Church membership is often not the priority it should be. There are a few possible explanations for this: (1) lack of understanding of church membership and its importance, (2) lack of commitment, or (3) a lack of desire to submit to biblical authority. This will only cover the first issue, lack of understanding. I think it can be assumed that if you are a Christian you should be committed (see for example Rom. 12:1) and you should submit to biblical authority (see for example Heb. 13:17).
What is Church Membership?
When a person is born again by the Spirit they instantly become a member of the invisible universal Church body. Church membership is a formal covenant of a believer to a local visible church body for mutual growth and accountability.
Reasons for and Advantages of Church membership
There are several reasons to be connected to a local church body: worshiping together (Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19-21), equipping (Col. 1:28; Eph. 4:12-13), exhortation and teaching (1 Tim. 4:13), exercising spiritual gifts (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-7; 1 Pet. 4:10-11), church discipline (Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5), sharing the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:17-20; Matt. 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24), celebrating baptism (Matt. 28:19), giving (Matt. 23:23; 1 Tim. 6:17-19), encouragement (Heb. 10:24-25), as well as, having faithful leaders to care for and help you (1 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9).
There are also several advantages to church membership. Church discipline may not seem like an advantage but it is. It may be the very thing to deliver a soul from hell (1 Cor. 5:5), this is a true and gracious advantage. As a church member you can enter into the life of the church in a unique way such as voting on specific church issues. Church membership is a covenant of commitment one to another. Through church membership you clearly know who your brothers and sisters are and pastors/elders know who exactly they are responsible for. Members have church resources available to them that otherwise would not be. Members also very often have more opportunities to serve in the churches various ministries. Lastly, church membership is biblical.
Church Membership is Biblical
“Biblical? Where is the chapter and verse?” you ask. Well, there is no chapter and verse that states explicitly that you must join a church. Yet, I believe we can see it implicit in the New Testament. In the book of Acts we see that the early churches’ practice was to baptize believers and then add them to the church (Acts 2:41, 47; 5:14; 16:5). In fact, those that were saved and baptized in the early church “devoted themselves” (which could have taken the form of a formal covenant) to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, and prayer (Acts 2:41-42).
There is no explicit text calling believers to belong to a church because it was everywhere assumed and practiced in the early church so there was no need for a formal statement. Also, many of the first churches were smaller house churches so membership or commitment would be more easily recognized (especially under persecution). However, many churches are much larger today so it serves the leadership of the church and the church as a whole to keep track of those who have formally covenanted to church membership.
We see that there was a list of widows that were entitled to financial support (1 Tim. 5:9) and there may also have been a growing list of church members (see for example Acts 2:41, 47; 5:14; 16:5). Churches would also write a letter of commendation (Acts 18:27; Rom. 16:1; Col. 4:10; cf. 2 Cor. 3:1-2) for believers that were moving to a different area. This leads us to conclude that church roles were likely kept in the early church. However, even if they did not have a formal list they obviously knew who was part of the body and this was very important to them and should be to us as well.
We also see a New Testament mandate for godly qualified leadership. Men who are called to shepherd the church (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2) by laboring (1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 5:17), and watching over souls (Heb. 13:17). Pastors (a synonym of elders and shepherds) will give an account to God of how they shepherded so it is important that they know who their sheep are.
Church membership is implied from church discipline (see Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 1 Tim. 5:20; Titus 3:10-11) and it assumes that the elders of the church will know who the members of the church are. We also see much biblical imagery that points us to church membership. The church is called: body, bride, family, royal priesthood. These things suggest tight connection, even formal covenant. We as the church are to be like an outpost in enemy territory, an embassy amongst a distant land. If you are a citizen of the heavenly Kingdom you should be connected to the local embassy. The church is that embassy, the church represents the Kingdom of God on earth.
Local church membership, though obviously not required for salvation, is vital. It is my prayer that more and more believers would covenant together as the body and bride of Christ to be committed together to be and do what Christ our Lord has called us to do with the short time that we have here to labor for our Lord.
Introductory: Jonathan Leeman, Church Membership
In-depth: Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love