Robert B. Strimple
I have frequently been asked, by someone who either sees no need to become a church member, or who even claims to have conscientious scruples against becoming a member of a particular Christian congregation, "What is the biblical basis for the idea that every Christian should be a member of a Christian church?" Below is a letter I once wrote in response to such a question. I have reproduced it here in case it might prove helpful to others.
A full answer to your question would require a long presentation of the biblical view of church government, because that is really what is at stake here. How there could be any meaningful church government without church members is beyond my comprehension! But to get into the whole question of church government is more than I can attempt here if I am to respond to your question promptly. What I shall try to do now is to "demystify" the concept of church membership. Sometimes, personal communication is more helpful than the one-way communication of a letter, however. Feel free to phone me at the seminary's number or write to me again at the seminary.
For example, you don't say in your letter why you refuse to become a member of any church. I think it would be helpful to discuss together your reasons. As one who is in union with Christ by the powerful working of his Spirit through repentant faith, you are, of course, a member of that church which is Christ's body (1 Cor. 12). Sometimes a Christian believer responds to that reminder this way: "Yes, and that's the only church I care to be a member of!" And that can sound quite spiritual. But remember how clearly it is brought out in the New Testament that that church whose membership list is known with perfect accuracy only by God is a church that is also visible in this world. The apostle Paul knew where it was located—in Corinth, in Galatia, in Philippi, etc.—and he knew who its officers (elders/overseers and deacons) were. Otherwise, of course, he could not have written letters to them!
And Paul speaks in his letters of the responsibilities of those officers, and the responsibilities of those who are to submit to the proper authority of those officers. You might ask: "Where in the New Testament does it speak of church members?" I submit that all the New Testament passages that speak of the congregation's officers (and there are many such passages) assume that the congregation is a specific entity, a definite group of believers among whom those officers function as elders/overseers or deacons, and the congregation is composed of individuals recognized as the "members" of that congregation (or whatever you want to call them).
Who is being addressed, for example, when the writer to the Hebrews commands them: "Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you" (Heb. 13:17)? Obviously (I think it is obvious), it is the members of the congregations whom the "leaders" lead who are being addressed. Are you fulfilling this biblical command? Who are your leaders? Do they know that they are your leaders, that you are among those for whom they must give an account to God? Have you ever told them that you recognize those elders as being your elders? If you have, then you have "applied for membership," because that is all that phrase means. And your acknowledging their servant-leadership role in your life as the elders of your local church would seem to be a minimal requirement if they are to keep watch over your soul "with joy"!
In your letter, you complain that your local church's elders have said that you must become a member before you can participate in the Lord's Supper with the congregation. Please understand that as those who must give an account to the Lord, the elders believe it is their duty to make it quite clear that the Lord's Table is for the Lord's people only (1 Cor. 10:14-22; 11:17-32). That does not mean that the Lord's Supper is for the members of that local congregation only, and that is why in most biblically ordered churches you hear the pastor say that membership in some local church that bears the marks of a true church is what is required. (The marks of a true church are that the gospel is preached, the sacraments are properly administered, and biblical discipline is exercised.)
But membership in some local church is required. Why? Because, as I've already said, the Lord's Supper is for the Lord's people. But why then, you might ask, is a profession of faith in Christ not sufficient? It is sufficient. But it must be a credible (believable) profession of faith, not a mere uttering of the words. As I'm sure you are aware, there are many people today who profess faith in Christ, but who give no evidence of a saving knowledge of the true Christ. Indeed, their lives seem to deny the reality of their profession. It is the responsibility of the elders to make clear what is a credible profession of faith, and to keep the testimony of the church pure by requiring a believable profession of the members of that congregation that meets together as the Lord's people at the Lord's Table. This is a solemn responsibility.
Otherwise, the credibility of the individual's profession is left solely to the individual himself or herself. Everyone is left to "do what is right in his own eyes," and all proper order, discipline, and consistency of witness is destroyed. The New Testament speaks of church discipline, of admitting to, or excluding from, the fellowship of the church. And that assumes a recognized "membership" (or whatever you want to call it).
In your letter, you say that you find it difficult to understand why a "non-church-member" is denied admission to the Lord's Table. I myself find it impossible to understand how a Christian can remain a nonmember of the visible church of Christ and think that he or she is fulfilling the Lord's commands about submitting to the elders who are commanded to "shepherd the flock of God among you" under the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ (1 Peter 5:1-4). A "Christian, but not a member of the church," is a contradiction in terms, an abnormality that needs to be put right as soon as possible.
May I urge you in love, as a brother in the risen Lord Jesus Christ, to go to your elders in Christian love and tell them you want to serve your brothers and sisters in that congregation with whatever gifts the Lord has given you, to worship with them, to pray with them, to live with them, to really function as a member of Christ's visible church in this concrete, visible world. And tell them that you therefore want to take the first step by making your public profession of faith before them and being baptized into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (if you have never been baptized). Then, not simply as an individual, but as a member of the body, you can be built up through participation at the Table of the Lord. Meditate upon Ephesians 4:11-16 and try to imagine how different the church would be if we were not all members together of the one body!
The author is professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California. He quotes the NASB. Reprinted from New Horizons, May 2001.