I’m always astounded by the number of people in my country who flock to churches on Sunday. If you asked the average Zambian if they go to church, they’d almost certainly answer in the affirmative. And I assume their answer would remain the same if you then asked them if they’re members of the church they attend. Unfortunately, few Zambian Christians understand formal church membership.

For many people, merely attending a church is equal to membership. It’s pretty standard for people to become members simply because they want to be buried well when they die.

For many, merely attending a church is equal to membership.

It’s safe to say there are varied reactions to the concept of formal church membership among Christians in Africa. These range from suspicion to confusion – even resentment. Thankfully, many others respond with joyful and obedient acceptance.

7 Reasons For Formal Church Membership

Churches in Africa—like churches throughout the world—need a biblical understanding and practice of church membership. This is necessary for seven reasons within the African context today.

For one, church membership is biblical. From this flow three other clear reasons for membership: faithful church government, effective church discipline, clear commitment to the community. The fifth reason is more specific to Africa: formal membership resolves a misleading sense of belonging. Sixth, church membership helps to fix the scourge of nominal Christianity. Lastly, church membership addresses the problems of relativism. I’ll explain each of these further in turn below.

1. Church Membership Is Biblical

It’s true, Scripture does not contain an explicit command to join a local church in formal membership. But a solid biblical case can be made for church membership in the New Testament. There are four clear examples of this in the book of Acts.

The idea of experiencing salvation without belonging to a local church is foreign to the New Testament.

In the early Church of Acts, coming to Christ meant coming to the Church. The idea of experiencing salvation without belonging to a local church is foreign to the New Testament. When individuals repented and believed in Christ, they were baptised and added to the Church (Acts 2:41, 2:47, 5:14, 16:5).

2. Faithful Church Government Needs Membership

The pattern throughout the New Testament is that elders are to oversee each local body of believers. The specific duties given to these elders presuppose a clearly defined group of church members under their care. Among other things, these men are to shepherd God’s people (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-3), to labour diligently among them (1 Thessalonians 5:12), to have charge over them (1 Timothy 5:17), and to keep watch over their souls (Hebrews 13:17).

Scripture teaches that the elders will give God an account for the individuals allotted to their charge (1 Peter 5:4). Furthermore, Scripture teaches that believers submit to their elders, for they will give an account for them (1 Peter 5:5).

How is this to be done if the elder is uncertain whether someone is under their charge or not?

3. Church Discipline Is Hard Without Membership

According to Matthew 18:15-20 and other New Testament passages (1 Corinthians 5:1-13; 1 Timothy 5:20; Titus 3:10-11), the exercise of church discipline presupposes that the church knows who the members are. Jesus says, “Tell it to the church” (Matthew 18:17). The outworking of discipline rests on the church knowing the members involved, as well as having the ability to exclude the guilty party in the case of unrepentant sin.

Yet you cannot be excluded from somewhere where you were never included in the first place!

The exercise of church discipline presupposes that the church knows who members are.

For example, the congregation at Faith Baptist Church Riverside have neither the responsibility nor the authority to discipline a member of the church down the street. Sadly, the widespread misunderstanding of church membership has made it very difficult for the pastors to practice discipline. The Bible’s teaching on church discipline assumes church membership.

4. Membership Helps Us Keep “One Another” Commands

The Church is the body of Christ. Every member is called to devote their lives to the growth of the church body. The scriptures call all members of the body to mutual edification by practising the “one another” commands. For example, we are to “love one another” (John 13:34) to “outdo one another in showing honour” (Romans 12:10) and be “encouraging one another” Hebrews 10:24-25).

This is also why Christians should exercise their spiritual gifts – to serve one another. For whatever these gifts might might be – serving, teaching, exhorting, giving, leading – we can use them to serve our fellow church members. (Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:4-7). Peter puts this so clearly in 1 Peter 4:10: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace”.

Exhortations to this kind of ministry presuppose that believers know each other and have committed themselves to one another in a specific local assembly. Church membership is the formal way to make that commitment. Church membership is biblical, even though it is presupposed in the New Testament. It is clear that the New Testament calls for meaningful church membership.

5. Membership Avoids Confusion About Belonging

African culture has a strong sense of belonging and community. The individual is defined and identified by the community they are a part of – not necessarily by their individuality. So, it’s not uncommon in Africa for people to be defined by their family name, school, company, town, or church.

