Church Membership, a Scriptural Primer by Jack Kettler
This study will cover the issue of church membership. Is it biblical? What texts of Scripture are used to support church membership? Can arguments be deduced from Scripture in support of registered church membership? These questions will be considered in this study primer.
In the Westminster Confession of Faith (1:6)  we read:
“The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.”
The biblical basis for enrolled church membership in the New Testament can be deduced scripturally by the existence of church government, the exercise of church discipline, and sharing exhortations for edification, the giving of tithes and offerings, and submission to those that rule over you, i.e., elders.
First, what is the church?
KJV Dictionary Definition: church:
1. A house consecrated to the worship of God, among Christians; the Lord’s house. This seems to be the original meaning of the word. The Greek, to call out or call together, denotes an assembly or collection. But, Lord, a term applied by the early Christians to Jesus Christ; and the house in which they worshipped was named from the title. So church goods, bona ecclesiastica; the Lords day, dies Dominica.
2. The collective body of Christians, or of those who profess to believe in Christ, and acknowledge him to be the Savior of mankind. In this sense, the church is sometimes called the Catholic or Universal Church.
3. A particular number of christens, united under one form of ecclesiastical government, in one creed, and using the same ritual and ceremonies; as the English church; the Gallican church; the Presbyterian church; the Romish church; the Greek church.
4. The followers of Christ in a particular city or province; as the church of Ephesus, or of Antioch.
5. The Disciples of Christ assembled for worship in a particular place, as in a private house. Col. 4.
6. The worshipers of Jehovah or the true God, before the advent of Christ; as the Jewish church.
7. The body of clergy, or ecclesiastics, in distinction from the laity. Hence, ecclesiastical authority.
8. An assembly of sacred rulers convened in Christ’s name to execute his laws.
9. The collective body of Christians, who have made a public profession of the Christian religion, and who are united under the same pastor; in distinction from those who belong to the same parish, or ecclesiastical society, but have made no profession of their faith.
A description of church membership:
Membership in a local church consists of a believer making a public covenant with a particular group of believers. This covenant involves a commitment to worship the Lord corporately, edifying fellow believer by exhortations, praying for the fellow saints, the giving of tithes and offerings to support God’s Church and the expansion of His kingdom.
Church membership is based upon, and its roots found in the Old Testament:
Israel kept detailed genealogies, which are seen in several Old Testament books. These genealogies were written rolls used to establish membership in Israel.
The Levitical priesthood:
Priests could only be from the tribe of Levi and descendants of Aaron. If a man could not prove his genealogical record, he was incapable to serve as a priest.
“These sought their register among those that were reckoned by genealogy, but they were not found: therefore were they, as polluted, put from the priesthood.” (Ezra 2:62)
Registration records were crucial to making this determination.
Additional textual records kept in the Old Testament:
“The LORD records as he registers the peoples, ‘this one was born there.’ Selah” (Psalm 87:6 ESV)
In Psalm 86:6, it says the LORD registers, the peoples. This does not mean that human scribes were not used.
“My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and who give lying divinations. They shall not be in the council of my people, nor be enrolled in the register of the house of Israel, nor shall they enter the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord GOD.” (Ezekiel 13:9)
As seen in Ezekiel 13:9, it was a fearful thing not be enrolled in the register of Israel.
“Then they that feared the LORD spake often one to another: and the LORD hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the LORD, and that thought upon his name.” (Malachi 3:16)
The “Book of Remembrance” in Malachi the records or registers of those that fear the Lord are written.
This tradition of registering or enrolling continues in the New Testament:
Both Matthew and Luke record the genealogies of Christ.
“To be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.” (Luke 2:5 ESV)
Strong’s Lexicon on Luke 2:5 and registering:
[He went there] to register
Verb – Aorist Infinitive Middle
Strong’s Greek 583: From apo and grapho, to write off, i.e., enroll.
Unless the New Testament sets aside an Old Testament practice, we are to presume it is still required. Registering and being enrolled in Israel was the norm as it is for the New Testament Church.
The church assembles:
“Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:25)
If there were no membership records, how could it be known who was forsaking the church fellowship? Facial recognition and mental remembering are fraught with errors.
How to we recognize those who have this authority? Can this recognition happen apart from being registered in a local church?
“And to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect.” (Hebrews 12:23 ESV)
Strong’s Concordance Hebrews 12:23 and enrolled:
apographó: to copy, enroll
Original Word: ἀπογράφω
Part of Speech: Verb
Phonetic Spelling: (ap-og-raf’-o)
Definition: to copy, enroll
Usage: I enroll, inscribe in a register; mid: I give my name for registration (or census-taking).
