Legalism: Is Church Membership Biblical?

Is Church Membership Biblical?

Does The Bible Know Anything Of “Joining” A Local Church

Matthew 16:18 And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 

Acts 2:41 Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added [unto them] about three thousand souls. 42 And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. 43 And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. 44 And all that believed were together, and had all things common; 45 And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all [men], as every man had need. 46 And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favour with all the people. 47 And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.

Introduction

The passages above make it clear that it is God, and God alone, who builds His church, adding to it such as should be saved. All whom the Father hath chosen in the Lord Jesus Christ from before the foundation of the world will, at their appointed time, be added to the church (the ekklesia, the called out ones, the assembly of God).

When God adds His people to the assembly, they are added; they are joined to it. The Bible does not speak anywhere of some secondary joining of oneself to a local assembly. Nowhere does the Scripture declare that those who have been added to the eternal church, by God, must or should proceed to join themselves to some other body of believers called “the local church.” There is nothing at all that speaks of any requirement to join anything; we are already joined to that which God would have us joined. 

Thus, when congregations make church membership a requirement for Baptism, partaking of the Lord’s Supper, or anything else ordained of God and associated with the assembly of the saints, they are doing harm and injustice to the people of God, as well as to the unity of the people of God. They are also doing a grave injustice to God’s word (by teaching for doctrines the commandments of men – Matthew 15:9).

The Local Church

The Bible references the church, or churches, in Antioch, Cenchrea, Corinth, Galatia, Jerusalem, Macedonia, Rome, Thessalonica, and several other places. No one ought to dispute the fact that there are local assemblies of the saints. In fact, God declares in Hebrews 10 “24 And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: 25 Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some [is]; but exhorting [one another]: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.” When we assemble ourselves, we are most likely assemblying with those who are relatively, or reasonably, close to us in geographic proximity.

In light of the above, we can clearly see that there is such a thing as a local congregation (a local church).  However, how are we to understand it? What is meant by the church in [a given city]? The answer is simple; it is the collective church of God as found, or manifested, in that particular city. The local congregation is not some entity separate from the Body of Christ and it should never be thought of as such. Rather, it is the local manifestation of the assembling of those who make up the elect church of God. Now granted, in these assemblies there are often both wheat and tares. Nonetheless, the church in any given city, if it is faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ, is simply the church universal, visibly seen, as made up of those elect saints congregating in any particular region.

Sadly, in our day, many see the local church, or act like they see the local church, as some completely isolated, autonomous, entity, separate from any other faithful church of God (unless that other congregation is part of their particular grouping or denomination). We have so many divisions and schisms, so many denominational distinctions, that we often forget that we are one elect church manifesting itself in separate assemblies due primarily to geographic realities (yet sadly, to denominational as well). We are not, and never should be deemed to be, many elect churches that come together to form the universal church of God. When we look at the church in the latter way, we remain comfortable with walls of separation, infighting, feuding, etc. However, when we strive to look at the local congregation in the former sense, as being part of one unified body separated primarily by geography and borders, then we see that it is incumbant upon us to strive to remove any man-made,  distinctions that serve to keep us apart. We should work diligently to root out anything that would keep us from enjoying the bond that exists between all of the congregations that are in Christ (that bond being the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise). We must strive to remember that there is but one organic congregation in Christ (the Body of Christ), and that one organic body has many cells and members visible throughout this world. 

As a brief aside, and for the sake of clarification, I want to stress that I am not discussing church government in this post; I am not trying to suggest that any congregation (or member of a congregation) has any power or authority over another congregation. I am no papist; I believe that the local assemblies are autonomous from other assemblies as it pertains to ecclesiastic government. I am simply making the point that whether we be called Netherlands Reformed, Strict Baptist, Independent, Sovereign Grace Baptist, High Calvinist, Supralapsarians, Predestinarians, etc, if the congregation is faithful, it must strive to see itself as part of that greater body of faithfulness (even the fulness of all of the saints in Christ).

