A Biblical Basis For Formal Church Membership

By Nate Wilson, 2006, for Christ the Redeemer Church, Manhattan, KS


1)      Historical examples:

a)      Lists of the families of Israel

i)        The ephod of the high priest had the names of the twelve tribes written upon it (Ex. 28:9-29)

ii)      The entire congregation was “registered” in a record before entering the promised land (Num. 1:18)

iii)    These records were used to administrate responsibilities in the temple-building (Ex. 38:26)

iv)    Being cut off from the people was a punishment in the Mosaic law for those who:

(1)    Refused the covenant sign of circumcision (Gen 17:14),

(2)   Did not observe Passover or Day of Atonement (Ex. 12:15, Lev. 23:29),

(3)   Profaned holy things (Ex. 30:33ff, Lev. 7:25ff)),

(4)   Worked on the Sabbath (Ex 31:14),

(5)   Were unclean when they entered worship (Lev. 7:20ff),

(6)   Offered sacrifices to other gods (Lev. 17:4ff),

(7)   Practiced sexual perversion (Lev. 18),

(8)   Sinned intentionally and rebelliously (Num. 15:30),

(9)   Refused to wash from uncleanliness (Num. 19:13)

v)            Professional recorders were employed to keep records of the people (2 Sam 20:24; 2 Ki. 18:18; 2 Chron 24:6; Ezra, Neh. 13:13).

vi)          Genealogies from the tribe of Simeon and their move to a new area were added to the official record later on after the nation divided. (I Chron 4:41)

vii)         When the Jews returned from exile, they reconstructed a membership record (Ez. 8)

viii)       False prophets were not to be “enrolled in the register of Israel” (Ezek. 13:9)


b)     The early church’s example

i)              Matt. 18:15-17 – Before the church was even officially established, Jesus assumed that the O.T. system of exclusive membership would carry over into church government. If a person refuses to repent of a sin and does not respond to personal or group confrontation, or even to the church as a whole, that person is to be counted as a “Gentile” (i.e. a non-member of the group - cf. Titus 3:11).

ii)            I Cor. 5:9-13 – Paul also makes the same assumption, in the context of a New Testament church discipline case, quoting from the nine instances in the book of Deuteronomy where God commanded that an evil man be purged from among the nation of Israel. He applies it by instructing the Corinthian church that to stop “associating” with a man who was bragging about being sexually immoral with his father’s wife. Paul makes a distinction between those “within” the church and those who are “outsiders,” instructing the Corinthians to judge those who are inside the church, including this man, and excommunicate him from membership.

iii)          Acts 2:41-47 “were baptized and that day there were added about 3000 souls… the Lord added those who were being saved.” Baptism is closely associated with the adding of new converts. The word “added” is used here because there was already a recognized membership. And how could they have come up with a number if there was no recording of baptisms or members?

iv)          Paul kept track of who he baptized and wrote it down. (I Cor 1:14ff)

v)            Acts 6:2-5 “The 12 summoned the congregation of disciples… ‘Brothers, select from among you seven men…’ The statement found approval with the whole congregation.” There was definiteness to the membership of the church in Jerusalem in that they could be first summoned, then that they were instructed to choose deacons from among themselves (not outsiders to the group), then that they could act to nominate officials for the congregation.

vi)          A church congregation was called a “body,” the “members” of which exercised their unique gifts to edify the whole. (Rom. 12:4-8, I Cor. 12)

vii)        When Christians traveled to a new church, the leaders of their home church wrote notes recommending that they be received in the new church (Acts 18:27, Rom 16:1, Col. 4:10; 2 Cor. 3:1-3, Philemon).

viii)      Post-biblical histories of the early church dating back to the 3rd century mention them keeping a membership roll called a “diptych” (Dr. Joseph Hall, Mid-America Reformed Seminary)

c)      God’s own example

i)        He writes in the Register of the Peoples (Psalm 87:6)

ii)      He writes a Book of Remembrance (Mal. 3:16)

iii)    He records names in a Book of Life (Isaiah 4:3, Dan. 12:1; Phil 4:3, Rev. 3:5, 13:8, 20:12ff; 21:27)


2)      Practical Considerations

a)      Baptism is “into the body” of Christ, a sign of becoming part of the church. (I Cor. 12:13)

b)      All of the things for which people were cut off from Israelite membership have continu­ing validity in our day. We should not consider someone a member of the church who:

i)        Refuses the covenant sign of baptism,

ii)      Refuses the covenant meal of the Lord’s Supper,

iii)    Worships other gods,

iv)    Profanes God, the Bible, and the worship of God (holy things),

v)      Sins flagrantly and rebelliously, refusing to ask for forgiveness.

c)      Eph 2:11-19 – The Gentiles, who were formerly “excluded from the commonwealth of  Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise” because they were not circumcised were, through the blood of Jesus, made into “one new man” so as to be “no longer strangers and aliens, but fellow citizens with the saints and of God’s household.” This speaks strongly of exclusive membership practices, and of a parallel between the Old Testament nationalistic system and the New Testament church. The New Testament description of membership in God’s household as “citizens,” suggests that even though the membership has changed, it is still exclusive of non-citizens and worthy of the same care that national governments take to keep track of who are citizens and who are not.

d)     I Peter 5:2-3: God commands elders to “shepherd the flock” which is “entrusted to your care…” How are they to delineate who the flock is which is entrusted to their care except there be a definite list? Is a shepherd supposed to randomly pick sheep from the pasture to take to the sheepfold and protect for the night?

e)      Heb 13:17 – “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” Once again, how can a Christian know who to submit to unless there is an orderly system of membership with authority designated? How can a leader be held accountable for keeping watch over souls when there is no definiteness as to which souls he is accountable for?  By the way, the word for “leaders” in the Greek New Testament is the root word from which we get our word “hegemony.”

f)       God’s Book of Life was being kept during while Israel was keeping membership records in the Old Testament, so it is not a New Testament institution intended to replace human record-keeping. If God does not have a problem with keeping a formal record, then we should not either.


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