Church membership is extremely important. At first glance it may seem that there is little about it in the New Testament. But as we study what the Scriptures say about the church we learn much about church membership. In the New Testament various illustrations describe the church of Christ.
- ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE CHURCH
A number of different metaphors are used in the Bible to describe the people of God. The Church is referred to as a ‘flock’, a ‘vine’, a ‘nation’, a ‘temple’, a ‘bride’, and a ‘body’, to cite but a few descriptive terms. Of these, the term ‘body’, is one of the most frequently used descriptions and is not only a Biblical description, but a functional definition, too, (Eph. 4:13). Each of the pictures of the church is a metaphor, an analogy from which we can learn a great deal.
The figure of the church as a body speaks of life, unity, action, of the value and necessity of each member, and especially of the Headship of Christ.
The church as a building composed of living stones (Eph. 2:20-22; 1 Peter 2:5) speaks of plan, structure, purpose, progress, and the indwelling of God by His Spirit.
The church as the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:22-32; Rev. 21:9,10) speaks of union with Christ, beauty, love, and the longing for the Bridegroom to return.
The branches speak of the life of Christ flowing through us, of fruitfulness and the pruning exercised by the Vine dresser.
II. SOME IMPLICATIONS OF THE TERM “BODY OF CHRIST”
Let us begin with a tentative definition. The Body of Christ, the Church, is the visible manifestation of the living Christ in a company of disciples of Christ living in a prescribed geographical area who have entered into a committed relationship to each other. ‘Body’ implies visibility. The Holy Spirit, the life of the Body, is invisible, but the Body itself should be, in a sense, the visible manifestation of the Spirit of Christ. The Church, as the Body of Christ, is not only seen by God but by the world as well. The world should be able to observe the church’s behaviour and glorify God (I Pet. 2:12 cf. Matt. 5:16).
There is another looser definition which would speak of the Body of Christ as “all Christians of all ages who will one day be united in Christ at the end of time”. That also is a true definition. Indeed it is the ultimate. But we have no means of knowing just who belongs to it. Nor can we see it in its totality. Neither can we observe it functioning as a Body. The final manifestation of the Church of Christ as the Bride of Christ awaits the future God-given moment. In the meantime, the only Body of Christ we can see is the local one. Indeed most, if not all, of the references to the Body of Christ in the New Testament are local, not universal. Paul was writing to a specific Church (Corinthians) when he said, “You are the Body of Christ”. The two definitions are not contradictory but complementary, but the concept of the universal Body of Christ is rather theoretical and doctrinal, whereas the concept of the local Body of Christ is practical and functional. It is this latter definition we are mainly concerned about here.
The very nature of the analogy ‘body’ implies that there is a close, firm and permanent attachment of one member (limb) to another under the Headship of Christ. Only in this condition will life exist! The bloodstream in a physical body provides nourishment, cleansing, healing and many other things. This is only possible so long as the limbs are not severed. Of course, the body concept is only a metaphor, and where a believer is forced to be alone, through imprisonment or extreme isolation, the Lord will provide strength and sustenance in some other way (cf. I Kings 19:57). But if, through a spirit of rebellion or independence, through self-will, pride, or other sin, a professing Christian refuses to join a true local Church, that person cannot expect such special provision. And other Christians may be excused for wondering whether that person is truly born-again. It may be that they are truly born-again, but they lack teaching or hold false doctrine, which has enabled the sins already mentioned to get a hold on them.
III. MEMBERSHIP OF THE BODY OF CHRIST
The word ‘member’ has two different, though related, meanings. It can mean one who belongs to a society or club or organization. It can also mean a part of the human body. It is the latter meaning which is found in the New Testament. When, for example, in I Cor. 12 Paul writes about ‘members’, he is not speaking about people who belong to an organization, but about the limbs of a body. We use the word ‘member’ in this sense when we speak about a body being ‘dis-membered’, that is having its limbs cut off. A member of a body is a limb, or some other part of the body, and that is the true meaning of Church membership. It is ‘limbship’. We are limbs or parts of the Body when we are members of a local Church.
There are some strange and unscriptural ideas around concerning church membership. A few evangelical churches do not believe in membership at all. This would seem to be quite unbiblical, but may be due to misunderstanding. If a person is asked, “Which Church do you belong to?” and replies, “the universal Church” (or some similar reply), no information has been given. Every Christian belongs to that! But every Christian is expected to be in fellowship with other believers. This is the local Church. A person who is not in fellowship, in a committed relationship, under pastoral care, is out of the will of God.
