“I am a member of the church universal. I do not need to be a member of an organized church.” “Our church does not believe in church membership.” “Church membership is unbiblical. It is a man-made tradition.” These are but a few of the objections to church membership that I and other pastors have heard and read. It would be easy to meet this challenge were there a verse in Scripture that says “there is church membership” or “join the nearest true church” but of course there are no such verses in Scripture. There are also no verses that say, “Do not stab your sister in the eye with a pencil” yet I cannot imagine a Christian arguing that he has the right to do so? Why not? Because most Christians realize, if only intuitively, that it is ungodly and unbiblical intentionally to stab someone in the eye. How do we know that? We know it by “good and necessary consequence” (WCF 1.6) from Holy Scripture. We do not need a passage to tell us explicitly not to attack other people violently because we have the command to love our neighbors as ourselves. We draw inferences from that command. We apply that general command to this particular situation. That there was such a thing as “church membership” in the history of redemption is another “good and necessary” consequence from Scripture.
Breaking Down Unwarranted Assumptions
One reason why American Christians doubt the legitimacy of church membership is that they assume a narrative about the Apostolic and early Christian church which is without foundation in Scripture or history but that is nevertheless widely held. That narrative says that our Lord never instituted a visible church, that there was a sort of loose affiliation between the disciples both during our Lord’s earthly ministry and after his ascension. According to this narrative, what changed after his ascension is that the Holy Spirit was poured out with the result that this loose affiliation of Christians became Spirit-empowered and Spirit-led in such a way that institutions were not necessary. According to this account, institutions are set against the Spirit and against the notion of a dynamic, free association of Spirit-led Christians. The rise of the institutional church is said to be evidence of corruption, spiritual entropy due to the loss of the direct operation and influence of the Spirit.
Again, this narrative, however widespread, is almost entirely false. The prima facie evidence against it is very strong. Our Lord Jesus himself gave “the keys of the kingdom” to his disciples and charged them to use them. Scripture says:
And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt 16:17–19; ESV).
Upon his ascension, our Lord Jesus constituted his 12 disciples as apostles. This is an office with genuine spiritual authority. That office is to be exercised in some organization. The very image of keys entails admitting and excluding. Keys open and lock doors. A door exists in a physical structure. It is a metaphor for some organized entity. We need not guess what that organized entity is. In Matthew 18 our Lord called his “church.”
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt 18:15–20; ESV)
It is simply impossible to “tell it to the church” unless “the church” is gathered in some place. How does one exclude someone from “the church” if there is no organization, no institution? Paul assumes organization and institution in 1 Corinthians 5:1. An impenitent (i.e., one who refuses to acknowledge his sin and turn from it) person must be “removed” from the Corinthian church. For that matter, if the church is utterly “dynamic” and “pneumatic” how was Paul able to gather them (as he did outside of Philippi) into congregations or write to them?
Further, we need not guess how “the church” was structured. We have clear accounts of the institution of the office of deacon in Acts 6:1–7. We know from Acts that there were “elders” (Acts 20:17–18). Paul describes the qualifications for the office of elder in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and for the office of deacon in 8–13. He described Epaphrras, Tychicus, and Timothy as holding the office of “minister” (Col 1:7; 4:7; 1 Tim 4:6). Indeed, Paul repeatedly called himself a “minister.”
The real question should not be “where does the bible teach church membership?” but rather, “where, after 1500 years of history in which there were church members before Acts, did the New Testament revoke church membership?” The history of Israel, the history of God’s old covenant people, is instructive. In the Old Covenant, God is a bookkeeper. In Exodus 32:32 we see a very interesting phrase. In a prayer, Moses pleads with God not to blot him out of “the Book you have written.” The Lord replies to Moses that He will indeed blot anyone who sins out of His “Book.”46 David declares in Psalm 9:5 that the Lord has “blotted out” the name of his enemies forever. In Psalm 40:7 David is assured that his righteousness is written on God’s scroll.
Many of these same themes regarding the “Book of Life” are evident in the Revelation of the Apostle John. To the Church in Sardis the Lord Jesus writes that He will not “blot out his name from the Book of Life” who is faithful and obedient to the Lord. Revelation 13:8; 17:8; 20:12,15; also refer to the Book of Life. It would seem that we are to conceive of a divinely kept book in which are recorded the names of all believers of all ages. This is not to say that there is an actual book, though there may well be.
