At our church business meeting on Sunday evening, the issue of church membership will be brought to our attention once again. Perhaps you’ve wondered, “Why does EBC practice membership? Is membership a human tradition we’ve added to the Bible? Or just a piece of red tape the government requires? Why should anyone become a formal member? Isn’t it enough to just attend a church?”
Membership in the Bible
The language of “membership” itself comes from the Scriptures. “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Romans 12:4–5). As the people of God, we are members of one another, as connected and inter-dependant as the limbs and organs of our own bodies.
In the book of Acts, we see that becoming a Christian—becoming a member of the body of Christ—was an act of significance and public commitment. “…and they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem” (Acts 5:12–13). Many people respected the Christians, but actually joining that gathered body wasn’t something you did casually. Joining the church had a public aspect to it, formally associating you with the assembly.
And yet, this did happen every time someone came to faith in Jesus. “…and the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). Becoming a Christian meant that you were “added to” the church. You were count-able. You had become a part of the body of Christ, the group which publicly represents Jesus here on earth.
As we read further in the New Testament, we discover that while the church was instructed to be welcoming towards outsiders (1 Corinthians 14:23), they were also taught to maintain a very clear distinction of who was, and who was not, a part of their fellowship.
For example, in 1 Corinthians 5, we read about a man who was living in public and unrepentant sin. Paul instructed them to remove this man from the church: “…Let him who has done this be removed from among you….When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus…you are to deliver this man to Satan…” (1 Corinthians 5:2, 4–5).
If the church is the body of Christ, it is vitally important that it represent Jesus well. This requires identifying and removing those who persist in grossly misrepresenting Jesus.
But what did it practically mean for that man to be “removed from among” them? How would other people have known this had happened? How would the Corinthians have known who was and who was not supposed to be a part of their “assembling” together to formalize this removal? As we think about these questions, it becomes clear that the Corinthian church must have had a clear understanding—matched with a public recognition—of who was and who was not a part of their assembly. (See 1 John 2:19 for a similar dynamic.)
But Why Make It Formal?
So, did the early church have a formal membership process? It’s uncertain. In the early days, simply standing with the assembly in Solomon’s Portico would have expressed a high level of public commitment. The same is true in much of the world today. Many of the churches in China, for example, do not need a formal membership process; the risks of simply showing up mean that only the committed are present.
However, the same is not true for us here in North America. Most of our towns are home to multiple churches, and we have a high level of freedom to come and go from these churches as we desire. This makes it difficult, even impossible, for any one church to know who is (and who is not) a committed member of their body apart from a formal membership process.
A comparison can be made to marriage. In Genesis 24:67, Isaac began his marriage with Rebekah by simply bringing her into his tent. In that culture, this was all he needed to do in order to express the commitment of a public marriage. Today, things have changed: people come and go from each other’s bedrooms with no implied commitment whatsoever. This is why Christians recognize the importance of beginning a marriage with a formal, public ceremony known as a wedding.
An identical line of reasoning applies to membership. Given the culture here in North America, it is impossible for us to know with clarity who is (and who is not) a committed part of the body without a formal membership process.
Formal membership, therefore, is not a practice we have added to the Bible’s teaching on the life of the church. Instead, it is something we practice in order to recover an important aspect of the Bible’s teaching on the life of the church: the joyful privilege of a public, committed identification with the body of Christ.
Are you a follower of Jesus Christ, a member of His body? Do you attend Emmanuel Baptist Church? If you are not a member here, would you accept our invitation to express your participation in the body of Christ through membership at EBC?
If you have questions or feedback about this article or the process of membership at EBC, I would invite your response! Please get in touch with me at this link.