Assembling or Joining?

Hebrews 10:25 already makes it clear that believers are to assemble themselves together to encourage one another and to provoke one another unto good works. However, the word assembling (episunagoge – Strong’s #1997) means to gather together in one place, to assemble together. This word has nothing to do with joining anything, or becoming a member of anything —  at least not in the sense of formal membership into any legal, or non-legal, body other than that membership which they already have (i.e. the membership in the church eternal, being added to it by God alone). 

We see in Acts 11:26 that Paul and Barnabus assembled themselves with the Antioch church for a year. We read “And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people.” Nowhere does this passage teach, or suggest, that they joined the church there (as in becoming “members” of a separate body called the local Antioch church). The words assembled themselves in this passage are translated from the Greek word sunago (Strong’s 4863) which means to gather together, to gather; 2) to bring together, assemble, collect; etc.); is has nothing to do with any membership that one must enter into to join a local church.

Believers are exhorted to assemble together, but not to join together. Why? Because they are already joined together in Christ, as one Body, with the Lord alone as the Head of that Body (this will become important later). Any allegiance to a separate, distinct, entity (one that requires membership to it) would by default undermine the membership to, and oneness of, the greater Body of Christ. Such memberships only serve to erect boundaries to overall unity by making people loyal to the individual congregation (organization) to which they have joined themselves; as a result, they are most often less loyal to the overall whole and more loyal to their own particular grouping (thus, we have those who would say something along the lines of ‘that Sovereign Gracer sure is a man used mightily of God, but I cannot allow Him to partake of the Lord’s Supper with us because he isn’t quite one of us’).  

As I aim to show in more detail below, this whole notion of joining (becoming a member of) a local church is unbiblical at best and divisive in the most ungodly of manners at worst (dividing believers, and keeping them from enjoying the fuller unity and fellowship to which they are entitled by their union with Christ). If a congregation, or the elders and deacons thereof, make the joining of a local church a requirement for Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, or anything else associated with fellowship, then they are going beyond what the Bible dictates. They are adding to the word of God commandments that God never intended to have imposed upon His people. God calls us to assemble together and to not neglect that assembly; He adds nothing about becoming members of anything other than what He has made us members of.

501c3 Churches Are Ungodly, Secular Corporations

The 501c3 church is not a biblical church at all. It is a separate, state-chartered entity, that often exists alongside of (or perhaps more accurately, in the midst of) both faithful and unfaithful congregations. Presuming the congregation is an otherwise faithful one, when dealing with a 501c3 church, you are dealing with the eternal church manifesting itself in a local assembly (in a particular geographic region), with an artificial legal body imposed upon it. Being part of the eternal church, having been added and joined to it by God, those faithful people assembling in such churches are now in a situation wherein they are not only members of the Body of Christ, but also members of a secondary, secular, organization called the 501c3 church. Sadly, it is membership to this secondary body that often allows them to be water baptized by a member of the congregation and to partake of the “Lord’s Supper” with them.   

Before we go further, we need to understand what a 501c3 church is; such a church is a man-made (as opposed to God ordained) corporation. But what is a corporation? According to Black’s Law Dictionary, sixth edition (the most popular law dictionary in America), a corporation is (emphasis added):

An artificial person or legal entity created by, or under the authority of the laws of a state. An association of persons created by statute as a legal entity. The law treats the corporation as a person which can sue and be sued. The corporation is distinct from the individuals who comprise it (shareholders). The corporation survives the death of its investors… Such entity subsists as a BODY politic, under a special denomination, which is regarded in law as having a personality and existence distinct from that of its several members….

