With the rise of the belief in a universal church or a universal body, the importance of membership within a New Testament church has dropped substantially. It is sad to watch as many believers convince themselves that they never need to attend a church service or that occasional attendance at one or several churches is sufficient for their spiritual health.
There is also a great deal of misunderstanding about how and when an individual becomes a member of a church, and how that membership is moved from one New Testament church to another. There are ideas that seem restrictive and there are other ideas that seem nonsensical.
The answer to these questions cannot be based upon a church constitution or the opinions of any particular individual or church. As Bible-believing Baptists, we know that we are supposed to base our faith and practice on the written Word of God. The Bible must be the only source of appeal for answers to honest questions about church membership. Since that is the case, let us do a little searching to find Bible answers to our questions regarding church membership.
The Account of Church Membership
Just how important is church membership? Today, there is a tremendous trend away from church membership and toward "casual" Christianity. With the entrance of the internet, finding a "pastor" to which to listen is no longer a problem. The real question is which one to listen to first! This availability of teaching and preaching has given people the false assurance that they no longer need to be a faithful member of one particular church because their spiritual needs can be met elsewhere.
There are three basic Bible principles that teach us the importance of church membership. We need to understand these truths so that we can properly apply God's Word to our own lives.
First, we want to consider what the Lord tells us in Ephesians 4:8, 11-12: "Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men...And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:"
The Lord Jesus has given gifts to men, according to these verses. A careful study of the Scripture leads us to the understanding that there is no longer an office of apostle or prophet in these last days. However, the office of an evangelist (missionary) and the office of a pastor and teacher (Pastor, bishop, elder) are still active offices today. The question is this: where do we find these offices in practice? The obvious answer is that these offices are found working within a New Testament church!
There is further clarity about this when Paul states that these gifts (apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher) were given for the edifying of the body of Christ (Eph 4:12). When we recognize that the body of Christ is a local, New Testament church (Eph 1:22-23; Col 1:24), the importance of church membership is once again reinforced! Jesus' plan for you, as a born-again believer in Christ, is that you become a member of one of His churches so that you may enjoy the gifts that He has given for your spiritual growth and benefit!
Second, we should consider what the Lord tells us in Hebrews 10:25: "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching."
The Lord tells us that there were those who had a problem with faithful church attendance, even in the first century. The Lord does not dwell on these folks, except to warn us not to follow their example of unfaithfulness to the house of God.
This verse tells us that it is at the church where we find the exhortation to keep on persevering in the Lord's work. The word "exhort" means "to push." Many people do not want church membership because they do not want to feel pushed or pressured to obligate themselves in anything, but their usefulness to the Lord requires obligation and commitment on their part.
Consider a car that has a dead battery. It will not be a self-starter, because it has lost its power to do so. However, if that car is pushed, it can be started and used for the purpose intended. In the same way, many Christians have lost their love and zeal for the Lord, and as a result, have no desire to involve themselves in the work of the Lord. However, if that Christian will avail himself of church membership, coupled with faithful attendance, that believer will find himself being pushed to the point of renewed zeal and power. This kind of pushing may come from the Spirit of God, from the pulpit, or from a fellow church member. That isn't really the point here. The point is that a believer who feels that they do not need church membership will never feel the push to continue to be faithful to the Lord in good times and bad.
Third, we should consider what we read in Matthew 28:19-20: "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen."
The philosophy of ignoring church membership and faithful attendance in that church has done great harm to the work of God! The Lord Jesus never intended people to be satisfied as independent disciples, doing their own thing without organization and direction. In fact, the Lord Jesus gave the Great Commission to the church He established during His earthly ministry.
The truth is that a believer who has failed to become a church member has nothing to do! There is no task that the Lord gives this believer except to become a part of one of His churches. From that point, there may be any number of things that the Lord will ask of the believer, but that is the first thing with which the Lord will deal.
So, being a church member is important for every believer in Jesus Christ. It is not really left to us whether or not we "feel led" to join a church.
The Arrangement of Church Membership
Understanding that it is an important thing to be a church member clears only a small part of the confusion that surrounds so many Christians today. The confusion goes on to blur the concept of how an individual becomes a church member.
Various churches that perform infant baptism (christening, sprinkling, etc.), have stated that membership within the "church (denomination)" comes at baptism. However, the Protestant denominations who follow this practice will often go on to state that the infant must profess their faith in Christ at a later point in life. In this way, an individual becomes a church member and is considered a Christian before they ever profess faith in Christ. This is patently unbiblical.
To get to the truth of this matter, we must appeal to the Bible again! Acts 2:41 tells us exactly how an individual becomes a church member. "Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls." We find three things going on in this verse. These things, in their proper order, result in church membership. First, these people heard the message of salvation. An individual who has never heard the message of salvation could never be a member of the body of Christ! Second, these people gladly received the message they had heard. They were not forced to go through some ritual or ceremony. They gladly received the message of salvation because of their repentance and faith in Christ. An individual who has never willingly (gladly) placed their faith in Christ could never be a member of the body of Christ! Third, these people who had heard and received the Gospel message were baptized. We have dealt with the points of Scriptural baptism at other times, so we will not belabour the point here. This verse ends by telling us that these newly-saved, Scripturally baptized individuals were placed into the membership of the church at Jerusalem. Nothing else was required of them to become a church member.
