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Must a Christian be a Church Member?


Must a Christian be a Member of a Church and what if I don’t fit in?

Text:  Matthew 18:15-20 

(A talk given at Templepatrick Reformed Church on Friday 17th January 2020)

Our topic for this evening is an important one.  And one where Christians don’t always agree.  ‘Must a Christian be a MEMBER of a church?’ I’m sure that you will have your own, well-informed opinion on this – and that you will be ready to defend your position.  I’m not going to disagree with you!  These matters, (both this month and next are adiaphora – matters that are not essential to saving faith – so we are not going to fall out if we don’t take exactly the same line.)


Still, I have given the question some consideration, and what follows will be my conclusions, as I see them.  But before we get to the actual discussion, and the classic arguments for and against the issue, let’s set some parameters, by agreeing on a couple of essential definitions.


1 Definitions.  

So our question prompts us to ask, ‘what do we mean when we refer to a ‘church?’ And what do we mean by ‘membership?’

  • What is a Church?  In fact the church falls broadly into two divisions.
    • The VISIBLE Church. Or as we sometimes call it, ‘Christendom.’  The visible force of Christianity is often fragmented, divided, consisting of denominations and schisms, local assemblies and great world-wide movements, it is very often not even a pale reflection of the church that Jesus was speaking about in Matthew 18, or the church of the early disciples.  It is comprised of believers, – intermingled by hypocrites, apostates and blatantly ungodly people.  Our baptist and Congregational, – Puritan – forefathers longed for a ‘pure church’ yet even John Owen in Savoy 26:2 confessed, ‘The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error, and some have so degenerated as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan: nevertheless Christ always hath had, and ever shall have, a visible kingdom in this world, to the end thereof, of such as believe in him, and make profession of his name.  Calvin had a good definition of a church.  A place where the Word of God is proclaimed, where the sacraments are correctly administered and where Church discipline is preserved.  In a Congregational context, we have always thought of a church as being as Jesus described, in Matthew 18:20 For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.
    • The INVISIBLE CHURCH, – the true ‘Body of Christ’ on earth.  It includes all Christians everywhere, those who are truly being saved, from every age, every nation, ethnicity, – it is unstructured in itself, because only God himself knows who is a member of it.  We know that it’s membership is not through signing a membership application form, or through a vote of members, – its membership is of those who have been ordained by God to His, from before the foundation of the world, who are there because of Christ’s atoning death for them on the cross, and who have in response to His love, repented of their sins and trusted only in him.  On the last day it will be complete, and every single member of it will be in heaven, none will be lost, and they will be in the presence of God for ever and ever.  Furthermore, unlike the Visible church, it is already united, for all true believers are within it.  Savoy 26:1 The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one under Christ, the Head thereof, and is the Spouse, the Body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.  

So, when we speak of belonging to a church, in this context, we are not speaking about membership of the INVISIBLE CHURCH that is the true Body of Christ, for membership of that church is by way of the new birth alone – we are referring to the VISIBLE church, or a denominational, or local expression of that church.  That takes us to our second definition.

  • What is ‘Membership?’ That’s been a real debate in local congregationalism.  We have a two tier type of membership in some churches, where you can be a member, (rightly an ‘adherent’) or a ‘Communicant Member.’  It’s a kind of formal way of giving expression to the fact that the church consists of a mixed multitude!  Of course it’s abused.  Now, we’ll exclude those people from our definition, and we shall assume that to be a member of a church is as follows: Membership in a local church involves commitment to worship the Lord corporately, edifying brothers and sisters through mutual exhortation and service, cooperating in mission, and holding each other accountable to walk in a manner pleasing to the Lord as a witness to the truth of Christ in the world; a wise and helpful path for those who desire to walk together in obedience to the Lord and in a manner that is worthy of the gospel of Christ (Philippians 1:27 ).

So let’s summarise:  

  • All true Christians are de-facto members of the Universal, invisible Church, the Body of Christ on earth.
  • That church is visible on earth in the form of groups of Christians, meeting together in churches, imperfect in many ways.
  • Formal membership of the Visible church is usually an identification with a local assembly or a denomination, usually with distinctive doctrines and practices.


2 The Classic Arguments FOR/AGAINST Church Membership.  

So what are the classic arguments for and against formal membership of a church?

