Monday, November 24, 2008

Church Membership or Biblical Fellowship? (Notes)

Over the years the question of Church Membership swirls around the Christian world, and is debated and discussed, sometimes fought over, and sometimes just taken for granted.

Now by “Church Membership” here, I mean it in the commonly used sense of the phrase, referring to formally joining a particular local church, in a formal way, maybe agreeing to some doctrinal statement, or agreeing to some written covenant, and actually being put on a list of “Members”.

Is that Biblical? Is it O.K.? Is it demanded? Is it optional? And so forth.

Today I want to open a discussion in what I think is a new direction regarding Church Membership, especially as it relates to Fellowship.

See, I believe that the discussion of Church Membership is in one sense missing the real point of what the Church is to be about.

Is Membership Fellowship?

There’s a big elephant in the room that no one mentions. This elephant is ignored, walked around, or maybe mentioned only in passing. The big elephant in the room is Fellowship.

Now I’ve read many extensive studies which attempt to prove from Scripture that Membership Lists are taught in the Bible. And I will admit some of them SEEM logical, and SEEM to make sense in a certain way.

But the truth is, there are no commands for Church Membership Lists in the Bible. There are no examples of Church Membership Lists in the Bible. And there are no examples of formal joining of the local church in the Bible.

Because of this, and in relation to Biblical Fellowship, I have come to believe that Church Membership Lists, and the formal joining of a local church, is a man-made result of a lack of true Biblical Fellowship, or what the Bible in Greek calls Koinonia.

No let me make a disclaimer, before I go any further. If you attend a local church that practices Membership Lists, I’m not saying you shouldn’t join, or formally become a member. Because the Bible also does not PROHIBIT the making of Membership Lists. So I want to be clear on that. The Membership List itself is not the problem.

Three Aspects

With that, I want to look at three aspects of this question of Church Membership:

1. What does the Bible teach about membership in general?
2. What made one a member of a local church?
3. What does Fellowship have to do with it?

1. What does the Bible teach about membership in general?

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."

1 Cor 6:15, "Do you not know that your bodies are MEMBERS of Christ? Shall I then take the MEMBERS of Christ and make them MEMBERS of a harlot? Certainly not!"

1 Cor 12:12, "For as the body is one and has many MEMBERS, but all the MEMBERS of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ."

1 Cor 12:18, "But now God has set the MEMBERS, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased."

1 Cor 12:20, "But now indeed there are many members, yet one body."

1 Cor 12:25, "...that there should be no schism in the body, but that the MEMBERS should have the same care for one another."

1 Cor 12:26, "And if one MEMBER suffers, all the MEMBERS suffer with it; or if one MEMBER is honored, all the MEMBERS rejoice with it."

1 Cor 12:27, "Now you are the body of Christ, and MEMBERS individually."

Ephesians 2:19, "Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and MEMBERS of the household of God."

Ephesians 4:25, "Therefore, putting away lying, let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor, for we are MEMBERS of one another."

Ephesians 5:30, "For we are MEMBERS of His body, of His flesh and of His bones."

Acts 2:47, "...praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved."

2. What made one a member of the local church?

Acts 15:41, "And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches."

Acts 16:5, "So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and increased in number daily."

“The Church” vs. “the churches”

Belief in Jesus Christ, baptism, and then practicing “church”.

Acts 2:42, "And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers."

3. What does fellowship have to do with it?

Fellowship = "koinonia", "commonality", as in "koine" greek.

1 John 1:3, "...that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have FELLOWSHIP with us; and truly our FELLOWSHIP is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ."

1 John 1:6, "If we say that we have FELLOWSHIP with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth."

1 John 1:7, "But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin."

Now we get back to Membership Lists, regarding church discipline and dis-fellowshiping a member.

Biblical "membership" involves "fellowship" --- a commonality of spiritual Life in prayer, teaching, breaking of bread, drinking of cup, knowing one another, bearing one another's burdens, sharing in one another's financial needs, fervently loving one another, recognizing the hurt in one another and applying the balm of Jesus with warmth, stirring one another up to good works, exhorting, encouraging, blessing, hugging, welcoming, caring about, feeding with the true Bread, Who is Christ.

In other words, church discipline which may lead to dis-fellowshiping someone presupposes there is something to be dis-fellowshiped *from*. Something infinitely valuable, something one doesn't want to miss, if they are a believer.

The modern American "church service", where everyone files in at 11 and files out at Noon, with a, "How you doing?", "I'm gr-r-r-eat!, how about you?" to a few people, followed by going home for another week apart from everyone else (or maybe till Wednesday for the truly "spiritual") --- doesn't know what fellowship is. So it substitutes Membership Lists.

