I don’t think so. It’s not in the New Testament. Thus, the early church didn’t have our tradition called “church membership.” So, during that first century there was no “joining a church.” People were members of a local church because that’s the group with which they assembled to worship God together and fellowship with one another. Of course, a church to them was a group of people, not a building.
This raises the question about how Christians decide on their church polity. Are we at liberty to decide such matters merely on the basis of the thinking of church leaders? Or are church leaders supposed to follow the practice of the early church as set forth in the New Testament as a guideline for church polity? Why do Protestants and other non-Catholic Christians claim sola scriptura (“only scripture”) regarding theology, yet they don’t usually say this about church practice? I admit that some issues, such as a presbyterian or episcopalian structure, are not easily settled from an examination of the New Testament (NT) data. (Most of it is in Paul’s letters; thus, they are churches Paul established or at least ministered to.) But it’s pretty easy to tell from the NT that the early Christians didn’t have our formal church membership.
What is traditional church membership? Usually, it is little more than subscription to a set of propositional beliefs set forth as a “creed” or “doctrinal statement.” Some church denominations, such as the Roman Catholic Church, have required its candidates for membership to be water baptized by its church authorities and perhaps undergo some theological instruction, such as the RCC’s Catechism, in order to attain full church membership. But there is no correlation of water baptism with a specific church in the NT or that church officials were required to administer water baptism. It is quite likely that those who evangelized also baptized, thus perhaps irrespective of church leadership.
And the NT churches clearly did not have creeds or doctrinal statements. This has been a big issue to some church denominations in church history. Thus, the Quakers, the Church of Christ, the Plymouth Brethren, and others have been non-creedal or anti-creedal due to this NT silence and what they have deemed as errors due to church membership. When discussing this subject, it has generally been asked, “What is essential belief in becoming a Christian?” or words to that effect. The NT does have what can be regarded as some creedal fragments. Confessing that “Jesus is Lord” is perhaps the main one (1 Cor. 12.3). Another is belief that Jesus died for our sins, was buried, and arose from the dead (1 Cor. 15.3-4). Another, for at least Jews, is to believe that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel (e.g., Acts 2.36). But the early church did not require adherence to detailed theological beliefs as so many church creeds have had.
One time I attended a Christian men’s retreat in Texas. It was hosted by the Fellowship Foundation centered in Washington, D.C. That group is most renowned for hosting the annual Presidential Prayer Breakfast. The keynote speaker was Dick Halverson, a D.C. pastor and the foremost leader of that group. He later became Chaplain to the U.S. Senate for over ten years. Dick was a wonderful fellow and a friend of mine. He said during one of his talks to us that “creeds have been the source of much sin in the church.” He never did elaborate. But I think he meant that churches differing on their theological doctrine and requiring members to adhere to these different intricacies was not right.
I have never joined a church. But I believe in the church. I have been a Christian almost all of my life. And I’ve always gone to church. I’ve disagreed with some things about the churches I’ve attended regularly throughout my life. But despite these disagreements, that has never prevented me from attending church. So, I don’t “throw out the baby with the bathwater.” More importantly, I believe in Christians worshipping God together and fellowshipping together no matter what the forum.
That’s what I mean by creating detailed creeds and doctrinal statements and requiring people to subscribe to them in order to join that church or parachurch organization. That divides the church–the body of Christ. The institutional church created church membership and creeds to get people to believe its propositions in opposition to what it deemed as heresy. Sometimes, that may have been necessary, but most times I think it was not and therefore it went beyond the NT. I believe I am a member of the church I attend regularly. Why? Jesus accepts me into his big church, and no one has a right given to him by Jesus to regard me as a non-member of the little church where I worship.
I used to live in metro-Houston. I once went to Dallas to have lunch at a restaurant with leaders of Dallas Theological Seminary upon their request. DTS is the main seminary in the world that promotes pretribulationism. During lunch I said to President Don Campbell, “your seminary educates men mostly for the purpose of them becoming pastors of churches. And you encourage them to tell congregants to read and study the Bible. But what if I study the Bible and decide my church is wrong about some doctrine the seminary taught that pastor, yet the seminary says it is not necessary to believe that doctrine to be a genuine Christian? And what if that doctrine is in that church’s creed or doctrinal statement? I can no longer be considered a member of that church, yet I’m still regarded as Christian?” Mr. Campbell answered promptly, “You just need to go find another church?” That’s my point. That’s why people say, “doctrine divides, but love unifies.”
Yes, there are other reasons for church membership. One reason is to get people committed to financially giving to the church. But I think the main reason is the peculiar doctrines upon which Christians disagree. I think it is not spiritually healthy for churches to have intricately-developed creeds. It is healthier to allow some freedom of thought. I would say the non-negotiables should be that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior and that he arose from the dead. Going much beyond that is getting into the sin territory the Honorable Dick Halverson was talking about.