Local Church Membership

The following represents the essential substance of six posts on the topic of church membership that were written in July and August of 2011.

An Introduction

Teaching means preparing. Preparing means wrestling with what the Bible does and doesn’t say, along with the associated implications. That process always imparts increased clarity, and I have recently been the beneficiary, having been given the privilege to teach on the subject of church membership. At the heart of my preparations has been the careful consideration of two essential questions: (1) Is church membership biblical? and (2) Is it important?

Skipping to the punch line, I believe the answers are “solidly” and “vitally.” Church membership is solidly Biblical. Church membership is vitally important. These conclusions are the output of several years of intermittent thought and study, though, so I don’t expect you to take my word for it. I would be grateful, however, if you would give fair consideration to the propositions that I think are most relevant. At least to me, they are compelling and definitive.

My intent is to establish these five propositions from Scripture:

–  Proposition 1:  The Local Church Is a Distinct Biblical Entity
–  Proposition 2:  The Local Church Is a Flock
–  Proposition 3:  Local Church Life Involves Serious Obligations Which Require Order
–  Proposition 4:  The Regulative Principle Requires Church Membership (not precludes it)
–  Proposition 5:  Blessings Await Those Who Cross Two Lines

These core propositions build up to an understanding that church membership is biblical and that it really matters in the life of every believer. As always, the Bible must be the first word and the final word. The pragmatic arguments are interesting, but they are not the mind of God on the matter. My hope is that by carefully handling texts which speak to the subject, God will give us unity and clarity.

Proposition 1: The Local Church Is a Distinct Biblical Entity

It could go without saying that by and large, professing Christians have become very casual about the local church. A common view is that membership in the worldwide body of Christ is the thing that really matters, and the local church is simply the gathering of nearby Christians who happen to share a doctrinal persuasion. Because that view only represents a sliver of the New Testament’s teaching on the subject, people come or go, attend or stay home, invest or fritter, with no awareness of how one or the other relates to faithfulness.

I want to argue that the inspired authors of the New Testament actually put forward the local church as a real, distinct entity, one which serves critical functions, and that this has monumental implications for our life together.

Big-C, little-c

Most Christians understand and affirm the existence of the Big-C-Church. This is the Universal Church, the body of Christ comprised of Christians everywhere. In Ephesians 4:4, Paul says, “There is one body.” The Church. Paul says the same in 1 Corinthians 10:17, “For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread.” Christians everywhere formed into one mighty Church. Simple enough. And one day all those of faith will sit down together at a great wedding feast. What a Church! What a glorious prospect!

The little-c-church may be a bit foggier in our minds. What exactly are these local assemblies of professing believers, these churches where we have most of our eyeball-to-eyeball interaction with brothers and sisters in Christ? The New Testament sets forth a clear testimony of the local church as a distinct entity.

View of the Inspired New Testament Authors

–  1 Corinthians 1:2, Paul writes “To the church of God which is at Corinth.” Can we agree that this is not the Big-C-Church? However the boundaries are defined, it is clear enough that this is a local church with borders. This isn’t an open letter to all Christians everywhere, though as Scripture it is a gift to all of the people of God. It is a very personal letter to a distinct group of people. Later in the same chapter, verse 11, Paul bemoans the contentions that have been reported to him, and then in verse 13 he asks, “Is Christ divided?” He means, “Is the Big-C-Church, the body of Christ, divided?” This is a rhetorical question and the obvious answer is “No!” At first glance it may seem like this argues against the local church as a distinct entity, but actually the opposite is true. It gives us a picture of the local church that mirrors the character of God. Is God one? Yes. Deuteronomy 6:4, “The LORD our God, the LORD is one!” Is God many? He is Three. Genesis 1:26, “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image.’” Matthew 3:16,17, “and behold, the heavens were opened to Him [Jesus], and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’” Here in 1 Corinthians 1 we see the Church and the church, side by side, the one and the many. This is not division, this is the design of God, founded on the nature of God. Are we surprised to discover ways in which the people of God reflect the nature of God?

–  Acts 20:17 recounts Paul sending to Ephesus “for the elders of the church.” Again, this is clearly the church, not the Church. Paul is not sending for men who have an accountability for the souls of every Christian, as elders have for the souls in a specific local church. He is summoning real men with defined responsibilities as the God-appointed leaders of a local church.

