Church membership concerns belonging to or being a part of the church of Jesus Christ. It involves different concepts of the church, entry requirements, and the responsibilities and privileges of membership.
In a time when churches are either discounting or re-emphasizing church membership, it is important to consider some fundamental understandings of membership from theological, historical, and denominational perspectives. This article explores membership in relationship to five issues: (1) different perspectives on continuity and discontinuity between the people of God prior to the coming of Jesus Christ and those after his coming; (2) the universal church and local churches; (3) churches that baptize infants (paedobaptism) and those that baptize believers (credobaptism); (4) responsibilities and privileges of members; and (5) removal of people from, and restoration of them to, church membership.
What constitutes membership in the church depends upon one’s concept of the church. In one sense, the church as the people of God includes a great number of members. Even the issue of who constitutes the people of God is a debated point. In another sense, the church as a local assembly includes a very limited number of members. The specific make-up of local church membership depends on entry requirements (especially the rite of baptism) and their accessibility to infants, believing adults, or (almost) everyone. Moreover, the responsibilities and privileges of membership, including removal from it, vary according to several factors.
Continuity and Discontinuity
Two significant concepts of the church exist according to different perspectives on continuity and discontinuity between the people of God prior to the coming of Jesus Christ and those after his coming.
The continuity perspective affirms one people of God who are under one covenant of grace. Adam and Eve, the descendants of Abraham, the people of Israel under the old (Mosaic) covenant, the post-exilic returnees to Jerusalem, the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth, and Christians under the new covenant: all of these constitute the one people of God. Though obvious differences distinguish these various groups—for example, experiences of the Holy Spirit, circumcision, Passover, baptism, the Lord’s Supper—every person was/is part of the people of God. Each one was/is elected by God and thus saved by his grace and their faith in the divine promises offered to them. Together, they compose the one people of God.
According to this continuity position, the church as the people of God has existed from the very beginning of the human race. Some proponents of this view believe that the church has replaced the people of Israel; thus, the Jewish people as a whole (not including those who embrace the gospel and become part of the new covenant church) have no future hope. Other proponents believe that there still exists a future for the people of Israel. When the “fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom 11:25), God will once again turn to his people, and “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26) by acknowledging Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah.
The discontinuity perspective affirms different peoples of God according to the various covenants that God established at different junctures in the history of salvation. For example, prior to the coming of Jesus Christ, the old covenant people of God consisted largely of Jewish worshipers of Yahweh following the law of Moses in the land of Israel (or as exiles hoping to return). They circumcised their eight-day old boys, observed the Sabbath, celebrated the Passover and other annual festivals, and nourished the hope of a Spirit-anointed Messiah who would bring forgiveness of sins as part of a new covenant.
In contrast, after the coming of Christ, the new covenant people of God consist of followers of Jesus who are largely Gentile in background living all over the world. Aided by grace to repent and believe, they have embraced the good news of the death and resurrection of Christ. They gather weekly on Sundays to worship, baptize to initiate members into the community, celebrate the Lord’s Supper (communion, the Eucharist), and nourish the hope of the return of the Messiah to usher in the fullness of salvation.
As a slight variation, the discontinuity position affirms one people of God, extending from Adam and Eve to the last person before the return of Christ, while reserving the metaphors of the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit for the new covenant church. Accordingly, the church was not in existence before the coming of Christ, yet the people of God existed from the beginning. It was not until after the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of the incarnate Son, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, that the church as the body of Christ and the temple of the Spirit could (and indeed did) come into existence.
The Universal Church and the Local Church
Membership in the church also depends on whether one is concerned about the church in a universal sense (e.g., Eph 5:25) or the church in a local sense (e.g., 1Cor 1:2). In the first case (universal), the church consists of a great number of members. From a continuity perspective, all of the faithful—all worshipers of Yahweh and all followers of Jesus Christ—who have died, and all those who are alive now, compose the universal church. From a discontinuity perspective, the members include all the followers of Jesus Christ, both those who have died in Christ and all who are alive now in Christ. In either perspective, there is a heavenly aspect and an earthly aspect to the universal church. And in either perspective, the universal church consists of a great number of members.
