Church membership is increasingly frowned upon in this age of increasing anti-institutional sentiment. Some of us own multiple memberships – credit cards, library, clubs, societies, etc. Thus, some might equate membership to a local church to be of similar nature to such secular memberships – optional, with privileges granted to the members. Others might become tired and wary of these memberships, and frown when the local church requires official membership. They argue that the church as a spiritual witness has no need for a membership. They question the validity of the need to commit oneself to a local church, and hence they hop from church to church, worshiping in whichever locality that suit their needs.

On the other hand, Christianity has seen the rise of a counter movement led by a significant number of New Calvinists, Southern Baptists and Brethren churches. A large number of books on church member-ship and governance have been written in recent times to fight the tide of anti-institutional sentiment. Churches who subscribe to this counter-movement are strongly insistent that worshipers should become members, and sometimes employ harsh tactics to get them to become members.

As Christians, the Word of God is our sole and supreme authority in faith and practice. All views of church membership must be evaluated by the Bible. If church membership as practiced today is not biblical, then we should stop the practice immediately. Otherwise, we ought to embrace biblical church membership and be wholly committed to its responsibilities.

The Definition of “Church”

The word “church” is translated from the Greek term ekklēsia, which comes from the verb ekkaleō, meaning “to call out”. Thus, when the ekklēsia is used in an ecclesiastical sense, it generally refers to an assembly of called-out people who are separated unto God.

There are two aspects of the church found in the Holy Scripture:

1) The Universal Church. It consists of the body of all true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, past, present and future. No church address is affixed to the universal church. It is also known as the catholic or invisible church.

The Westminster Confession of Faith defines the universal church in Section 25.1:

The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of Him that fills all in all. (WCF 25.1)

2) The Local Church. It consists of professing believers, both true and false. In the Old Testament age, the nation of Israel was the spiritual witness of the Lord. In the New Testament age, this spiritual witness is now given to the various local churches around the world. Thus, the local church is also known as the visible or militant church.

The Westminster Confession defines the local church as follows:

The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. (WCF 25.2)

Membership in the Universal Church

The Scriptures makes it emphatically clear that every true believer is a member of the universal church. This can be seen by the various metaphors used to describe the universal church in the Holy Scriptures.

1) The Metaphor of the Body (1 Corinthians 12:12-31; Romans 12:5). Though the body consists of many members, yet it is one whole. All the members of the body are dependent on one another and cannot be separated. There is no such thing as a solitary and isolated Christian.

2) The Metaphor of Citizenship (Philippines 1:27; 3:20; Revelation 21). As citizens of heaven, Christians enjoy all the benefits and privileges that come while being under the rule of Christ. They are also expected to conduct themselves in a manner that is becoming of a citizen of heaven (c.f. Philippines 1:27).

3) The Metaphor of Family (Ephesians 3:15; Hebrews 2:11). As believers, we are all part of the heavenly family of God. We ought to live in a manner worthy of Christ’s name, and also love one another as Christ has loved us.

4) The Metaphor of the Building (Ephesians 2:21-22; 1 Peter 2:5). We are lively stones built upon the Lord Jesus Christ who is the chief corner stone.

All the above metaphors present a vivid picture of how Christians are intimately related to one another in the Lord Jesus Christ as members of the universal church. He cannot be excluded from the universal church!

Membership in the Local Church

An examination of related literature, however, reveals that the contention is not so much on a believer’s membership in the universal church but whether it is biblical and necessary for him to be a member in a local church.

The Theological Reason

The theological reason lies in the definition and purpose of the local church. The local church is supposed to be a visible expression and witness of the invisible church. It thus makes little sense for someone to claim to be a member of the invisible church, and is not a member of her visible witness.

This principle can be seen in how Paul applied the metaphor of the body to the church in Corinth. Since believers are professing members of the invisible church, they ought to work humbly and lovingly together in the local church, using their spiritual gifts wisely for the extension of the kingdom. Their membership in the visible church of Corinth is thus an outward expression of their membership of the invisible church.