–  Revelation 1-3, the letters to the churches. In 1:12-16, our resurrected Lord, in the most glorious form, is walking among seven lampstands. Then in verse 20 Jesus says to John, “the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches.” As the succeeding chapters unfold, we see with great clarity that these churches are indeed distinct entities, each with a personality, things to be praised, things requiring rebuke, commands to be obeyed. A nebulous concept of the local church is a thousand miles away from the letters to the churches.


I hope that these texts satisfy us on a critical point: the Universal Church and the local church, the Church and the church, are both thoroughly biblical categories. The inspired writers of the New Testament speak of both, fluidly and without a hint of contradiction. So far from being a single category, or two categories which stand in opposition, the Universal Church and the local church actually represent a compelling vision of how God intends to relate to His people, care for them, and equip them for the work of the ministry. Like all things of His design, they fit hand-in-glove.

If we miss this, we undervalue an entity given to us by God according to the kind intention of His will, miss the blessing, and dishonor Jesus Christ.

Proposition 2: The Local Church Is a Flock

What is the local church? The local church is a distinct biblical entity, but that simply tells us that it is, not what it is. The question is essential, given that our answer greatly determines our conduct in the church, but we aren’t to determine the answer for ourselves. The answer has been given to us by the apostles.

In the inspired view of Paul and Peter, the local church is a flock.

Paul – “take heed to all the flock”

Knowing this is his last opportunity to exhort them, Paul sends for the Ephesian elders. The gathering is recorded in Acts 20:17-38.  Paul reminds them of his manner of life among them, exhorting them to follow his pattern. Then he says this: “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to 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). Fundamentally, the local church is a flock, complete with shepherds who are to feed and protect. This is a beautiful picture of a very practical way in which God provides feet-on-the-ground care for His people.

These shepherds, put in place by the Holy Spirit, are exhorted to give attention to “all the flock.” It isn’t “teach Christians” or “encourage believers,” although there is ample basis in the Scriptures for both. It is “take heed to all the flock.” The task and the target are both eminently specific, not generic. Take heed. All the flock. No wondering who to shepherd here.

Peter – “shepherd the flock” 

What Peter teaches in 1 Peter 5:1-4 is so similar to Acts 20 that it would almost suffice to say “ditto.” In the opening verse of the book, we learn that Peter is writing to “the pilgrims of the Dispersion,” and in the fifth chapter he narrows his exhortations to the elders of these scattered congregations. “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers” (1 Peter 5:2a), he tells them.  They are to serve selflessly, tenderly, and by example. They are to shepherd the flock like the Chief Shepherd does.

Again, the task and target couldn’t be more specific.

So what?

This all has tremendous significance, given the rich biblical teachings which draw on the imagery of sheep, flocks, and shepherds. The implications are profound. Shepherd-elders aren’t the Chief Shepherd, but they have been given passages like Psalm 23 and John 10 to learn what it means to serve after the manner of their Master. The shepherds are to know, feed, and protect the sheep. The sheep are to know and follow their shepherds. “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (John 10:27). In fact, when things function by God’s design, and one in a hundred goes missing, the shepherd notices, goes in search, and rejoices at the safe return (Matthew 18:12-13).

Not exactly the arm’s length, “hide and not seek” atmosphere of the modern evangelical church, is it? But it is the local church of Paul and Peter. And isn’t this what we want – churches where faithful men have a vigilant eye on the people of the congregation, really knowing them and really being known by them?

This is the heart of God for His people.

Proposition 3: Local Church Life Involves Serious Obligations Which Require Order

Even a cursory glance at the relationships described in the New Testament brings us to an irrefutable conclusion – the local church is serious business. God has called us into weighty accountability with our leaders and meaningful obligations with our brothers and sisters. He requires these relationships to function according to His word, and we not only ignore what God has said to our own peril, we also miss out on the richness of a life that transcends the shallow connections of the “normal” church.

The Obligations of Those Who Lead and Those Who Follow

Hebrews 13:17 is striking: “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.” If that doesn’t give you pause about your choice of a local church, you haven’t thought about it very deeply. Obey. Be submissive. Give an account for souls. This should make leaders and followers equally sober-minded. This is no baby shower, where we show up, chat awhile, eat cake and then go home.

And that admonition is far from isolated. Paul says, “And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. Be at peace among yourselves” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13).  We see a theme developing. There is very real structure and authority in the local church, but it is intended to be anything but adversarial. It is serious but affectionate. Those who follow recognize and highly esteem their leaders in love, and those who lead work hard on behalf of those in the church. Souls are being watched out for. Honor is being rendered.

1 Timothy 5:17 continues the theme: “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine.” Diligent oversight. Labor. Honor.