Then it either never dis-fellowships anyone, because "who cares?", or it practices the church discipline of taking the unrepentent publicly sinful "off the Membership List", whereupon the unrepentent publicly sinful either goes to the next church, or is "shamed" back onto the Membership List, not because they really miss the so-called "fellowship", but because they are humiliated (too often they remain humiliated, with a red letter on their back...marked as a lesser being, not ike "us" who are incapable of falling so low..."How are you doing, Lesser Being?...O.K.?...go-o-o-d...see you next week...Ciao!").

This is not meant to be a cynical comment at all, but a mere observation of many churches over many years, and a heart's cry for a continual renewal of Biblical Fellowship.

"Church Membership Lists" is not primarily an exegetical question, it's a spiritual one.

May God work His Fellowship in the churches.


Mark D. Vilen said...

I grew up being told I needed to be a member of one church somewhere, mostly to be held accountable. Nowadays, some would call that being under someone's "covering."
I think that is a load of rubbish, to be blunt.
I love fellowship, but I don't think it's necessarily with one church (organization), but with fellow believers (who are really the "church").

Good article.


Terry Rayburn said...



The concern of my message here is two-fold:

1. The lack of true biblical fellowship in the local church, and

2. The existence of membership "rolls", or "official membership" in the local church which *replaces* true fellowship.

So, although I would agree with you that fellow believers are really the "church", and that we may and should fellowship with those outside our local fellowship...

The Scripture is quite clear that local "churches" (called-out assemblies) are to have Elders who are responsible to lead and guide the flock, and that the flock is indeed to be accountable, both to those Elders and to one another (even so far as to "obey" those Elders).

The limits to that accountability and obedience need to be biblically thought out.

Mostly they deal with matters of the local church assembly; its practices and policies; and matters of doctrine or behavior which affect the Body of believers (such as false teaching, or public unrepentant sin, for example).

The Elders are not to expect obedience in personal household matters (e.g., how specifically you are to spend your time and money, what car to drive, where to live, whom to marry, etc.). In most cases, this amounts to authoritarian legalism.

Likewise, the unbiblical idea, popular with some movements, of a "covering", where personal decisions are expected to be made or approved by one's "discipler", has led to much evil.

"Accountability" is sometimes abused by bad [authoritarian, unloving] shepherds, but good [loving, servant] shepherds should be able to expect some measure of [voluntary] accountability from their sheep.

Phil said...

Thanks for the older-and-wiser information,Terry. Maybe you could do a post on the nature of the new covenant command, and how to relate to it before God,as regards not being under law,but under grace,as you describe it? Would be food for thought.

Terry Rayburn said...

I appreciate your comment, Phil.

I've written a couple pieces related to this that you might find helpful:

1. "If We're Under Grace, Why The Commands?" found here, and

2. "Loving The Law Without Being Under It" found here.

Two related reasons why we are no longer under law are 1) we've died [in Christ] to the law, and 2) the New Covenant is "unilateral".

On the unilateral nature of the New Covenant, see here.

Phil said...

Haven't looked yet,Terry,but thanks very much. I need to really get this subject and for real. 'Cos I know its the root.

Phil said...

I've looked now,and thanks very much once more. I'd ask you to pray that I may grasp it experientially. I don't think we can ever be sure we have real faith without this.

Phil said...

...but I'll admit to being scared that I may be wrong,the way I got hammered over at Pyro,etc

Mark D. Vilen said...


Thanks for your reply to my post. Yes, by "accountability," I was referring to an unhealthy, unbiblical amount of control, like what you said here:
"The Elders are not to expect obedience in personal household matters (e.g., how specifically you are to spend your time and money, what car to drive, where to live, whom to marry, etc.). In most cases, this amounts to authoritarian legalism."
I have been the victim of similar types of control in a former church, so I'm a little oversensitive now when anyone suggests any type of "accountability." The term doesn't first bring to mind a healthy, biblical definition for me, as you can probably understand.
Thanks for your reply.


Terry Rayburn said...


"I have been the victim of similar types of control in a former church..."

Me too. I'm so sorry you had to go through that. It's too common. Thanks.

Anonymous said...


I don't have much time, but I wanted to point out just one thing for now. Your use of Membership Lists. The term "list" isn't very helpful here. This tends to reduce and couch the issue from the other side to just a "list".

Let me ask you: Do you have a statement of faith list? You know, a list that shows what you believe and fellowship around? Why?

Is there a Scriptural admonition for such a list? Seriously, under what grounds to you have a statement of faith around which to build a local church, fellowship, etc.? Can't you see how this might be abused? What about those who might slightly disagree, but want to become an elder or deacon? Do you use your list to decide?



Terry Rayburn said...


