Dr. Couch, what is church membership and is it important?
ANSWER: In the early church we know by the epistles that the Christians in one town congregated in one assembly. While we do not read of any formal "membership" apparently the elders, and even Paul as the visiting apostle, exercised authority over all the believers in that community. So I guess to a degree, that was church membership, though today, we go through certain formalities that they may not have.
We know that as the church age progressed, the churches demanded baptism as a sign of belief and of membership in that community. In time, this became "baptismal regeneration" and baptism was necessary for salvation. Of course, this was not biblically correct but this is the way the churches controlled the people. Very early on, believers were becoming a part of the church as an organization, a physical body, that controlled all aspects of the believer's life.
It was the church father Cyprian who tied salvation to the church—soteriology and ecclesiology. For him salvation is a process that begins within the bosom of the church with conversion at baptism and continues within the church until death.
"Cyprian was one of the first church fathers to clearly and unequivocally affirm baptismal regeneration—the idea that salvation happens at and by water baptism duly administered by an ordained bishop or priest." (The Story of Christian Theology, Roger Olson) The high churches do this today but in a smaller sense, by requiring local "church baptism" and tying it to membership, other congregations are doing the same thing.
When one joins the local assembly I believe it is appropriate to ask about one's confession of Christ. And I believe it is okay to inquire if the one joining the church holds to the biblical beliefs of the congregation. Anyone is welcome to come to my church but if they are into the foolishness of amillennialism they will not be comfortable—nor would it be right for them to teach a Sunday school class, though they would still be invited to come and learn the truth and sit under the ministry of the Word of God! And warm fellowship would be the order of the day for any who darken the door! Through the church the Word of God must go forth and be available at no charge!
Thanks for asking.
Dr. Mal Couch