:: Why formal membership in a church?
Many benefits of a vital congregation are available to anyone who becomes involved, members or not. But there is a rationale for formal membership.
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:: Membership in NT times.
Church in the NT usually meant a specific local church like that at Ephesus or Corinth. Did people actually join local churches formally, or was it an informal association? Five indications:
- Local churches :: The biblical metaphors used to describe local churches Flock, temple, body, and household are used specifically of local churches (Acts 20, Eph 2, 1Cor 12, 1Tim 3). Each of these metaphors has a clear distinction of who is part of the church, and who isn’t.
- The meaning of “the whole church” :: In 1Cor 14:23, Paul says “if the whole church comes together in one place…” How would the leaders know if the “whole church” was there if no formal relationship was established?
- The instructions for pastoral oversight and spiritual leadership :: Pastors/overseers/shepherds were to care for “all the flock” (Acts 20:28. cf. 1Tim 3, Acts 20, Phil 1:1, Titus 1). Leaders of the citywide churches must have had some listing of believers. Since leaders were accountable for the souls of the flock under their care (Heb 13:17), they must have had some commitment for care.
- The meaning of the word “join” :: After the fiery end of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:13, no non-Christians “dared join them [the church], but the people esteemed them highly.” The Greek word for join has strong connotations of commitment. The same word is used to speak of sexual relationships (1Cor 6:16) and joining to the Lord (1Cor 6:17).
- The instructions for church discipline :: Matthew 18:15-17, 1 Corinthians 5 talk about putting a person out of the church (remove NASB, expel NIV) and treating him like an unbeliever. Since unbelievers were welcome at worship, removal must have indicated a distinct formal association. “In the New Testament there is no such person as a Christian who is not a church member. Conversion was described as ‘the Lord adding to the church’ (Acts 2:47). There was no spiritual drifting.” (Douglas Millar).