With a small amount of biblical data, church membership by tradition has been the norm for some, yet for others, it remains unpracticed. For some, church membership in its traditional sense is irrelevant to the culture or mission of the church, and can therefore be disregarded. There are those within this group who believe that practicing a strict membership within the local church is a distortion of the gospel, by contradicting the love of Christ and attempting to evaluate, label and separate (from a human perspective) who the true believers really are.
In the evangelical movement, church membership was an untouched topic. Generally, evangelical churches don’t practice membership to the extent as a Baptist. Even though they do not require a signature and majority vote by the congregation, many evangelical churches participate in some form of membership or identification to the local church body. When asked to define a “member” of the local church, John Piper states,
What I mean by ‘member’ is somebody who, whether by a signature or a word of commitment or promise, says, I’m committed to a people, a people who hear the word of God preached, a people who perform the ordinances that Jesus gave to his church (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and a people who commit to the ‘one another’ commandments (love each other, exhort each other, admonish each other, hold each other accountable.)
(To view the complete video with John Piper, click here Is Membership Important?)
Piper goes on to further point out that the legal act signing a document is not the biblical requirement for local church membership, which further illustrates many in the evangelical movement which believe that the traditional sense of signing into membership is allowable from scripture but not commanded.
There are two types of church “membership” addressed in New Testament – membership in the universal church (in the body of Christ, 1 Corinthians 12:13) and membership within the local assembly of believers (our ἐκκλησία), also known as the invisible and visible church. This paper will mainly address membership within the local Church from a New Testament perspective.
The contemporary issue then becomes whether church membership as it is practiced today is reflective of New Testament teachings or has simply become a practice in keeping of traditions within each respective denomination. This paper will trace local church membership as it is practiced today and contrast it with a scriptural analysis of relevant biblical texts.
As previously stated, there are two primary models of local church membership that are currently practiced within various denominations. In this paper, they will be referred to as open and closed church membership. First, the open church membership model allows one to come alongside the church, participate within the various roles of the church, and be regarded as a part of the local church family. This model does not require new attendees to take a class, sign a statement, or to complete an interview; rather, levels of participation and roles of leadership are left to the discretion of the church’s leadership. The second model is closed church membership. This model requires all new attendees that desire to become members to meet certain qualifications, publically share their testimony, sign that they agree and will uphold the beliefs and values of the church, be voted in by the current church members and or leadership, and in many cases, they are required to complete a new members class.
It is the goal of this paper to understand what a biblical model of church membership is. However, it is equally important to understand that scripture allows for both of these models, and therefore, one must be mindful that they are tolerant to the opposing view point acknowledging that each individual will give an account to God for their own actions. This paper will briefly examination each positions characteristics, and systematically look at several key “membership” texts.
The two common positions
Closed Membership as a whole believes that churches should have clearly defined borders surrounding it. Membership keeps the local body of Christ unified and regenerate. By limiting membership to only those individuals who have made a profession of faith and have been biblically baptized, the church is able to guard its purity. Paul Alexander explains it as baptism guarding the front door and the Lords supper guarding the back door. Pastors are not responsible for (or able to discern) the spiritual well being of every individual. Rather, they are primarily responsible to shepherd those who have voluntarily submitted themselves to their care and the authority. The primary way this can be accomplished is through church membership. Closed membership believes that the best act of submission and commitment to a local church is through membership.
Within closed church membership, church discipline is usually coupled with any explanation or reason for membership. Those that hold to this view see church discipline as a mandate that is best carried out when closed membership is being practiced. Membership to them is defined as a way to willfully submit to the teaching and leadership of the church. Therefore, because of this commitment to submit, when one comes under discipline they fully know what is expected of them and thus can respond accordingly. Church membership then is a way to discern where the boundaries of the church are. After all, the church is called to be distinguished from the world. Alexander writes about the correlation between membership and discipline stating,
Corrective discipline assumes that it is important for a person himself to know that he is a member of the church. He can’t be expected to submit to the church’s discipline if he is unaware of his own membership in the church. It also assumes that other members need to know whether or not a person is a member.
This can be seen in Matthew 18:15-17 where they had the ability to exclude someone from “the church.” This further illustrates the importance of first knowing who the members of the church actually are. This principle can likewise help guide individuals, who, when confronted with sin, choose to forsake sin due to their accountability in the church. Thus acting as an external conscience, knowing that they have subjected themselves to the church and, therefore, must answer to the church when a public sin is committed. Alexander goes a step further, stating “corrective discipline assumes that it is important for those outside the church to know who the members of the church are, because on of the main motives for corrective discipline is the corporate testimony of the church in the unbelieving world.”
