Beyond Walls

Dec 30, 2016
By: Jerry A. Goodson
In: Faith

I was invited to attend a couple of Wednesday night youth group meetings at a church when a friend of mine became the youth director. Those Wednesday nights became pretty regular, and then turned into Sunday mornings.

Beyond Walls by Jerry A. Goodson

The pastor generally delivers a phenomenal sermon. It didn't take long before I was invited, and even encouraged to join the church as a member. I politely declined and explained my disagreement with local church membership.

A couple of weeks later, the sermon topic was on church membership.

The pastor laid out a good case that he backed up with scripture, but unfortunately, I didn't have any note-taking material or my Bible. I can't challenge the sermon he delivered. Turning to Google, I found no shortage of postings that were similar to his sermon.

I looked about half a dozen different articles on the topic, and I found they all reference the same scriptures and provide the same explanations. I found a few articles that gave a dissenting point of view, one even going so far as to condemn different denominations.

I picked one article to challenge that I believed to be the best laid out.  I didn't like how the author's explanations were mixed with the scriptures so it was difficult to ascertain what was scripture and what was commentary in some instances.  I researched every verse quoted or referenced.  All scriptures are in bold face.  The blue font is quoted directly from the article, and my commentary is in black font.

What Does the Bible Say about Church Membership?

By Coram Deo Church


That's a great question. If you're a new Christian, the idea of "membership" probably sounds sort of snobbish and exclusive. And if you've been around the church for awhile, you've probably experienced churches where membership is virtually meaningless. In some traditions, you're automatically a member once you're baptized or confirmed. In others, you become a member by signing a piece of paper or showing up at a meeting. Is that what the mission of God is really about? Does the Bible even teach such a concept as local church membership?

If church membership isn't mandated in the Bible, then we shouldn't mandate it either. But if we can show that a) church membership is a biblical concept and b) Christians cannot obey everything Jesus commanded (Matthew 28:19) unless they are members of a local church, then the reason for church membership should be clear.

Church membership is a Biblical concept.  When a sinner repents and, by faith, accepts Jesus Christ as his or her Lord and Savior, the sinner is forgiven and becomes a member of the church.  Not a church, as there is only one church: His church.  I will expand on this further in the article.

Matthew 28:19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

This verse was a direct command from Jesus to his eleven disciples right after His resurrection.  You'll notice the verse is not a complete sentence.  I don't see any relevant application in this context, but the author is giving an introduction to the case that is planned to be presented.


Membership in a local church is God's idea, not ours. In the New Testament, "there was no church shopping because there was only one church in a community," observes pastor and theologian Mark Dever. "[However], there are passages in the New Testament which imply definition and clear boundaries to a church's membership." Consider the following observations:

The author quoted from chapter 6 of Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever.  I read the book, and I feel the author is slightly misrepresenting Dever's quote for spirit and intent to make his case.  Here's how Dever starts that chapter:

In one sense what we know today as "church membership" is not biblical. We have no record of first-century Christians who lived, say, in central Jerusalem deciding to become involved in one particular assembly of Christians rather than another. From what we can tell, there was no church shopping because there was only one church in a community.

For geographical reasons, there were several congregations, but they all belonged to one church.    Dever does address church membership as a Biblical concept, and acknowledges it is not a Biblical command.  

The early church kept a list of widows. "No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds" (1 Timothy 5:9-10). This "list of widows" indicates that God's people knew with some sense of clarity who was part of the church and who was not.

God Himself keeps a list of all believers.

Indeed, true companion, I ask you also to help these women who have shared my struggle in the cause of the gospel, together with Clement also and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life (Philippians 4:3).

…[A]nd nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into [the New Jerusalem], but only those whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life (Revelation 21:27).

God has always made a clear distinction between His people and the world. The ceremonial and civil laws of the Old Testament distinguished God's people from the nations surrounding them. Such clarity of distinction between God's people and the world argues for clarity and specificity regarding our commitment.

God does keep a list of believers in the Lamb's book of life.  The church keeps a list of widows that meet a certain criteria to be cared for by the church, but I could find no other reference or command for the church to maintain a list of believers.

I would contend a local church maintaining a member roster is assuming authority over the membership that doesn't belong to a local church, but rather to God.  If you compared all the church membership rosters to the Lamb's book of life, I believe there would be an element of shock as to who's in one but not the other.  

The instructions for pastoral oversight and spiritual leadership presuppose a definite boundary to the church's membership.

1 Timothy 3:1: The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. In other places the New Testament refers to an overseer as a pastor, shepherd or elder (see Acts 20:17, 28; Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:5-7). But what or who does he oversee? How can he provide spiritual oversight if he doesn't know exactly those for whom he is responsible? A clear, mutually understood commitment is required for him to fulfill his charge.

1 Timothy 3:5: If [an overseer] does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church? The Bible is comparing the local church to a family. Is anyone a casual member of a family? No, membership in a family is a very definite thing.

Acts 20:28: Take heed to yourselves, and to all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. How could these elders fulfill their responsibility as under-shepherds to "all the flock" unless they knew who was part of the flock and who was not? These leaders of a growing church in a large city needed some means of knowing for whom they were to "take heed." A simple list of who is committed is the logical solution.

Hebrews 13:17: Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you. How do the leaders of the church know for whom they must give an account? Are they accountable for the soul of every single person who comes in and out of their church services? No, the implication is that there is a defined group of people – a specific "flock" – for whom the leaders will be held responsible before God. Church leaders cannot be responsible for someone until they know he or she is committed to their care. The Bible's instructions for pastoral oversight and spiritual leadership only make sense if there is a well-defined church membership.

