Do I Really Need to Be a Member of a Church?


This question and its ensuing discussion continues. Do I really need to be a member of a church?

We need to first separate the concept of church membership from other types of organizational membership. Church membership is not like civic club membership, even though many civic organizations do have altruistic purposes. Church membership is definitely not like country club membership, where you pay your dues and expect perks in return. Sadly, many church members do view their membership like joining a country club. 

When that attitude becomes our perspective, we then start insisting on getting things “my way.” My style of music. My order of worship. My length of sermon. My ministries. My programs. You get the picture. 

Membership in a New Testament church is metaphorically like being a member of a physical body. You are but one part of a greater whole, but your part is vital for the overall health of a church. Read again 1 Corinthians 12. Look specifically at verse 27: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (ESV). 

Church membership, then, is a declaration that you are a part or a member of a greater whole. It is self-sacrificing and not preference-seeking. Here are five reasons why church membership is vital to the health of the church and those who decide to join a church. 

1. Church membership is a formal declaration of your commitment to a local body of believers. You are letting other members and church leaders know that you are committing to exercise your God-given gifts and roles within a local congregation. You are more than an attendee who comes and goes without commitment.

2. Church membership identifies you as a person who is under the care and pastoral ministry of the church. Ministry leaders cannot care for everyone who is in and out of the church. Their responsibility is to the clearly identified members of the church. Paul told the elders of the church at Ephesus in Acts 20:28: “So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock – his church, purchased with his own blood – over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as leaders” (NLT). The leaders cannot shepherd the flock unless they know who the flock is. 

3. Church membership is a commitment to come under the authority of the leadership of the church. A church member is not only under the shepherding ministry of the church, they are also under the authority of the leaders of the church. And though church discipline should be rare, the concept of church discipline by the leadership affirms and complements the concept of church membership. You cannot be disciplined from something unless you have committed to be a part of something. 

4. Church membership is an affirmation of the church’s beliefs and doctrine. It is not unusual for churches to have attendees who don’t fully affirm a church’s doctrine. Church membership, therefore, becomes a statement of affirmation that you identify with both the church and her members in what the church believes. One of the reasons many churches do not let non-members teach is that they have not committed to the church’s beliefs.

5. Church membership is a commitment to serve. When you become a part or member of a church, you are affirming the 1 Corinthians 12 metaphor that you will be a functioning member of the body. Read again verses 12-27 for a clear picture that the body of Christ, the church, is to be comprised of functioning or serving members. For sure, many people will attend our churches. But those whom God leads to become members are affirming that they have a functioning role in the church. 

Do I really need to be a member of a church? Absolutely. From Acts 2 to Revelation 3, the New Testament is about the local church in one way or another. The local church is God’s plan A for his ministry on earth, and He did not leave us with a plan B.

Posted on September 4, 2023

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • I have a question: I would like to be a member of a church — and have been a member of a church. However, my husband pulled us out of another church, and we have never become members of the church we have been attending (since 2017-18). We rarely miss a service. We participate in various programs and ministries regularly — even weekly. My kids and I have asked my husband repeatedly when we are going to join. He always puts us off and says he’s not ready yet. Is it OK for me, as the wife, who is supposed to submit to and respect my husband and his leading, to go ahead and join on my own, without him, while he takes his time to decide whether he’s going to commit? Or, is that getting ahead of him and will he then say, “My wife isn’t submitting to my leadership; therefore, she is sinning and needs to be disciplined”?

  • Point 4 is the big difficulty for me. All the churches in my town affirm the ordination of women to the priesthood/presbytership/eldership, with one exception – the Roman Catholics. And I can’t affirm a good number of their beliefs, so there is no church of which I can be a member.

  • Aaron Fuller says on

    Two reflections in response:

    1. You state over and over the importance of “Bibilcal Truth” as the main thing. Forgive me, I thought Jesus and the good news of what God has done for us through Jesus was the main thing. Even the Bible, as the inspired word of God, is not God/Jesus.

    2. As another stated here: I’m curious how you respond to matters of unethical/unbiblical behavior of Church leaders. How are they held accountable as servants of God’s people? What ensures that their “authority” is worthy of members’ trust? While every faith tradition has different ecclesial polity, the matter of leadership proving worthy of people’s trust is an important one – Hillsong, Mars Hill, Willow Creek serve as tragic lessons.

    Or do you think those leaders get a “free pass” for their conduct?

  • Bsp. Chebon Walter Eriama says on

    Great and wonderful teaching on the importance of Church membership

  • Great timing on this article. Our church is having our first Membership Class this Sunday night, and I’ll include this in the info packet people get to help them as they think and pray through becoming members.

