Understanding Church Membership


We live in a country where it is fashionable and accepted to claim to be a Christian. Yet many who make that claim commit adultery, abandon their wives, get drunk, frequent the clubs, cheat their employers, engage in corrupt business, display out of control temper and  engage in slanderous speech.

Jesus warned that in the last days many would claim to be His followers. How does the world know who represents Jesus?  There is an abundance of false teachings in the name of Christ, there are many who live lives that do not match the holiness and character of God yet claim to be members of His body.

How does the world know who is true and who is false?  Who is really a Jesus follower.

There are many false religions teaching opposing things – How will the world know the truth, and how will they know who represents that truth to them?

The answer to these questions drives us to the heart of our topic for this evening: Understanding Church Membership

What is the church?

What the church is NOT: Popular misconceptions from our culture:

  1. The local church is not a club.  It is not a volunteer organization where membership is optional.
  2. The local church is not a service provider.  In a business the customer is always right. The church is not a service provider where the customer has all authority.
  3. The local church is not a support group. It is not just a friendly group of people who share an interest in Divine things and get together every week to talk about them.

What is the Church?

The church is referred to as a body (Ro12:4; ICo12:12-27), bride (2Co11:2; Eph5:24,32), building (1Co 3:9; 2Co6:16; Eph 2:20-22)

“A formally organized body of believers meeting to worship together.”

“A called out assembly of believers, meeting together in a particular location for the purpose of worship, and spiritual accountability.”

A local church is a group of Christians who regularly gather in Christ’s name to officially affirm and oversee one another’s membership in Jesus Christ and His kingdom through gospel preaching and gospel ordinances.” – Leehman

Wrong thinking about the church:

  • Christians can think it’s fine to attend a church indefinitely without joining;
  • Christians think of getting baptized apart from joining;
  • Christians take the Lord’s Supper without joining;
  • Christians view the Lord’s Supper as their own private, mystical experience for Christians and not as an activity for church members who are incorporated into body life together;
  • Christians don’t integrate their Monday-to-Saturday lives with the lives of other saints (p. 23).

Cause of wrong thinking about the church:

We assume that we have the autonomy and authority to conduct our Christian lives on our own.  We can include the church piece when and how we want.

The Authority of the local church

“The local church is the authority on earth that Jesus has instituted to officially affirm and give shape to my Christian life and yours.”  (p. 24).

The church is added to: Repent, Baptized.  Salvation and Identification with Christ. The place that this takes places is in the local church.

  1. Accept God’s grace in forgiving your sin by faith in Jesus Christ.
  2. Identify with & Submit to the body of Christ through baptism.

All Christians are to identify with and submit to a local church:

  1. Christians are commanded to submit to those in church leadership because they must give an account. (Heb 13:17)
  2. God calls specific elders to care for specific people (1Pt.5:1-5, Acts 20:29-30)
  3. Church is called to discipline sinning Christians. (1Co5:1-12).  Church discipline cannot work if local church membership doesn’t exist.  How do you put someone “out” if they were never “in”?

Just as the Bible establishes the government of your nation as your highest authority on earth when it comes to your citizenship in that nation, so the Bible establishes the local church as your highest authority on earth when it comes to your discipleship to Christ and your citizenship in Christ’s present and promised nation. (p. 25).

There is no example in Scripture of someone who truly believes yet does not identify with the body of Christ.  There is no spiritual free-agent unaccountable to a local church.

  1. It is through the church that the Christian lives out his faith by sharing Christ with others.
  2. Sacrificially giving to God through the church.
  3. The proclamation of the truth was entrusted to the local church
  4. The discipling and equipping of saints was entrusted to the local church.
  5. Providing accountability and discipline is entrusted to the church.

Membership In The Local Church

Definition of Church Membership:

“A formal relationship between a church and a Christian characterized by the church’s affirmation and oversight of a Christian’s discipleship and the Christian’s submission to living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church.”  – Leehman

Notice the elements that are present:

  1. A church body formally affirms an individual’s profession of faith and baptism as credible.
  2. It promises to give oversight to that individual’s discipleship.
  3. The individual formally submits his or her discipleship to the service and authority of this body and its leaders.

The church body says to the individual, “We recognize your profession of faith, baptism, and discipleship to Christ as valid. Therefore, we publicly affirm and acknowledge you as belonging to Christ and the oversight of our fellowship.” 

Principally, the individual says to the church body, “Insofar as I recognize you as a faithful, gospel-declaring church, I submit my presence and my discipleship to your love and oversight.” (pp. 64-65).

To not be a member of a church is like enjoying the benefits of a physical relationship without any of the commitments or responsibilities of marriage.  It is called adultery or prostitution.

Takers not givers – we are to be productive within the church giving our talents, skills, gifts so that the body will grow strong… too many people approach the church like a mosquito looking for something to take.

“When people ask, “Where is membership in the Bible?” the problem is they’re looking for something like a club to join, because the word membership is a club word. Clubs and political parties and labor unions have memberships. But you don’t often use the word membership in relation to governments and the citizens of nations. You don’t say, “So how’s the membership of the British nation doing? Aren’t you guys running, like, sixty million members these days?” 

The Church as an Embassy

Leeman suggests that the church can be viewed as an Embassy – you may go to the one in Lusaka or in South Africa but they each do the same thing – they affirm that you are a citizen of the USA.  I affirm the authority and responsibility to the one in Zambia and my friend might do the same with the one in RSA.  This is an example of my relationship with a member of the body of Christ who is joined to another church of life faith and practice.

Embassy represents one nation to another.  It represents the interests of it’s homeland to another nation and it affirms and protects its citizens living in that foreign land.

What the Church Does For A Christian:

We are pilgrims and sojourners on our way to Heaven.  Our identification is not national, ethnic or cultural, our identification is we are children of the King.  The church is the place where the world can see in microcosm what the Kingdom of God looks like – it is not that kingdom, but it represents and reveals it.  The citizens of Heaven live differently, look different and are passionately committed to spreading the good news about their loving Father King who will welcome all into His kingdom.

  1. The church affirms the citizens of Christ’s kingdom.
  2. The church protects the citizens of Christ’s kingdom.
  3. The church proclaims the laws of Christ’s kingdom.
  4. The church invites all peoples to come to bow and worship the king..

To be a church member is to be the church, at least a part of it. A church member, therefore, is someone who is formally recognized as a Christian and a part of Christ’s universal body. That’s not to say that churches always get it right, but it’s their job to identify and affirm who belongs to the kingdom and who does not.

A church member is a person who has been officially and publicly recognized as a Christian before the nations, as well as someone who shares in the same authority of officially affirming and overseeing other Christians in his or her church. (p. 29).


Christians don’t join churches; they submit to them. (p. 30).

Once you choose Christ, you must choose his people, too. It’s a package deal. Choose the Father and the Son and you have to choose the whole family—which you do through a local church.  (p. 31).

It’s true that a Christian must choose to join a church, but that does not make it a voluntary organization. We are, in fact, obligated to choose a local church just as we are obligated to choose Christ. Having chosen Christ, a Christian has no choice but to choose a church to join.  (p. 66).


1. This study is based upon the book: Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus Copyright © 2012 Jonathan Leeman Published by Crossway 1300 Crescent Street Wheaton, Illinois 60187.  Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.

2. http://www.brainyquote.com/words/ch/church143947.html