Notice that I capitalized the word body in the above quote; that is because the word corporation stems from the word corpus, the Latin word for body. Perhaps you have heard of the Texas city, or the Romanist festival, called Corpus Christi (which literally means, the body of Christ). This word corporation, which stems from corpus, is significant because when you become a member of a corporation, you are becoming a member of another body — that is, a body other than the Body of Believers of which the Lord Jesus Chirst is the head. We read in 1 Corinthians 12:

12 For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also [is] Christ. 13 For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether [we be] Jews or Gentiles, whether [we be] bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. 14  For the body is not one member, but many. 15 If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? 16 And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? 17 If the whole body [were] an eye, where [were] the hearing? If the whole [were] hearing, where [were] the smelling? 18 But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. 19 And if they were all one member, where [were] the body? 20 But now [are they] many members, yet but one body. 21 And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. 22 Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary: 23 And those [members] of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely [parts] have more abundant comeliness. 24 For our comely [parts] have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honour to that [part] which lacked: 25 That there should be no schism in the body; but [that] the members should have the same care one for another. 26 And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it.

Think about the gravity of this; all who are in Christ are part of His body. When they are quickened, converted, and subsequently baptised, they are added (manifestly) to His church. These called out ones assemble together unto the glory of God and unto the edification of each other by His grace. As they assemble, at whatever time is set for it, they are to partake of the ordinance that God has ordained, e.g. the Lord’s Supper. Now, if any man (or group of men, be they elders, deacons, or otherwise) dictates that a fellow-servant of Christ must first join this foreign body called the 501c3 church, this body other than the body of the saints as gathered in Christ, then they are dictating a commandment of men and a wicked one at that.  If they make membership into this secular, state-created, state-governed body a requirement to partake in those things that the true Body of Christ ought freely to partake in (as per the commandments of God), then they are going beyond the Bible and introducing strange fire into the worship of God.

Notice that this corporate entity, this artificial bodily person,  has a “personality and existence” distinct from it’s several members. Is this how the body of Christ exists and operates? Never! The Body of Christ, with Christ as its Head, is not distinct from its members but made up of them eternally. It will not exist after “the death of its investors (members)” because the members of the True Body will never die; they are alive in that body forever because they are alive in the Lord Jesus Christ, through His Spirit, forever. Moreover, whereas the corporation is distinct from the individuals who comprise it, the body of Christ is never distinct from its eternal members, but rather, made up of it with Christ included as the Head.

This last sentence is important because though Christ is the head of His body, the carnal 501c3 entity has as its head the corrupt and carnal state. The state has authority and control over the corporation, be it a 501c3 or otherwise, and can both offer it benefits and impose upon it dictates and judgments. The state can even go so far as to tell the 501c3 corporation what it can and cannot say if it is to remain a 501c3 entity.

It is true that no power exists that wasn’t ordained of God, but let no man think that an entity that has the secular state as its head also has Christ as it’s head. One cannot serve to masters; we are to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God. If Caesar is your head, and membership in his body is required for the full fellowship with the body of the true saints (and the partaking of the God ordained ordinances), then you have a very big problem on your hands.  

I do not mean to suggest that all who are in a 501c3 church are unsaved; nor do I mean to suggest that all 501c3 churches are made up of unfaithful people. The truth is that many godly people are caught up in this 501c3 mess completely unaware and having no ill-intent. Nonetheless, I pray that all who read take heed to this warning; we ought never to mix the things of God with the things of men when it comes to His worship. Those that have done so, have suffered mightily as a result. We are not to make the joining of a secular corporate body a requirement for enjoying or engaging in anything that God ordains for His people in relationship to His worship and their assembling together unto their growth and edification. To do so, to make an artificial commandment of men that requires us to be unequally yoked to another body, with another head, distinct from the Lord Jesus Christ and His Body, is to make a grievous error against God and His people. Those who willingly do this, being nonetheless warned, go down a very corrupt and perilous path indeed.

