IS CONGREGATIONAL MEMBERSHIP NECESSARY?
The subject of membership has not enjoyed a lot of attention over the years. The reason for this was the implicit nature of the matter. Generally speaking, most folks understood the concept of membership from a biblical perspective, and most grasped how membership in the local Body was established. Sadly, this clarity has become shrouded with ambiguity. The murkiness of this subject can certainly be attributed to an array of improprieties, one of them being the presupposition that it is widely understood. This assumption may have led to a lack of teaching on the subject. Nevertheless, we find ourselves in an era where this subject must be broached again. As with every biblical principle, a lack of adherence will bring unfavorable consequences (Cf. Hosea 4:6). Some of these consequences are sinful; e.g. individuals jumping from one congregation to another to avoid responsibility or to run away from rebuke. These individuals regularly attend the local body without ever identifying with any. A lack of teaching, enforcing, and understanding of membership has made this practice all too common. Some consequences are not inherently sinful in nature. Certain individuals are simply unaware that placing membership in the local body is important and some mistakenly believe that attendance constitutes membership.
If the Bible student desires a glimpse into the wisdom of God, he/she does not have to look any further than the church. Paul exclaims that the multifarious wisdom of God is seen in the Church that His Son died to purchase (Cf. Ephesians 3:8-11 & Acts 20:28). Everything the church is, her conduct, her composition, her cause, and her creed has been eternally planned and Divinely instituted. Everything she needs to operate faithfully in every generation and any culture can be found in the pages of Holy Writ (2 Timothy 3:15-17) Nothing was left to chance or the fickle whims of human determinations. Thus, it stands to reason that the question of membership in the local body can be answered by searching the Scriptures. I believe it necessary at this juncture to put an important disclaimer. This article is not about being a member of the Body of Christ, attained through obeying the Gospel (Cf. Acts 2:37-38, 47). This article deals with identifying oneself with the local Body of Christ. Placing membership and being recognized as a member of the local congregation is predicated upon the following biblical principles.
The more one learns about the church the more one comes to appreciate and comprehend the infinite wisdom with which she was created (Cf. Ephesians 3:10-11). In order to protect its purity, the Lord mandated congregational autonomy. There is only one Church, One Kingdom, and one recognized Body of believers. Paul emphasized this fact when he wrote to the Ephesian Church, There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling, Ephesians 4:4. (Emphases MS) However, the singularity of the Body does not translate into a universal or global function of the body. This fact is inferred from the ordination of Elders. Every congregation (where possible) should be overseen by a plurality of Elders. (Cf. 1 Timothy 3:1-7). Among other things, these elders were tasked with spiritually feeding the flock (Acts 20:28) ruling over the flock (Hebrews 13:17), and protecting the flock (Titus 1:9). In a region that had well over a hundred cities, Paul underscored the need for every church in every city to have elders.
For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you, Titus 1:5. (Emphases MS).
Distinct from the denominational institutions of our time, there is no mention of an earthly headquarters for the church in scripture. There exists not even a slight indication that the church was universally and locally ruled by a singular “city or state eldership.” Proven by the ordination and function of elders in every congregation, there was no need for such a system. The local congregation was and is an autonomous entity.
In this precept of autonomy lies congregational membership’s authority. Just like the Church is not universal in its operation, Christians do not have universal memberships. The concept of a “floating membership” or Christians not identifying with a local body is wholly foreign to scripture. It is futile to assert that the elders’ rule is limited to the local body, but that membership transcends the local body. Christians were told to obey those elders who had the rule over them (Hebrews 13:17). However, if my membership transcends congregations, exactly whose rule would I be under? Furthermore, if the membership of every congregation is intermingled what would be the point of autonomy? In fact, autonomy would cease to exist seeing that every Christian would a member of the Local congregation. Consider this illustration. If you have an “all access” gym membership to a particular gym; you can go to any gym bearing that name without placing membership again; why? Because membership in one means membership in all. This is not the way the church was designed; membership in one congregation does not mean membership in all congregations.
