Ephesians 5 says, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”, but who is the church? How does a person become a member of the church or is becoming a member even a Scriptural concept? If it is Scriptural what are the requirements?
The first time that we see the word church in Scripture is in Matthew 16:18 after Jesus asked the disciples “who do you say that I am?” Peter responded with, “you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus then says to Peter, “on this rock I will build my church.” The word for church there in Greek is ἐκκλησία, ekklēsia and it means the called or called out referring to those whom Christ has called out to Himself to be saved. It is also used to signify the gathering of such people. In Scripture we see two main aspects of the church. There is the general use which refers to all believers of all time and then a more specific use referring to the local church such as the church of Ephesus or Corinth or the First Baptist Church on Main Street.
Jesus says he gave “the keys of the kingdom of heaven”, being the Gospel truth of Christ, to the church. He went on to say, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mat 16:19). In other words, by the affirmation of the truth of the gospel, the church is given authority to say who are its members and who are not by the affirmation or denial of the gospel truth by confession and way of life. This is reemphasized in Matthew 18:15-20. Church membership is the churches ability to affirm who is confessing the gospel rightly and to be able to identify who is the local church.
The Church is made up of those who are in Christ—all believers of all time. And the names of these members are kept in the book of the Lamb’s book of life. “…All who dwell on earth will worship [the beast], everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.” (Rev 13:8). Even Jesus keeps a record of the members of His church. If anyone were to know who all the members of their church are it would be Jesus and yet He keeps a formal record of His members. It is by this book that Christ rewards His member with the entrance of Heaven. “But nothing unclean will ever enter [into heaven], nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life.” (Rev 21:27). Likewise, the local church should keep a formal attendance especially for the purposes of make church decisions and disciplines.
Either we are talking about the Church in general or the local church the Church only consists of true believers. The local church is a representation of the Church which means it should only consist of true believers as well—Those whom Christ gave himself up for. “The biblical basis for seeing the church as composed exclusively of believers is so strong and obvious that the difficulty is in seeing how this idea was ever obscured. The very idea of the church as the called-out ones presupposes that the members of the church have heard and responded to God’s call. The image of the church as the people of God assumes that these are people who belong to God.” (Hammett).
Though the Church is a pure church, the local church is a mixed church. In the local church there are going to be three kinds of people attending. Those who confess Jesus as Lord and are truly saved (Romans 10:9-10), those who confess Jesus as Lord and are not saved (Matthew 7:21-23), and those who neither confess Christ as Lord nor are saved (Jude 1:4). Out of these three groups of people who attend there are those whom we can and should remove and there are those whom we cannot and should not remove. We want to do this because, even though it will not be achieved perfectly, we want the local church to be as pure as possible.
In the local church there is always going to be a mixture of “wheat and weeds”. “[Jesus] put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field…his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away…the plants came up and the weeds appeared also…he said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So, the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned but gather the wheat into my barn.”’” (Mat 13:24-30). In this passage we can clearly see that there will be false converts among those in the congregation and in this particular case we should not try to weed them out to prevent the weeding out of the wheat. That being said, there are plenty of other passages that not only encourage the local church to remove “the weeds” but command the church to remove those who do not affirm the gospel by confession or way of life.
In Matthew 18:15-20 there are steps laid out in the case a believer sins against another believer and is not repentant. Whoever is the victim should confront the person who sinned against them. If they do not repent or listen them, they should bring another person or two people with him again to see if he will repent. If the person still does not repent, then they should bring the issue before the church. “If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mat 18:17-18).
