Church Membership in the Early Church



Recently a lady told me God had reveled to her that their church should have no membership since the early church had no membership.  Is she right?   Membership is a hot topic today.  Some denominations are trying to decide if practicing homosexuals can be members of their church.  Other denominations have long ago accepted the idea of “membership as the mission field not the mission force” and thus accept anybody who wants to join into membership, including practicing gay a lesbians.  These more open denominations fight about ordaining gays (or elevating then to a bishop) and not about membership standards.   Still other denominations (like my own the Wesleyans) have strict membership standards (often with twice as many attendees as members) but we are pondering changes in our membership standards that still include a ban on gambling, alcohol and tobacco. Conservative ministers in liberal denominations are aghast that we are still debating lottery tickets while they are fighting about gay bishops! 


In the ongoing debates people often toss the Bible and early church history around as arguments for this or that position.  So in the interest of truth this article outlines how the early church actually practiced membership matters.


1. At the very beginning of the church all the converts were already members.  The first Christians were Jews and thus already were “members” of the Jewish faith and Christianity was not considered a separate religion.   “Becoming a Christian” was for them a matter of belief—believing that Jesus was indeed the promised messiah of Israel.   The Jews already had a strict behavioral code and thus candidates needed little “cleaning up.”   In fact at first there was nothing to “take them in” to.  The “church” at first acted like a Jewish sect that hoped to convince all Jews that Jesus was the messiah.  As soon as a Jew believed the gospel they were baptized and became a part of the house fellowship of other Christian Jews.  They needed no instruction on the existence of one God or even on how to live a moral life—in some ways the Jewish lifestyle was stricter than the Christian standard would be.  A “convert” at the very beginning had a short trip to “membership” in the Christian group—believe and be baptized—both of these could be accomplished in one day.  These converts’ membership induction was more like joining a small group today and thus Jewish evangelism falls short as a model for today’s membership standards debates, though it is often used by those interested in liberalizing denominational positions. 


2. As the church spread to the gentiles “belief” became another matter.  When Christianity started spilling over onto the gentiles10-15 years later, things changed.  Christian missionaries to the gentiles like Paul, Barnabas, Silas and others faced a whole new set of problems. The first problem was the gentiles were polytheistic—they believed in many gods.  They were inclined toward add-a-god religion—their gods were specialized—one for the sea, another for celebrations, and another managed pregnancies and still others dealt with healing or protection.   They figured it never hurt to add a new specialist-god to your collection.  Thus gentile evangelists could get people to “pray the prayer” fairly easily, but they soon discovered gentiles were merely adding Jesus into their pantheon of other gods. That didn’t satisfy Christian (or Jewish) theology. When the Apostles worked with Jews they did not have to get them to abandon their God—just accept Jesus as the Messiah and son of this God.  However, when the apostles evangelized the gentiles they had to get them to both unbelieve and believe. They had to get the gentiles to both confess unbelief in their present Gods and belief in the One True God.  This, of course, is why the early Christians were considered atheists in the Gentile world.  Making members out of the gentiles took time—to convince them of the uselessness of their Gods and the exclusivist claims of Christianity. Fixing their beliefs was hard work.


3. But apostles to the gentiles had an even bigger problem—the gentile’s behavior.  Evangelists to the Jews had it easy when it came to behavior—most Jews already behaved, or at least knew how to behave.  The gentile “dogs” were different.  They were called dogs by the Jews because they had the morals of a wandering dog, especially relating to sex.  The gentiles visited shrine prostitutes like people go golfing today—they had little remorse or guilt.  Lasciviousness was “normal” and telling a Corinthian he needed to stop visiting the temple prostitutes to be a Christian would be similar to telling people today they have to give up golfing to become a Christian.   Evangelism among the Jews was like converting life-long church attendees at youth camp (with the same problem too—heard-heartedness).  On the other hand, evangelism among the gentiles was like winning prostitutes off the streets in Las Vegas.  So what did the apostles to do?  If they had followed the pattern of Jewish evangelism they would have simply preached Christ, invited people to believe in Him as messiah, baptized them that afternoon, then took them into the fellowship of the Christians that evening for the common meal. In fact they did do this among the Jews of the Diaspora and they may have even been hasty in baptizing gentiles at first (perhaps this is why Paul goes to great lengths to instruct the Corinthian members that they should quit going to the prostitutes?)  But eventually the apostles and missionaries to the gentiles had to slow the process down to filter out the easy believism of add-a-god people and to clean up the lives of the gentile “dogs” before taking them into the church.  So what did they do?


4. The church delayed baptism among the gentiles and introduced membership training.  Since baptism was the entry point into the church it was withheld until candidates got their beliefs and behavior straightened out.  Here was the general procedure about the time the final books of the New Testament were being written:


All of this was in place before the close of the New Testament. We are not talking here of what the church did in 200 or after Constantine in 350, but we are describing what the church did in the first century –while some of the New testament was still being written.


5.      So what does all this tell us about the current membership debate?  I don’t know—that’s up to you. I’ve done my job: translating the best scholarship into a readable article for ordinary church leaders.  Now it is your turn to decide if these things matter.  And in the process you’ll have to determine how much authority you give the early church practices. There are dozens of positions along a continuum but the clearest ones are:


a.       The Bible primitivist position.  This position says there is nothing whatsoever authoritative in the Didache or any other document from the early church—only the books in the canon can tell us anything.  This position assumes we should pattern our worship, organization, baptism, Lord’s Supper and membership after only what we clearly see in the New Testament.  The most radical group goes even further saying that nothing should be done that is not explicitly reported in the New Testament (which is why some primitivists reuse to have any musical instruments in worship).  The bible primitivists usually believe their present worship and practice is most close to what the actual New Testaments church did.  So the above description that uses sources of church history is irrelevant to them—only what they read in the canon has any authority for them. Hard or “radical restorationists” fit in this position.  To them the above article is meaningless for membership issues for they do not let authority extend beyond AD 90 [1]

b.      The “soft restorationist” position. This position says we should restore as far as possible the practices of the early church as recorded in the Bible and in the first hundred years or so before Constantine ruined Christianity.  This group assumes the early church “had it right” or at least had it best.  They would say we ought to call our elders elders and our deacons deacons and baptize people however they see it done in the New Testament, mostly in Acts. This group is softer than the Bible primitivists though for they accept the first hundred years of church history as also guidance for “the best way to do Church.” 

c.       The “That was then, this is now” position. This position says that all we need to keep is the theology of the early church and we are free to “do church” just about any way we want to “serve this present age.”  This position is interested in what the early church did but does not give it more than 10% of the votes—our culture is much too different today to practice what they did.  This the That-was-then, this-is-now people feel membership decisions are up to us now based on the theology of the early church, not its practices.


Everyone leans toward one end of this spectrum or the other.  Toward which position do you tilt?  Challenge: craft a single statement reflecting your own view on this.



Keith Drury  December 20, 2004



è The next article in this series is “Membership standards in the Didache



[1] Well this is not totally accurate—they must grant a one-time authority later for the canonization process that extended several hundred years.