Question: Does a Person Have to Be a Church Member?
Answer: The concept of church membership derives from the entire Old Testament relationship of God with His people, and from specific texts found in the New Testament: (The entire Bible is the word of God and we use the terms "OT and NT" merely as "handles" to help us know to which part of the Bible we are referring.)
In OT times God required every male among His people to be circumcised. If a man was not circumcised, he was not a member of the "church." That, in itself, helps us to know how important God ranks the fact of belonging to a recognized church. It goes without saying that no one who was not circumcised in the flesh, and thus not a member of God's church, could be one whom God called to ministry for Him.
But God also required that this physical act should point out the spiritual condition of the person's life.
Deut. 10:16 Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.
Deut. 30:6 The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and lives.
Jer 4:4 Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, circumcise your hearts, you men of Judah and people of Jerusalem, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done—burn with no one to quench it.
Many in Israel were so outwardly, and many in the church today are members outwardly as well. And though a person professes to be a Christian, or a member of the church, and yet is a hypocrite instead, makes it all the more important for us to stay connected with the church and refuse to fall into that code of conduct ourselves.
Membership in the church of Israel was required of those who believed in God as their Creator and Redeemer. And membership in the Israel of the NT is important as well.
In the New Testament church, even though physical circumcision was not required, Paul calls for a circumcision of the heart.
Rom 2:29 No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man's praise is not from men, but from God.
In this text Paul quotes Moses and other OT prophets which I mentioned above.
There are a number of references in the NT that point out that direct membership in the church was required of God's people:
A. Acts 2:41-47
Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.
Several points stand out here that point out that there was a list of members in the church:
1) In Verse 41 those who were members of the group who were later to be called "the Way" and "Christians," were specifically known to the Apostles. They were, in effect, the "church." If there were no way of keeping track of those who were "added" to the church, some of the core members could have been baptized over and over to make it appear that a thousand were baptized in one day. (I'm speaking facetiously as though I were one who is not truly a Christian!) But obviously that wouldn't be in tune with the gospel, so I believe that there was some way, perhaps, of keeping track of those who became members.
2) ". . . all that believed were all together and had all things in common." vs. 44. How did they know which had believed and which (beggars, perhaps) just saw a good opportunity to get in on a good thing if there were no way to keep track of such things?
3) Did they break bread at the houses of those who had refused to (or had not yet) been baptized? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But this implies that those who broke bread—and they in whose houses they broke it—were members of a core of believers who had been baptized.
4) The Lord added to the church (vs 47). What church? I believe that there were a definite group of known believers involved here. There may not have been a written list. But someone, perhaps all, in the group knew those who were members of the group—thousands though they may have been—and knew also those who were not members.
We also need to remember that it was not really a very popular thing to be among this "sect." In fact, not long after this incident, it became a capitol offense! Things like this could also be applied later in our study.
B. Acts 11:25, 26
Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.
1) Here again there is a specific group of people who are called the church. From the platform of that group, Saul and Barnabas taught "great numbers of people."
2) "The disciples were called Christians" Of whom were the non-believers talking when they called them Christians? There must have been some sort of organization—church. (And perhaps some way that they could be identified as members of this group. Of course, they were always speaking about Christ!)
C. All Paul's letters were addressed to specific churches—groups of believers who met together in order to encourage one another in the faith. I don't believe that any pagans (perhaps other than those who were Christian in name only as Paul points out in several places—Alexander, etc., (who turned out to be two-faced) who met with these people. There must have been some list of true believers either written or at least in the minds of those who were in charge of the church. In this respect also, It was possible to be put out of the church, as when Paul told the Corinthians to put out of the church the man who was living with his father's wife. (1 Cor. 5)
John uses the same concept when he writes to the churches of various places. (the letters of John, and the Revelation.)
D. The writer to the Hebrews pointed out that it was imperative for believers to meet together in order to buoy one another up.
Heb 10:25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
God has a church, and His faithful people will seek to become physical members of that group.