Thousands upon thousands of evangelical churches today have no formal membership process. Furthermore, many Christians never join a church or see any reason for doing so. Perhaps it’s because they don’t see church membership taught in the Bible. Or they’ve been hurt by a church in the past and are reluctant to get hurt again. Or they are confused by the plethora of Christian denominations and ministries out there these days and can’t decide what to do. Or they simply enjoy living on the periphery of a local fellowship and don’t want to give up their independence. Whatever the case, they are missing something very important to their spiritual growth and the advance of the gospel.
Why should we insist that a follower of Christ become a committed, active member of a local church? I can think of at least nine reasons.
First, church membership helps us guard the peace and purity of the church. In Matthew 18:15–20, Jesus explains how to handle conflict with another Christian. A key part of His teaching is to “tell it to the church” when other avenues of resolution fail. Unless we are committed members of a church, it’s difficult to see how we would practically apply this command.
Second, church membership provides the privilege of accountability to church leaders. Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” If we hop from church to church, or refuse to join a church, how will we obey this verse? And if there are no criteria to determine who is “inside the church” and “outside” (1 Cor. 5:12–13), for whom are church leaders responsible?
Third, church membership gives a tangible way to express commitment to a family of believers. It’s great to say in a general way that we love the church of God. But it’s even better to get up in front of a church, look brothers and sisters in the eye, and affirm a set of commitments, vows, or promises. In my denomination, a person must affirm five vows to become a member of one of our churches. It takes courage to make those promises and even more courage to stick to them. But there is great blessing in making a verbal commitment of love to a group of believers.
Fourth, church membership provides a profound means of telling the world that we are followers of Christ. In Mark 8:38 Jesus says, “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” Of course, there are many ways to share our faith with others. But to say that we are members of a particular church is a great way to come out of hiding and witness to unbelieving friends, relatives, neighbors, and coworkers.
Fifth, church membership pulls us into the grand story of God’s covenant love. God has made a covenant with us through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Covenant speaks of a costly commitment sealed with an inviolable promise. The covenantal nature of church membership is very precious to God, and when we covenant with other believers we are imitating God. As Walter Henegar has put it: “The Church is the Bride of Christ. He has sworn himself to her—and to us. Should we not do the same?”