An open-air preacher should be a church member because the Bible expects every Christian to be a part of a church. After reading this sentence, some of you may have this thought, “The term ‘church membership’ is not found in the Bible. It is an extra-Biblical concept.” Before I answer this objection, let me remind you of cultural factors. As Americans, we live in a hyper-individualistic society which chooses autonomy and freedom over community and submission. This contrasts with Asian cultures who think of themselves in terms of a group and not as individuals.
Why do I bring this up? I think that our American culture has unknowingly infected many open-air preachers. They argue against church membership so that they can be unaccountable. This leads to isolated individuals who do not have a community to encourage them, correct them, rebuke them, and watch out for them. This results in a Christian without a flock and without a shepherd. They are sheep unprotected from the devil who “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8)
Is church membership Biblical? While it is true that the term “church membership” is not found in the Bible, the concept is commanded. The New Testament gives four necessities which cannot be followed without being committed to a local church.
1. Love One Another
Romans 12:10 says, “Love one another with brotherly affection.” Paul wrote this epistle to the church in Rome. As a local church, Paul is telling them to love one another. They must show affection towards their brothers and sisters in Christ. In verses 15-16, Paul continued to say, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another.” These believers are living life together and not in isolation. Since Christians still sin, they will need to be reminded to show love and to live in harmony with one another. They must be invested since they will rejoice and will weep with a fellow believer in the body.
How can a believer follow Paul’s exhortation if he is not committed to a fellowship of believers? To whom is he commanded to show brotherly love? To whom is he ordered to live in harmony? While he should do this with all Christians, to whom is he especially responsible? How can an individual be rebuked for the sin of omission when they do not do this? Should a Christian in America be rebuked for not weeping and crying with a Christian in Iran whom they have never met? Or should they be corrected for not doing this with the believers in their local church?
2. Christians Are Commanded to Meet With One Another For Worship
Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
The author of the letter to the Hebrews warns these Christians to keep meeting together. There have been reports that some people have stopped coming together to worship. By disobeying the Lord, they are failing to serve the body through stirring up one another for good works and encouraging one another.
Clearly the local churches knew who were expected to attend the meetings. When they stopped coming, they were disobeying this command. How are the thousands of pastors in America supposed to know who is expected to come to worship on Sunday? How do they know who they should pursue for non-attendance? Without a defined membership, the pastors have no basis to rebuke someone for their sin. Second, a lone wolf Christian cannot justify staying at home by himself since he is not gathering with fellow believers to serve and be served.
3. Church Discipline Requires Church Membership
1 Corinthians 5:1-5 states, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father's wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”
Paul warns the church in Corinth about their ungodly reputation. He has received reports that a man is committing sexual immorality with his step-mom. Instead of performing church disciple on the man, the church is condoning it. Notice that Paul is assuming a local congregation with members. In verse 1, the sexual immorality is “among you.” What is the antecedent of you? It is the church in Corinth. Second, Paul commands the church to deliver the man to Satan. When are they to do this? They must perform this action when they are assembled. When the members of the church in Corinth meet, then they will remove the man from the body.
How can a person be removed from the body if they are not in the body? Matthew 18:15-20 commands the church to remove membership for an unrepentant sinner. A person must first be a member of the church before they can be removed from that church. Paul assumes that the man belongs to the local church in Corinth. Therefore, his behavior is an ungodly reflection upon the church and the Lord Jesus Christ. If you are a lone wolf open-air preacher, how can you ever be the subject of church discipline if you are not a part of a church?
4. Christians Are Commanded to Obey Their Leaders
Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
Christians have a responsibility to obey their leaders. The leaders are responsible to watch over their souls, because they will have to give an account. Notice that Christians are responsible to obey their leaders. They do not have to submit to leaders from another church. In the same vein, leaders are not responsible for every Christian. They are only shepherds for the Christians under their care. If there is no church membership, then how does a leader know who are the people for whom he must give an account?
When I student taught U.S history in college, the regular teacher gave me a class roster. When the class began, I had to go through the roll and take attendance. Then, I would put the attendance sheet outside on the classroom. During those fifty minutes, I was responsible only for the students in my classroom. The principal would not hold me accountable for the behavior of the students in biology. They were under another teacher’s authority. At the same time, the students were expected to listen and follow my instructions. Since they were in my class, I had the authority. If Mr. Jones allowed his biology class to talk, it did not carry over to my classroom. My rules were different.
In the same way, leaders must know who are their responsibility. Christians must know who they are accountable to follow. The writer assumes that every Christian has a leader to whom they must submit. There is no room in Christianity to be leaderless. If you listen to John MacArthur sermons, it does not mean that he is your leader. He is not responsible for your soul since you listen to his messages. He is only responsible for the members of his church. Membership is a covenant between the church, the leaders, and the new member. The church makes a covenant to love and encourage the new member. The leaders make a covenant to watch over the new member and give an account. The new member makes a covenant to love and encourage his fellow church members and to submit to the leadership of the church.
If you are a lone wolf open-air preacher, please name me the leader who is watching out for your soul? Who is the leader that will give an account for your life? Who is the leader to whom you are commanded to submit? Who is the leader who has the authority to tell you “No!?” Who is the leader that can confront you for your sin out of love for your soul? If you are not a member of a church, then you are a sheep without a shepherd.
Pastor Brandon was born and raised near Springfield, IL. He graduated from Illinois College in 2007 with a B.A. in History, from Moody Theological Seminary in 2010 with a Master of Divinity, and a PhD in Historical Theology in 2021 from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City. He is also an ACBC certified Biblical counselor. He is married to Karise with whom they raise Ian, Elizabeth, and Patrick. He is interested in history, especially Charles Spurgeon, and has a heart for street preaching and evangelism.