The word "membership" is a very simple word: the state of belonging to or being a part of a group or an organization : the state of being a member (according to Merriam-Webster). However, when this simple word is combined with the word "church", misunderstandings often occur. Some people hear of church membership and ask, "Where is that in the Bible?" Others say, "Aren't I already a member of the body of Christ?" Still others, "Aren't you being rather legalistic?" These questions are due to churches in America distorting what church membership actually is. Some churches, not seeing the need, have thrown membership out of the window. Others, building from a foundation of legalism, have distorted membership to be a wedge between churches and a lever to guilt their members. Both these extremes have left out an essential puzzle piece in the history of the Church. So then, what is Church Membership, and why is it necessary?
What is the Church?
First, we need to have an understanding of what church is. The church is not a political party where you can vote for a specific candidate or platform. Neither is it a social club where you can enter by a secret sign or handshake and then relax with your buddies. Nor is it a business where you can be a stock holder and strive to make the most money or have the most bang for your buck.
Simply (or not so simply), the Church is the Spiritual and Physical Body of Christ. Anyone who has placed their faith in Jesus as their Lord and Savior, initiating this saving relationship, is a part of the spiritual body of Christ, whether this relationship started in the first century or in the twenty-first century (Eph 1:3-14). This body is spiritual because it includes those who have died and who are awaiting the resurrection of the dead (Heb 11:39-12:1; Rev 6:9-11).
However, the Church is also the physical Body of Christ. Living, breathing people, who you can touch and feel and smell, meet together weekly to worship our God, to perform the ordinances, and to encourage one another in sanctification. These local bodies are a covenant community, built on truth (1 Tim 3:15), to teach truth (1 Tim 4:1-11), to edify each other (Heb 10:25), and to restore each other when we sin (Gal 6:1-2; Matt 18:15-20; 1 Cor 5:1-5; 2 Cor 2:5-11).
Membership is based upon this covenant relationship between the members of the Body of Christ: the Local Church. After Christ ascended to Heaven, the apostles began sharing the Gospel with those in Jerusalem, and then into Judea, and then into the whole Roman empire. They organized local bodies of Christians wherever they went, charging them to carry on this covenant relationship, and training elders to shepherd and guard each local church. After a short time progressed, others traveled to these local churches and taught doctrines that were against Christ, trying to deceive the Christians.
The Apostle John writes about these men, in 1 John 2, "Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us." John wrote to warn this church so that they would guard each other against the teachings of those men and so that they wouldn't allow those men into the fellowship.
Also during this time, they began to experience persecution from the Jews, first, and then from the Romans. Certain individuals would try to seek out who were "Little Christs" and bring them societal and bodily harm. These persecutors would often try to infiltrate the local fellowships before turning them into the authorities.
During the first century, the individual churches, under the direction of the apostles and church fathers, developed a way to guard their covenant community from doctrinal error and from harm. This protection was a process of membership.
The Process of Membership
During the first and second century, when a man or a woman entered a saving relationship with Christ, they would approach the local church with this news. After rejoicing, the church would begin a strong discipleship program with that individual, to make sure he knew and believed the essential doctrines of their faith. After that time, when the individual clearly understood those doctrines, he would be baptized, publicly identifying himself with Christ and publicly identifying that he believed the core doctrines of Christ. At that time, he was also placing himself into the covenant community of the local body of Christ, so that they would hold him responsible to stay true to those doctrines and so that, in return, he would hold them accountable.
Whenever a member of the local body would travel to another city, he would bring a letter from his elder, explaining that this traveler was a member of the local body, believing the core doctrines of the faith and not bringing any harm on the body. Examples of this are found at the end of Paul's letters, when he urges the churches to welcome the bearer of the letter into their fellowship.
No one expected to be welcomed into the fellowship of the local church unless they had a letter from their elder, or unless they went through a class on doctrine. They knew the dangers of false doctrines creeping into the church, and the dangers of physical harm extending into the church.
The Application of Membership
These dangers are still around today. The church, as a covenant community, should take care to protect their fellowship by implementing a membership based upon a belief in the essential doctrines of our faith. The new member would affirm their belief in these essential doctrines, and their desire to enter an accountability relationship with the rest of the covenant community. This is not to create an exclusive community, but it is designed to protect each local church from predators who wish to influence doctrine or bring physical harm.