Church membership has garnered much discussion over the years. We invited Greg Gilbert to address the topic here. We will share his thoughts in two articles. Today’s article is part one.
If you’re like most people, the word “membership” probably doesn’t cause you to well up with any deep spiritual emotion. For most of us, membership is something most associated with junk mail from credit card companies or a high-pressure sales pitch at a gym. When it comes to the church, perhaps it’s viewed as a bureaucratic tool for keeping track of people. Some consider it irretrievably Western—a faintly imperialist concept that really ought to be abandoned when we begin to plant churches in other cultures.
I understand that impression, especially given how many churches treat the concept and reality of membership. But what’s needed is to return to the Bible itself and see whether it talks about church membership, and if so, what the nature and meaning and purpose of that concept is in the first place.
Church Membership According to Jesus
The idea of church membership began to take shape in Matthew 16 and 18 when Jesus first began to constitute his church. There he gave the church the keys of the kingdom, which means that he gave it authority to speak in his name both to what the gospel is and who is rightly confessing the gospel.
The ability to affirm who is confessing the gospel rightly and who is not is the outline of what we mean by the term “church membership.”
If someone understands and confesses the gospel rightly, the church is given authority by King Jesus to say, “Yes, you’re a genuine believer in Christ,” and is, therefore, to be baptized and join in the life of the church. If not, the church also has the authority, granted by the King, to say, “No, you don’t understand the gospel, you’re not confessing it and living according to it, and therefore we will not continue to affirm that you’re a Christian.” That’s the power of the keys Jesus gave to the church, and that ability to affirm who is confessing the gospel rightly and who is not is the outline of what we mean by the term “church membership.”
Church Membership in the Book of Acts
You can see that reality casting its shadow in the story written in the Book of Acts from the beginning of the church. On the day of Pentecost, Peter preached the gospel and told people to be baptized. Then, in Acts 2:41, “three thousand souls were added to their number.” Even at the beginning, then, the first Christians knew who they were. The life of the church wasn’t just a matter of “come when you can.” There was a defined, recognized group of people who believed, were baptized, and were part of the number.
It’s not just that they knew each other, though. Those early Christians lived life together. They attended the temple together (2:46) as more and more were “added to their number” (2:47) until in Acts 4:4 the number had risen to five thousand (and that’s just counting the men)! To be a part of “the number” wasn’t just a lifeless bureaucratic reality, either. Acts 4:32 reports that they were “of one heart and soul.”
In the very first church in Jerusalem, even as large as it was, the first Christians knew who they were.
Amazingly, even with upwards of five thousand people in “the number,” that earliest church in Jerusalem continued to meet together. Acts 5:12 says that they were “all together” in a large place called Solomon’s Portico; 6:2 even says the “full number” of them came together in a business meeting to discuss how to care better for widows. And through all of this, those early Christians called themselves a church— that is an assembly, a gathering.
So, in the very first church in Jerusalem, even as large as it was, the first Christians knew who they were. There were those who were part of the number, and there were those who were not, and the dividing line between the two was baptism. A person would become a believer, the church would exercise the keys and say, “Yes, you seem to be a genuine believer,” then he or she would be baptized and thereby join the life of the church—its joys and pains and problems and solutions. That’s membership.
Church Membership throughout the New Testament
Membership casts its shadow in other places in the Bible too. It’s seen in Matthew 18, for example, where Jesus explained how the church is to use the authority of the keys to remove its affirmation of someone’s profession of faith. The end of that process is that the person is made an outsider. That is, they’re no longer one of “the number.”
First Corinthians 5 gives us a look at another similar situation in which Paul tells the church in 5:2 to “remove this man from among you.” Obviously, that doesn’t mean they are supposed to physically toss him out of the room or bar the doors against him. No, they wanted the man to attend the gatherings of the church, to hear the word, and repent. What it means to “remove” him is that they are to make it clear that they are withdrawing their affirmation of his claim to be a Christian. When you assemble, Paul told them, “hand him over to Satan.” That’s keys of the kingdom language: They are to transfer him out of the church (the realm of King Jesus) and into the world (the realm of Satan).
Now that a basic, biblical case for church membership has been established, part two will deal with how membership was carried out in Scripture. Greg Gilbert will also explore what membership means and examine a passage where the term “member” actually appears in the New Testament.
(Click here for part two of “Yes, the Bible Does Teach Church Membership.”)
Greg Gilbert is the senior pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He earned his B.A. from Yale University and his MDiv. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of What Is the Gospel? and the coauthor of What Is the Mission of the Church?, Preach: Theology Meets Practice, and The Gospel at Work: How Working For King Jesus Gives Meaning and Purpose to Our Jobs. Greg is married to Moriah, and they have three children.