Therefore, according to those within the closed membership group, membership is important because it guards purity, protects unity, and clearly gives testimony to those inside and outside of the church of who have committed to the church, and who are living in accordance with the church’s teachings.
Closed church membership places one’s profession of faith secondary to the elements that compose that local church’s qualifications for “membership.” The claim could be leveled against them that a profession of faith in Jesus Christ as one’s Lord and Savior is not enough; rather that chosen distinctives must be agreed to before full access is granted. Open church membership, on the other hand, recognizes one’s profession of faith as an authoritative, and, therefore, sufficient for one to be fully involved within the local body. Open membership is not as universally defined as closed membership. Each individual body that practices open membership adds its own nuance to the practice. In an open membership model, there is no required formal commitment to be made to the church. For them, a public acknowledgment of their faith that simply results in attending and desiring to be a part of their ministry shows that one is in accordance with the church. Unity and purity among the ranks are what both types of churches seek to maintain. Open membership believes that this can be attained without requiring attendees or members to fit the “member mold” in fact, evangelicals believe that “unity is found only in Christ – not in adherence to the church’s hierarchy.” In essence, the unity of the church “consists of a Christ-centeredness that affirms the called-out nature of the redeemed, forgiven sinners, saved through the utterly unmerited grace of God made possible by the cross of Christ,” thus showing that the autonomous local church which has been called out for a specific purpose (the ekklesia) can be unified by a public profession of Christ alone and maintain its purity through continuing steadfastly by the apostle’s teaching (Acts 2:42). Further, those holding to closed membership see the forming of the church in Acts as more descriptive rather than prescriptive. Bock says “the picture of the church in Acts is not so concerned with structures, strategies, and offices as it is concerned about attitudes, allegiances, growth, character, and outreach.”
In a brief overview of the open membership position, the focus is shifted from keeping unity through preventative measures to preserving unity through Christ, and from purity by guarding the ordinances to purity kept through the gospel. Surely, it is important to take preventative measures to guard the church from divisions. The thrust of this open membership position is simply to shift the focus from form to practice.
The most common passage used in support of local church membership is found in Acts 2:41. This verse states that, first, they received the word (believed), second, were baptized and, third, were “added unto them.” It is believed by many, that the phrase “added unto them” is in specific reference to becoming an official member of the church. Additionally, specifically numbering those who were added further supports the argument that there was an official list members that these individuals were added to.
Beginning in the first century, coming to Christ necessitated coming to the church. Even if explicit commands for becoming a local church member are not recorded in scripture, the idea of experiencing salvation without belonging to a local church is foreign to the New Testament. Meaning that “lone ranger Christianity” is not a biblical principle. When individuals repented and believed in Christ, they were baptized and added to the church (Acts 2:41, 47; 5:14; 16:5). Therefore Acts 2:41 does not teach a mandate for a contractual membership, rather it was a pattern as not to live in isolation and private commitment to Christ, but to join formally with other believers in a local assembly and devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer (Acts 2:42).
It has been argued that Acts 2:41 is in support of local church membership, yet this verse is clearly not a strong support for both formal church membership and no membership at all. Both can make assertions from this passage. For those who argue for membership, they claim that the souls were added unto them (the local church), which marks a distinct people group whom they became apart of. Therefore, for one to be added to something, there must first be a distinguishable entity to be added into. The claim then becomes, how can there be a distinguishable entity if there is not a physical record of ones involvement with that entity. In the same manner, those whom argue against church membership make the assertion that the said entity does not need to be a legally established and individually signed group. But the mere act of entering into fellowship and close bond with the group of believers signifies one’s commitment to participating and upholding all functions of the local church.
In the book of 1 Corinthians Paul “turns from one manifestation of the pride of the Corinthians to another,” and in chapter 5, Paul draws attention to the case of incest in the Corinthian church. In this case of church discipline, it is assumed that there is public knowledge of who belongs in the church and who does not. Likewise, those that see church membership being referenced in chapter 5, operate on the premise that an individual under discipline cannot be expected to submit if they themselves are unaware of their place and commitment in the local body. In the same manner, if Paul and the other Corinthian believers did not know who was part of their assembly, there would be no case for discipline. It is clear in verses 12 and 13 that Paul is speaking of an individual that is clearly a member of the Corinthian church. His language is vividly clear, Paul first asks his readers “what have I to do with judging outsiders?” implying that this man in question was not an outsider. Then, Paul strengthens his statement with the rhetorical question “do you not judge those who are within the church?” and then reaffirms his first statement (that he is dealing with a member of the church) by saying, “but those who are outside, God judges.” Clearly then, Paul is advocating a principle more than just mere casual attendees, he is showing that there should be clear distinctions of who is in the church, and who is not.
