In the New Testament you won’t find the term “church membership” anywhere. That doesn’t mean it’s not there though. It’s kind of like “Trinity.” Some words you don’t see in Scripture. It’s the same picture when it comes to membership, what it means to be a committed part of a body of Christ, a local body of believers. I want to just briefly outline four reasons we can be sure that it is biblical to be in covenant with a local church.
First, church membership is implied by church gatherings. The word for “church” in the original language of the New Testament is “ekklesia”. Literally, means “a gathering.” The dominant usage of the word “church” in the New Testament refers to local gatherings of believers. The church that gathers at this house, or the church that gathers in this community or this city or this region. It’s a picture of local bodies of believers.
Second, church membership is implied by church discipline. Matthew 18, 1 Corinthians 5 outline a process for discipline and restoration within a local church. For example, in 1 Corinthians 5, it gets to a point where if someone continues unrepentant that they’re actually removed from the church. That implies that they were a member of that church at one point, and now they’re not a member of the church.
Third, church membership is implied by church leadership. Hebrews 13, Acts 20, 1 Peter 5 all talk about how elders, pastors in the church are entrusted with the care of members of that church. The reality Scripture teaches is there is an accountability that I as a pastor have before God, and it says in Hebrews 13 that I will have to give an account before God for your spiritual care. What the Scripture teaches is that there is a local body called Pine Grove Mennonite Church that’s been entrusted to my care and the care of elders, and we will stand before God to give an account for your spiritual care. That’s serious stuff. It’s important to me that I know the people that God has entrusted to this body, and it’s important to elders to know that, and it’s important for you to be entrusted to the care of pastors.
Fourth, church membership is implied by church accountability. This is all over the New Testament. We see churches and members of churches held accountable before God. In Acts 6, church members are accountable for appointing leaders. Galatians 1:9 implies that church members are accountable for making sure the gospel is preached in the church. If I don’t preach the gospel, yes, there’s an account between me and God, but you are held accountable, as a member of this church, for not getting in my face if I’m not preaching the gospel. Acts 13, the body’s accountable for commissioning and sending out and praying for and supporting missionaries. There’s all kinds of pictures of accountability.
For me, and it seems like for much of church history, the combination of these things has led to the belief that even though Scripture doesn’t say “thou shall become a member of a local church” it does imply the necessity and helpfulness of making that covenant commitment.