In the previous article, Greg Gilbert laid a foundation for an understanding of church membership from the Bible. Here, Gilbert takes the case for church membership a step further, delving into more of the specifics of how it works and what it means.
Sometimes, I think we assume that because all that we find in the New Testament happened two thousand years ago, the early church must have accomplished it in some way that’s more interesting—more organic—than the way we might accomplish it now. But apparently, they did it exactly like we might.
Deciding by Majority Vote
In 2 Corinthians 2, Paul returned to the situation he faced in 1 Corinthians 5 (in which he told the church to remove the unrepentant man from among them) and told the church to bring the man back into the number of disciples. The man repented and, therefore, should be restored. But look in 2:6. Paul said that the church took the action of disaffirming the man’s profession of faith “by the majority.” And how did they determine a majority? They counted! Apparently, the church voted, whether by voice or hands or ballot, and that vote was the church’s way of speaking and acting, of exercising the authority of the keys that had been granted to them by King Jesus.
The Boundary around God’s People
When you pull it all together, the important thing to see is that the Bible consistently talks about the church having a boundary. There are people who are in and people who are out. Definitively. There is “a number,” and a person is part of it or not.
What’s more, that reality is a formal and recognized relationship. Both the church and the individual Christian recognize that such a relationship exists, and the church acts in a formal way both to create and dissolve it. To create it, it baptizes (or recognizes a prior baptism). To dissolve it, it votes to “hand someone over to Satan.”
Membership is not a cold, lifeless word having to do with just names on a list.
Membership Means Relationship
But still, the question remains: does the Bible ever explicitly talk about church membership? Yes, it does. It even uses the word. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul addresses a particular local church in the city of Corinth, explaining to them that instead of being divided and jealous of each other, they should be united. In the course of that argument he says in 12:27, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”
There it is. All those shadows in the New Testament—of making someone part of the number, of putting someone out of the number, of life lived together in mutual commitment—those shadows point to this biblical image of the local church being the Body of Christ.
Membership Means Commitment
What that means is that membership is not a cold, lifeless word having to do with names on a list. It’s a flesh-and-blood, lively word that describes the parts of a body. That, after all, is what the word “member” means. It’s a fascinating image, really, because it captures vividly what it means to be part of “the number” of a church.
Membership is not a modern, Western concept, but a biblical reality born of the spiritual union between Christ and his church.
For one thing, it simply underlines the truth—which we see again and again in the Bible—that a local church has a boundary. Think about it. It’s actually very clear what is a part of your body and what is not. Maybe you wear a wedding ring. I do, and it almost never comes off my finger. It’s about as close to my body as anything can possibly be. You might even call it a regular, committed attender and participant in the life of my body. But I also know that it’s not a part of my body. What’s more, as close as that ring may be to my body, it doesn’t really share in my body’s life, its pleasure, or its pain. If I stub my toe, my ring doesn’t react. My finger does though.
Membership Is Not a Modern, Western Concept
The point and heart of church membership isn’t necessarily signing something, or having your name on a list or in a booklet. The point is a mutually recognized, formal relationship between a Christian and church in which both of them say—in a way that’s recognized by both—that “I am committed to you.” I will share your joy and your pain. I will take responsibility for you. I will love and care for you. That’s the meaning of membership. It’s not a modern, Western concept, but rather a deeply biblical reality born of the spiritual union between Christ and his church—the reality that each local church is the body of Christ, and we as individual Christians are members of it.
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.