Potential Resources:

For more on the dangers of, and the ungodly nature of, 501c3 churches (and “church membership” in general), please consider the following links. Note that the links should not be taken as an endorsement of the overall web sites, the overall theologies, and/or the overall conclusions of the authors at issue. I provide them for educational purposes only; it is my belief that they list many needful facts. The hope is that you will review the matter to get a better view of the big picture regarding these issues, research them more fully on your own, and pray that God causes you to act upon the information in a manner that will glorify His holy Name. The sites are as follows:

http://ecclesia.org/truth/501-church.html

http://www.batteredsheep.com/biblical_church_membership.html

http://constitutionalchurch.org/

http://hushmoney.org/501c3-facts.htm

Common Objections

Acts 15:14 speaks of adding and adding is synonymous with joining.

Acts 15:12-14 reads as follows: ” 12 And by the hands of the apostles were many signs and wonders wrought among the people; (and they were all with one accord in Solomon’s porch. 13 And of the rest durst no man join himself to them: but the people magnified them. 14 And believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women.)

It is true that the events herein took place in Jerusalem. Thus, the adding that took place manifested itself in the assembling of new believers with the church in Jerusalem.

It is also true that the word added here is synonymous with the word join. In the Greek, the word at issue is prostithemi (Strong’s #4369) and it literally means 1) to put to; 2) to add; 2a) i.e. to join to, gather with any company, the number of one’s followers or companions.

However, this is the same word added as found in Acts 2:47 “… And the Lord added (4369) to the church daily such as should be saved.” So we see tha the adding here is (1) the work of God, (2) As he adds His people to His church at their appointed time, (3) as manifested by their assembling together in the congregation present in the geographic region that God has placed them. Nothing in these passages suggest any artificial, or secondary, membership in a local church that required its members to join it.

Acts 9:26 speaks of Saul, the Apostle Paul, attempting to join the Church in Jerusalem.

Acts 9:26 indeed states “And when Saul was come to Jerusalem, he assayed to join himself to the disciples: but they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple.” However, the context is clear that Saul was not trying to join the local church by becoming a member of it (with all that such notions entail in our day).

Moreover, the Greek word at issue is kollao which means 1) to glue, to glue together, cement, fasten together; 2) to join or fasten firmly together; ) to join one’s self to, cleave to. The clear intent here is that Saul, or Paul, wanted to identify with, and be identified with, the saints. Jerusalem was a sort of headquarters for them at that point. He was not looking to become a member of some organisation called the Jerusalem Church; he was already a member of the eternal church of God and simply wanted to cleave to the Jerusalem brethren by assembling with them. To make anything more of this passage, as some do, to support the modern notion of official church membership, is to twist the Scripture and wrest the meaning of this passage from its original intent.

We need official church membership to help keep track of the believers in our church.

Some argue that you need church membership to help identify those amongst the brethren in attendance who can help, who need help, or who otherwise may need to be contacted or ministered to by the elders, deacons, or other fellow members. My question is why? Why does someone have to join, or become a member of, a local congregation when all God calls for is assembling together. Surely if people assemble together enough, they will know who is who, and can assist them. Unless your assembly is the size of some false ‘mega-church,’ you should be able to know who the people are who are in regular attendance. If you need membership cards with people joining your local organization to help identify them — there is a bigger problem at hand.

We need official church membership so that we can discipline our members.

Some argue that you need church membership in order to discipline those who attend. They will argue, how can we excommunicate someone who is not a member? The answer to such a question is simple; when someone who willingly assembles with a particular congregation walks disorderly, the elders and/or deacons have the duty to act accordingly when other God-mandated steps fail to resolve the issue. They do not need to be a signed, card-carrying, member of some organization to be subject to the disciplinary acts that the bible sets forth and that the congregation carries out.

