The body of Christ is something bigger than the local church, and believers should in theory be able to serve at one church just as at another. However, heresy, ecumenicism, ungodly living, misunderstanding, and disagreements abound in many churches today, making it necessary for a local church to spell out in detail its confession and covenant to which the church holds its members accountable.
In other words, the early churches checked their members for belief in Christ and devotion to godly living, and we are forced to be more detailed about the matter today thanks to 2,000 years of heresy and ungodly living. There has been and is so much of what not to believe and practice out there that we have to state and clarify with precise detail what it is that we do believe and practice. This level of detail, at least to me, is the primary difference between us and the early church when it comes to the practice of local church membership.
But, you may ask, does the Bible really teach church membership? Consider this—churches knew how many people were added to their number (e.g., Acts 2:41). In that number, a church was to know who its widows were (1 Tim 5:9), know which men among its number could be suggested for deacons (Acts 6:3), and even know the membership’s exact number in order to determine a majority vote (2 Cor 2:6), something likely used to determine its elders and deacons (Acts 6:3; 14:23; Titus 1:5).1 The very nature of a shepherd assumes an identifiable flock to whom he is accountable and who have committed themselves to one another and his leadership (cf. 1 Thess 5:12–13; Heb 13:17).
So how do we grant church membership today? At the first, it should be through baptism—the convert pledges to God before the church that he is in Christ, and the church affirms this confession by administering baptism to the convert (cf. 1 Pet 3:21). The church and convert thus commit themselves to one another, which is the very essence of church membership. After that, should one transfer his membership from one church to another, whatever the justifiable reason may be, the receiving church may simply recognize the individual’s prior membership, which assumes a credible profession of faith and baptism (which all assumes a chain of rightly-ordered churches).
That the whole church should be involved in a member’s inclusion is also implied in the church’s role in a member’s exclusion (e.g., Matt 18:15–17; 2 Cor 2:6)—just as a church majority provides for an exit, so also the church majority allows for an entrance.
So how does a church inform and examine a candidate for membership as it concerns the church’s confession and covenant? Pastors can go through this process on an individual basis in smaller churches, and sometimes it is helpful for larger churches to have a class on the matter if there are multiple people simultaneously desiring to become members. Perhaps a membership committee involving pastors and deacons should examine prospective members as well. However the process takes place, as the shepherd has interviewed a sheep for his prospective entrance into the flock, should things move forward, the shepherd can knowledgeably and confidently recommend the individual sheep to share his testimony before the flock in order for the church to knowledgeably accept such a one into membership.
- In Acts 14:23, the appointment of elders is described by the verb chairotoneō, a verb meaning “to raise the hand,” an act used in a voting process. Titus 1:5 describes the appointment of elders with the verb kathistēmi. Likewise, Acts 6:3 uses this same verb for the appointment of deacons. Considering these passages together, it is plausible to conclude that just as an elder was appointed to his office through a congregational vote, so also a congregational vote can be used to appoint a deacon to his office as well. [↩]