Church membership can be a contentious subject. Every church handles the matter of members differently, though churches within the same denomination are likely to treat membership similarly. This author comes from an independent Baptist background and within that small subset of Christian churches the views on membership range from no membership at all, to every one who attends regularly is a member, to very strict membership rules regarding members. This answer cannot address why a particular church holds a certain view about membership. This article will attempt a brief explanation of the Biblical principles regarding church membership.
Membership is based on the practice of the New Testament church. The Bible does not give any specifc command instructing churches to have a list of members yet the earliest churches clearly had a way to recognize who was a part and who not. In Acts 5:12-13, while the church was still in its infancy, there was a distinction drawn between those who received the benefit of the apostles ministry and those who joined themselves to the church. 1 Corinthians 5:1-7 and 2 Corinthians 2:6 make it apparent that the church had a way to expel members by a majority vote and had a way to reinstate expelled members who later repented. From the very beginning the church had a way of defining who was part and who was not. That process, however it may operate, is called membership.
Understanding church membership is made more difficult today by many other groups who have members. You become a member of a country club by paying the dues. You become a member of a political party by registering your affiliation. Some groups, like the Kiwanies or Rotary club, limit their membership to certain kinds of people, such as small business owners. Many organizations have memberships which have more to do with paying the entry fee than being an active participant. This is not the case in the church.
The local church is described as a body (1 Corinthians 12) and the Bible presents a clear expectation of those in the body to be actively involved. The Bible consistently depicts membership in the church as much more significant than paying ones dues, attending services or voting in a business meeting. Membership is a commitment, a serious promise between the individual and the church body. A member is not just one who attends a church, nor even one who has attended a church for a long time. A member is one who has formally stated his agreement with the doctrines of the church, has officially submitted himself to the leadership of the church and has committed himself to caring for the church as a whole and to caring for its members as individuals. Membership is a declaration on the part of the church that they will care for the spiritual well being of the individual member and will work as members together to further the kingdom of God. Membership is a covenant between the individual and the church to seek each others mutual edification.
A clear church membership defines who the church is responsible to care for. The Christian’s obligations to his fellow church members are significant and time consuming. The New Testament contains dozens of specific commands regarding how Christians are to treat one another. These commands are taught and obeyed within the context of the local church. This kind of care cannot be given to every Christian in a small town much less in the many large communities around America. Many claim to be Christians but have no affiliation with any church. How is a Christian to care for these? How is a pastor to care for their souls? It is difficult to properly care for those who have joined themselves to the local church, much less to show this level of ministry towards those who only attend a few times a year. Church membership defines for the entire church who the church member has a specific responsibility to care for.
Those churches which practice a congregational form of government have members because it defines who has a voice in the direction and decision making of the chruch. This may sound restrictive to some, but it has a Biblical basis (the church in Corinth had a defined body of members who were able to remove from their membership a sinning brother). This is also reasonable. Membership serves the good and necessary purposes of protecting the doctrinal and ministry integrity of a church by restricting the decision making to those who are in agreement regarding core tenets of doctrine and ministry. Membership is not a means of promoting ecclesiastical elitism. Rather, membership is a Biblical means of promoting the health, harmony and growth of the church.