Q. Lately some friends have begun attending a church that doesn’t have membership; a person who simply attends is considered a member. Is this right?
A. In the last few decades an increasing number of churches have gone this route, particularly so-called megachurches. The Bible doesn’t specifically use the word member concerning local churches, and I am not going to judge those churches that do not have what we might call formal membership. However, I believe a positive, Biblically harmonious case can be made for it.
First, formal membership makes joiners definite members. If you submit to the particular church’s process of becoming a member, you are then a member, not merely an attendee. One of the difficulties of not having formal membership is that so many people are content to be spectators, possessing little or no active involvement. This scenario can exist even with formal membership, but it can be easier for the leadership to deal with the problem if it exists. A local church is not to be a bunch of transient, rather shiftless people, but a specific, organized body of committed believers. We see this fact in the New Testament epistles, where specific believers written to are gathered and bound together around a specific purpose. They identified with each other. Membership identifies.
Second, formal membership gives the local church opportunity to instruct potential members concerning its beliefs and practices. It gives opportunity for leaders to make sure that potential members are truly saved and are willing to be a visible, active part of the local body. It also gives potential members the opportunity to ask questions about the church.
Third, formal membership provides two-way accountability. The local church is accountable to a member, and the member is accountable to the local church. Without formal membership, it is often difficult or even impossible to administer Biblical discipline when necessary. Let’s face it. People evade church membership for a number of self-centered reasons. Lack of accountability might be one reason Christianity is weak and poor in testimony. Formal membership should bring with it a certain commitment, as well as a certain camaraderie, on the part of members of the local body of believers.
Fourth, it ought to discourage neglect in assembling together (Hebrews 10:25). Without customary church membership, it is generally easier to stay at home, to be erratic in attendance and involvement, and to skirt responsibility toward fellow believers.
Fifth, since certain ministries and activities are rightfully open to members only, membership opens the door to these. It also gives one a greater availability of pastoral help and friendship.
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