Should Christians “join a church”–you know, “become a member”? Or should we feel free to visit a different church every Sunday; or maybe even just watch a church service on TV every now and then instead of attending one in an actual church building with actual church people? These are important questions, and they are questions that people often ask themselves when thinking about their involvement in church. At the heart of these questions is the more basic question of whether or not the Bible teaches that Christians are to be committed to one, identifiable group of other Christians–a group that makes up one, identifiable church.
Part of the difficulty with the question “Is church membership in the Bible?” is that the phrase “church membership” never actually occurs in Scripture. Some might argue that this is evidence that church membership is an unbiblical idea. However, I would simply say that while the phrase “church membership” is not in the Bible, the idea of church membership certainly is. Paul and others in the New Testament clearly expect Christians to belong to a particular, identifiable group of other Christians. Although there are many passages that deal with the concept of church membership, I will only discuss three of them here.
First, in Matthew 18:17, Jesus says that if a person sins against you and won’t repent after the first two stages of seeking reconciliation, then the final stage is to “take it to the church.” In other words, if the person remains unrepentant, the one who has been wronged is to take the matter before the congregation so that the church as a whole can deal with the situation. The reason this is important for the doctrine of church membership is that Jesus clearly expects both of the parties involved to be a part of an identifiable group of people. If they are told to take the matter “to the church,” then it is expected that they would have known exactly which people were part of their church. There was a specific group of people that they belonged to and that were responsible for helping them resolve whatever conflicts might arise.
Second, in 1 Corinthians 5:13, Paul tells the Corinthian church to “purge the evil person from among you.” Just like in Matthew 18:17, Paul expects there to be a specific group of people from whom the evil person is to be purged. If the person at fault wasn’t a member at the church at Corinth, Paul’s statement wouldn’t have made sense.
Third, 2 Corinthians 2:6 says “For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough.” It seems that the church in Corinth dealt with a matter of church discipline by a majority vote. The fact that there was a majority implies that there was a specific group of people that made up the membership at the church at Corinth, that this specific group of people took a vote, and that the majority voted to deal with the matter. These three texts alone, show that church membership is indeed in the Bible. Realizing this is one important step to recovering meaningful church membership.