Among other reasons that could be given, I believe the practice of formal church membership is necessary in our context in light of the presence of denominationalism, false churches, and worldly living that is clearly at odds with the Christian life. Individuals commit to a church’s confession and covenant in order to identify themselves in a certain way and distinguish themselves from others in both what they believe and how they live.
The NT indicates that the church should practice what we call church membership. The church knew who its members were and were not by what they believed and how they lived. While this practice may look more formal or informal from one congregation to the next, it is a practice that exists to one degree or another in every healthy, biblical church. Below are a few strands of evidence from the NT that together make a strong argument for church membership.
The early churches knew their constituencies with precision. They kept track of who was “added,” sometimes recording the number (Acts 2:41; cf. 2:47; 5:14; 11:24). Within that number, a church could even track its widows and their ages (1 Tim 5:9).
Specific Ministries and Accountability
Knowing its membership, a church could choose members for specific ministries and hold them accountable. Peter was accountable to the church in Jerusalem for making disciples (Acts 11:2, 18), Barnabas to Antioch (Acts 11:22), and Barnabas and Saul together to Antioch (Acts 13:3; 14:27). Churches sometimes appointed representatives to minister to or inquire of other churches as well (Acts 15:22; 2 Cor 8:19–20; cf. 8:18–21). ((Kevin Bauder, Baptist Distinctives and New Testament Church Order (Schaumburg, IL: Regular Baptist Press, 2012), 92–99.))
Churches have pastors (1 Tim 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9), which assumes established bodies of people who are accountable to follow their leadership (cf. 1 Thess 5:12–13; Heb 13:17). Likewise, deacons are men initially suggested by the church from within the church’s membership to its leadership for their respective ministries (Acts 6:3).
A defined membership for the church is necessary to exclude those who do not belong (Matt 18:15–17). This exclusion is for those who, in significantly deviating in doctrine or practice, are no longer identifiable as Christians (e.g., 1 Cor 5:1–13), and it is carried out by a majority vote of the assembled church (2 Cor 2:6).
Just mentioned above, Paul described a repentant individual as one once excluded by “the majority” (2 Cor 2:6). Having a clearly defined membership, the Corinthians knew their exact number in order to determine a majority vote.
In a leadership situation, Luke used the verb cheirotoneō in Acts 14:23 to refer to the appointment of elders, literally meaning to “stretch out the hand” in a voting situation. ((BDAG, s.v., “χειροτονέω.”)) The members voted their pastors into leadership, which again assumes the churches knew who their members were and who could vote.
From Acts 6:3 above, the same word for appointing deacons (kathistēmi) is used of elders in Titus 1:5, which means that elders, too, were suggested by members from among the membership, implying a clearly defined church membership.
While an early church may not have been as formal as many churches today, there was at least an expectation of belief and living necessary for being admitted into its membership, an admission carried out by the existing membership. However formal or informal a church may be about the matter, the NT indicates that church membership must be present in some way.
Psalm 110:1 enjoys more references in the NT than any other verse from the OT. It is quoted 5 times and given allusion 15 times. From my own study, I’ve grouped these quotations and allusions into the headings below, and every reference cited is to one of those quotations or allusions. ((All quotations are from the ESV.))
“Jesus…endured the cross, despising the shame” because He was motivated by “the joy that was set before Him,” that is, being “seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2). Jesus persevered and has been rewarded with the right-hand seat that was promised to Him. We are likewise exhorted to do the same. “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col 3:1). Stephen faithfully persevered unto death, seeing “Jesus standing at the right hand of God” as if to applaud and welcome him home (Acts 7:55–56).
Paul prayed for his readers to know of “the immeasurable greatness of his power… that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places” (Eph 1:19–20). The power of God was shown in both the resurrection of Jesus and His placement at His right hand.
Jesus’ right-hand seat indicated that He had a position over all things. There He sits as the Messiah and David’s greater Lord (Matt 22:44 / Mark 12:36 / Luke 20:42–43). It is a seat that is not even given to angels (Heb 1:13) because there He sits “with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him” (1 Pet 3:22). In fact, His position is one in which the Father “put all things under his feet” (Eph 1:22), which indicates of the Father that “he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him” (1 Cor 15:27).
“We have such a high priest,” Jesus, “one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven” (Heb 8:1), which indicates the completion and present carrying out of certain priestly functions. He sat there “after making purification for sins” and having “offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins” (Heb 10:12). Shortly after taking this seat, He “poured out” the Spirit on Pentecost (Acts 2:33), sits as “Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” and anyone else who repents (Acts 5:31), and “indeed is interceding for us” (Rom 8:34).
As seen above, Jesus is over all things at the Father’s right hand. From there, however, He has been “waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet” (Heb 10:13), including those who disbelieved Him (Matt 26:64 / Mark 14:62 / Luke 22:69) and even death itself (1 Cor 15:26–27).
Pastor David Huffstutler
Pastor Huffstutler regularly writes articles for our Sunday bulletin. See his bio on our pastoral bio page.