In the second case (local), membership in a local church consists of a very limited number of people. Even megachurches with membership numbering in the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands are quite limited relative to the number of the people of God who have ever lived. But with this discussion comes an important issue: who composes the membership of a local church?
Entrance Requirements and their Accessibility
Several responses to this question are offered. Historically, from the perspective of the state-church structure, (almost) all citizens of the region/nation were considered to be members of the church. For example, in the medieval period in Europe, being a citizen meant that one was a member of the Roman Catholic Church. Exceptions included Jews, Muslims, and adherents of other religions, along with atheists and heretics. (When state-churches were the order of the day in most European areas, these exceptions were rare.)
Whether the state was supreme in this system (Erastianism) and possessed the power to enforce its laws on the church and excommunicate its members, or whether the church was sovereign (papal supremacy) over its members, has historically been a point of debate and contention. In either case, entrance requirements were limited to being born in the region/state and being baptized, which was an ecclesial action taken for granted. Everyone, or almost everyone, who was born was baptized by the church, making membership in the church accessible to (almost) everyone.
Today, the practice of baptism continues to determine who composes the membership of a local church. With regard to this sacrament/ordinance, the two practices of infant baptism (paedobaptism) and believer’s baptism (credobaptism) dominate.
The Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox churches, and paedobaptist Protestant churches baptize infants and thereby incorporate them into their membership. Within paedobaptist churches, different theologies of baptism undergird their practice of baptizing infants. For example, the Roman Catholic Church believes that the sacrament of baptism washes the infants from their original sin, regenerates them, and incorporates them into Christ and his Church. As another example, Presbyterian churches do not consider the sacrament to be salvific; rather, it incorporates infants of believing parents into the community of faith and signals the divine promise of grace for future salvation. Such a practice depends heavily on the continuity between the old covenant people of God, who circumcised infants for inclusion in the community, and the new covenant people of God, who similarly baptize infants for inclusion—along with their believing parents—in the church. In paedobaptist churches, baptism is the entrance requirement for membership and is accessible to the children of believing parents who are church members. (These churches also practice adult baptism, which bears much similarity to baptism in credobaptist churches, which is the next topic.)
Baptist churches, free churches, Bible churches, and similar churches baptize people who express a credible profession of faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. They do not baptize infants, disagreeing with baptismal regeneration as held by the Roman Catholic Church. They further disagree with the infant baptism of paedobaptist Protestant churches, membership in which consists of both believing parents and their baptized children. By contrast, credobaptist churches insist that hearing the gospel, repenting of sin, and trusting in Jesus Christ must precede (at least logically, if not temporally) baptism, which is then administered to believers and inaugurates them into local church membership. Unlike the people of Israel, which incorporated adults as well as their children (who, in the case of boys, were circumcised), the church reserves membership for those who embrace the gospel and have been baptized. Thus, baptism is the entrance requirement for membership and is accessible only to those who believe in Christ.
Membership Responsibilities and Privileges
Membership in a local church formalizes the relationships between the Christians who have committed themselves to that church. The atmosphere in which these relationships—and, thus, church membership—thrive is that of love, which Scripture emphasizes over and over (Eph 4:15-16).
In some churches, membership—its responsibilities and privileges—is structured according to a church covenant. Even when no formal statement exists, these commitments generally involve two groups: leaders and members. As for the first group, church leadership commits itself to engage in the following on behalf of its members: fostering corporate worship of the triune God, preaching and teaching the Word of God, administering the sacraments/ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, praying for church members, leading them in accordance with the will of the Lord, shepherding them through protection from false doctrines and practices, providing stellar (though still sinful) examples of Christlikeness, employing members and their gifts for the growth of the church, maintaining unity and prompting toward greater purity, marshaling members for missional endeavors, providing pastoral care, stewarding wisely the members’ sacrificial giving, and the like.
