There are denominations and associations of churches that don’t advocate membership. They don’t care if you join and in some cases don’t want you to join. They’re happy to have you come and experience “church for seekers.” People feel little or no attachment to anything, no obligation to anything, no loyalty to anything. They want only the name “Christian”, but without the commitment that goes with such.
And perhaps most of all, they do not intend to be in an environment where they might be subject to the discipline of the local congregation. Thus Church attendance is irregular and the worldly lives of the shallow ground hearers are made manifest.
As a result the church is being assaulted in the area of membership in regard to this whole matter of belonging, of being accountable, of coming under the shepherds, of giving your life to a congregation. Although the word “membership” itself is not used in the Scriptures, the principle is present in the New Testament and the arrangement and organization is certainly described. There was no such thing as a Christian who didn’t belong to a congregation.
Fellowship comes from the Greek term “koinonia”, and the associated word family. It is sharing partnership, commonness, fellowship, a communion. It is a mutual participation of sharing on a spiritual level in the lives of others in the family of God, that’s how a body works and how the family worked “in the beginning.” The Bible definition of family goes back to Genesis, where God gave Adam a wife whom he called Eve and told them to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Gen. 1:28 ). The Creation account instructs that ‘a man leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh’ (Gen. 2:24 ). Children from the union are to obey their parents in all things, ‘for this is well pleasing to the Lord’ (v. 20). Likewise, the bible pictures the church as the “household of God” (1 Tim 3:14,15 ). This Creation instructs sinful man to come out of the world and to be joined to Christ, thus becoming part of his ‘one body’ (Eph 4:5 ). All men were slaves, bondservants of sin, until by Christ they were rescued from bondage. Trusting in the Lord, they became sons of God by faith when baptized into Christ and into his death (Gal 3:26,27 ). They received the spirit of adoption and God sent the Spirit of his Son into their hearts crying, “Abba, Father” (Rom 8:15 ). The church, God’s family, will reverence and respect God as their heavenly Father, seek his help and accept his discipline. Certainly then it is true that God desires all men to be joined to His family, the body of Christ, in a universal sense. Yet, the church universal has no organization with which it can function.
The church is given by God to the purpose and intent of the Lord Jesus Christ that His church be presented without spot or blemish, that is, be saved. The word "church" can refer to the church universal (Matthew 16:18 ; Ephesians 5:23 ), the whole body of baptized believers, or to a local body of Christians (Romans 16:16 ; 1 Corinthians 1:2 ).
The Lord has structured the local church as the only collective functioning unit revealed in the New Testament that this might be accomplished. Christ is the head of his church wherever it exists (Eph. 1:22-23 ; Col. 1:18 ), and so, ultimately, he is the head of his church in local fellowship. God’s plan for his church provided that Christians would belong to a local covenant relationship of faith. Every Christian needs to be identified with a local church. This is for our own protection and maturation, and for the good of others. The elders watch for souls (Hebrews 13:7 , 17). The members provoke one another to love and good works (Heb. 10:23-25 ). We teach and admonish one another in song (Ephesians 5:19 ; Colossians 3:16 ). The spiritual restore the weak and fallen (Galatians 6:1 ). The church withdraws from the disorderly (1 Thessalonians 3:6 , 14, 15). Certainly we can find agreement that all these things are good for the well being of all Christians.
Being a part of the new covenant and committing ourselves to a local covenant are the two marks of church membership. We note in Acts 2 the preaching of Peter to the Jews on Pentecost resulted in their desire to have thief fellowship with God restored. In order to receive this reconciliation into the body Peter commanded they repent and be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ for the remission of their sins (Acts 2:38 ). Upon hearing further testimony they that gladly received his word were baptized and that same day there were added about three thousand souls. This act of obedience resulted in their enjoyment of a covenant relationship with the Father, Son and Spirit by the authority of Jesus Christ (cf Matthew 28:18-20 ). Immediately after they entered into this covenant relationship they likewise entered into a local covenant relationship with those who likewise had believed and as a result had all things in common. The expression of their fellowship is seen in the activities they joined in with one another: The breaking of bread, prayers, receiving doctrinal instruction from the apostles, studying daily with one accord and praise of God. It was the Lord who added to his covenant people, the church of Christ and it was the body of people who sought to join themselves to those of like faith.
The local church exists when Christians corporately seek to join themselves together. In order for this to take place there must first be agreement between the parties. As Acts 4:32 says, “the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul…” Additionally they committed themselves under common oversight, willing to submit to that authority (cf Acts 4:35 ). Each cared for the interest of the others both spiritually and physically. There were to share burdens (Galatians 6:1-3 ). They suffered together and rejoiced together (Romans 12:5-16 ). They each supplied their unique gifts to the effectual working of the whole (Ephesians 4:16 ). The benefits of such fellowship are only fully realized when we become a functional part of the body. Finally, there is common agreement in the pooling of their resources in order to meet the needs of the work. Acts 4:32 , 34 reads, “…they had all things in common… sold them and brought the prices of the things that were sold.” The local church exists when Christians commit to giving one another authority over themselves, and they do so expressly because Christ instructed his people to bind and loose, baptize and teach by his authority.
Upon becoming a believer all Christians should seek out a faithful group of the Lord's people and identify with them in order to fulfill his share of the collective responsibilities the Lord has given him. Following his conversion in Acts 9 , Saul entered into Jerusalem and sought to “join himself to the disciples” (Acts 9:26 ). This seeking was an intentional effort put forth by Paul to then end that he might “join himself” to the disciples. Luke describes Paul’s action with the Greek term “kallao.” The term literally means “welded together” and carries with it the idea of close association. The same terminology is used in Matthew 19:5 in speaking of a man leaving Father and Mother and being “joined (kallao) to his wife” – clearly describing a relationship not to be entered into lightly, not to be treated lightly, and not to be left without adequate cause. It is such a relationship that Paul sought with the Jerusalem church and of which we are to have as well.
Local membership consists of more than our own desire to be joined to a fellowship. After Paul came into Jerusalem it says the disciples were afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple. Coming to his aid, Barnabas brings him before the apostles and told how he had been converted at Damascus. As he introduced Paul to the Christians, he described to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had talked to him, and how at Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus. From this example we learn that local membership consists of affirmation, seen in the fact that Barnabas related fully affirmation of Paul’s discipleship. Secondly we see that church membership includes oversight, for Barnabas took Paul to those who were the leaders at Jerusalem during this time, the apostles. Finally we note that local membership involves submission. Having been established as a member of the Jerusalem fellowship Paul received instruction and entered into the work the church had proposed to do (Acts 9:30 ).
Fellowship is sharing in the reality of spiritual life and all that that implies. Becoming a local member on earth is a representation of what it means to submit to Christ and become a member of his body in heaven. In Romans 9:8 , Paul said, “It is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.” Upon becoming a believer all Christians should follow the example of the New Testament believers and seek out a faithful group of the Lord's people and identify with them in order to fulfill his share of the collective responsibilities the Lord has given him.