The Assignment of Church Membership
It is a great thing to understand the importance of church membership and to be clear about how an individual can become a member of one of the Lord's churches. However, what if an individual church member moves to a new area and desires to become a member of one of the Lord's churches in that place? How can he go about becoming a member of another New Testament church?
This is a confusing question because many have failed to study the Scripture to learn what is God's will. They formulate some plan and proclaim that to be the proper way of transferring church membership, without one thought as to what God really says. When several plans are promoted, it is no wonder that confusion ensues!
As a preface to what we will see from Scripture, we must be clear that there is no such thing as "denominational" church membership. When someone was baptized into the membership of the church at Jerusalem, it did not automatically make that individual a member of the churches at Samaria, Antioch, and Corinth also. If you are a member of an independent Baptist church, that does not make you a member of all independent Baptist churches. Without doubt, you can freely attend another independent Baptist church, but that does not make you a member of that church, free to vote on that church’s business, or participate in the Lord’s Table with that church.
We must also be clear that mere attendance at a particular church does NOT make one a member of that church.
What we are talking about is transferring membership from one New Testament church to another. There are two facets to a transfer of membership: testimony and recommendation.
Saul of Tarsus (later the Apostle Paul) was saved on the road to Damascus. He was baptized in the city of Damascus by Ananias, a faithful brother. That would make him a member of the church at Damascus. Later, when he moved back to Jerusalem, he had a desire to become a member of the church at Jerusalem. Here he had problems. No one believed his testimony of salvation. As a result, the church at Jerusalem would not accept him into their membership. Act 9:26 says, "And when Saul was come to Jerusalem, he assayed to join himself to the disciples: but they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple."
To transfer membership from one New Testament church to another requires a clear, believable testimony of salvation and Scriptural baptism. For this reason, each time someone talks about joining our church, I always ask for their salvation testimony and where they were baptized. If I cannot believe the testimony I have heard, I cannot recommend that the church accept them into church membership.
Communication between churches was often difficult, especially during the dark days of persecution. As the Gospel spread over the Roman Empire, some churches did not know about other churches that had been established in the far corners of the Empire. Also, with spies entering into many churches to betray them to the authorities, great care had to be exercised before allowing anyone into their membership. For these, and other reasons, we find letters of recommendation being written by churches and given to individual members who were heading out to other areas. These letters of recommendation would let the reader know that the bearer of that recommendation was indeed saved and Scripturally baptized. This aided the movement of membership from one New Testament church to another. Acts 18:27 describes this for us: "And when he was disposed to pass into Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him: who, when he was come, helped them much which had believed through grace:"
Of course, before a church member moves to a new area, he should discuss that move with his Pastor, so that he can receive a recommendation of a good New Testament church in the area to which he is moving. This helps the church member to quickly find a New Testament church of like faith to which to join himself so that his spiritual growth is not hindered.
In these days, we do not generally send a letter of recommendation with a church member. Instead, when a believer decides to join another New Testament church, he presents himself to that church for membership. At that time, the church in which he is seeking membership will write for a letter of recommendation from the church where his membership is held. The church where his membership is held will then write a letter of recommendation to the church wherein he is seeking membership unless there is some reason why a recommendation cannot be sent (such as, the member in question has been placed under church membership). In this way, both churches recognize one another as equals and recognize that no one can be the member of two different New Testament churches at the same time.
In light of these two aspects regarding the transfer of church membership (testimony and recommendation), here is how we (True Life Baptist Church) receive members.
1. Baptism.When an individual is born again and follows the Lord in Scriptural baptism here at True Life Baptist Church, we accept that individual into our membership. Also, when someone has been born again, yet he has been baptised into a church that is not of like faith and practice (not a New Testament church), we will require that individual to submit to Scriptural baptism before we can accept that individual into our membership.
2. Letter.When an individual has been born again and scripturally baptised into a church of like faith and practice, that individual can present himself to the church for membership. At that point, our church will request a letter of recommendation from the sister church.
3. Statement.When an individual has been born again and followed the Lord in Scriptural baptism, but the church where the individual's membership was held no longer exists, or the church in question has turned away from practicing a like faith, our church may choose to receive that individual on their statement of salvation and Scriptural baptism. Also, when an individual has been born again and followed the Lord in Scriptural baptism, but later becomes a member within a church that is not of like faith and practice (not a New Testament church), that individual may also be received by statement.
The confusion in these last days extends to every aspect of church and daily life, including church membership. It is extremely important for us to faithfully study the Scripture so that we understand what is truth and what is error in regards to church membership!