An example of the steps in Matthew 18 being carried out is found in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. There is a man who is a member of the church who is having sexual relations with his father’s wife. This man even bears the name “brother” (v. 11). Within these thirteen verses the church of Corinth is commanded seven times to remove and not associate with such people from their church. “Let him who has done this be removed from among you.” (v. 2), “you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (v. 5), “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened.” (v. 7), “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people.” (v. 9), “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.” (v.11), “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (v.12-13). Even in the pastoral epistle of 1 Timothy Paul removes two people because they have rejected the gospel. “…Holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.” (1 Tim. 1:19-20). “We need to be able to show that there is a distinction between the church and the world—that it means something to be a Christian. If someone who claims to be a Christian refuses to live as a Christians should live, we need to follow what Paul said and, for the glory of God and for the person’s own good, we need to exclude him or her from the membership in the church.” (Dever). Also, in 2 Thessalonians they are told by Paul to keep list of people who reject the gospel and to not associate with them. “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.” (2Th 3:14)
On the contrary, those who affirm the gospel by confession and way of life are to be received into the church and added to the number as a member. We can see in the beginning of the book of Acts that there was a number being kept in the church of believers. As the Holy Spirit moved and was granting salvation to more and more people the church rejoiced. “praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Act 2:47). You cannot add names to a register unless one is being kept. This concept is carried throughout the book of Acts and not only did they add names to their register but kept record of men, women, and children. “And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women…” (Acts 5:14).
Many people believe that as long as they believe in God and attend a church on a regular basis that makes them a member of that local church. Some may argue that what we see in the book of Acts is just a record of who became a Christian and not referring to local church membership. Though this may be true there are verses that may indicate that a person can be a saint, being a member of the Church, but also calling them a member of the local church or calling them brother making them a member of the Church but also barring them from the local church as a member because of sin. “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints [the Church] and members of the household of God [the local church]” (Eph 2:19).
Also, again from 1 Corinthians 5:11, “But now I am writing to you not to associate [loss of membership in the local church] with anyone who bears the name of brother [still a member of the Church] if he is guilty of sexual immorality…”. One last example is found in 2 Thessalonians 3:6 makes a distinction between being a member of the Church and member of the local church. “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.” (2Th 3:6). Either this verse is saying he is a brother, a member of the Church, and is to lose his local church membership or it is saying he is a false convert, not a member of the Church, but has local church membership and thus they call him brother.
In either case these decisions of accepting someone as a member or denying their membership is done by the local church members and that by some kind of vote. In 2 Corinthians Paul tells Corinth to reaffirm a man’s membership that, due to sin, was lost. He tells the church they do not need to shun him anymore because he has repented. “Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So, I beg you to reaffirm your love for him.” (2Co 2:5-8). In this verse it is by the majority that he is to be reaffirmed. Would they just let anyone vote? Would they just let anyone who showed up that day to vote on such a matter? Or does the responsibility fall on those who belong to that church? There would need to be a formal record of who is who. Another example of knowing who is part of the church is in 2 Corinthians 14:23, “If, therefore, the whole church comes together…” how would they know the whole church came together if there was no formal membership? “Surely they would have known who was supposed to be present in a churchwide meeting and who was missing. But how else could they have known when “the whole church” was “Together in one place” without knowing who was a member and who wasn’t? This implies a verifiable membership.” (Whitney)
Becoming a member of a church is more than just a formality. Joining a church is a public confession of faith, a commitment to love God and His people, and submission to the authority God has ordained. No one likes the word or idea of submission, but the truth is God has ordained it in all parts of life. All of creation is to submit to God the Father as it’s creator. God has ordained the governments of the land and its leaders and commands us to submit to them. God commands the church to submit to Christ, husbands are to submit to Christ, wives to husbands, children to parents, employees to employers, etc.
As members of the church we are to submit to the church as a whole and especially the pastors and elders. If no one were to become members of the local church how could the church formally perform church discipline as laid out in Matthew 16, 18, and 1 Corinthians 5? God has ordained the pastor and elders to care for the church and protect it from false teachers, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” (Act 20:28) and has called the church to submit to them “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” (Heb 13:17). We cannot obey these commands unless we not only attend the church but belong to the local church as members. “Christians should submit themselves to their local churches ethically. This does not mean making the church an absolute authority any more than a child should regard his or her parents this way. Rather, Christians should look to the church for ethical instruction, counsel, accountability, and discipline in matters that are addressed by God’s Word.” (Leeman)
We now ask what are the requirements to become a member? Though local churches may ask that members agree to a confession of faith simply to clarify their profession of faith, the only standard to become a member is to be a Christian. What is required to be a Christian? To know Jesus, have faith in Jesus, and a way of life that produces the fruits of the Spirit. The person wanting to become a member must know the gospel at the least. They need to know who’s name they are gathering under. Islam, The Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormon Church, United Pentecostal Church, and the Roman Catholic Church all claim to know Jesus, but each proclaim a different Jesus than what is revealed in the Scriptures. They must know what it is they are being apart of and what they are standing for and who they are representing. Maybe they do not know how to describe the gospel perfectly but must have a good idea of the gospel (This is where a statement of faith can be helpful).
