Membership has the propensity to be a very heated topic in discussion, mainly because “Thou shalt become a member” is not the 11th commandment. That argument is the main objection I hear, so I will answer that first, then give my case.
Inferences, as defined by webster’s online dictionary, are conclusions or opinions that are formed because of known facts or evidence. We can INFER from scripture that some form of membership is necessary, despite a lack of the outright statement.
For example, we can look at the doctrine of the trinity. The word “trinity” is never found in the bible, but we can infer from known evidences in the bible that the God of this universe is triune. We know from scripture that the following are true:
Therefore, the ONE GOD is THREE SEPARATE persons, a.k.a. the trinity.
I say that to say this, inferential theology is OK.
So, the case for membership:
We can INFER it from scripture. The ideas are mostly taken from the Matthew 18 description of church discipline, and the times in the new testament where pastors and elders are called to shepherd the flock (which is said in several different ways).
Matthew 18: The account of church discipline. This set of steps necessarily presumes that the numbers of the church are accounted for. The reason why I say that is the story Jesus tells in verses 12-15 (context right before church discipline passage) implies an account of members, namely sheep. Verses 12-15:
12 “What do you think? If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying? 13 If it turns out that he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine which have not gone astray. 14 So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish.”
The comparison of the pastor and his church to the shepherd and his flock are key. The shepherd will go after the one sheep of his flock because it’s part of the flock. If the shepherd sees a random sheep off in the distance, he is not compelled to go after it, because it isn’t part of the flock.
1 Peter 5:1-3 also employs the shepherd analogy:
1 Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, 2 shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; 3 nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.
The principle remains the same. The elders are to lead the church, because God has called them to minister to “those allotted” to them.
It’s truly common sense. In today’s society, churches have a lot of people showing up on Sunday mornings. But how does a group of elders know who they are to shepherd? Is it the people who invariably attend Sunday mornings or midweek fellowships? Or the homeless guy who walks in during service to grab a drink of water?
Sure, we are all called to make disciples of the world, but elders of the church can only biblically exercise authority over those of their flock. The only way passages like Hebrews 13:17 and those aforementioned can be fulfilled if the leaders of the church know who is part of the church. A church can’t exercise discipline over someone who shows up once or twice a year.
I’m under firm conviction that it is not enough to be a regular attender, even if you are participating in service, fellowship and other things regularly.
Let me know what you think!