  • The Case FOR Church Membership. There are a number of arguments made, which demonstrate why a Christian should be a signed-up member of a local church.  These are well rehearsed…
    • Because of the doctrine of CHURCH DISCIPLINE.  In Matthew 18:15-17 there is a system of church discipline, an example of how disputes between Christians are to be resolved.  If a brother sins against you, you must go to him first, and try to resolve the issue.  If the matter cannot be resolved, and the relationship repaired, then the complainant must take along two or three others, – their attendance is to act as witnesses – but iv the matter still cannot be resolved, then it must be taken to THE CHURCH.  Only then, if the matter cannot be resolved would the relationship between the two be brought to an end.  Now the argument is that such a system requires a formal church membership, otherwise who would form this final ‘court of the church’ – what in our Congregational system of government would be referred to as ‘the Church Meeting.’  Can you imagine how justice could be perverted if the exact membership of that church meeting had not already been defined.  The offender could ask all his friends and supporters to turn up at that meeting and give him their support.   Paul later builds on this teaching of Jesus. 1 Corinthians 6:1 He tells Christians that in disputed matters they are not to ask the secular courts to adjudicate.  They are to take these matters to the church.
    • Because there really is such a thing as EXCOMMUNICATION.  It is a formal, public disfellowshipping of an individual.   Sometimes, it is necessary to put someone out of fellowship with other Christians, particularly in the case of serious doctrinal error or heresy, or immoral behaviour.  1st Corinthians 5:11-13.  So here are two groups of people.  Those who are ‘without’ – outside the church, and those who are ‘within’ – people inside the church.  The church is responsible for judging its own members, but outsiders are not to be judged by the church.  If the church decides that a wicked or immoral person is guilty, then that person is to be put outside the church.  This seems to be a formal removal, an excommunication, which would have implied that the person being excommunicated was already a formal member.
    • To facilitate Christian SUBMISSION to elders.  Christians are required to submit to elders.  Hebrews 13:7  Hebrews 13:17. Hebrews 13:24. If we are submit ourselves to our elders, who rule over us, that implies a formal consent having been given to such an arrangement.  Check also 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 and 1 Timothy 5:17.  This formal submission requires a form of covenant, in which the individual will agree to such submission, in throughout the Scriptures, covenant relationships are always formally ratified.  
    • To replicate the biblical motifs of the church.
      • ‘The SHEPHERD and the SHEEP.  The New Testament depicts the church in terms of a flock, with shepherds, and with sheep.  It’s a perfect motif of leadership and membership, for the shepherd does not DRIVE the flock, he leads them, and he cares for them, and he regards them as being his particular responsibility.  Acts 20:28  There is a requirement for these elders to care for a particular flock – group of believers – a local church.  They are placed under his care, under his CHARGE by God himself.  1 Peter 5:2-3   These elders KNEW who they were responsible for, they were specifically connected, in a membership covenant perhaps?
      • The BODY OF CHRIST. Many will see that church membership is implied in the comparison of the church with the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31.  As one commentators says, “There is something unnatural about a Christian attaching himself to a body of believers and not being a member!”  

It is for those reasons that most evangelicals believe that membership of a local church is a proper course of action for eery believer.  So that we are part of a local congregation, which will act as a court in the event of disciplinary proceedings, and to submit ourselves to such discipline.  We should subject ourselves under the leadership of local elders to be watched over and cared for by them, as a part of a local, organic whole.  Similarly, most evangelicals will argue that the Bible knows nothing of solitary Christians – they are a contradiction, for becoming a Christian brings us into the body of Christ, which is expressed in the union of local bodies of believers.

  • The Case AGAINST Church Membership. There are churches who, by deliberate choice to NOT have a formal ‘role of members’ – and who believe that simply belonging to Christ, and playing an active and enthusiastic part in the worship and life of a local assembly is enough.  Why do they think that?  BRIEFLY…
    • Because of the difficulties in determining criteria for membership.   How far do you go?  Is it enough to be a professing Christian, with a credible profession of faith, or is more required?   So, in some churches, to be a member one has not only to be a born-again believer but hold to one particular doctrinal position on baptism.  What if the only good, solid reformed church in my area was one that had that requirement, and I found that the fellowship there was sweet, the teaching sound, the praise in keeping with biblical principles, but I was debarred from membership – should I forgo that fellowship, or should I attend, pledge a personal allegiance to be in attendance and to support the church financially, and be an encouragement to the leaders…. Be a member of the congregation in every respect except that my name is not written down in a book?
    • Because membership often leads to authoritarianism. Perhaps by its very nature, church membership protects an authoritarian structure, – as in eg, Catholicism.
    • Because membership makes the body of Christ equivalent to an institution.  There are some genuine believers who believe that the church is simply an organic body of believers, already united in Christ and already in fellowship with one another, and that no other formal structure is required.  That the church is, quite literally, where two or three are met together in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

So, is it possible to be a a faithful Christian without being a church member?

