People have different views on what constitutes membership of a local Church while Church streams and denominations express this in a variety of ways. What is of primary importance is belonging to Jesus Christ, and it is our understanding that everybody who has committed their lives to a personal relationship with God is a member of the Body of Christ, sometimes described as the Church universal.
There is no record in the New Testament of a procedure for enrolling in membership within a local congregation. Consequently some people consider that to ask for a commitment in membership is more than Scripture demands, and they shy away from this. What is clear from the New Testament is that the Church universally was still small enough for it to receive control and direction in its various localities from some primary central source.
It is evident that the Council held in Jerusalem in Acts 15 was making decisions binding on the Church wherever it had then spread to. Apostles wrote letters of direction and correction into local situations because the size of the Church universally still allowed them to have a reasonably intimate knowledge of each local situation. However, even in those early days letters of recommendation were given to those travelling from one area to another as a written testament to the intention of the individuals. The Church remained small enough that should discipline be exercised in one location it would be consistently adhered to in others, i.e. if a man was dis-fellowshipped from a local congregation he would not be accepted by another. This situation no longer pertains because of the growth of the church worldwide over the last
two thousand years.
To the glory of God the Church has multiplied thousands of times since those early days. Church growth statistics indicate that at the current time 200,000 people make commitments to the Lord Jesus Christ across the world every day. There are 100’s of denominations and thousands upon thousands of independent Churches that rightly come under an evangelical banner.
It is no longer possible for one central body, or a handful of Apostles, to oversee the Church. It is evident to anyone who has considered the breadth of Church life in any detail that massive problems can, and sadly, sometimes do arise, and we want to do everything in our power to protect the Church according to Biblical standards. The only way that some reasonable level of protection and care can realistically be worked out is with a measure of organisation, structure and government.
Without a duly constituted membership it is impossible to have a structure or framework that is not wide open to abuse. For example, if a dispute was to arise in a Church situation that had no duly constituted membership, and it was decided that a meeting should be held to discuss the issues and to canvass opinion, there is no limit on who should take part in such a meeting. It is possible that those on one side of the dispute in the weeks or days leading up to such a meeting could start to bring all sorts of family and friends to the Church simply to have a greater number to ‘vote’ for them in the issue of contention. A duly constituted membership protects the Church from ever getting into such a situation, and such a situation is not unrealistic. In fact it happens again and again!
In Great Britain the Government recognises Churches as charities, and all sorts of benefits accrue to us out of such recognition. We are not compromised by this, and so it seems good stewardship to avail ourselves of the opportunity. However, in order to satisfy charity law a charitable trust with a duly constituted membership and constitution must be drawn up.
While the New Testament may not specifically lay down a procedure for Church membership, we think it is clear from the principles that people were committed into local situations within the context of a structure that provided care and protection, and church membership today is one way of trying to ensure we do the same. It is obviously helpful in any situation or relationship to know the level of commitment that an individual is making so that we can progress within the context of that relationship. The church is equally helped when an individual, understanding the direction we are trying to go in, makes a public commitment to work with us in pursuit of that goal. Jesus talked about a king going to war being able to measure the strength of his army before deciding whether or not he should go into battle, and the local Church needs to be able, on occasions, to measure the specific strength of its ‘army’. You will, of course, understand that numerical attendance and commitment cannot be presumed to be the same. It is primarily for those reasons that we believe in the importance of Church membership.