Other Scriptural Evidences

1) The Example of the Early Church. When individuals believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, and were baptized, they were added to the visible church in that locality (Acts 2:47; 5:14; 16:5). John McArthur rightly notes that the addition was more than “simply living out a private commitment to Christ”, but involves “joining together formally with other believers in a local assembly and devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer” (c.f. Acts 2:42).

In addition, we have the example of the Seven Churches of Asia in Revelation 1-3. Each church bore her witness of Christ, and had her specific commendations and/or condemnations. Each church had her unique circumstances and challenges. Christ’s evaluation of the churches was delivered to the specific messen-ger of each local church, and subsequently to the members. This passage of Scripture would be utterly meaningless if we do not accept that each local church had her members who were given specific messages

Evidence for membership in the local church can also be seen in the epistles. When Paul addressed individuals, he often addressed them as belonging to a particular local church. One example was Phebe, who was described as “a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea.” (Rom. 16:1). This statement points to Phebe as belonging and committed to the local church at Cenchrea.

2) The Example of the Apostle Paul. When Saul was converted on the road to Damascus, Acts 9:26 tells us that when he arrived in Jerusalem, he “assayed to join himself to the disciples”. The verb “join” (kollaō) literally means to cleave or to be glued to something. Saul was not merely trying to participate in the worship services. He wanted to be part of the organised church in Jerusalem. It was important to the Apostle that he must be a member of a local church, and commit himself to service in that par-ticular church.

3) The Doctrine of Church Discipline and Excommunication. The existence of church discipline and excommunication necessitates the presence of membership within the local church. In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus outlines the principles to seek the restoration of a professing believer who has fallen into sin. “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.” (Matthew 18:15-17) How can the local church exercise the authority to discipline the person if he is not even under the au-thority of the local church?

Further evidence is seen in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. This passage involves a man who slept with his own step-mother and was unrepentant of his sin. Paul urges the Corinthian Christians to put the brother out of the church. This would not be possible if he was not a member of the church in Corinth. How can he be removed from a body in which he was not part of in the first place?

4) The Doctrine of Church Government. The Scripture teaches that local churches are to be governed by a plurality of elders. The elders are often called episkopoi (i.e. overseers), for their duty is to oversee the affairs of the local church. The fact that there are leaders in the local church necessitate the presence of congre-gation members. Otherwise, who will the elders be overseeing? Furthermore, the Scriptures are full of exhortations directing believers to submit to their spiritual leaders of the local church.

“Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.” (Hebrews 13:17)

“Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.” (Hebrews 13:7)

“Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.” (1 Timothy 5:17)

“And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; And to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. And be at peace among yourselves.” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13)

Therefore, if one willfully refuses to join a faithful local church when one is available in the vicinity, he is implying that he does not want to be under the care and oversight of the spiritual leaders of the church. It is also a refusal to submit oneself to any form of church discipline. Such a one is rejecting a whole-hearted commitment to serving Christ in the divinely-ordained witness of the local church.

Abuse of Church Membership by Church Leaders

On the other hand, we must be aware that church membership can also be highly abused by church leaders. Some church leaders use church membership to lord over the members, preventing them from any areas of legitimate service outside that of the church. Such derelict leaders may also use church membership to prevent people from leaving the church, while using the tithes and offerings of members to fatten their pockets and promote their lifestyle of sin and debauchery. It is the prevalence of such leaders that gave rise to the anti-institution move-ment that we see today. Sadly, for many of these stumbled Christians, they have also thrown the baby out with the bath water.


Church membership is not like a credit card membership, but is “a covenant made by a public vow in which a person commits himself or herself to a local body of believers under the authority of a well-defined group of church leaders.” (McGraw and Speck) The Bible teaches that the believer should join a faithful Bible-believing and practising church. Willful church-hopping from a faithful local church is a sin. May the Lord direct us to a right understanding of the privileges and responsibilities we have as members of the invisible and visible church. Amen.

Lovingly in Christ,
Preacher Clement Chew