So the obligations are serious. No one could deny that. Question: What initiates all this? Attendance? On the first Sunday, or the fifth, or the twelfth? How do we decide? For now, let’s simply agree that we must decide. There must be criteria. It cannot be that you have an accountability for my soul, being over me in the Lord, and I am obligated to obey you, on the first Sunday and without knowing each other. That flies in the face of any description of New Testament church life. There is something real and significant here, and the very nature of the obligations requires some mechanism of order, some way to understand when this “you lead me,” “I follow you” line is being crossed.

The Mutual Obligations of  the “One Anothers”

The seriousness isn’t limited to the relationships between leaders and followers. In fact, the greater weight may be in the mutual care we should have for one another. This is less than half the list, but here are my favorite “one anothers”:

1. Be devoted to one another (Romans 12:10)
2. Bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2)
3. Be kind to one another, forgiving each other (Ephesians 4:32)
4. Speak to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19)
5. Be subject to one another in the fear of Christ (Ephesians 5:21)
6. Do not lie to one another (Colossians 3:9)
7. Encourage one another and build up one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
8. Stimulate one another to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24)
9. Do not speak against one another (James 4:11)
10. Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another (James 5:16)
11. Keep fervent in your love for one another (1 Peter 4:8)
12. Be hospitable to one another (1 Peter 4:9)
13. As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another (1 Peter 4:10)

Now, there is no arguing that these “one anothers” are to be restricted to only those in our particular local church. Clearly we owe a debt of love to everyone in the body of Christ with whom we come into contact. But look at the list! How many of these can be accomplished to a meaningful degree outside of the week-in-and-week-out rhythm of healthy church life? Not many. I need people sowing into my life through the months, years, and decades, and I hope to have the privilege of doing the same. Few things are as frustrating as investing a year or two in a “we’re not sure who we are” church, only to find out that there are the most fundamental incompatibilities in doctrine or practice. Back to square one. Better luck next time.

We need to be thinking in terms of decades, not weeks or months, and that requires a reasonable basis for longevity. What is my family going to be taught? What is expected of me? What can I expect? People who intend to invest for decades have a right to solid, explicit answers.

All Local Churches Have Membership 

Here is the reality: all local churches have membership, even the ones that don’t. What I mean is that there are commands to be obeyed, based on the serious obligations that exist in the local church, and this requires us to order our life together.

I’ll never forget my first weeks as a deacon. Four of us were appointed as a brand new deacon team, none having prior experience as a deacon. We had read the books but not yet served in the office. To shorten the learning curve, we connected with a very experienced deacon from another church. He was so kind to talk us through issues we might face and provide the working documents their team used to keep on top of their duties. Since theirs was a Brethren church, I was more than a little surprised to find a “member since” slot on their benevolence form. When I asked him about it, he explained that they didn’t really have members, but that they needed a way to prioritize the people who had been committed to the church, and this was a way to identify them.

Benevolence isn’t the only area that requires understanding who is who. What about appointing leaders? Do you know of a church that appoints leaders with whoever happens to be present? Would that be consistent with the New Testament command to carefully qualify candidates (1 Timothy 3:1-10), not laying hands on them hastily (1 Timothy 5:22)? Of course not.

When you don’t have official church membership, you may very well end up with ill-conceived, informal, impromptu membership. But when matters like these arise, you will have membership, by that name or another.

The punch line is that leaders ought to know with clarity who they are leading and who has actually made the commitment to follow. Implied commitment in either direction is a lousy substitute. And we ought to be on record as being ready and willing to “one another” our brothers and sisters in the local church for the foreseeable future. Nothing less than this forms a sufficient basis for the serious obligations that are part and parcel of the New Testament church.

May God give us such a life together! And may we be faithful to these relationships that have been given to us as a blessing.

Proposition 4: The Regulative Principle Requires Church Membership (not precludes it)

Does the Regulative Principle of Worship support or nullify local church membership? Because there is no express command for church membership, some argue that it is extra-biblical, but that is a misunderstanding of the actual doctrine. Simply stated, the Regulative Principle of Worship says that everything we do in the corporate worship of God must be clearly warranted by Scripture, either in the form of an explicit command, or by a good and necessary inference. Church membership is actually a necessary inference of many things which are well established in Scripture.

In the last section, I made the case that local church life is serious, and that the nature and seriousness of these scriptural obligations require order. This is not a pragmatic argument based on efficiency, perceived benefits, or any other “because it works” reasoning. It is an acknowledgment that we have been given clear commands where obedience requires an underlying mechanism.

