Church Membership

What is a church?

A church is an assembly of Christians in any given place; see here.


What is a church member?

A church member is a Christian who has formalized his/her allegiance to Jesus by publicly joining a local body of Christians.


Why should Christians become members of a church?  Does God command it?

There is no explicit command in Scripture to become a member of a church.  There are several leading doctrines in the Bible, however, which have led Christians to conclude that churches should keep membership rolls.


What are these?

Consider that the New Testament church retained many of the practices of the Jewish synagogue.  The polity of elder rule, for instance, was largely carried over into the Christian churches from the synagogue.  Another such practice, was what we are considering here, i.e. the keeping of membership rolls.


How do we know that the synagogues kept membership rolls?

Because we read of people being excommunicated from the synagogue.  In John 9:22 (also John 12:42; 16:2), we read that anyone who became a Christian, was “put out of the synagogue” which means they were struck from the membership of that synagogue and no longer entitled to all the rights and privileges of being a member in that synagogue.  The word used here is ἀποσυνάγωγος on which see Cremer (p64).  Schurer notes (p60) that at the time of Jesus, excommunication was already in existence; the only question being whether there were different kinds of exclusion.  Whether the synagogue kept an actual roll with members names written on it is not certain.  Clearly, however, there was some idea of who belonged and who didn’t.


Does Moses not mention something like membership in Deuteronomy 23?

Yes.  In Deuteronomy 23, we read of certain people who were not allowed to participate in “the assembly of the LORD.”  The identity of this assembly is debated.  Merrill writes:  “The assembly (qāhāl) refers here to the formal gathering of the Lord’s people as a community at festival occasions and other times of public worship and not to the nation of Israel as such.”  (Deuteronomy 307)

Assembly of the LORD,” like the more common “assembly of Israel,” is a technical term for all those adult males who are enfranchised to make decisions, participate in cultic activities and serve in the military of Israel (Micah 2:5).  see the IVP Bible Background Commentary on this text

Assuming this is correct, then the people listed in Deuteronomy 23 were not allowed to serve in this assembly but would have still been allowed to be a part of the nation of Israel.


What leads us to believe that the New Testament churches carried the practice of the synagogue over into their own communities?

Because we see Paul calling on the Corinthian church to remove someone from their midst. (1 Corinthians 5:2)  This removal is the equivalent of the Jewish practice of excommunication given above.  Olshausen says (p253) that “the phrase αἴρειν ἐκ μέσου can here only signify exclusion from ecclesiastical communion.”


From this, it seems that the practice of church membership flows from the New Testament command to practice church discipline.



What are the requirements for becoming the member of a local church?

To enter the kingdom of God, a person must turn from sin and believe the gospel.  To enter a local church, the same requirements apply.  The only difference being that now an applicant must make a credible profession of having done this.


So the requirements for entering the kingdom of God and for being received into the membership of a local church are basically the same.



What is a “credible” profession of faith?

This is a profession of faith that is not contradicted by any public and visible sin in the life of the person making this profession.  Sometimes these kinds of sins are called scandal.


Are those churches in error then who require all applicants to subscribe to their confessional standards?

Yes, this is called “confessional membership.”


Why is this an error?

Because a local church is a visible expression of the invisible (Luke 17:20) kingdom of God.  The terms for admission into the church cannot be different than the terms for admission into the kingdom.


Do those churches who hold to confessional membership believe that the terms for membership in the local church are different than the terms for entering the kingdom of God?

Yes, unless they also believe that one must believe all the doctrines contained in their doctrinal statements in order to be saved, but few of them would affirm this.


Where does the Bible teach that the terms for admission into the church cannot be different than the terms for admission into the kingdom?

There is no place in Scripture where this is explicitly taught.  It is a conclusion drawn from these facts:

  1. The church is a visible manifestation of the kingdom of God;
  2. To add anything to the terms for entrance into the kingdom of God is a terrible error.

Therefore, to add anything to the terms for entrance into the church is equally erroneous.


Where does the Bible teach that the church is a visible manifestation of the kingdom of God?

Jesus preached the kingdom of God and called people to enter it.  Many people did what He had summoned them to do and became citizens of this kingdom.  This new citizenship, however, was entirely invisible.  You could not look at a group of people and know who were citizens of Jesus’ kingdom and who were not.  That’s why Jesus said that His kingdom did not come in a visible way.

Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” (Luke 17:20-21)

The church, however, is different because it is a gathering of these kingdom citizens for the purpose of worship, fellowship, and accountability.  This is something visible.  Anyone can go to one of these gatherings and see those who profess to be disciples of Jesus and citizens of His kingdom.  That’s why the usual meaning of “church” in the New Testament is referring to a local church, i.e. the church at Jerusalem, at Antioch, at Ephesus, etc.


Where does the Bible teach that it is a terrible error to add anything to the terms for entrance into the kingdom of God?

This is the message of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  Consider these verses:

It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.  Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you.  And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law.  You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.  For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness.  For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love. (Galatians 5:1-6)

The specific issue in these churches was the Judaizers insistence that a person had to be circumcised in addition to believing in Jesus in order to be saved.  It was the same issue that troubled the Jerusalem council. (Acts 15:1)  The apostle Paul denounced this practice severely and called down the curse of God on anyone who taught it. (Galatians 1:8-9)  Hodge writes (p607):

The terms of admission into his kingdom. These cannot be rightfully altered by any human authority. Men can neither add to them, nor detract from them. The rule which He has laid down on this subject is, that what He requires as a condition for admission into his kingdom in heaven, is to be required as a condition of admission to his kingdom on earth. Nothing more and nothing less is to be demanded. We are to receive all those whom Christ receives. No degree of knowledge, no confession, beyond that which is necessary to salvation, can be demanded as a condition of our recognizing any one as a Christian brother and treating him as such. Philip baptized the Eunuch on the confession “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” (Acts 8:37) “Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations.” (Rom. 14:1) “Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth.” (V4) “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ, is born of God.” (1 John 5:1) For men to reject from their fellowship those whom God has received into His, is an intolerable assumption. All those terms of Church communion which have been set up beyond the credible profession of faith in Christ are usurpations of an authority which belongs to Him alone.









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