In Psalm 69:28 David prays for the utter destruction of enemies and for them to be blotted out of “the Book of Life” and not to be listed with the righteous. In this same Psalm vv.9,10 David turns from the “book” to speak twice of the Qahal (which is translated in the LXX with Ekklesia and Synagogue (cf. Deuteronomy 9:10,14 where these two ideas are also closely connected). There is a close connection in David’s mind between the Qahal (the covenant assembly) and the “book.”
Because God is revealed as a book-keeper His Covenant people were also (according to the commandments of God) also book keepers. There is significant evidence that in the Old Covenant there were membership rolls with the names of all the covenant families and the covenant heads of households. Genesis 5:1ff. speaks of the “book of the generations.” Moses worked from existing books in compiling his (selective) genealogies. This idea of membership roll figured conspicuously in the life of the Qahal. Later after the exile when the beginnings of the Synagogue can be traced, there is archeological evidence that there were membership rolls there as well. It took at least twelve men in good standing in the community to form a synagogue.
God commanded Moses in Exodus 17:14 to write down the destruction of the Amelakites because without this record there would not be any. In turn (Deut 25:19), God will “blot out” the Amelakites. In Exodus 24:7 we read of the “Book of the Covenant” which contained the laws by which God’s Covenant people were to live. God commanded Moses to take a census of the people and to make a record of them (Exodus 30:11). Psalm 87:6 speaks of a “register of the peoples” (NIV). Ezekiel 13:9 speaks of a “register of the house of Israel” (NASB). There was a written record of the descendants of Aaron (Nu 3:10). It would seem to be beyond controversy that God’s people kept written records during the Mosaic theocracy. The question remains then whether similar practices continued into the New Covenant era.
There is a great deal of unity and continuity between the Old Covenant conception of the Qahal and the New Covenant Ekklesia. Thus there is good reason to suspect that there is continuity in the practice of record keeping. Remember that in both the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, one had to join the visible assembly and take the sign of the Covenant. The most obvious examples of this sort of record keeping are the genealogies of Matthew 1:1–17 and Luke 3:23–38. We know from Acts that the Apostles met first in the temple, and then later during missionary journeys, in the synagogue. The organization of the synagogue did play some role in the beginning of the visible Church. We see in Luke 4:18ff. that there was a reading of the Scriptures and an exposition of the Scriptures in the Synagogue. This practice was continued in the early New Covenant Church.
Another piece of evidence which adds to the inference of Church membership in the New Covenant Church is the mention in Acts 16:5 that the Church grew greatly in numbers. If the Church in the New Covenant largely equals the Qahal of the Old Covenant and if it grew in numbers then we can fairly say that these converts ‘joined’ the Church.
There is positive evidence of record keeping (membership lists) in the New Covenant Church. The problem in the daily distribution of bread in Acts 6:1 assumes some sort of record keeping of eligible widows. In 1 Timothy 5:9–16 Paul speaks explicitly about a list of names of Christian widows who were eligible for financial assistance from the Church. He even lays out the qualifications to be on the list. If the Church kept such lists for financial aid, can we reasonably assume that these widows were not on a membership roll? Moreover we cannot help but notice that again Paul’s instructions regarding widows presupposes some sort of organized visible body of Christ who administered this aid to its members.1
A membership roll is a natural function in a structured, organized, institution. We have strong evidence from Scripture that the church was intentionally instituted with structure and offices. It is possible to be included and excluded from the visible church. That leads us to think that membership is implied by the very idea of inclusion and exclusion. Further, we know from Scripture God has always kept a list, as it were, of his people. The Israelites kept a census, which constituted a membership roll in the Old Covenant (Mosaic) typological state-church. We know that the inter-testamental and New Testament era synagogues kept membership rolls and we reasonably think that the New Testament church inherited that practice. We have positive evidence of some lists (e.g., widows) kept in the church. It seems hard to imagine that there were rolls for widows but not for members.
- The Church: The Christ-Confessing Covenant Community
- The HB Library on Ecclesiology
- The HB Library on Church Discipline
1. This section of the essay is modified slightly from a section of this earlier essay.