Is church membership really necessary? Can’t a Christian have perpetual fellowship with a particular congregation while still remaining a ‘visitor’?
To answer this, we first need to understand what the true church is. The universal church or Body of Christ (Romans 12:5) is composed only and entirely of elect and true believers in Christ. Non-believers are not part of that Body.
So we realise straightaway that God keeps (according to human understanding) a ‘membership list’ of who is in his true church.
During the time of the early church, ‘the Lord added to them daily such as should be saved’ (Acts 2:47). This verse indicates that salvation is the pre-requisite for being ‘added’ to the local church. Reformed churches that require evidence of salvation before membership are simply following the biblical model.
Malachi 3:16 says: ‘Then they that feared the Lord spake often to one another: and the Lord hearkened and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon his name’. Similarly, we infer such a list from Revelation 20:12 with its focus on the Lamb’s book of life.
So, if the Lord has a ‘membership roll’ in heaven for the elect, it is surely right for local churches to establish and maintain a list of its true members on earth, to the best of its ability.
Membership in and accountability to a local church are also strongly implied in Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 5:13 to Corinthian believers, to ‘put away from among yourselves’ that indisputably ‘wicked person’.
The preceding verse speaks of those ‘without’ and ‘within’ the church. All such language is meaningless without a clearly defined group and local community of members.
Why is church membership important? It is firstly a way of publicly identifying yourself with a local group of Christians. It is a statement that you are in agreement with their doctrines and practices and that you are a legitimate representative of it, accountable to it.
Church membership determines who is permitted to play a part in the church’s decisions and be involved in its work. Members have a vital part to play in a church’s life and direction.
Membership is, in effect, a way of saying, ‘I believe in God and I am a Christian; and, to demonstrate that, I identify with this particular church.’
So it is natural and biblical to consider joining in membership with a Bible-believing church after attending it for a suitable time and finding that you are there ministered to by the preaching of the Word, and helped by the church’s worship and fellowship.
To be a perpetual ‘visitor’ to a church is like a man who courts or dates a girl in a non-committal relationship without ever wanting to marry her; and continuing this way through many years of serious relationship. That would be strange and irresponsible.
May the Lord guide each one of us to do what is right and to God’s glory in this matter!
Rev. Dr Jack Sin
The author is pastor of Maranatha Bible-Presbyterian Church, Singapore, and a lecturer for the Emmanuel Reformed Bible lectures