Men have various ways of determining which person belongs to which religion, and more specifically, which person might have a membership in various local religious bodies and congregations. Some religious institutions register infants as soon as they are born as being affiliates with that religious body. Some do the same when an infant is christened. Some grant membership upon presentation of some manner of formal request, such as a letter, or a vocal petition to be included on the rolls. Still others require some ritual, such as baptism, which must be undertaken in order for a person to be considered a member in good standing. Some consider one a member in good standing in as much, and for so long, as financial obligations, such as a tithe, are met and maintained. And some just assume it doesn’t matter, that a person is a member of whichever religious body they think they are a member of at any given time.
But what of the Lord’s church? As we consider the Bible, what makes an individual a member of the church we read about in the pages of the New Testament.
It is certain, that the first century church, as described in the book of Acts, and the New Testament Epistles, had some manner of determining membership. In the first chapter of Acts, we find that the number of disciples numbered about 120 (cf. Acts 1:15). On the day of Pentecost, there were about 3000 added to that number (cf. Acts 2:41), and soon the church had grown sufficiently so that there were over 5000 men, not including women and children, who were considered members of the church (cf. Acts 4:4). Obviously, if the church knew the number associated with the assembly, then they must have kept track somehow.
We don’t know whether they had a literal directory of names, such as is common today, but the Bible does tell us how membership was determined. There was no vote, no letters presented, no need to formally announce membership… rather membership was understood to be extended to all who had obeyed the gospel.
Consider Acts 2:41: “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (ESV)” Being added to the roll was synonymous with accepting the Gospel and being baptized in response to the Gospel. A few verses further, we have additional clarification, “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved (Acts 2:47; ESV).”
It is important to notice that in the Lord’s church, membership was not determined by the opinion of men, including the opinion of self, but by the positive action of Christ Himself in adding men to the church. It is also worth noting the clear connection being made by the inspired writer between “being saved” and being baptized. The Scriptures are very consistent on the connection, not just between being baptized and being saved, but also on the connection between baptism and having a part in the Body of Christ, which is the church. For example, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13; ESV),” and also, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ (Galatians 3:27).”
It is not up to men then to determine who is a part of the Lord’s church, and who is not. We can establish all manners of regulations and rituals but all such things would be an addition to what Christ has determined, and as an addition, liable to get us into trouble (cf. Proverbs 30:5-6). Such man-made regulations might lead us to thinking we are members in good standing when in fact, if Christ were to speak to us He would say, “I never knew you (cf. Matthew 7:23).” Such self-deception would have catastrophic eternal consequences. Likewise, for us to reject a member of the Lord’s church when Christ accepts them is no small thing either. “What God has joined together, let not man separate (Matthew 19:6).” If the Lord is the one who adds you into the church, then is He not also the authority for taking men out (cf. Revelation 2:5, 3:16)? Who are we to deny membership to one Christ accepts?
But what of organizations which have membership criteria different than that which Christ has for His church? Are they not announcing by such criteria and standards that they are in fact a different organization than the one Christ Himself established?
For instance, if it is possible to belong to a religious group without actually belonging to that church which belongs to Christ, then being a part of said religious group has no actual bearing on one’s actual relationship with Christ. Likewise, if you are a part of the body of Christ, added to that body by Christ, but this or that organization won’t let you be a part of their body, then you can know that their collective is not de facto the same as that which Christ owns. There may be crossover in such groups, but they are still different groups. And belonging to such a group tells you nothing about belonging to Christ.
It is something to think about, especially if you think it important to actually belong to the church that Jesus built (cf. Matthew 16:18).
The church of Christ invites you to worship and study with us, at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio. Likewise, if you have any questions or comments, we invite you to share them with us at chapelhillchurchofchrist.org.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ.