Local Church Membership – Research Response

Church on a hill

Recently in Sunday School, I had the opportunity to chat with a fellow believer regarding his research on “Local Church Membership”  I think he was seeking some degree from a Bible School, and he was kind enough to let me ask him some difficult questions.

Eventually, in an effort to allow others to participate in the class, I suggested he send me his research to read.  He emailed it to me the next day and I took a few minutes to review it and make some comments.  I didn’t spend much time on the portion of church tradition’s as justification for church membership, since I was curious about the Biblical defence he used to justify this teaching.

What follows below are snippets of his research (in red) with my comments following.

Referring to Matthew 16:19, 18:17-18, he states

“Keys are a symbol of authority over who enters and who is excluded. Given the context of Peter’s confession of Christ in the former passage, binding and loosing here likely relates to deciding who by their confession is regenerate and therefore to be received into church membership.”

This conclusion is not required from the text.  I fear the “membership test” of determining who is regenerate and who is not, is placing a heavy responsibility on both the church leaders and the subject.

As you well know, confession is not a reliable indicator of true faith, unless by confession, you mean obedience to the faith and not just verbal assent to some teaching.  If this conclusion is warranted (that is, if a person is regenerate, he may be received into church membership), nothing in this passage describes a “local” church, and its membership.

Would the apostles have imagined a local group of believers to be required to test newcomers, instead of simply loving them and allowing them to join thier gatherings?

Would the apostles have required a believer to enter a membership agreement (other than commitment to the Lord Jesus?)

Does not the New Testament teach that to be regenerate IS to be in the Church, the Body of Christ?

Similarly given the context of the latter passage relating to church discipline (that is Mathew 18), the church is to decide who by their impenitence is unregenerate and therefore to be excluded from church membership.

Again, this is a difficult call to decide who is unregenerate.  Deciding the status of a person’s relationship with the God of Heaven is difficult to say the least.  Much time and experiences will supply some insight in the person’s status.  When I think of Peter’s 3 years of being with Jesus, I would have given him my full confidence right up to the denial.  And then I would have rejected him.  But then, I would have accepted him.   And then in Galatia, when he ate with the Jews only, I would have rejected him.  But then, sometime after that, I probablywould have accepted him. What a rollercoaster!!!

Exclusion of membership is only effective when it relates directly to relationships within the church, not a letter or form from church officials.  Many times, I have heard of those excluded from a church via a letter or form, and yet the excluded member maintains relationships within their sphere of “friends”, and simply moves on to another church, sometimes attaining the coveted membership again.  Something doesn’t seem to be working with this system, if the non-repentant can continue to be accepted in other bodies.

Just as the exchange of wedding rings symbolizes entry into the marriage covenant by the bride and groom, so baptism symbolizes entry into a new covenant by a believer with God through faith in Christ.

Are you suggesting baptism is equal to local church membership in God’s eyes?  That is, local church membership is one of the new covenant’s ordinances?

The church has a responsibility to discern the regenerate status of a candidate before administering baptism and likewise to restrict participation in the Lord’s Supper to those who are regenerate.

When the Ethiopian asked to get baptized, Phillip baptized him.  The church (Philip, in this case) simply baptized the Ethiopian. I don’t know of anywhere in the NT where a period of discernment is described or prescribed for the administration of baptism for a confessing believer.

35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.

36 And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?”

38 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.

Regarding the Lord’s Supper, please direct me to where the New Testament gives the church (leaders?) the right to restrict participation in the Lord’s supper.  I have heard of this teaching before, but never been given a passage to consider it’s veracity.

One passage does describe the believer’s responsibility of judging whether he/she should eat the Lord’s Supper

27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.

28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.

29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.

We are told to not give up meeting together (Heb 10:25) and to use our spiritual gifts for the common good (1 Cor 12:7).

Regarding meeting together, would you restrict someone from meeting together with you and your members if he, for conscience sake, did not submit to adding his name to a roster?  As an aside , I once asked a pastor if he would rather have a faithful and active believer in his church (although not a member), or a pew sitting member in his church.  He did not respond.

Regarding 1 Corinthians 12:7, spiritual gifts for the common good need not be restricted to a membership of Christians but should be for the common good of ALL (Christian and non-Christian).

I cannot imagine how local church membership adds any value to a spiritual gift. (Other than being allowed to use it in a restricted membership environment – But if the restriction was lifted, would more blessing be available to others?)

All these (that is meeting together and spiritual gifts) imply that we can identify who are our fellow members in the body.

Christians should be able to identify their brothers and sisters by the fellowship of the Spirit and love to the Lord.  You know as well as I brother, that membership is not infallible, and that some fakers make it to a membership status.

The church publicly declares someone to be a member when it baptizes that person, and periodically reaffirms who is in its covenant membership through invitation to participate in the Lord’s Supper.

I assume you are referring to becoming a member of the local church. Is this implying that when a believer moves to a new geographical location, he has an obligation to be baptized again, in order to declare that person publicly? 

….the relation of church leader and church member must be clear for elders to be able to exercise oversight (1 Pet 5:1-5)  

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed:

shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly;

not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.

And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive  the unfading crown of glory.

Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

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I suppose you equate submission to an elder to be within the local church I am a member of.  If so, could I submit to an elder of another local church?  Is there a restriction to my submitting to other believers (outside of my local church) who care for my soul, who may understand my circumstance better, who may have experienced like things in my life and been taught by the Word?

This passage does speak of submission to elders (but it seems to be in relation to age and not church office, since Peter directs the “younger” to be subject to the elder) Believers are rightfully to have an attitude of submission to all. (Remember that verse about “Submit to one another”?).

I do not see how this passage in 1 Peter defines local church membership for the believer, especially since the book was written for the diaspora, the dispersed believers, and not to a specific local body of Christians.

Referring to 1 Corinthians 12

The church as the body of Christ underscores the necessity of church membership (because members of the body cannot survive apart from the body)

Are you implying that Paul meant “members of a local church” when he said members?

If so, why was he not specific, and state that the members are to create a covenantal agreement to sign on to, in order to obey, and remove their immaturity and division.

I did a quick search of 1 Corinthians and did not find the term “membership” within the passage, although I found the term “members” often.  As a family man, I often think of my children as members of my family, and yet it would be an huge insult to them to ask them to formally join the family through a membership.

When believers are brought into the fold, they should clearly affirm the terms of the membership covenant they are entering, just as bride and groom must understand the terms of their marriage covenant.

The covenant a believer enters into is called the “New Covenant”, where the law is written on our heart – o heck let the apostle describe it for us

10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.

11 And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor
and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.

12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
and I will remember their sins no more.”

And like a marriage, the church covenant requires its participants to continually work at abiding by it, taking advantage of every opportunity to reaffirm their vows. 

The church covenant you desire to justify seems to be amongst brothers and sisters, not husbands and wives.  I suppose you are likening covenants and not the parties to it, but it seems unnecessary, and clouds the issue for me

I would suggest that the insertion of a church covenant into a group of believers creates a distraction from the New Covenant, that Jesus shed His blood to ratify for our benefit.

Consider

  • If the church covenant adds responsibilities to believers beyond the new covenant, be careful.
  • If it states the same responsibilities as the New Covenant, why introduce it?

We need to be members of His body primarily, and as we travel through this life down here, we may have the priviledge to be a part of a group of loving believers.  If signing a membership role removes restrictions to a loving group of believers, may God bless you as you journey with them.


If you read something in this discussion that concerns you, please take the time to send me your comments or reply within the post.  I look forward to hearing from you.

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