The idea of church membership is such a commonly accepted notion that very few question it. The way most of us speak, one would think that membership in a local congregation of God’s people is written in large letters on every page of the New Testament. We talk about “placing membership”, “moving membership”, “resigning membership”, etc. The idea of church membership is closely related to the idea that the local church is some sort of organization or institution as opposed to just the family of God in some specific place. After all, if you have an institution, someone has to be a member of it! Yet, if one searches carefully, he or she will discover that the idea is not in the Bible at all!
Most people think that church membership is found in Acts 9:26: And when Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple. From this passage some among us see the concept of church membership, moving one’s membership and a local church being able to reject a potential member. Notice that this passage says nothing about membership. He simply tried to join them. The word “join” is from the Greek work “kallao” (Strong’s #2853) and according to Thayer it means:
1) to glue, to glue together, cement, fasten together
2) to join or fasten firmly together
3) to join one’s self to, cleave to
What Saul desired was to keep company with them because they were the Christians in the place where he was at that time. What word or phrase in this passage hints of placing or moving membership? What is it about the word “join” or its definition that would make us think that Saul was trying to do something more than just associate or fellowship with the Jerusalem Christians? Could it be that our preconceptions lead us to conclusions that the text doesn’t support?
We are also told that Acts 9:26 gives a congregation the right to determine who it will accept into fellowship. Was the assembly at Jerusalem rejecting Saul’s “application for membership”? Not at all. They were scared to death of him and didn’t believe he was really a Christian. The text plainly says this! This was the man who had formerly imprisoned and killed Christians. Some of their own acquaintances quite possibly were either dead or in confinement because of this man. To put it in modern day terms, imagine that Osama bin Laden came to town claiming that he had renounced Islam and is now a Christian. Wouldn’t you be skeptical and afraid? This was not an example of a local church deciding who could and could not be a member. This passage simply conveys the dread of the pharisee named Saul and how their fear caused them to recoil from him. Those who try to make this out to be anything more are twisting the passage to suit their preconceptions.
Some see the idea of “membership” in the figure of speech that Paul used to illustrate the various functions of those within the “body” of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul compared the people of God to the human body and spoke of the many “members” and the roles and functions that they all play. The word “member” can mean two different things. It is used as “a bodily part or organ, especially a limb,” and it is used as “a person comprising a society or community“. Do we recognize that in this context Paul uses the former meaning and is referring to a limb of the human body (a foot, ear, eye, etc) to make a point? We do not hold “membership” in the body of Christ any more than our hand or foot holds “membership” in our physical body. Just as our limbs (members) are part of our bodies, Christians are part of the church. If we recognize this figure of speech, then we should take care to keep our thinking consistent and not allow ourselves to slip into the latter meaning of the word. The two meanings are not interchangeable.
In our congregations it seems that two categories of Christians have “evolved”: members and non-members. Christians can faithfully attend a congregation for years and still be an outsider because they have never “placed membership”. They won’t be called on to serve in any way. Someone else can move into town and “place membership” after a few visits and are then considered to be “one of us”. Some may become “members” of a local congregation, not because they think there is a Bible reason to do so, but because they are either pestered to death to “join” or they “join” so that they can participate more actively in congregational work and affairs.
The Bible does not depict local congregations as clubs that people “belong to” or “place membership” in. If so, what passage can we glean this from? In order to be a “member” there would have to be some organization or abstract entity that a person could place membership in. Since local congregations are not institutions, how can we place membership in them? If we use the words “member” or “belong” in the same sense that they are used when speaking of family members, or belonging to a family that would be an accurate usage. However, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone speak of church membership in this way. In every congregation that I have been involved with, the idea of “belonging” and “membership” always meant a formal affiliation; like being a member of a club or society that has rules and qualifications for membership.
Is there some work given by God that a group of Christians can’t do unless they are a “member” of a local church? The answer is no. A group of Christians can do everything that God requires without holding membership in some church institution. Did the Christians we read about in the Bible “place membership” in local congregations? Again, the answer is no. Since this is the case, what is the point of the membership requirement today? In the New Testament, there is no hint that local churches are anything other than believers meeting together for mutual edification and pooling their resources for the benefit of themselves and others. So, let’s “speak where the Bible speaks, and remain silent where the Bible is silent.” Let’s look at local congregations scripturally; not as clubs to join, but as a spiritual family that we want to be a part of.