The term “membership” is misleading because of how it’s commonly used. Often it connotes privilege in a club. Costco members get access to deals. Country club members get reduced green fees.
If you pay your dues, membership entitles you to get something.
And because of these various commercial “memberships,” we’re conditioned to misunderstand membership in the church. We may even oppose it because we conceive of it in terms of economic status or social privilege. But such an aversion to membership overlays a worldly view onto a biblical idea.
In one sense, Scripture doesn’t speak of membership. The word “membership” is noticeably absent from your English concordance. It might seem churches who stress membership, then, are adding to the text. “Membership is a matter of tradition,” some might say.
But this view misses a rich collection of biblical metaphors that do speak of membership. Let’s consider five of them.
1. Ambassadors in Christ’s Royal Embassy
The overarching metaphor for the church is a royal embassy. When Jesus sat down at God’s right hand, he received his kingdom (Ps. 110). His authority over heaven and earth is a regal authority (Matt. 28:18). And all who are members of the church are disciples of the King—we suffer with him now, so that one day we will reign with him (Rom. 8:17; 2 Tim. 2:12).
In the church we do kingdom business. The ordinances (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) are royal rites. We proclaim the lordship of Jesus and teach his royal commands. Though the church shouldn’t be confused with the kingdom, we are citizens of the kingdom commissioned to announce the kingdom and make visible the King.
Church membership is a visible identification with Christ’s kingdom people. Submission to the church, then, is a royal act. Each church is an embassy of the kingdom, and thus public identification with a local church publicly identifies a Christian with the King. And by extension, this kingdom metaphor defines membership in royal terms.
2. Children in God’s Family
Membership in the kingdom is also familial. We are not just citizens, but sons. The local church is a family of faith, so membership should be conceived in family terms.
As children of God (John 1:12), we are siblings to one another. While some lose family to follow Christ, all gain family to follow him—brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, children and grandchildren (Matt. 19:29; Mark 3:34–35).
For this reason, the apostles often employed family language (Titus 2:1–8; 1 John 2:12–14) and called Christians to treat one another as family (1 Tim. 5:1–2). The local church is the household of God (1 Tim. 3:15). Church membership, then, should be seen as membership in the family of God.
3. Stones in the Spirit’s Temple
Ephesians 2:20 describes God’s people as a temple built on “the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” First Peter 2:5 calls church members “living stones.” And 1 Corinthians 3:16 addresses the church (not the individual): “Do you [plural] not know that you [plural] are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you [plural]?”
Because the individual is a part of Christ’s temple, he or she experiences the personal indwelling of the Spirit. Holy living flows from this holy communion. And so as the “temple of the living God,” we must “cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion” (2 Cor. 6:16; 7:1).
Church membership speaks to the way we worship and our commitment to walk in holiness with others members of Christ’s body, which leads us to another metaphor.
4. Members of Christ’s Body
The New Testament regularly refers to the church as Christ’s body (e.g., 1 Cor. 12:12–14; Eph. 5:23, 29–30; Rom. 12:5).
A severed hand could be kept alive for a time, but its health and life are in grave jeopardy. The same is true in God’s church. It’s possible to find believers disconnected from a church, but this isn’t God’s design. Such independence imperils spiritual life.
Members receive nourishment from others in the body as they contribute their own life-giving gifts (see Eph. 4:11–16). This bodily metaphor replaces a consumer approach to membership with a stewardship approach to membership—as members of the same body, we must care for and give ourselves one to another.
5. Members of Christ’s Bridal Party
The church is the bride of Christ, and church members are participants in this blessed union. Paul speaks of this marriage metaphor in Ephesians 5:31–32. In comparing the church to marriage, he’s not just searching for an analogy to help husbands and wives get along. The reverse is actually true: every marriage is a parable of Christ and the church. And the local church, like Esther’s harem, is the training ground for the day when we’ll be presented to our Lord.
To drop the metaphor, “betrothal” to Christ (1 Cor. 11:2) is another word for discipleship. Disciples are consistently learning, repenting, and becoming more like Jesus. Just as when two become one in marriage, so churches in union with Christ prepare individuals for true married life (cf. Isa. 62:4; Rev. 19:6–9).
In this way, communion with and commitment to a church ought to be seen in terms of our final union with Christ.
At first blush, “membership” may sound unattractive to us because it sounds commercial. In reality, however, membership is thoroughly biblical. Born again, we become members of Christ’s royal family, members of his body, living stones in his temple, even spiritually one with him in marriage. From these metaphors we get an entirely new picture of membership—one that isn’t foreign to the church. Rather, the church is its membership.
Without membership, the church’s entire existence is jeopardized. With a biblical view of membership, though, we are reminded who we are and what we’re called to do. In this way, membership bolsters the church’s calling to be a gospel community displaying the power and wisdom of God (Eph. 3:10–11).
In short, membership does not add something extra to the church. It enables the church to be the church, both now and for generations to come.