This Sunday, I began a sermon series on elders – their duties and qualifications. And, in introducing the series I noted that I hoped to address some issues related to elders that affect church life in general. One of those things is the issue of church membership.
The Bible does not specifically require church membership and it is, in fact, a dying expectation in some corners of the Christian world. The commitment phobia of our culture has hit the church, as demonstrated by its removal altogether by some and by its treatment as insignificant by many more.
Church membership is not explicitly required in the Bible, but I would argue that it’s because it was naturally expected. When the Apostles wrote their epistles to the churches, they were able to address specific directions to specific people (Romans 16:3-15; 1st Corinthians 5:1; Philippians 4:2) because they knew they would be there. In our climate of church “shopping” and consumerism, the Apostles would have better luck sending out bulk mailings.
Church membership is necessary for the elders of a congregation to do their work as well. Elders are called to “shepherd the flock of God” (Acts 20:28; 1st Peter 5:1-4) and that becomes an impossible task if the sheep bounce from fold to fold.
But, let me add that consistent attendance without membership has its own difficulties. If a person or family attends a church regularly and does not join, the elders of that congregation still cannot discharge their full duties to them. If church discipline needs to be done, those people cannot be excommunicated. After all, they were never fully “communicated” (ecclesiastically speaking, not sacramentally speaking). On the flip side, those people are also not fully protected from abusive shepherds. Church membership is for the benefit of all believers and church leaders and the removal of its significance is seen in the lack of accountability and maturity of the average congregation.