Is membership in a local church essential?


As always, love your dedication to the Lord and the time you take to answer so many questions.  I come to your site often. It is one of my favorite resources!

In regards to the recent post: Should a divisive non-member be told not to come to worship? One point that has been on my mind lately is regarding "membership".  It seemed as though the person asking the question put quite a bit of emphasis on the "non-member"  I am assuming (which I dislike doing) but assuming this 'non-member' was a part of the body of Christ, but hadn't placed some formal membership with this congregation.  Where is the biblical reference for formally placing membership.   Where in scripture does it say one has to have a meeting with the elders and "place" membership? It is the "placing membership" that I am questioning, as the elders should be getting to know all those who come into the flock. Doesn't one become a member when baptized? I realize the universal membership happens then, but seems like many look at a church directory as to those who are really members of the Lord's church.

I realize there is a universal membership and the requirement of assembling with the saints.  But that assembling doesn't require some formal membership.  We travel frequently and sometimes for several weeks or months at a time.  One of the first things (long before we ever leave on our trip) is to find a local body where we can associate with when we are there. We joined those local bodies every time just as Paul did in his travels.  We didn't move our membership each of those months we were there.  We have only one membership - the Lord's body. We associate with others in the body. We seek out their places of worship so we can 'join' them just as Paul did.  But I am digressing.

Isn't a person subject to the elders even if just their first time there?  And whether they are members of the body or not?  Isn't the scripture about Paul joining about him wanting to be a part of their work, not to be on some list or directory?  He wasn't joining a social club but wanted to come be associated with them.  And just because one isn't 'helping' they are not excluded as joining because they are still part of the fold. My point is joining is not limited to active work.  If they are going to come into the flock then that action alone makes them "join."  It is the duty of the elders to investigate (so to speak) the newcomers - beginning with their first time entering the local flock.

It seems that if one is a 'visitor' they fall under the authority of the elders whether they like it or not.  Often Christ painted a picture of shepherds tending their flock.  If a stray sheep came into the fold they wouldn't let it hang around until it "formally" said hey I want you to be my shepherd.  That shepherd is going to check it out as soon as possible.  Isn't that the duty of the elders to be checking out visitors - I mean in the sense of they need to be talking with them, and certainly getting to know any repeat visitors.  Letting someone 'visit' for years seems like something isn't quite right. In my book they are members - they have been associating with this congregation for years!

It seems like the elders are so wrapped up in their "business meetings" and "their decisions" they forget to tend the flock which is what they were called to do in the first place.  Anyway, wondered if you can give me a little clarity.  I've read the articles you have under Membership.

Also, you don't see Paul "visiting".  He sought to keep company with them, associate with them, etc.  When someone 'visits' that is the first part of associating.  Again it is the duty of the elders (although I do not think it is exclusively their duty - I think we all need to be on the look out for wolves in sheep's clothing) to find out the intentions of anyone who comes - beginning with their first visit.  And I don't mean if their intentions are do you want to be a "member" in a club sense.  Aren't people saying by their actions when they come they are attempting to join (associate) with the local body? 

It seems many (myself in the past) look at membership in the local body like we would in joining a political party, or recreational sport team or social club. We join the church when we put on Christ in baptism.  God adds us to the church not being in the church directory.  It seems like there needs to be a more active role of the elders tending the flock and realizing all those that all enter their flock are under their authority, not just those who say - "I am under your authority"  anyway, wondering if I am way off base and need my thinking straightened out you always do a great job pointing me to the right scriptures!

Thanks so much!


The person writing the question is a member of a denomination. I removed that part in keeping the person's identity hidden. You can see it in the reference to "the pastor."

I have no idea if the man who is attending there thinks of himself as a Christian or not. It wasn't germane to the point. But I agree that a person coming to services for years shows something is wrong. I can seen several ways it can happen. We've had people attend here solely because their spouse was a member, but they did not wish to be a part of the church and the work here. That cannot be forced.

Being a member of a local church is seen in the Bible.

"And when Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. And he declared to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus" (Acts 9:26-27). The fact that Saul, who later changed his name to Paul, was not initially accepted shows that the church in Jerusalem had a recognized membership. In this particular case they made a mistake of excluding someone who should not have been excluded, but Barnabas did correct the problem.

Saul's example shows that the concept of a long term visitor is foreign to the idea of being a Christian. When one goes some place, he joins himself to a local congregation to participate in the effort of the church. Joining isn't merely a matter of sitting in a pew during worship. As Saul demonstrates, joining is becoming involved in the work.

Churches are also to receive Christians who are in their area. "We therefore ought to receive such, that we may become fellow workers for the truth" (III John 8). That is why Diotrephes was in the wrong. He prevents Christians from being a part of the local church where he was at.

The idea of fellowship is that people are joined together in an effort. Whether the membership is formal or informal, it is the sharing together in the work and worship of a church that is important. "And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers" (Acts 2:42). Without that fellowship, withdrawal from the erring would not be possible. "For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" (I Corinthians 5:3-8).

We always ask if a person wants to be considered a member here. It means they want to be a part of the group and that they want to accept responsibilities in the work going on here. It means the church accepts responsibility for them, making sure they don't just disappear. It is the difference between being a squatter in someone's house and being a part of the family.