Not only does a person need to know who Jesus is, they need to have faith in Jesus. If we have learned anything from the Reformation it is that Scripture is clear that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The person must have true saving faith. They cannot just have knowledge of Jesus or know Theology well, but they must have an actual relationship with Christ and His word. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” (Rom 5:1-2). “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8) Secondly, one cannot have faith without having repentance—a way of life that produces the fruit of the Spirit. A sure sign of faith is repentance. A changed way of life that runs from sin. The person wanting to become a member of the church must have a hatred for sin and be fighting sin. Jesus proclaimed, ‘“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”’ (Mar 1:15). These are the bare minimum scriptural requirements to become a member. To know Jesus, have faith in Jesus, and a life of repentance. There can be one additional step added and that is because the Scripture speaks frequently of this outward sign of the inward faith a Christian has and that is Baptism. “The first step of the Christian life in the New Testament is baptism—always. The crowds asked Peter what to do to be saved, and he answered, “Repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). Paul, writing to the Roman church, simply assumed that all of them had been baptized (Rom. 6:4). And it’s the first thing Jesus commands his disciples to do when making disciples (Matt. 28:19). Baptism does not save a person, but Jesus means for his saved individuals to publicly identify with him and his people. It’s one piece of how his citizens become official. It’s how they wave the flag.” (J. Leeman). There are other examples of where baptism was emphasized before they became official members in the local church. “Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Act 2:38) Look at the order of a few verses down, “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” (Act 2:41). They received the gospel, then were baptized, then were added to the church.
As far as church history is concerned and the difference between Baptist and most historical denominations the historical faiths believed that to be a member of the church one must be admitted to both baptism and the Lord’s Supper. “Even the paedo-Baptist, those who baptize infants believe the children are members of the church are careful to call them ‘non-communicable’ members. The Baptist of course don’t accept the idea that infants are to be members in any sense at all. But the overwhelming majority of ecclesiastical history, which does favor the baptism of infants, infants are non-communicate members which means they are not entitled to the Lord’s Supper even though they have received the right to baptism, the Baptists of course deny that one can make that distinction because a person who is admitted to baptism is admitted to the Lord’s Supper because the only way he can be admitted to baptism is on a profession of faith which simultaneously authorizes him to be admitted to the Lord’s Table” (Gerstner).
Baptist are very strong in that unless a person can make a profession and be admitted to both baptism and the Lord’s Supper, he should not be considered a member of the church. “Within the Reformed view neither paedo or credo-baptism causes regeneration or being admitted to the Lord’s Supper until the child can discern and make a profession of faith. One cannot be a true member until one makes a profession of faith either the church practices credo or paedo baptism.” (Gerstner). When a person cannot be sure if he trusts in Christ the church cannot accept him as a member no matter the evidence because the person knows their own heart better than anyone else. If and when the Lord grants faith to that person then the church may accept him as a member. A person needs to have a sound faith and a sure faith.
In conclusion, joining a local church is more than a formality. It is submitting to the church, it is an act of love and obedience to God, and his people. Christ has given authority to the church to discipline its members and to bind and loose the things on earth by the aforementioned criteria— knowing Jesus, faith in Jesus, a life of repentance and one that produces the fruits of the Spirit including baptism which is the first act of obedience to Christ. Though many contemporary churches do not have formal membership, the word of God is clear that local church membership is important and historical faiths such as Presbyterians and Baptist, though they may differ in certain details, hold to this importance.