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Church Membership: Does it mean what you think it does?

In the heart of every vibrant and flourishing church community lies a strong foundation of committed and engaged members. 

Strangely enough, it’s that word “members” that can be a tricky one to define in modern context. 

Perhaps we have diluted the meaning of church membership. Or maybe our American culture is so individualized that we cannot readily comprehend something so formal as membership to any one church body.

Whatever the case may be, it is easy to imagine a young and faithful “regular attender” in your congregation speaking along these lines—”I attend church faithfully. I tithe. I am living in submission to the Lord Jesus Christ. In every way I act like a member of this church. Why do I need to formally ‘become a member’? Why does it matter?”

Because we have no passage in scripture that says “You must join a local congregation and become a member thereof,” we would do well to respond with grace to our faithful friend.

A recent article by Pastor Joshua Huang, Assistant/Youth Pastor at Lighthouse Baptist Church in Cottage Grove, MN (who interned with BCP in 2015), provided three foundational talking points for just such a discussion:

Community and Cooperation

Romans 12:4-5: “For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.”

The metaphor of the body used by Paul emphasizes the interconnectedness and interdependence of believers within the community of faith. Each member contributes to the well-being and function of the whole. Church membership, as seen through this lens, involves a commitment to participate actively and contribute to the communal life of the body.

Members used in this sense is the English word that describes the various limbs and organs of the body. It would also be appropriate to use the word parts so as not to imply that our understanding of church membership is biblical simply because we find the word members in Romans 12:4-5.

Without stretching the analogy too far, this passage at the very least shows us that believers should participate in the body of Christ because that is just the natural thing for body parts to do. 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 carries with it a similar theme.

Spiritual Leadership and Accountability

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.”

This passage is often interpreted by Christians as an allusion to spiritual leaders within the church, especially pastors. The Bible recognizes the role of spiritual leaders within the church who provide guidance, oversight, and accountability.

Church membership involves a willingness to submit to the leadership’s authority, recognizing the importance of spiritual oversight for individual and collective growth. Those who choose to become members of a local church make a public profession of their desire to submit to and fulfill the command of Hebrews 13:17.

Correction and Discipline

Matthew 18:15-17: “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.”

If indeed the early church practiced a system of church membership, that framework would have helped them implement the biblical principles of accountability, discipline, and restoration within the community found in Matthew 18. Church membership would have established a context in which accountability and correction could take place, with the goal of reconciliation and restoration.

Proponents of church membership often say that church discipline cannot take place outside of some type of membership structure. After all, it would be a strange occurrence for parents to discipline kids that are not members of their families.

The question then becomes, “Why would I want to become a member if it means that it will be more convenient for you to discipline me if I sin?”

But the point is that church membership would help a person avoid ever coming to that point. By committing to a church family and “submitting to one another in the fear of God” (Ephesians 5:21), Christians invite other believers to help them walk in the light of Christ and avoid the darkness of sin.

Leaders can model authentic prayer lives and teach the congregation to approach God with reverence and expectation. Prayer should never be spoken of as some light and passing thing, but instead as a powerful means of connecting with God, seeking His will, and cultivating a right spirit of awe and dependence upon Him.

Excerpt used with permission of Joshua Huang, Assistant/Youth Pastor at Lighthouse Baptist Church in Cottage Grove, MN and is part of a larger series on church membership.

Many in the church are seeking to do some archaeological work in recent years—they are digging up history and seeking to understand the old paths that our forefathers in the faith walked.

Some of these paths were abandoned carelessly. Some were rightly walked away from. Others simply haven’t been taught to the generations who we are called to “train up in the way they should go.” Proverbs 22:6. 

Church membership is just one such area that needs to be looked at anew and taught upon afresh.

May we continue to be diligent in proclaiming the goodness of being fully committed to the local body of believers.

The generations to come are counting on us.


Baptist Church Planters exists to help church leaders build healthy disciple-making churches. If you or your church need support or resources to love God and love others, please reach out to us today. We’d love to help.