While some churches are stepping back from having an official list of those who are members, the following factors show that there was an awareness in New Testament times of who identified officially with a local church in contrast to those who did not.
In I Timothy 5:9, Paul instructed Timothy about requirements for those who would be placed on a list of widows who were entitled to the care of the local church. How can that be done if there is no official agreement on who is a part of a church?
“Outside” and “Inside” In I Corinthians 5:12 & 13, Paul wrote that a local church was to withdraw fellowship from a person who was openly immoral while remaining unrepentant. For “outside” and “inside” to be meaningful distinctions, there had to be some kind of official recognition of who was “inside” a local church. Only as the “inside” is established, does “outside” have any meaning. And that distinction is what church membership is. Call it something else, but that is the essence of church membership.
Suppose there is no Membership Suppose someone does something clearly wrong and church leaders believe the church must address the problem publicly. The day of the meeting arrives and so does this person, along with enough relatives and friends to vote against the church’s actions. The church says, “They can’t vote.” To which the family of the man in question replies, “Why not?” The church answers, “Because they are not members. Members have to attend here.” To this the family members say, “We are attending today, so why can’t we vote? Many of us were here at Christmas two years ago. So why can’t we all vote?” Church leaders reply, “A person has to be here more than once or twice a year.” Still not seeing the logic, the family says, “How often.” The church answers, “Once a month.” As soon as the church sets a standard for attendance, it has established an “in” and an “out,” which is the essence of church membership. Call it whatever you will, drawing any such a line creates membership.
Instruction to Pastors Assumes a Membership A pastor is to care for the church he serves. If he is to “take the oversight thereof” (I Peter 5:2), he has to know who is a part of the congregation. Suppose such a pastor goes to a hospital. Is he supposed to visit everyone in the hospital? No. Why not? Because he is not responsible for everyone. The pastor has to know who he is responsible for, and for whom he will give account (Hebrews 13:17).
The Metaphors of the Bible that describe the local church make sense only in light of church membership. The church is likened to a family. Sometimes one family can be very close to another; the kids almost seem to live at one another’s homes. They eat a lot of meals at the home of their friends. But eventually lines get drawn. Even a close family does not buy someone else’s son a car, nor pay his college bill. Normally there are limits to what one family can or will do for another, and inevitably, the resources of a church are sufficiently limited that regular attenders, workers and givers ask those appealing for funds, “Are you a part of the family? Are you committed to this church? To what degree have you participated with us? If you want help now that they are in need, where were you in the past when you were in plenty?” Such questions form the natural dividing lines that any organization needs to identify itself and maintain a wall of viability.
The church is also called a flock. In Israel, shepherds knew their own sheep. Jesus said specifically that His sheep heard His voice and that He knew His sheep (John 10:27). This reality was legendary in ancient times. As a shepherd was not the leader over a casual, easy-in-easy-out group of sheep, a pastor is not a leader over those who do not identify with a local church he shepherds.
The best word-picture imagery given to us in the New Testament of a Christian being formally united with a local church is to call a local church a body. Imagine holding a human heart in your hand. In the right place – the chest cavity of a person – a human heart is enormously valuable. But separated from a body, unattached from a body, isolated from a body, that heart muscle will do little good and is of little value. The interconnectedness of Christians is emphasized by the phrase “held together by joints and ligaments” (Colossians 2:19).
A body does not have peripheral parts floating outside. A body is an every-part-doing-a-job kind of thing. A body is unified and functioning together. Parts are all attached, no dysconnectivity allowed. No parts adrift please.
The Value of the Local Church Conversion is followed immediately by “the Lord added daily such as were being saved” (Acts 2:41, 47). “Added daily” required an identifiable group, recognized as different from the general population. The living God saw the future in terms of churches (Revelation 2, 3).
To join a church does not mean that you totally agree with everything it does. It means you want to join your energy and giftedness with that of others to advance commonly held values. And it says, “I want to be formally identified with God’s People. I love the Lord Jesus Christ and I want to be connected to those who also love the Lord who are seeking to represent Him, imperfect though we all are.”
Spiritual Hitchhiker Consider a negative example from our times that models the realities of church membership. A hitchhiker is someone who stands on the side of a road, with his thumb out to indicating he would like a ride. The hitchhiker does not pay for the gas, insurance, upkeep, or the vehicle itself. He just wants a ride. No obligation, no commitment. He can ask to be let off at any point along the road. When people refuse to be officially identified with a local church through membership but still wants the benefits provided by a church, that’s spiritual hitchhiking. Conscientious Christians don’t want to be spiritual hitchhikers.