Is Church Membership Biblical?

Occasionally we have someone debate with us whether or not the whole notion of formal membership is a biblical idea. Here’s my thoughts (with the aid of Wayne Meeks’ material in First Urban Christians).

  1. The early church had some understanding of who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. In 1 Cor 5 the church are told to put out the man who is having an affair with his Father’s wife. In 2 Cor 2 they are told to restore him. That implies some understanding of who counts as being ‘in/out’.
  2. The early church kept lists of widows (1 Tim 5) which further suggests some sort of formalised understanding of who belonged to the believing community.
  3. The expectation of ‘outsiders’ presence implies an understanding of who were insiders (1 Cor 14).
  4. The imagery used to describe the church as a family (see 1 Thess) and a body (1 Cor 12) suggests more than loose voluntary association. It implies a strong sense of commitment and unity to the other ‘members’.
  5. Formalised roles (elders and deacons) further demonstrates a well ordered community with a leadership providing direction (1 Tim 5:17).
  6. The Greco-Roman background models which would have informed the ekklesia included the household, voluntary guilds and associations, the synagogue, and the schools of philosophy or rhetoric.  Voluntary guilds and associations would have had some form of internal democratic governance, in imitation of the classical polis (Meeks, 78).
  7. The initiatory rite of baptism would have been a strong marker of integration into the new community (Meeks, 88-89).
  8. In addition to the rites and rituals, creedal formulas (as in 1 Cor 15, and poss. Col 1; Phil 2) delimit the community in terms of a shared set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals.

There is much else useful in Meeks, but when it comes to formal church membership, these are some of the ideas which inform my thinking. Any further help?



3 Replies to “Is Church Membership Biblical?”

  1. I think Matthew 18:17 would suggest that ‘taking it to the church’ means you have to know who the church are..

  2. I wonder if most of the arguments could be turned on their head. While these things did exist, they existed without any formal membership system as far as we know, e.g. there were lists of widows mentioned, but not lists of members, why if it’s significant. They understood who was in and out for various things but it’s not defined how, except by profession and baptism. I’ve wondered this because I think that most churches (even C of E potentially) practice a NT form of membership, but don’t really practice the congregational government form of membership. I.e. the latter seems at best quite a strong instantiation of the former (not that it’s wrong, just that it’s quite hard to push it as vital, as someone like Dever does).

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