Hebrews 13:17 is the common verse quoted across all arguments for local church membership.  The leaders are held accountable, not for each individual member (believer) of the church, but rather he is accountable for the preaching, teaching, and guidance he gives to the congregation.  

It's important to note that Paul didn't write this to a person, but rather to the congregation.  He didn't say they, the leaders, watch out for your soul (singular) but rather your souls (plural).  The plurality of that statement indicates the church leaders will be held accountable for the souls collectively rather than individually.  

The argument presented by the author is self defeating.  The implication is that there is a defined group of people, the believers.  

The instructions for church discipline command formal exclusion, which presupposes formal inclusion.

I Corinthians 5:11-13: But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. "Expel the wicked man from among you."

Notice that Paul refers to those who are "inside" and to those who are "outside." Outside of what? We know that their church gatherings were open to anyone (1 Cor. 14:24-25). So those "inside" must refer to people who were committed to Christ and His church in a formal way. You can't fire someone who doesn't work for you. You can't vote to remove a government official elected by another country. You can't appeal to a court to discipline someone who isn't within its jurisdiction. In the same way, a church can't formally discipline someone who is in an informal, casual relationship with it. These people in Corinth had voluntarily committed themselves to a formal relationship, and they knew who were official members of the church and who were "outside."

Cue the horrible record scratching sound here.  This is where dangerous misinterpretation comes into play.  I have read and re-read this several times, and I can't figure out where the author read of a formal inclusion or exclusion of the wicked.  Paul's instructions to the church were simple.  If anyone who calls himself a brother (a believer) but is evil, don't associate with him.  Expel him from among you.

Churches have adopted membership criteria, as stated by the author early in this article, that seems to have been done more for the convenience of the church as opposed to the very obedience to God by which they encourage membership.  For the wicked, Paul didn't tell the church to simply take away their local church membership, he instructed the church to expel the wicked.  

This is a tough one for pastors.  Essentially, if someone professes to e a believer (a member of the church), yet lives a wicked lifestyle, believers (members) are instructed to sever all ties.  They should be asked to leave and not come back until they get back in God's good graces by turning away from their wicked lifestyle.  Yet, I see homosexuals, swingers, fornicators, adulterers, drug addicts, and alcoholics professing to be Christians who are still allowed to associate with and attend services of the church.  Some denominations even allow them to become pastors!

People, today, are quite sensitive to passing or receiving judgement.  We are not free from our obligation to hold each other, as believers, accountable within the body (the church).  

Church discipline must be done by the church (Matthew 18:17) and occur "when you are gathered together" (1 Corinthians 5:4). Who is to gather together? How do you know who the church is? How do you determine who does or does not have the right to speak on such matters? Can someone who hasn't been to church in a year show up and offer their opinion? Or those who came at Easter and Christmas last year? Or those who regularly listen to the church's teaching online, and perhaps even send money, but never enter the building? Or those from distant cities who visit several times each year because of family members in the church? Obviously, biblical church discipline must be limited to a specific group, and that must mean the church members.


"Fine," you may say, "I'm convinced that church membership is a biblical concept. But that doesn't mean I should join the membership of a church. Church membership might be a good idea for some, but it's not for everyone." The problem with that objection is that the Bible commands you to do things that you cannot do apart from membership in a local church. For instance:

Hebrews 13:17: Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you. As we have already observed, the only group of leaders in Scripture who are responsible to "give an account" for leading God's people are the pastors/elders/overseers in a local church. If you are not a local church member, how can you obey this command? What body of elders are you submitted to? As mentioned above, elders are not accountable for every person who darkens the door of the church, but only for those who have formally committed themselves to the church.

Matthew 18:17: If [the unrepentant person] refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. The last step in confronting an errant Christian's sin is to "tell it to the church." If you are not a member of a local church, how can you obey this command? What "church" would you involve in the process?

1 Timothy 5:17-18: Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, "You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain," and, "The laborer deserves his wages." God commands Christians to give generously so that "the elders who rule well" can be freed up to exercise their God-given calling. If you are not a member of a local church, how can you fulfill this command? What pastors and elders are you supporting with your financial giving?


So far, we've demonstrated that church membership is a biblical concept, and that Christians who are not members of a local church cannot be fully obedient to the teaching of Scripture.

There are places in the world where Bible-teaching, Christ-exalting churches are rare. Finding a healthy church in those places is easier said than done. But we do not live in one of those places. So if you are still resistant to the idea of becoming a member of a local church after studying these truths, then your hang-ups aren't biblical or theological; they are personal. You probably fall into one of two categories. Either you are an individualistic "me and Jesus" person who doesn't see the need for a church community, or you are a noncommittal type who perpetually "keeps your options open" just in case something better comes along.

Either way, you need to confront the reality that both of these tendencies are rooted in sin and unbelief. Individual, self-absorbed Christianity is directly contrary to the Bible's command "not to give up meeting together" (Hebrews 10:25). In fact, considering all the "one another" language in Scripture (Galatians 5:13-26; Colossians 3:9-16; et al), it is impossible to live out the gospel without connection to a believing community. And noncommittal behavior usually masks the deeper sins of laziness or selfishness (Prov. 13:4; Gal. 5:13).

So if you can't find a church that meets your exact standards for what the church should be, it's probably time to take a close look at your heart and deal honestly with the pride, selfishness, control, laziness, or passivity that may reside there. No church is perfect. Churches need to be continually reforming. But regardless of the strengths and weaknesses of any particular church, the Bible is clear that being a Christian means being part of the body of Christ in a visible, formal way. As Mark Dever observes:

"If the church is a building, then we must be bricks in it; if the church is a body, then we are its members; if the church is the household of faith, it presumes we are part of that household. Sheep are in a flock and branches are on a vine. Biblically, if one is a Christian, he must be a member of a church" (Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church).

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