Some will argue that ‘if you don not have membership, such a person will not accept the discipline and will simply move on elsewhere.” If they are God’s, and have any kind of God-given heart tie to the faithful church to which they are attending, I trust God will work repentance in their heart. If they are believers, and no such repentance is worked in their heart, they may indeed move on elsewhere. Maybe they have good reason to, maybe they do not; however, such a scenario is no justification for imposing unbiblical requirements pertaining to becoming a member of the local congregation. Consider also, that if they are unregenerate (and especially if they are reprobate) they will fall away and perhaps even wander to another congregation — but they would do that whether they joined the church from which they were excommunicated or not. 

We need official church membership so that we can warn other churches of those whom we have excommunicated or otherwise disciplined.

You can warn anyone of anything without requiring anyone to join a church and become a member thereof; such man-made rules, in the guise of protecting other churches and their members, remains nothing more than traditions and commandments of men.

We need official church membership so that we can vote on things.

The men who willingly assemble together in light of Hebrews 10:25 can vote on anything they want, so long as it does not violate any biblical rules or impose any commandments of men upon others. To vote on matters pertaining to the local congregation, the men of the congregation, or the elders and deacons of the congregation, or the elders alone of the congregation can vote without having first joined a church and become members thereof.  

Note that I mentioned the men; the Bible declares in 1 Timothy 2:12  “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” If women are allowed to vote on matters that are binding upon the men of the congregation, or that would otherwise usurp authority from men (e.g. if the men were over-ruled by the vote of a woman or women), then this passage would be violated. Thus, it is clear to me that women should not vote on such matters.

Nonetheless, no matter the vote, or who votes, there is no reason why one would need to be a member of anything other than the eternal church of god to vote on matters pertaining to the local church. Artificial memberships and distinctions do not advance the kingdom and glory of God; they often only serve to diminish it.

Also, this issue of membership voting brings up the matter of church incorporation; I plan to address this matter as well (for I believe that it is a topic of great importance given the significant danger inherent in such incorporation).

Godly men and women have been joining congregations and becoming members for ages; are you saying they are wrong? Do you think you know more than them? Isn’t that a sign of pride?

What godly men and women of old have, or have not done, has no relevance on this discussion if the act at issue (requiring the joining of a church, or church membership, in order to partake in the ordinances of God) is unbiblical and only serves to add commandments of men to the word of God; commandments that God Himself has neither implemented or affirmed. What godly men and women act outside of biblical warrant and impose such rules on their members (and others), they are in such instances acting in an ungodly fashion due to their legalistic initiatives. What is accomplished with church membership can often be accomplished with simple, biblical, assembling as well. It is often the extra-biblical activities that “require” official membership. 

We need church membership so that we can make offerings and other donations tax deductible.

Section 508(c) of the Internal Revenue Code provides that churches are not required to apply for recognition of Section 501(c)(3) status in order to be exempt from federal taxation or to receive tax deductible contributions. Churches are automatically exempt from Federal income tax, and contributions to churches are deductible by donors under section 170.

Am I Advocating Against Church Membership?

If a congregation feels the need to have some means of noting those who regularly attend and have deemed that some membership list is a good idea, I’m not going to rail against it – it really isn’t my focal point. My issue is not with unofficial memberships, or even official memberships that do not have any real effect on those who assemble together. My issue is with those who make the joining of a church and/or becoming a member of one a prerequisite for Baptism, the partaking of the Lord’s Supper, or anything else that should be freely available to those regenerate children of God who assemble together and do not walk disorderly.  

If we make the partaking of an ordinance of God dependant upon becoming a member of another body/corpus, i.e. a member of a corporation other than the Church Universal and Eternal (the Body of Christ, with Him as its Head), then we are doing nothing short of sinning against God. We are declaring that membership in Him is not enough, and that we must be members of a secular, state entity as well in order to more fully partake of the fellowshiping together of the saints. It is to make man-made commandments of men paramount over the commandments of God. This type of joining and membership needs to be resisted, fought against, and repented of. This is the kind of membership that I so strongly advocate against.

May God enlighten and correct us as He sees fit, for we all see in part. To Him be the glory and honour, not unto us, but unto Him.

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