This question recently came up in some of my Internet studies with online friends. The question centers on whether or not it is necessary to be identified as a member of a local congregation. The Bible doesn’t have a process whereby one may “join” the church such as are followed in the denominational world. However, the Bible does authorize individual Christians to be members of local congregations (1 Corinthians 12:27). So there must be some way for Christians to be members of local congregations. And there is.
Let me state up front that for someone who is not a Christian, to become a member of the church of Christ, one must be added by the Lord to the church (Acts 2:47). Upon baptism, provided the individual lives within the local community, it is right and proper to assume the individual to be a member of the local congregation. This was the general practice within the New Testament (Acts 2:41, 47; 1 Corinthians 12:13). Our question is more appropriately asked when a person moves from his home congregation to another. Must that individual place membership with a local congregation? Let’s note some reasons why the answer to this question should be “yes.”
First, the individual Christian ought to declare membership in a local congregation to assure the leaders that he is subject to their authority. Hebrews 13:17 states, “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.” The rulers of the local congregation have a responsibility to watch for the souls of individual Christians. Individual Christians have the responsibility to make their job easier by submitting to their judgment. There should be no doubt as to the status of the individual Christian in relationship to the rulers. However, if someone does not declare membership, this creates doubt and uncertainty in the minds of the rulers as to whether they have the appropriate authority. Why? Because rulers only have authority over members of the local congregation; they do not have authority over those who are not members of the local congregation. If the individual Christian seeks to please God in obeying Hebrews 13:17, he will declare membership in a local congregation.
Second, the individual Christian ought to declare membership in a local congregation to let his fellow Christians know that he is there to work with them. The church is to be involved in doing the work of the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:58). And each individual contributes to that work as he has ability (1 Peter 4:11). The local congregation is thus expected to do the Lord’s work (2 Corinthians 9:8, Colossians 1:10) and the individual is expected to do his work heartily (Colossians 3:23). Without declaring such membership, other members wonder whether or not one has the intentions of involving oneself in the work of the local church, and thus, in the work of the Lord as well. Declaring one’s membership with a local congregation, let’s that congregation know that one is available and ready to do the work that needs to be done in the local church. Declaring membership exhibits the “heartiness” that the Lord desires us to have regarding his work.
Finally, the individual Christian ought to declare membership in a local congregation to indicate his full fellowship with the local congregation. Fellowship isn’t merely having a meal together or playing games together. Fellowship is participation within the activities of the congregation, regardless what those activities may be (Acts 2:42). We have fellowship when we study God’s word together in our Bible classes, when we worship God in our assembly, when we visit the nursing home together, or when we support a particular work with our finances. The individual Christian should want to have full fellowship with other Christians (1 John 1:7). Without declaring membership at a local congregation, an individual’s intentions aren’t fully known. However, when one declares membership one indicates full fellowship with the local congregation.
The individual Christian certainly has the God given right to faithfully congregate with a particular congregation of his choice (Acts 9:26). However, it is also God’s desire for a Christian to be a member of the local church (1 Corinthians 12:18). Combining those two facts together with the above reasons we can conclude that it is biblical and necessary for the individual Christian to declare membership at a local, faithful, congregation of his choice.