  • Abuses of Church Membership.
    • The ‘heavy shepherding movement’ of the 1970’s. 
    • The modern seeker-driven obsession with tithing (One large seeker-driven ‘missional’ church in NI requires 100 volunteers to run its sunny service! And pots of cash!). The church membership covenant can reach right into your bank account!  Many of the so-called ‘attractional’ churches will actually require members to produce their bank accounts, and the leadership team will trawl through that account to estimate their gross income and impose a 10 per cent tithe which they will collect by direct debit each month.
    • The requirement to ‘buy into the pastor’s ‘God given’ dream!  Many modern leaders have this false notion that God gives them, and them alone a vision, or dream for the church.  many of them will have ‘Vision Sunday’ once a year, where the pastor casts his ‘God given vision’ which becomes the ‘vision statement’ of the church, into which all the leaders and members must buy – even if it is distinctly unbiblical!



1. The Bible knows nothing of:

    • The lone Christian,
    • The spiritual gypsy,
    • The church-shopper,
    • The mega-church pew-warmer.

2. Biblical Church Membership is:

    • A total, practical, financial and prayerful commitment to the work of the Lord among a local group of believers,
    • Submission to stated elders within that group,
    • Regular attendance at the worship of that group.

3. Church membership is NOT salvific,  but it may mean evidence of saving grace in a life.


3 What if I don’t Fit In?  

There was a second part to this subject.  I confess that my knowledge of the theology surrounding church membership is scant, my knowledge of ‘not fitting in’ is extensive.   

Basically we are asking, ‘When should I leave my church, or what’s a good reason to leave a church and what’s not?’  Should you leave your church because the pastor has got an irritating voice?  Or because its too hot or too cold, or because the singing is to fast or too slow?  If we were to conduct a survey about why people leave churches in NI what would our survey say?

  • For the sake of the children.  I’ve heard this over and over again throughout my ministry.  ‘It’s for the sake of the children, pastor…’. But why should the most spiritually immature members of the family (well, one would hope so anyway) be able to influence the family’s worship practices?  I consider this a failure of parenting – it is a parent’s duty to teach their children what Christian worship is about, and to enable them to be participators in the worship.  Furthermore, the worship of the church is not about age.  It’s not about what appeals to any specific generation, it is to be honouring of God, it should be all about HIM.
  • I Don’t like the worship.  Worship wars – and that’s not just about contemporary v’s traditional either!  Although if the church is singing songs that are not full of biblical content…
  • Too far to travel.  That can, of course be legitimate.  Perhaps there are better ways to use the financial resources that the Lord has given you than to donate them to BP.
  • Too many hypocrites in the church.  I know!  You’re one of them!   Ask the Pastor to read Martin Luther, and teach the doctrine of simul iustis et peccator, – we are all sinners, and we all let the Lord down.
  • I don’t like the dress code
  • Too much commitment.

None of these, in my opinion, are valid excuses.  We go back to the reformer’s definition of a church as a place where the Word of God is properly proclaimed, and the sacraments are being rightly observed And askare there any legitimate reasons for leaving a church?  John MacArthur is especially helpful here. He gives us some perfectly good reasons why you should leave a church…   

  1. Heresy on some fundamental truth is being taught from the pulpit (Gal. 1:7–9). 
  2. The leaders of the church tolerate seriously errant doctrine from any who are given teaching authority in the fellowship (Rom. 16:17 Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them).  So, what if a church leader invites a preacher with, eg. ‘oneness’ beliefs?  
  3. The church is characterised by a wanton disregard for Scripture, such as a refusal to discipline members who are sinning blatantly (1 Cor. 5:1–7.).
  4. Unholy living is tolerated in the church (1 Cor. 5:9–11).
  5. The church is seriously out of step with the biblical pattern for the church (2 Thess. 3:6, 2 Thessalonians 3:6 2 Thess 3:14  And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed.).
  6. The church is marked by gross hypocrisy, giving lip service to biblical Christianity but refusing to acknowledge its true power (2 Tim. 3:5. Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away).

So, the point I’m making is that I probably won’t ever perfectly fit in, because thankfully, there’s not a church anywhere full of people exactly like me!  What an AWFUL thought!  There will always be an element of compromise, and reasonable acceptance of other’s people’s opinions.  But when I don’t ‘fit in’ because of of error in the church, or any of the reasons listed, then it’s probably best if I find fellowship elsewhere.


Website references: Accessed 30th December 2019 Accessed 30th December 2019 Accessed on 11th January 2020


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