Why should a Christian become a member of a local church? If they are truly redeemed, aren’t they already a ‘member’ of the Body of Christ? What need is there then, to officially join a local church when Christ has already accepted him into His kingdom (Romans 15:7)? There is, however, evidence to support that one who has been ushered into the kingdom of God should also be joined to a local church by membership.
It must be admitted that membership in a local church is not to be equated with salvation in Christ. Simply because a person has joined a local church does not guarantee genuine faith in Christ. It is also true that salvation and church membership are not of equal importance. As Eric Lane states, ‘Church membership is not essential in the way that faith in Christ is. Joining a church will not make us any more saved than we were before. Non-members who are believers are no less precious in the Lord’s eyes than those who are members. Heaven is no more sure for the latter than the former. The main thrust of the Bible is to bring us to faith in Christ. About this there must be no trace of doubt, whatever else is left obscure. On some matters there is room for debate, but not on the way of salvation. So do not be surprised if you cannot see membership as clearly as you can salvation. Not all things in Scripture are presented with the same degree of dogmatism’ (I Want to be a Church Member, Bryntirion, Bridgend, Wales: Evangelical Press, 1992), pp. 9-10.
Why then, is church membership important? Membership is important in a local church because it is there that a person finds his spiritual identity and where he can also exercise his spiritual giftedness. The apostle Paul declares in 1 Corinthians 12:14, ‘The body is not one member, but many.’ He goes on to say, ‘But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as he desired. If they were all one member, where would the body be? But now there are many members, but one body’ (vv. 18-19). The obvious question about these verses is this: If someone was not a member of a local church, how could his contribution to the Body of Christ be expressed? How could he utilize his giftedness if there is no body in which to do so? The same idea could be said of a person when seen in other analogies describing the church as the family of God (Mark 3:33-34; 1 John 5:1; Matthew 6:9), the building of God (Matthew 16:18; 1 Peter 2:4-5; Ephesians 2:19-22), and the flock of God (John 10; 1 Peter 2:25; 5:1-4). The very application of these passages would make little sense unless we understand them within a local-body context. Another reason to affirm the idea of someone joining with a local church is to see that there must have been some sort of accounted membership in the early church, given the references to actual numbers of people. Acts 1:15; 2:41; 4:4; 6:1 speak of the actual numbers of people being added to the early church, thus implying at least the possibility of records being kept of those identifying with the Body of Christ. Additionally, since Christ loved and died for the church (Ephesians 5:25-27), and since He promised also to build the church (Matthew 16:13-20), why wouldn’t a Christian desire to be publicly identified with the church?
Still another reason to believe there was some sort of membership process in the early church was the sending of ‘letters of commendation’ which affirmed the character of Christians as they traveled from one location to another. For instance, Acts 15:23-31 speaks of a letter sent from the Jerusalem church to Antioch which commends the ministry of Paul, Barnabas, Barsabbas, and Silas for the continuing work of spreading the gospel. Indeed, Acts 28:21 seems to imply that certain letters of commendation about a person’s Christian character were required in the early church, implying that this was a way of discerning who was to be trusted as a sincere believer. Due to the fact that people might be moving around in various geographical regions, especially in light of the intense persecution occurring, as well as their desire to travel and preach the gospel to all creatures, the commending of their characters was essential. Paul commends the sending of letters about certain envoys of his in 1 Corinthians 16:3 (it is implied also in 2 Corinthians 3:1 and Romans 16:21-23), although he knew the Corinthians because they were ‘written on his heart.’ These series of letters implied that as Christians traveled to other areas, there was a way to communicate who was to be commended as a servant of the Lord. This would mean that traveling Christians could be more readily affirmed as bona fide members of one local congregation being sent to another. When you add the fact that these Christians would be entering other believer’s homes (house-churches), it made it all the more important for a commendation of some kind. Admittedly, all of these arguments are more biblically descriptive than prescriptive; nevertheless, they are helpful in affirming that commitment/membership to a local church seems to be the most prudent way for accountability, shepherding, and the utilization of one’s spiritual giftedness to take place. The New Testament clearly demonstrates (every epistle was written to a local church) the importance of commitment to the church through its structure of elders, deacons, and members. Matthew 18: 18-20 further authorizes the elders of a local church to discipline those who are in unrepentant sin, which presupposes those who are aligned with the body and those who are not. Therefore, publicly identifying with the church is both a joyful and yet solemn responsibility. Hebrews 13: 17 thus enjoins members to ‘obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.’
A membership process today would be similar to the early church’s letters of commendation in that people could be welcomed from sister churches who could affirm their commitment to Christ. Having local congregations ask their people to give testimonies and affirm doctrinal positions would be a way to know who is willing to publicly declare their commitment to Christ. Does this mean that church membership today is merely a matter of filling out certain sets of paperwork in order to be recognized as a Christian? No. It simply means that the church has the opportunity to organize a process of determining those believers who are willing to be recognized as a part of their local church body. As in the early church, it also assists in the commending of Christians who find themselves moving to other geographical regions of the country and world. 1 Corinthians 14:23-25 implies that the early church knew who the believers were who had publicly declared their faith in Christ, because it goes on to speak of certain ‘unbelievers’ entering in. These are obviously the persons within a gathering who were not readily recognized as a normal part of the believing fellowship. If there is no process of discerning believers from the unbelievers (to the best of human ability), the line is blurred between the two. The membership process of The Bible Church of Little Rock seeks to determine those who are confessing Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord (baptism), and who are desiring to minister their spiritual giftedness in their local church for the glory of God (membership).
Given the fact of great persecution in this newly formed church, the public identification would signal an even greater commitment to the local church than many today realize. Jesus Himself said, ‘Everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven’ (Matthew 10:32-33). Those who genuinely and publicly declared their faith in Christ (usually expressed in baptism and recognized membership) during the period of the founding of the early church, could expect to be ostracized from family and friends. Their public declaration before men was rewarded by Jesus declaring His affirmation of them before His heavenly Father. Joining with a local body of believers today is a similar commitment to publicly declaring your faith.