Consider church discipline, which is in short supply today, but is nonetheless a vital New Testament teaching. Matthew 18:15-17 outlines the process, where at the appropriate step the offense is told to “the church,” a distinct, defined entity, a body with boundaries. Then, unless there is repentance, there is formal exclusion from the church, something which is made more explicit in the specific case of church discipline recorded in 1 Corinthians 5:1-7. In that passage, the language of formal exclusion is inescapable – “taken away from among you” in verse 2, “deliver such a one to Satan” in verse 5, “purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump” in verse 7. Have you ever thought of the absurdity of formal exclusion without formal inclusion? There can be no excommunication without some form of communication, which is exactly where the phrase “communicant membership” comes from. Only those who have been brought in can be put out.

This becomes even more obvious when we examine the happy ending, where Paul exhorts the Corinthians to welcome the excommunicated man back into the church. In describing the excommunication, Paul says, “This punishment which was inflicted by the majority is sufficient for such a man…” (2 Corinthians 2:6).  Did you catch that? The majority (literally “greater in quantity,” “the more part”). Majority is a word which only has meaning with a known, definite number, and it gives us helpful insight into how church discipline should be carried out. So while there are legitimate debates to be had about who should be in versus out and how that should happen, there is no getting around the requirement to know who is in the church and who isn’t. You can’t be excluded without having been included, and only a majority of the included can exclude. Make sense?

Church discipline isn’t the only instance of a command that presupposes some form of formal ordering for local churches, but it paints a picture with bright contrasts, so it serves as a useful example of why church membership is a “good and necessary inference” from Scripture.

May our local churches be ordered in such a way that we can honor God through obedience to His commandments for church life.

Proposition 5: Blessings Await Those Who Cross Two Lines

This article about church membership has focused primarily on Scripture, providing biblical underpinnings for the practice. Now for a few personal observations from three decades of church life spanning a number of different churches.

Observation 1: Two Questions Form Two Critical Lines in the Sand

When I look at how casual local church life has become, with people drifting from church to church in far less time than it takes to be genuinely shepherded and involved in the lives of the brethren, I see two questions going continually unanswered:

1. Can I submit myself and my family to the doctrine and authority of these leaders? This is a BIG decision, and it shouldn’t be made overnight. You have to know the doctrine. You have to know the men. And then you have to decide whether or not it would be a good thing for you and any in your charge to be under that teaching and authority over the long haul.

2. Can I commit myself to these people? Let’s face it – there are groups of people where you can see yourself making a thirty year investment, and groups of people where a pleasant afternoon together is both nice and enough. And you know in your heart of hearts that the long term destination will be very different, depending on which group you pick.

When we just drift along and fail to answer these questions, there are corresponding lines in the sand that we never cross, and it means that we never really commit. We become the Christian equivalent of that forty-five year old guy who has dated so many women and will only ever do more of the same. He has lots of great jokes, but everyone understands how pathetic his life really is.

As quickly as possible, we should find a home where we can answer a hearty “yes” to both questions and run-not-walk across those lines.

Observation 2: It Matters

This is no intellectual exercise, the parsing of a fine point that has little impact on real life. Whether you will or will not answer those two questions, cross those two lines, and send roots down deep into a good local church will determine so much about the welfare of your soul.

The person who carefully chooses a local church home where they can joyfully submit to godly leaders and invest in the lives of other sincere believers, and then stays on that track for decades, becomes a very different person than the counterpart who never really lands. Being in serious, committed fellowship with both authorities and peers for a long period of time has a transforming effect. There are no substitutes or shortcuts. The transformation requires the investment.

The “me and Jesus” mentality has not been good for individual believers or the church. We need more “God and His people” in both thought and life.

Observation 3: Those Who Dare to Cross the Lines Are Blessed

Those who cross those lines find themselves really shepherded, really taught, sometimes rebuked, really encouraged, really known. They find themselves really loved and cared for by God in the everyday means that He has ordained for His church. And they have the privilege of responding in kind, both to God and to their brothers and sisters.

Am I saying that those who won’t cross those lines, in the form of church membership, aren’t blessed? Yep. Not blessed. Not in the same way. Not to the same extent. Can they still be Christians? Of course, but not the Christians that they should have been, would have been, could have been.

Brothers and sisters, go for the blessing! Go see the beauty of God working in your life and the lives of your brothers and sisters, in a faithful community, for a period of decades. With very few exceptions, this is what God has called His people to, for His glory and our good. May we be faithful!


Jason Dohm
Sovereign Redeemer Community Church
Youngsville, NC
September 21, 2012