2 Corinthians 2:6
Further illustrating the idea of a defined membership of the local church body, Paul in 2 Corinthians tells the Corinthians to bring an individual back into their church (2:6). Paul says, that the punishment inflicted by the majority is enough. Dever sees the use of “majority” as only making sense when there is a recognized whole. Additionally, it can only make sense to discipline an individual within the context of a visible belonging. Thus 1 Corinthians 5 and 2 Corinthians 2 are both examples of the negative aspect of church membership, and that is church discipline. Therefore Church Membership “is a means by which we demarcate the boundaries of the church.”
On the other hand, just as with other passages, it could be argued that due to the distinct characteristics of these New Testament churches (such as meeting in homes, and obtaining from the sinful activities practiced in their culture), that it would be simple for both the individuals in the church, and those outside of the church to identify who these early Christians were. Again, it would be their public testimony of commitment and separation from their culture that would mark their identity in the church. Additionally, there is speculation that the simple fact of being a reader of Paul’s letter indicated that one was actively involved with the local church.
1 Timothy 5:9-12
In 1 Timothy, Paul gives Timothy instructions to keep a list of widows in the church that need to be cared for, he then explains what the qualifications are for the widows that are in need of care, and those whom are not. This passage has been seen as support for church membership, not from clear command of such, but more from rational assumption. Because rational assumption is simply that the church in Ephesus would need to know who the eligible women were in order for them to record their names. This verse like others does not provide conclusive evidence for a biblical requirement of membership. Because just as with the others, one could argue that there does not need to be a defined list of eligible candidates for one to know whom is actually in the church. The New Testament church of Ephesus was among a sinful society, the believers of that culture were distinctively different from that of their neighbors. When there were believers who would come together for the purpose of worshiping Christ, they knew whom they were; and they knew what they were joining together in. Therefore these believers did not need to have a membership “list” of the church in order to know if the widow in question was apart of their assembly or not.
In each passage that is used to support the idea that closed church membership is biblically modeled, it can also be argued that they likewise can support more of an open form of membership. For those who believe scripture is illustrating closed membership, their main interpretive support is reason. Because in each passage, they cannot say the main thrust is to provide a biblical basis for membership, therefore they must say rationally membership as it is practiced today fits the description of the New Testament church, because after all, one must know whom to count in order to keep a record of them. This tends to be a weaker argument for closed church membership. Because as previously stated, open church membership can be proved with the same method from the same passages as closed membership.
What then does a biblical model of church membership look like? Clearly closed membership as it is practiced today does not violate any biblical teachings. Even though it is not clearly commanded, there are benefits to practicing church membership. These benefits include several aspects; first, it can protect the churches testimony both internally and externally by ensuring that active members are living lives that are reflective to the cause of Christ. Second, it can keep the church pure in doctrine by limiting those whom are teaching, leading, and influencing church members. Third, it can provide clear accountability to those within the church, serving as a constant reminder to the commitment they have made, and the standards they must uphold to maintain their membership within the church. Fourth, it ensures that each individual actively involved with the church, and is in unity with their purposes and beliefs. Which helps minimize the opportunity for individuals to come into the church with an “agenda” that is contrary to that of the church as a whole. Fifth, it can provide the pastors and leaders of the church the opportunity to examine the beliefs and motives of each new individual and family that desires to come alongside and serve within the congregation. Sixth and most pertinent to modern American culture, requiring individuals to enter into membership before they take part in what the church is doing protects the body legally in the case of discipline. Membership and discipline are always so closely associated with one another, not because there must be official membership in order to have proper discipline, rather the safest way to practice discipline is under the umbrella of membership, because without the individuals personal agreement to subject and submit themselves to the authority of the church, then one could easily attempt a lawsuit against the church. Potentially causing damage to the churches public testimony and their internal unity.
In an overall analysis of relevant scripture, both open and closed membership could be practiced without violating biblical principles. However, from the studies done for this paper, it is presented that closed membership is the safest and most effect method in practicing church membership. Membership then should be practiced by fulfilling all legal requirements of local law; and therefore biblically modeled by permitting only those who have been biblically baptized, publically affirm their conversion and commitment to Christ, and agree to uphold and model the standards, doctrines, and purposes of that local church, and to actively serve and lead within the body.
Blainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1950.
