Depending on your denominational background, membership can either be a fuzzy subject or an altogether foreign one. Membership is often practiced in a number of bad ways such as: membership to a country club, for those who like business meetings, a status that gives you extra benefits from God, or a vehicle for abusive church leadership. All of these are wrong. Just because many people get membership wrong does not mean membership is wrong.
There are several places in the Bible that don’t make sense outside of covenant membership. For instance, the Bible talks about a definite inside and outside of the church. Hebrews 13:17 talks about leaders and the flock they are to shepherd. How in the world do you define that relationship? Is it those who attend? Is it those who attend two Sundays in a row? What about those who leave or move from the area? Are you still responsible to take care of those people as well? Hebrews 13:17 says that leaders will have to give an account for their shepherding of the flock. Without membership, that is a hard thing to define.
There are many other biblical references in the Bible about how the church should be structured that only make sense in membership. Here are some of those.
1. Being stewards of the local church
The process of membership facilitates stewardship of a local church. The letters in the New Testament were all written to churches about issues they were facing. The apostles who wrote these letters wanted to inform the churches, so they could change. In Galatians 1, the church is charged with stewarding the Gospel. Verses 8 and 9 of Chapter 1 say, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” This is the job of the local church to make sure it has teachers who are biblical and uphold a biblical Gospel. So, who elects pastors, or elders, to steward the church? The members.
2. Supporting the mission of the church
1 Corinthians 12 refers to the church as a body. The body has a purpose and a direction, or a mission. The body is composed of many body parts. Those parts all work together for the same purpose and same mission. The eye helps prevent the body from running into things that are harmful and navigating a safe passage. The legs move the body from place to place. The hands serve by doing. The heart pumps life-giving blood. Every part is necessary and important even if they are all different. Membership is the mechanism in place where someone jumps from the outside to the inside for the purpose of supporting the mission of the church. This happens through serving, giving, discipling, and evangelizing.
3. Commitment to others needs
Unquestionably, the New Testament church was known for its love for one another. Acts 2 talks about the church selling land and possession to liquify their assets so they could then turn around and use it to help one another. We see organized widow lists of older ladies whose husbands had passed away who were taken care of by the church. They would help cover their needs making sure they had food and shelter. Without a formal membership process, who gets on the list? Christians gave to those inside the church and those outside, but those inside were a tight family that made sure the other didn’t struggle. Many times, church is nothing more than something you attend on Sunday instead of a family to belong.