Does the New Testament teach the necessity of placing church membership? Yes. It does by example and by implication. I think that those who like to argue this point by insisting that they are members of the church universal, and not tied down to any particular church, are looking for a command that says, “Thou shalt place membership with a congregation.” Short of that kind of explicit directive they see no need to be so obligated, and will maintain their freedom to be driftwood. Consequently they will often contribute very little to the church where they are except for criticism and caustic invectives. Placing membership with a church is essential for the following reasons:
For Reasons of Church Organization
The church of Christ, in its universal sense, is the general spiritual body over which Jesus Christ is the head and every Christian is a member (Matt. 16:18; Col. 1:18, 24; Eph. 1:22). There is no such thing in the Bible as becoming a Christian and “joining” the church later. The Lord adds the saved to the church (Acts 2:47).
There are times, in the New Testament, when the word church indicates a congregation of the disciples which comes together on the first day of the week to observe the Lord’s Supper and engage in other acts of public worship (Acts 20:7; Rom. 16:5). Each congregation is independent. Paul addressed the church at Philippi saying, “Paul and Timothy, servants of Jesus Christ, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons” (1:1). Saints are members who work together in that given locality. These could not possibly have been just members at large. Bishops are elders, or overseers, of that local church (1 Tim. 3:1-7). Deacons are qualified servants in that congregation (1 Tim. 3:8-10). The New Testament knows nothing of any organization either larger or smaller than the congregation in doing the Lord’s work.
For Reasons of Involvement
If someone feels that he has no Scriptural reason to identify himself with a congregation, it is well to ask how he or she can contribute to the work of that church? There is no obligation that he feels to be involved in the work. There is no accountability to a group of elders. There is no loyalty to a home congregation. There can be no joint participation if everyone is disjointed in terms of church membership obligations! Remember that Phoebe was involved with the church in Cenchrea as one of its members (Rom. 16:1).
For Reasons of Oversight
Churches of Christ who have qualified men should have a plurality of elders overseeing the work of that congregation (Acts 14:23; Tit. 1:5). These bishops are to shepherd the local flock. They do not have jurisdiction over any other congregation (Acts 20:28).
Picture, if you will, the following scenario. Mr. Jones moves from one community (town or city) to another. He was laboring under the oversight of the elders of congregation A where he lived formerly. Since he no longer lives in that town, it is not possible that the elders of congregation A can continue to watch in behalf of his soul, as they are obligated to do (Heb. 13:17). Mr. Jones needs to find another faithful congregation (congregation B) and let his desire to work and worship with them be known. This is what we mean by the expression “place membership.” Actually, brother Jones is a member of the body of Christ wherever he may go. Yet, he cannot function under the oversight of two congregations at once, or of all congregations (such as “the church at large” idea would suggest). It is amazing how some brethren fail to understand this elementary principle of Scripture. Such an unscriptural scenario was illustrated in a church bulletin I once received, wherein I read of a deacon and his family leaving one congregation and going to another in the same city. The announcement said, “There is no other reason other than we both feel this is what we need and what we want to do. ________ will always be our ‘Church Home’…It’s just worshipping at a different location of the Lord’s body.”
Brethren need to identify themselves with a congregation and work specifically under the oversight of those elders. How can elders watch for the souls of persons without knowing those who are committed to their care? Also, how can elders exercise the divinely given function of oversight unless persons submit to that oversight? Those brethren who prate against the idea of placing membership in a local congregation actually oppose the Lord’s design.
For Reasons of Apostolic Example
Soon after his conversion Saul (Paul) worked with the church in Damascus: “And when he had received food he was strengthened. Then Saul spent some days with the disciples at Damascus. Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God. Then all who heard were amazed, and said, ‘Is this not he who destroyed those who called on this name in Jerusalem, and has come here for that purpose, so that he might bring them bound to the chief priests?’ But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 9:18-22). From there he sought to identify himself with the church in Jerusalem: “And when Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. And he declared to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus. So he was with them at Jerusalem, coming in and going out” (Vss. 26-28).
The disciples comprised the church in Jerusalem. To “join” them in their meetings, to work and be recognized as a member among them is like our “placing membership” with a congregation today. To “join the disciples” is not the same as becoming a Christian. That occurred when Saul was immersed into Christ for the remission of sins (Acts 9:17-18; 22:16). To “join the disciples” is not the same as “joining a denomination,” since Protestant denominations did not exist in New Testament times (1 Cor. 12:13, 27).
Is placing membership in a church necessary? It is indeed! Is it Scriptural? Absolutely! The New Testament teaches that we are to be in a congregation, subject to the leadership of the elders, involved in that work and supportive of the Lord’s cause in that place.