is no ambiguity as to who our leaders are, who our formal members are, who the regular attenders are, and who the ongoing visitors are. And this membership process has served the saints and the elders of our church very well the past decade.
Churches that have neither membership nor a membership process will be hard-pressed to ensure their people fulfill Hebrews 10:24; they will have no justification for expecting their people to obey and submit to the local church leadership with any consistency; and they will be mired in an endless guessing game of trying to figure out who they are responsible for with respect to their shepherding duties.