  • Tracy Danielson says on

    This site needs an advocate for church attendees.
    1. Are you saying denominations are equal, one in the same to “The Church”? Do they have superiority over the body as a whole? Do they take priority?
    2. “The leaders cannot shepherd the flock unless they know who the flock is.” …Yikes! So shepherds identify who God placed in their lives by means of church membership? … Yikes!
    3. Here, you have to assume the authority/leadership is moral and has your best interests at heart. How, please tell me how you can know that? I can give stories… multiple stories of character failings among pastors, teachers and counselors. You can’t encourage people to join churches with blinders on. “And though church discipline should be rare…” Tell me where this magical church exists. Confronting sin is rare.
    4. Authority again! What if, after a while, you tire of telling people that they are breaking God’s heart by using guitars and organs while worshipping?Do you rebel? What does that look like? Why would I think an “authority” knows better than me? Because a degree assures us of doctrinal certainty?
    5. Five is the goal. Now you’re talking. Be productive for the leaders.

    I will give you this for free, no subscription required. God places individuals in our lives in spite of what exclusionary church they may not be a member of.

    Bonus: If you ever encounter a cynic who criticizes you, or become vitriolic in their anger; rather than ignore them or cut them out of your life, ask them for their back story. Find the source of their pain. Here I have had my honesty challenged, and I have been mocked.

    Part of my back story is that for the past 7 years I have been exclusively caring for my wife who has Frontotemporal Dementia. As a result I have much alone time to think. Oh, and the local church has excluded me.

    You need to be challenged Thom. Somebody has got to do it among your circle. They may fear your power and status.

    • It is very true that, wrote by Tracy Danielson!! Because of all these points (hypocrisy) are practising and gossiping by Pastors in the churches, God’s people are scattering!! I am from India, It is very sorry to say that almost all believers churches are operating a business in the name of Jesus Christ the Word!! They are made Jesus Christ is the Business Ambassador of their business!!

      • Yes, when I raised the issue of gossip and my concern about it in a local congregation — a person can tell by how others act and treat and respond to them that someone who is supposed to hold things confidentially does not — the pastor responding to me asked this question, or one like it: “Do you think there’s gossip here at this church?” I replied, “No.” (There shouldn’t be among Bible-believing Christians, but it masquerades in all manner of vestiges — counseling, prayer, meal trains, status reports, etc., gathering information for the book the pastor or other is going to publish to further his or her career.) He corrected me and said something dismissive, to the effect of, “Of course, there’s gossip and people talk.” There was not even any effort to acknowledge that it shouldn’t be so, that people should be counseled to not do this because the Bible states that gossip — and other unwholesome talk — isn’t in line with God or His will. And yet, I have seen pastors get away with it as they “counsel” with other pastors while ruining the good name of the one they discuss so liberally with others.

  • What about part time ministers? We have part time ministers serving in our church but they have not joined the church. They want to keep their membership in their home church where they were before coming on staff at our church. We did not tell them they had to join when they were voted on because we assumed they would. Would this be an issue for you? If so, how would you handle it?

  • I can agree with the concept of church membership as it pertains to a relationship, with the understanding that the church has a function beyond its walls and it is on mission. A one way relationship of counting nickles and noses is seldom a healthy relationship. The potential of a church to impact its community with the presence of Christ is often more messy then most churches are equipped to handle. Most of the membership issues could be resolved if we move beyond a place and focus more on a Christ centered function in the church’s community.

  • David Rutledge says on

    How about churches that do not have membership or a statement of what they believe .

  • Thom,
    Thank you so much for this excellent article, it is very timely. I have sent your past articles to many local Pastors, Elders and Deacons and they have endorsed your ideas and ministry. But in this instance I would like to add some background.
    We are lay people and not engaged in leadership, so we are on the bottom looking up not at the top looking down.
    We have had ongoing major problems with US politics in the church. Not necessarily from the pulpit per se, but in small groups, mens and womens bible studies, lunches and conversations. Politics and the latest cable news comes to dominate these discussions, and it is assumed that everyone believes the same thing. It has gotten so bad I have quit several bible studies and now have come up with a standard statement at the beginning of a new bible study or small group: ‘While I am very interested in studying the bible, I am not interested in discussing politics. Please let me know your thoughts on this matter so I can move on’. Stunned silence then ensues. As of right now, we are church refugees.
    We want to be church members, not members of the evangelical wing of a political party.
    If not addressed, 2024 has the potential to be a catastrophic even for the US Church. In my humble opinion, this needs to be addressed by church leadership.
    Looking forward to your thoughts and with great respect for your ministry.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Ron –

      There are far too many distraction in many churches: politics, sports, personal preferences, etc. I am a member of a church that keeps the main thing the main thing. Our conversations are about the gospel and other biblical truths.