In the first place the New Testament speaks quite clearly of believers being members of the body of Christ (Rom.12:5; 1 Cor. 12:27; Eph. 4:25). This implies a visible connection. In the second place we read of believers being added to the local church and being joined to the Lord (Acts 2:41,47; cf. 1Cor. 6:17) which implies a definite act of joining.
In the third place, how can pastors or elders care for the flock if they are not clear who they are, if they are not a clearly defined number? The apostle Paul instructed the elders of Ephesus to take care of the flock of God. Acts 20:28 – “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” This presupposes a known body of people which, whether there is a list or not, is membership of a specific group. The elders need to know them. Proverbs 27:23 – “Be diligent to know the state of your flocks, and attend to your herds.”
Peter urges the elders to shepherd the flock of God and speaks of those “entrusted” to them.
1 Peter 5:2‑3 – “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly;  nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” If people are “entrusted “ to elders or pastors for spiritual care they need to know exactly who they are. After all, they are to give an account for them. Hebrews 13:17 – “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.” You can only be accountable for people if you know precisely who they are. That means there must be a specific membership of the flock.
In the fourth place, how can church discipline be carried out if there is no recognized membership? If no one is ‘in’ membership they cannot be cast ‘out’. The word ‘member’ as used in the New Testament, is not to be identified with merely having your name on a church roll, keeping certain rules and contributing to the offering. That has been described as ‘club type membership’. New Testament church membership is being a ‘limb’ of a living body.
But here another misunderstanding arises. Some evangelical churches agree that believers ought to be ‘in fellowship’, that is, in membership, but in order to avoid nominal membership and the ‘club’ image, have done away with membership lists altogether. But they have missed the point. Many churches without lists of members are as much like clubs as other ‘club-type’ churches. Doing away with a list of members does not automatically deal with nominal membership. Would that it were that easy! A list of members is purely an administrative convenience. If Christians are in fellowship someone must know who they are, and therefore a list exists even if it is only in the minds of the elders! Besides, there are plenty of lists in the New Testament (Matt. 1:1-17; Luke 6:13-16; Matt. 10:2-4; Acts 1:13; 2:42, cf. 1 Tim. 5:9). What was said about church discipline above applies here also.
In connection with belonging to a local church, consider each of those metaphors in turn.
If you were walking along the street and came across a severed human hand lying on the pavement you would recoil in horror. But when a church member extends a hand to you, you do not recoil! What is the difference? In the former case the severed hand is gruesome and unnatural. In the latter case the hand is attached to a living human body and is perfectly normal. The word “member” in the New Testament really means a part of the body or “limb”. Membership is “limbship” We are all meant to be joined together as limbs to a body.
In connection with the analogy of the church members forming a building for the Lord’s dwelling, consider the difference between a pile of bricks and a well-designed building. A pile of bricks has no order, is rather unsightly and fairly useless. A building demonstrates design, order, structure, purpose, and hopefully, beauty. Anyone can steal a brick from a pile, but it is much harder to steal a brick from the wall of a well-built building. Again, a brick lying on the ground has five of its six sides exposed to the elements, but in a wall only one side is exposed. Moreover, in a wall each brick is supported and in turn supports others.
As for the bride, a dis-membered bride hardly bears thinking about!
- Requirements for Membership.
To be an effective limb of the Body, there need to be two things: life and connection.
Life comes to us through the New Birth (Jn. 3:3,5). The evidence of regeneration is seen when a person repents, believes, and lives the life. If they have truly repented and believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, they will have entered into a relationship of obedience to Him. He is Lord. As an act of obedience and of consecration to Him, the new-born believer will be baptized . Upon repentance and faith they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit who provides the power to live the Christian life. (Acts 2:38). But life must not be in isolation. There must be a vital relationship with other believers.
- Committed relationship
Life and committed relationship cannot really be seen in isolation in the Body of Christ, any more than they can in the human body. There is considerable overlap. For example, while immersion in water in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is one manifestation of
new life, it is also a baptism into Christ, the public sign of entrance into the Church. Similarly, while baptism in the Holy Spirit, received at conversion, places a believer in the Body of Christ, it is also the Holy Spirit who enables them to become a fully participating member of the local Body (cf.. I Cor. 12:13).
