Is church membership biblical? Part 3

Published 10:37 am Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The strongest evidence of formal church membership in the Bible is the doctrine known as corrective church discipline. This subject is difficult to address because church discipline is practiced very rarely in evangelical churches today. We also live in an anti-authority age. But I encourage you to grab a Bible and study the passages below.

Matthew 18:15-20. Jesus gives a three step process for pleading with another self-professing Christian to repent of sin. If the offender does not repent then Jesus says to treat the unrepentant person like an unbeliever which includes not recognizing the person as a fellow church member, for only believers can be a member of a church.

1 Corinthians 5:1-13. A member of the Corinthian church is sleeping with his step-mother and will not repent. The Apostle Paul chastises the Corinthians for not addressing this and tells the church to remove the man from the church membership.

2 Corinthians 2:6-8. There is someone who received discipline by the Corinthian church, who has seemingly repented. The Apostle Paul tells the church that they have an obligation to restore the repentant person back into the fold.

The clear teaching of church discipline necessitates that there be church membership. There must be a rubric for recognizing those who are in the body and those out of the body; those we consider a brother and those we consider an unbeliever. Unbelievers are invited to attend church services. But unbelievers and self-proclaiming Christians in unrepentant sin are forbidden from the privilege of church membership. Church membership gives recognition that an individual is a representative of Jesus to the world. Church discipline is God’s tool to ensure that such recognition is given only to those that are honoring Jesus not just in word, but in deed. 

But we are not supposed to judge one another. Actually, the Bible tells Christians to judge one another within the church (1 Corinthians 5:12). It is loving to warn so-called Christians that unrepentant sin and the lack of fruit are a sign of their unbelief and will result in Jesus cutting them off (John 15:1-6). Jesus does teach how to judge rightly. We are to remove the log from our eye before we confront the brother with a speck in his eye (Matthew 7:1-5). He’s saying don’t tell someone who is committing adultery to repent while you are gladly committing adultery. Jesus then tells believers to judge who is a false teacher by looking at their actions (Matthew 7:15-20). This is the same Jesus who teaches on church discipline a few chapters later in Matthew 18. Jesus does indeed instruct us to judge; just do it rightly.

But the church is to be a hospital for sinners. Indeed Jesus does give the picture of a local church as a hospital for sinners (Luke 5:31-32). This is more of a reason to ensure that we are a healthy hospital to minister to those who need Jesus. Would you want a doctor to perform heart surgery on you who has not completed medical school? Would you want a nurse to attend to you who has tuberculosis? No! Only a healthy hospital can best serve sick patients. A false believer in the membership is like a surgeon who has not completed medical school. Like the sick nurse, an unrepentant member is described as a disease that can spread in the church hospital (2 Timothy 2:16-18; 1 Corinthians 5:6-7). 

But the church doesn’t have authority to tell me I’m not a Christian. The Bible does not give authority to a local church to declare you an unbeliever, in the sense that Jesus has the final word when we meet him in judgment. But Jesus did design church membership to be an affirmation of true belief. Jesus gave the keys to the church to bind and loose (Matthew 16:19), and tells the church to treat an unrepentant sinner as an unbeliever which is an operation of those keys (Matthew 18:17-18). Excommunication is not an act of damning the unrepentant sinner; it is a warning that the church no longer has enough confidence in good faith to call the unrepentant sinner a Christian. It is done with the hope that the person will examine himself to see if he is truly a Christian (2 Corinthians 13:5) and repent to be more sure of his salvation (2 Peter 1:10). It is done with the hope that the person will be restored both to God and his Church through repentance.

But the person will leave the church. When a church member is confronted and refuses to repent and is removed from the membership, it is possible that the person will no longer attend the church services. But it also is perceivable that the person will come to his senses and finally repent as is the Apostle Paul’s hope (1 Corinthians 5:5). Christians are called to follow the Bible, no matter the results. We are not wiser than Jesus so let’s follow his teaching.

But it’s about grace, not law. Yes, it is true that we are all sinners, and that the Gospel offers us grace through Jesus dying for our sin and extending forgiveness to those who repent and believe. The law cannot save us. Following rules cannot make God impressed with us. But God’s grace does something to the truly converted soul. True conversion is wrought by the Holy Spirit and the Spirit of God gives the heart new desires so that the believer cannot be in a habitual practice of sinning (1 John 3:9). Those that love sin instead of struggling with sin will not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:21). Those that practice unrighteousness are children of the devil (1 John 3:10). The Christian is motivated by the Spirit, not the law (Galatians 5:18) to bear fruit and so prove to be a follower of Jesus (John 15:8). Church members shouldn’t do good deeds to earn God’s grace and love. Church members should do good deeds to prove their hearts have been changed by God’s grace and love.

Our culture did not flinch when at the 2016 Summer Olympics Ryan Lochte, a member of the US Olympic Swimming Team, was involved in a scandal and was suspended for ten months. He was not allowed to participate in the 2017 World Swimming Championships. You see, the US Olympic Committee took the wayward actions of Lochte quite seriously for the sake of American pride. How much more should the Church take the wayward actions of “Christians” seriously for the sake of Jesus?

Do you still have questions or concerns about the doctrine of church discipline? First deeply study all of the Bible verses noted above. But I would then recommend that you grab a short book called Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus by Jonathan Leeman. Evangelicals practiced this in the past. May we rediscover it in the present for the glory of God.

Matthew Homan is the pastor of Eureka Baptist Church. His email address is