As for the second group, church members commit themselves to the following: engaging together in worship of the triune God, responding with faith and obedience to the Word of God, being baptized and celebrating the Lord’s Supper, praying for church concerns and ministries, submitting to the leaders and their wise guidance, directly addressing disagreement and conflict with the leaders (rather than gossiping about them or disgruntledly leaving the church), submitting to church discipline when they (members) go astray, following the pattern of faithfulness and obedience set for them by the leaders, employing their gifts for the health and growth of the church, maintaining unity and pursuing purity, engaging in missional endeavors, responding to pastoral care, giving sacrificially, and the like.
Removal from and Restoration to Membership
At times, despite a church’s best efforts in providing for its members and supporting its leaders, they become entrenched in sin and refuse to turn from it. They flounder in their relationship of love to the church and fail in terms of their responsibilities as members and leaders. Such tragic situations prompt the church to exercise discipline against its persistently sinning people.
Jesus provides directives for addressing sin among the members of his body (Matt 18:15-20). In an escalating four-part sequence involving confrontation and repentance or non-repentance, Jesus instructs the church to expose the sin committed by one of its members against another member. The progression begins with (step 1) a personal conversation, followed by (step 2) a small group confrontation, then (step 3) a church-wide intervention, concluding with (step 4) a church-wide excommunication. At each step, the hoped-for response is repentance: the member who sinned confesses and turns from his sin, thus bringing the matter to the good conclusion of a restored relationship. Failure to respond with repentance triggers the next step, which engages more people and intensifies the exhortation to break with sin and be restored.
Steps three and four elicit the participation of all the members, with failure to respond with repentance in the last step prompting the members to expel the person entrenched in sin from membership in the church. Such excommunication removes the unrepentant person from membership, thus preventing him from participating in the Lord’s Supper and exercising ministry within the church. It also calls for the members to break off their relationship of love and treat him as “a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt 18:17), that is, as an outsider to the church. Removed from the realm of grace, forgiveness, comfort, support, and love, the unrepentant person is turned over to the clutches of Satan and his realm of destruction, corruption, temptation, deception, accusation, and torment.
The purpose for such a radical measure is always a good one: to remove all support from the expelled member, permitting him to come to the end of himself. At this point he comes to his senses, confesses and repents of his sin, and seeks restoration of relationship with both the member against whom he sinned and the church from which he was removed. In some cases, restitution (of a reputation, of property or money) is necessary as part of the restoration process. Recognizing the genuineness of repentance, the members once again embrace the repentant person, forgiving and comforting him, and restoring him to membership in the church.
Scripture addresses other situations that call for church discipline: heretical teaching (Titus 1:9-14; 2 John 9-11), divisiveness (Rom 16:17-18; Titus 3:10-11), idleness (2Thes 3:6, 11-12), and leadership failures (1Tim 5:19-21).
Membership in the church depends on a number of factors. Proponents of continuity hold that church membership extends as far back as Adam and Eve and includes the faithful of all time—all worshipers of Yahweh and all disciples of Jesus Christ. Proponents of discontinuity maintain that membership in the church is reserved for disciples of Christ. Because the church did not (and could not) exist prior to the completion of Christ’s mission and the inauguration of the mission of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, only Christians are members of the church.
Moreover, membership in the universal church, whether from a continuity or discontinuity perspective, includes both the faithful who have died and those who currently live. Universal church membership is very extensive. Membership in the local church is dependent on certain entrance requirements—for example, being a child of believing parents who are church members (paedobaptism), or believing in the gospel for salvation (credobaptism). To local church members come responsibilities and privileges of membership, and at certain times churches must remove sinful members and hope for their repentance and restoration to membership.
- Gregg R. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012). See a Book Summary here.
- Chuck Lawless, Membership Matters: Insights from Effective Churches on New Member Classes and Assimilation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005)
- Jeremy M. Kimble, 40 Questions about Church Membership and Discipline (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2017)
- Ed Stetzer, “3 Reasons for Church Membership,” Outreach Magazine (June 23, 2015).
- Kevin DeYoung, “6 Reasons Why Membership Matters,” TGC blog.
- Michael Osborne, “Why Church Membership?” Tabletalk Magazine (November 2, 2018).