- Joining the Church.
This being ‘joined’ or ‘added’ to the local Church is a vitally important matter. It has several parts to it which may be examined under the headings of parts of the body. (See also the article on Procedures in receiving members).
God’s people are related by joints (Eph. 4:16; Col. 2:19). Just as the limbs of a physical body are related by joints, so the Church, a many-membered Body, is related by joints. A visible body requires visible joints. But these joints must be functional, not merely theoretical or mystical. One dictionary defines ‘joint’ as “the place where, or mode in which, two or more things join, with power of movement”.
Generally, a joint is thought of as a relationship between individual members who are likewise related to others. The sum total of members and joints make up the whole Body and all the members (limbs) are joined to Christ, the Head.
Scripturally speaking, joints have three primary functions:
- Joints hold the members together and in place.
- Joints transmit life, or supply sustenance, etc., from one member to another, and in so doing perpetuate the growth of the Body.
- Joints enable the Body to function as a whole and the individual members to function within the Body in a way they could not in isolation.
If joints (relationships) between members of the Body are weak, then members can easily get ‘out of joint’ and out of place. Such a condition renders them undependable and useless to the purpose of God. It also causes pain and limitation to the entire Body. Weak, ill-defined and undernourished relationships have put many members out of joint.
Without joints, the Body would soon become a re-enactment of Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones, the scattered memory of a once great army. The first step in that prophetic restoration was that bone came to his bone (Ez. 37:7). In other words, the right people must get together in the right way to function in God’s purpose under Jesus’ Headship. It is not diversity within the Church that causes weakness, but rather lack of sufficiently strong joints to hold the members in place together as they provide their unique contribution to the Body. Strong commitment, member to member, is required before there is the freedom to function which will do God’s will. Strong edification and correction best come in an atmosphere pre-conditioned by covenant commitment. Members of Christ’s Body whose insecurity or fear keep them from strong relationships, doom themselves to shallow communication, irresponsibility, and an uncorrected life.
In Col. 2:19 there is a reference to ‘ligaments’. In the physical body ligaments are the bands of tissue which hold bones together at the point where they are joined. The joint depends on the ligament for its strength. In the Body of Christ, if the joints are the inter-personal relationships between believers whom God joins together, then the ligaments are descriptive of the covenant commitment which keeps such joints strong and secure. In addition to the covenants made between God and man in the Bible, we read also of covenants made between men (e.g. Gen. 31:43-54; I Kings 5:8-12). In these covenants each of the parties had his clearly defined obligations. When new churches are planted the participants in the venture usually “covenant” together to form the church, and this is usually referred to in the founding document. Among the Semitic peoples portrayed in the Bible, part of the procedure involved in two parties entering into a covenant was sharing a common meal together, in particular breaking bread from one loaf and drinking from one cup. This is why it was particularly appropriate for the Lord Jesus Christ to initiate the New Covenant at a solemn meal with the bread and the cup, (Matt. 26:20-28). By this one act all who participated in it were thereafter bound together in a sacred covenant. Ever since then, partaking of the Lord’s Supper has included the element of a renewal of the covenant by which all who partake are bound to the Lord and to each other.
So we have members, joints, and ligaments. No doubt many other parallels could be drawn. But the most important part of the Body is the Head. The Lord Jesus Christ is the sole Head of the Church. He is the final authority. All lesser authorities derive from Him, and it is to Him that we look for guidance and direction.
A person who is spiritually alive, who acknowledges Christ as Head, may thus join a local Church by entering into this lovely relationship of mutual trust, mutual love, and mutual respect. There will also be a sense of mutual responsibility and mutual respect for one another.
Clearly, a person who does not recognise Christ as Lord, cannot be a member of any true Church. But to be a member of a particular Church, it is clearly essential that the applicant should be in full agreement with the doctrine preached by the church, be willing to enter into this committed relationship, recognizing the God-given leaders and the other members of that Body. A person may be very sincere in what he believes, but if he will not accept the other members, will not recognize the men God has appointed, and does not accept the teaching given, he is in no position to become a member of that local Body of Christ. We can only receive a person up to the level that a person is prepared to commit themselves.