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?”
Sixth, church membership encourages participation in the work of the church. In Ephesians 4:16, Paul speaks about each part of the body doing its share of the work. By formally committing ourselves to a local church, we will also feel a healthy obligation to contribute our time, talents, and treasure to the ministry of that church.
Seventh, church membership helps us distinguish between “neighbor” and “household of faith.” God calls us to love everyone. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves. But Galatians 6:10 says, “Let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (emphasis added). Paul is making some distinction here between the quality of love we give to non-Christians and that which we give to our fellow Christians. But how do we know who belongs to the household of faith? When we go through the process of church membership, we normally have to profess our faith to a governing body of church leaders. This process helps identify (not infallibly, of course) false professions as opposed to true professions.
Eighth, church membership prevents us from showing favoritism. Because we are sinners, we gravitate toward people who are like us, even within the church. We form cliques. We avoid difficult people. But when we become church members, we realize we cannot do that; we cannot pick favorites. We are part of a family, and all members of that family are equally important. That’s the point of Paul’s discussion about the church in 1 Corinthians 12:21: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” In other words, church membership tames our sinful, selfish nature.
Ninth and finally, church membership helps to prevent us from trying to go it alone. This was implied in some of the other reasons, but it deserves to be repeated. I am growing more and more tired of the “me and Jesus” view of the Christian life. The older I get, the more I see how much I need the family of God. As a church member, I am able to remind myself often that “two are better than one” (Eccl. 4:9).
If you are not a member of a church, I urge you to seriously consider the benefits and duty of committing yourself to a body of believers through membership. Every church does it somewhat differently and has its own pathway to formal membership. The point is, it’s important to be an accountable, contributing member of a congregation of God’s people.
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on November 2, 2018.