The Lord’s church is unique in its composition, no man-made religious institution or denomination can boast a better and more efficient hierarchical system. Jesus Christ is the head of the Church (Ephesians 1:22-23). Everything the church says and does is guided by “Thus saith the Lord” (Colossians 3:17). The Lord ascended into heaven and is ruling from the right hand of God (1 Peter 3:22). However, before He left, He gave stewardship of the church to His apostles (Cf. Matthew 16:18-19). The Apostles were given the keys of the Kingdom, they were placed in a position to lose and bind as directed by Christ (John 14:25-26). The Church as a whole is under apostolic oversight; we follow the apostles’ doctrine and direction (Cf. Acts 2:41-42 & Ephesians 2:19-20). The third tier in God’s system of church governance is that of Elderships.
So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed, Acts 14:23.
For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you, Titus 1:5.
We know elders are not the head/s of the Church, Christ is. We also know that elders are not the stewards of the church, the apostles are. This being the case, over whom does an eldership rule as indicated in Hebrews 13:17? The only logical and biblical answer is, over the local congregation. Peter makes this crystal clear.
The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly, 1 Peter 5:1-2. (Emphases MS).
The phrase which is among in the Greek is defined and described in the following way: A primary preposition denoting fixed position in place, time or state (Thayer’s Greek Definitions)
As compared with the Greek word eis (into or unto) and ek (out of or from) it stands between the two; eis implies motion into, and ek motion out of, while en, in, means remaining in place. (The Complete Wordstudy Dictionary) (Italics supplied MS)
Elders shepherd the flock which is among them. Per the language scholars, that means Christians who are fixed or remain among them. The indirect application of this text necessitates membership. A floating or non-existing membership would severely hinder this command. It would render the force of the verse and execution of it an exercise in futility. Namely, with no fixed membership there can be no competent guardianship. For pastoral oversight to be accomplished membership in the Local Body must be established!
The Individual Christian
The church is not a building nor is it an abstract concept; the church is comprised of people, individuals who have obeyed the Gospel and were subsequently placed into the Body by Christ (Cf. Acts 2:37-38, 47 & Galatians 3:27). When speaking about the work of the church or the function of the church we are addressing the work and function of every Christian that makes up the Church. The Church has three universal mandates, spread the Gospel (Matthew 28:18-20) help the needy (Galatians 6:9-10), and build up the Body (Hebrews 10:24-16). These universal mandates are carried out on a local level, overseen by local elders. This does not mean that congregations are barred from working together to these ends. The Scriptures authorize congregational cooperation, as long as autonomy is preserved (Cf. 2 Corinthians 8). When the local congregation sets forth to do these works, how exactly is it accomplished? Is there a system in place, are there guidelines and protocols to promote our fruitfulness in the cause of Christ? The answer is a resounding yes; our God did not create a dysfunctional Kingdom. Combined individual abilities bolster the successful discharge of our duties. God created a Kingdom in which every citizen had a part to play; there are no spectators in the Kingdom of Christ.
In the context of miraculous spiritual gifts, the apostle Paul reminded the feuding Corinthians of this fact (Cf.1 Corinthians 12). The Corinthians were working against one another which was contrary to the design and purpose of the gifts they had. The miraculous abilities the Corinthians had are no longer necessary or available (Cf. 1 Corinthians 13) but the principle of a unified workforce is. The absence of spiritual gifts does not negate or diminish the concept of working together. We are still members of One Body (1 Corinthians 12:7) unified in one cause (Ephesians 2:10) to the Glory of the One God (1 Peter 2:9). We must work together to accomplish the work of the church with every individual doing their part. A floating or non-committed individual hinders the effectiveness of working together. How can the local congregation do the work with individuals who are not committed to the work? How can we plan and purpose (Luke 14:25-33) when those who are present this week may be gone next week? A fixed membership is critical in carrying out the work that the church has been assigned.
Membership in the local body is authorized by inference and approved examples when we consider the autonomy of the local church, the oversight with which elders are tasked, and the unity with which the church is supposed to work. When we read the New Testament, it is evident that people were associated with various congregations. Someone from the household of Chloe was associated with the congregation in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:11) Barnabas was associated with the church in Antioch (Acts 31:1) and Phoebe was called a servant of the Church in Cenchrea (Romans 16:1). There are clear indications in scripture that individuals were committed to one particular congregation where they labored for the Lord. Furthermore, the idea of an intermingled membership is foreign to New Testament Writ. Placing Membership in the local body is necessary, biblical, and important to the proper functioning of the Body of Christ.