We claim this sense of belonging even if we have no meaningful relationships. For identification with a group is sufficient. Therefore people easily identify with a church whether they’re members or not.

This strong sense of community makes church discipline a potentially divisive affair.

Furthermore, you have people who attend a church due to their family and friends. If someone’s parents are members, it’s often taken for granted that everyone else under their roof or in their family tree are too. When you consider the dynamics of extended families, it becomes clear that African churches are surrounded by potential landmines. For this strong sense of community makes church discipline a potentially divisive affair.

Two Real-life Examples of False Belonging

I can think of at least two ways in which I’ve seen this false sense of belonging play out.

Once, a young man who occasionally attended our church walked into my office. He was requesting a letter of recommendation. He ignored the fact that I did not know him at all.

On another occasion, I ran into a gentleman at the shopping mall. He was with a group of friends. Upon seeing me, he introduced me as his pastor from his church. But here’s the problem: this man had attended maybe four Sundays. He’s not a member. I’m not even sure he’s a Christian. But as far as he’s concerned, he belongs to our church. He’s a part of our family.

You end up with uncommitted or, in the worst case, unsaved “members”.

Lots of people think like this. In their minds, mere association with a Christian congregation is equal to being a member. Here’s the result: you end up with uncommitted or, in the worst case, unsaved “members.”

Church Is More Than A Social Gathering

That Africans are largely religious people simply compounds the problem. For many, the church is simply a social group. The church is simply viewed as a part of the community you’re expected to participate in.

Therefore, it’s imperative for pastors in Africa to intentionally explain what the church is. They must outline the requirements and expectations for membership. Publicly teaching about membership and its demands will clarify in people’s minds the distinction between members and non-members—perhaps it will even create the categories. We must allow the Bible to address our misleading sense of belonging.

6. Membership Combats Nominal Christianity

The misleading sense of belonging and confusion over church membership has tilled the ground for nominal Christianity. To make matters worse, my country (Zambia) is a constitutionally Christian nation. In many ways, this descriptor is superficial. It certainly doesn’t mean biblical values solely govern what we do. In fact, most Zambians are fine being identified as Christians. But they want nothing to do with the implications of following Christ. They want a Christianity that costs them nothing and makes no demands.

People want a Christianity that costs them nothing and makes no demands.

Meaningful church membership combats this confusing problem.

A Call To Covenant

Membership is a call to covenant with other believers so that you will walk alongside and support each other as you follow Jesus. Membership means intentionally putting yourself in discipling relationships, willingly submitting to a body of believers who provide accountability for you, and faithfully using your gifts to serve others and build them up in the faith. (See Romans 12:3-8; Hebrews 10:23-25).

Churches that practise biblical membership become uncomfortable for nominal Christians.

In essence, biblical church membership combats nominalism. Churches that practise biblical church membership become uncomfortable for nominal Christians. As they begin to hear and see the demands of membership – lovingly taught and faithfully practised – they will hopefully begin to examine their own relationship with Jesus and his people.

7. Membership Challenges Relativism

The effects of postmodernism have reached Africa. This shouldn’t be surprising, for traditional African religion doesn’t really teach exclusivity. But, as a result, many people who call themselves Christians reject both the sole authority of the Bible and the exclusivity of the gospel. This is because of the general belief that there are different ways to get to God.

This thinking is very dangerous. For people will embrace error and heresy as long as it has a religious flavour.

In the same vein, those who teach absolute truth and condemn error will be frowned upon. An emphasis on relativism also makes church discipline difficult, particularly when it comes to heretical views. People will readily excommunicate a murderer. But they’ll have reservations when it comes to a false teacher.

People will readily excommunicate a murderer. But they’ll have reservations when it comes to a false teacher.

Relativism harms the church, loosening its grip on the gospel across generations. Thankfully, this can be addressed by believers who have covenanted together in order to hold fast to sound doctrine and live out the things they believe. Church membership enables this kind of covenanting to one another, where the one member commits to the whole body, and the whole body commits to the one member.

Church Membership Grows Healthy Churches

The church in Africa needs to teach and practice biblical church membership because it helps address a false sense of community, nominal Christianity, and subtle relativism. Church membership is the right antidote to these problems because it provides clarity, structure, and protection for every individual member.

At a foundational level, church membership is biblical. It is instructive in Acts that the more devoted the members were to the body, the more the church grew spiritually and numerically. We will build strong, vibrant and healthy churches on the continent by practising biblical, loving church membership.