I've read and re-read your comment several times, and I'm not sure what your point[s] is.

If you're asking whether I'm knocking membership lists because they're ONLY lists without any substance, and thereby slanting my case...

1. In many churches, this is exactly the case, unfortunately. The "list" means nothing except "I'm on the list".

I attended First Baptist of Dallas, TX in 1980-81. They often declared themselves the largest membership church in America at the time with 20-some thousand "members".

Many of them I'm sure were dead, and the sanctuary only held a couple (or few) thousand, so the "members" were obviously scattered to the four winds.

The point was made even more silly when Billy Graham came that year to preach at First Baptist. He, to my surprise, declared that HE HIMSELF was still a member of First Baptist Dallas(!), though he hadn't been there for many years.

This silliness is carried on in thousands of churches every week.

2. Many churches operate without any lists at all, and are spiritual wonderful places, relatively.

I recently re-read Alex Hailey's Roots, which detailed events in the plantation slave churches. They were unable (indeed forbidden) to read or write. Highly unlikely they had a list. But guaranteed they had a "membership".

3. Yet I'm not really knocking lists per se at all. They have their uses, just as doctrinal statements have their uses. Both can, of course, be abused.

What's missing too often, however, is a Body-life fellowship where there is a true spiritual bond among those on the "roll called up Yonder", whether they're on the official local "roll" or not.

If I'm not addressing your actual point, feel free to elaborate.


Frank Turk said...

Terry --

I would own every word of what you said here. It's exactly right: this is not merely about who's on what list but in what way we have joined together.

Have we joined together in some merely administrative way? Or have we joined to Christ and therefore to one another -- as brothers and sister who are frankly sharing our lives together?

If SJC's point over on Twitter was that "making a list" is too minimalistic to satisfy the Biblical mandate for those called out by the Holy Spirit, he'd be right. I think he's asking for something far more minimalistic still which misses the point of the church giving glory to God as a visible sign of His grace.

Anonymous said...


Sorry if my comment was a bit obscure. I thought my point would be somewhat apparent.

I came here based on the twitter convo and your opening in the post seemed to be in-line with the twitter convo.

Then, however, you go on to couch the discussion in terms of "lists". This is not what were been talking about on twitter.

Since you mentioned there are no command for church membership lists in the Bible, I was following up with there are no
commands for statement of faith lists in the Bible either. But you do have a list of beliefs around which to fellowship, elect elders & deacons etc., correct?

So, you're belief list (statement of faith) is no more or less biblical than formal church membership.

What is the purpose of your statement of faith?

Your answers under three aspects doesn't really explain what exactly you mean concerning church membership. I don't know anyone who practices formal membership disagrees with those aspects. For example, if you were to preach a sermon on church membership my guess is that you
wouldn't stand up quote those verses and sit down. [grin]

Your conclusion then still does not address formal church member, the type we were talking about on twitter. You were really addressing those who simply
speak of such membership and then treat it as list of sales made or some authoritarian book of life. I agree that church membership can be abused and also reduced to some list. The same could be said of statements of faith which, in my experience, are rarely referenced or often used. This is especially true in non-confessional churches.

That said, churches like mine (a 9Marks church) practice formal church membership of which a list or database is merely a side result. No one ever references
a "list" etc. We speak of membership and if someone leaves they become a former member who has moved their membership. Or, if disciplined, they become
an unrepentant sinner whom we strive to reach out to with the Gospel.

I hope that makes more sense. I think you'd could do a very good job of contrasting those who properly implement church membership vs. those who simply
use it as a list rather than conflating the too.



Terry Rayburn said...


Thanks for your comments.

I agree that too much minimalism regarding membership is counterproductive to the purpose of God for the local church (whether or not that was what SJC was advocating).

I like your phrase "merely some administrative way". I don't believe many *intend* that to be the case, but it too often is.


Terry Rayburn said...


I appreciate your elaboration.

As I wrote in my post, the "formal" aspect of membership is neither commanded in Scripture, nor forbidden. So I would give plenty of leeway to an individual church in deciding how specifically to handle that.

I've been at church congregation "business" meetings where official members and "regular attenders" were welcome, but only official members could vote (say to approve a new elder, for example).

Often people are surprised who is NOT an official member when the balloting is to be done, because the "regular attender" has been going to the church for years, actively ministering one way or another, and by every biblical measure looks like a member.

I personally would view them as a member, biblically speaking (we may disagree there).

Still, I couldn't say that the leadership was in violation of Scripture to have a "formal" membership, with only formal members voting, in the above example.

Anyway, after the "formal membership" vs. "no formal membership" debate is settled -- unlikely, it seems :) -- I still think the more important question is whether there is spiritual intimate fellowship among the local members/attenders.