Hebrews speaks of those enrolled in the heavenly roll. Should not there be a corresponding earthly roll? The earthly roll would not be completely accurate because the “tares and wheat dwelling together” see Matthew 13:24-30. This imperfection of the earthly roll is no reason not to do it. The advantages of an earthly roll are seen in church elections of officers, approval of church operating budgets, participation in the sacraments, and church discipline, etc.
“Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.” (Hebrews 13:17)
How could it be known whom the people to submit to are? Is submission due to anyone who calls himself an elder? How would the elders know who oversight is due? A membership roll eliminates problems like these.
How does someone become an elder in the church?
“Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.” (1Timothy 5:17)
Eldership indicates that there is a localized community of believers. It also means that there is a way for the gifts and talents of members to be recognized and ordination of deacons and elders to take place.
The process in Presbyterian polity happens like this:
1. The session (a body of elected elders) identifies a need for a church office to be filled.
2. The session (a body of elected elders) calls on the congregation to identify and choose competent candidates. It is the church’s solemn approval of and public attestation to a man’s inward call, his gifts, and his calling by the church.
3. The session (a body of elected elders) prays and lays hands on the elected nominees ordaining them into office. Ordination shall be performed by the body, which examines the candidate. In the case of elders and deacons, this would be the ordained elders of the local church, i.e., the session.
Records were kept in the early church:
“Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.” (Acts 2:41)
The early church was numbered (Acts 1:15; 4:4; 16:5) someone did the counting, and it can be seen right in Scripture that the numbers were written down.
An example of a selection process that happened in a church gathering:
“And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch.” (Acts 6:5)
Strong’s Concordance on Acts 6:5 and chose:
eklegó: to select
Original Word: ἐκλέγομαι
Part of Speech: Verb
Phonetic Spelling: (ek-leg’-om-ahee)
Definition: to select
Usage: choose, elect, select.
As the Strong entry notes, electing was not a foreign concept. Choosing or selecting involves an election process.
Criteria set by the church to support widows:
“Let not a widow be taken into the number under threescore years old, having been the wife of one man…” (1Timothy 5:9)
Someone had to evaluate the cases appealed to the church. A church large enough to have such concerns is a church that is developed beyond an evangelistic outreach meaning there had to be elected church officers.
How are the church sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper to be carried out without a defined membership?
In Reformed churches, only pastors and elders administrate the sacraments. They attempt to safeguard the Lord’s table that only those who are biblically eligible are included. Eldership requires oversight responsibilities.
How would church discipline take place as outlined by Matthew without a defined membership?
“Moreover, if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglects to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican.” (Matthew 18:15-17)
It is logically impossible to reconcile the doctrine of discipline and its application, where there is no defined membership. The rights of an accused should be protected, meaning that some things must be done in confidence, similar to a closed executive session. It is not fair to the accused to have visitors from off the street come in participate hearing of charges and joining with the congregants to determine the validity of accusations.
How can an excommunicated person be “taken away from among you” in 1Corinthians 5:2?
Church discipline implies there is some recognizable way to remove an unrepentant sinner from the church. The discipline process must be recorded for future review. In some cases, the excommunicated party repents and is re-admitted to the church. If many years go by before this happens, there may be new elders who are unfamiliar with the church’s previous actions. Therefore, written records are imperative.
The removing of the person from the roll and then announcing it to the church is for members only. Without formal membership, credible discipline that preserves confidentiality is impossible. Without formal membership and confidentiality during the discipline process, the process may be nothing more than hearsay or slander. False accusations are real.
Slander is evil, which is Paul says:
“Slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents.” (Romans 1:30 ESV)
What does to “those inside the church mean”?
“For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” (1Corinthians 5:12 ESV)
How can it be determined who is inside the church unless there is a membership roll? To be enrolled in the membership, some type of minimally credible confession of faith is necessary.
“And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.” (Revelation 22:19)
The Book of Life in John’s Revelation records all people considered righteous before God.
As Revelation notes, God keeps a roll.
The people of Israel were numbered and enrolled. Why it is even questioned that this same practice would not be carried over into the New Covenant people of God is disconcerting. Arguments deduced from Scripture in this primer have been numerous.
Paul directs the church:
“Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.” (Acts 6:3)
The apostolic “appointing” is the conclusion of a process that includes the congregation. Moreover, the Bible says that the “whole congregation” selected the “Seven” and brought them to the apostles (Acts 6:5-6).
A one-person rule type figure usually leads churches that do not have an enrolled membership with requirements that translate into membership privileges such as voting rights for officers and finances. Sometimes this phenomenon is called the Moses model of church government. The Moses model of church government is unknown in the New Testament. Elders, not one-person rule churches in the New Testament.
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: http://www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com