Calamaio, Robin. “Open Church Membership vs. Closed Church Membership, and the Bible.”http://www.freelygive-n.com/uploads/Church_Membership_-_Imbed_Links_and_R_Box.pdf.
Dever, Mark, and Alexander, Paul. The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel. Wheaton: Crossway, 2005.
Grant, Robert M. Development of the Christian Catechumenate. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1976.
Hammett, John H. “Reclaiming Meaningful Church Membership: A Modest Proposal.” M.Th. thesis, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, North Carolina, Spring 2000.
Harmless, William. Augustine and the Catechumenate. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1995.
Hiscox, Edward J. Principles and Practices for Baptist Churches. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1893.
House, Paul R. Southern Baptist Journal of Theology Volume 2. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1998; 2006 S.vnp.2.1.2
Jeter, Jeremiah B. Southern Baptist Journal of Theology Volume 2. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1998; 2006 S.vnp.2.1.18-2.1.24
Leeman, Jonathan. The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love. Wheaton: Crossway, 2010.
Lou, Johannes P. and Nida, Eugene Albert: Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament; Based on Semantic Domains. Electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. New York: United Bible Societies, 1996, c1989, S.1:449
MacArthur, John. Grace to You. http://http://www.gty.org/media/pdf/Church_Membership.pdf.
Martin, Francis. Acts, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2006.
McCullar, Scott. “The Path of Membership in the Early Church.” A paper presented for Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, Summer 2002.
Morris, Leon. 1 Corinthians, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2008.
Piper, John. “Desiring God, God-Centered Resources from the Ministry of John Piper,” Desiring God Blog (May 2010): http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/is-church-membership-important.
Swindoll, Charles R. and Zuck, Roy B. Understanding Christian Theology. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.
Zuck, Roy B. and Bock, Darrel L. A Biblical Theology of the New Testament. Chicago: Moody Press, 1994.
 Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010) 32.
is-church-membership-important. (accessed February 18, 2011).
|Visible||All persons who are members of a local church are considered to be a part of the visible church.|
|Invisible||The invisible church refers to those
persons who have actually been regenerated,
or quickened by the Holy Sprit, in other
words God’s elect or only true believers.
|Local||Each individual “local” body of Christ.|
|Universal||The universal church is made up of all
believers in Jesus Christ worldwide,
and throughout the entire church age.
 The terms open and closed membership within this paper are not modeled after a traditional definition. These terms were simply chosen for clarity of this paper, and are being used as they are defined here.
 There are several passages that are seen to impact the practice of church membership, however for the sake of space, only the key texts will be addressed within this paper.
 Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s, 164.
 Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005) 105-108.
 Alexander, The Deliberate Church, 60.
 Alexander, The Deliberate Church, 61.
 Robin Calamaio gives a test for one to evaluate what kind of membership their church practices. “Answer these questions honestly. Could Jesus, if physically here, become the pastor of your church – without becoming a member of it? Could He be an elder, deacon, teach a Sunday School class … or even be a greeter? Don’t lie. If not, then your church practices closed membership.” Robin Calamaio, “Open Church Membership vs. Closed Church Membership, and the Bible.” http://http://www.freelygive-n.com/…/
Church_Membership_-_Imbed_Links_and_R_Box.pdf. (Accessed February 18, 2011). Granted, this simple test is not an absolute in defining ones membership and further it could be argued that it brings an irrelevant claim against closed membership. However, this simple test is thought provoking, and leads one to evaluate their motives, as well as where should one draw lines and follow policies, or when should exceptions be made.
 Robin Calamaio, Open Church Membership vs. Closed Church Membership, and the Bible. 1-3.
 Roy B. Zuck, Understanding Christian Theology (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003) 1097.
 Roland H. Blainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1950). Blainton traces the emerging doctrine of the church in Luther’s life. He states that Luther never went beyond the cardinal tenants of the apostle Paul’s theology, but only heightened, intensified, and clarified them.
 Darrel L. Bock, A Biblical Theology of the New Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994) 162.
 The summary of this position is best represented within some evangelical circles, and has been adapted from Darrel Bock’s refutation of open membership in his book A Biblical Theology of the New Testament. Pages 153-162.
 Examples of this position include Mark Dever, Paul Alexander and D. A. Carson.
 John MacArthur, Grace to You. http://http://www.gty.org/media/pdf/Church_Membership.pdf. (Accessed February 18, 2011).
 Leon Morris, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: 1 Corinthians (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2008) 86.
 Mark Dever, The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005) 60.
 Dever, The Deliberate Church, 60
 Dever, The Deliberate Church, 60
 Robert M. Grant, Development of the Christian Catechumenate (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1976), 39-40.