Dusty Owens

From time to time, through conversation with the brethren and through various publications, I keep hearing and reading the expression, "placing membership." People talk about "moving their membership" from this congregation to that congregation; "leaving membership in their home congregation," while they temporarily "attend another church;" and some elders require of brethren who begin meeting with them, "placing membership" before they can officially oversee them. What do we mean when we express ourselves in this manner, and where do we find such language in the scriptures? Did the New Testament Christians practice such things? It seems to me that if we really are trying to "speak where the Bible speaks, and remain silent where the Bible is silent," then we should either find the scripture that authorizes such practice and speech, or forever dispense with its usage.

Trying to justify this practice on the basis of Acts 9:26, some preachers contend that Paul was attempting to "place membership" with the church in Jerusalem. "And when he was come to Jerusalem, he assayed to join himself to the disciples: and they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple." Now it seems to me, that we have here an extreme demonstration of twisting a passage to suit one's pleasure. Read the passage again. Does it say that Paul was trying to "place membership" with the church at Jerusalem? At best, all we can understand from this verse is that Paul wanted to be accepted by the saints in Jerusalem and they were wary of him. But, he did not need their acceptance to be an apostle of Jesus Christ nor to carry out the charge given to him by our Lord (Gal. 1:11-24; 2:1-10). Neither did Paul's salvation depend on their acceptance nor his "placing membership," for he understood his salvation to come by the grace of God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and "not of works, that no man should glory" (Eph. 2:8-9). Paul had this salvation at least three years before he ever saw the disciples in Jerusalem (Gal. 1:18-24). To get the idea that Paul was "placing membership" with the church at Jerusalem from Acts 9:26, we would have to turn to it with our practice already in place, and read our preconceived notion into the verse.

Some see the idea of "membership" in the figure of the "body of Christ." Since we are all "members of the body," then would we not have "membership?" No, we must not confuse the two ways in which "member" is used in our language. "Member" is used as "A bodily part or organ, especially a limb," and it is used as "a person comprising a society or community" (Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary). My hand is a member of my body, but no one talks of it as "having membership" in my body. On the other hand, I belong to the Rotary Club, "a person comprising a society or community;" therefore a member of the club, I enjoy (have) membership in that club.

"Body of Christ" is a figure of speech. Throughout the Ephesian letter, Paul talked about the people of God, the church, as if they were the human body of Jesus Christ. He emphasized the fact that "there is one body" (Eph. 4:4). In writing to the saints in Corinth, he used the same figure of speech, again emphasizing that there is only "one body" (1 Cor. 12:12-31). Now, IN THIS FIGURE OF THE BODY, each saint is pictured as A MEMBER OF THE BODY. IN THIS FIGURE, each member is used as "a bodily part or organ," not as "a person comprising a society or community."

The concept is never found in the Bible that as a "member of the body:" we hold "membership" in the body, no more than we can say that our "hand" holds "membership" in our human body. We should not entertain, nor express, the thought that we "hold membership" in the Lord's body. Since there is no such thing as "holding membership" in the Lord's body, ONE CANNOT PLACE MEMBERSHIP IN IT. We should stop talking about "placing membership," "changing membership," etc.

Someone may think that since the "body" is the church, and we read about "members of the body," why is it not accurate to speak of being "members of the church?" If we are "members of the church," then we would hold "membership" in the church, would we not? Then, we could speak of "placing membership," etc.

No, the fallacy in the reasoning process here is that one is treating the two different meanings of "member" as if they were interchangeable. They are not. Look at Webster's definitions of the word "member" again. "Members" of a human body (hand, foot, eye, ear, etc.) cannot be treated as identical to the "members" of a society or community (persons). If one speaks of a part of the human body as a "member," we do not understand him ALSO to mean "a person of the society or community.'' You cannot attach two entirely different meanings of a word to the word every time you see it. That violates all rules of grammar, as well as common sense. Paul personified the hand, foot, eye, ear, etc., of the human body and referred to them figuratively, but HE NEVER TALKED ABOUT THEM AS BEING MEMBERS OF THE CHURCH! Nowhere do we find from the inspired pen the hint of saints being "members of the church," "belonging to the church," or any such idea! I'm afraid that once again we are guilty of picking up the loose language of the denominational world, religious people who are not committed to using "sound words," and "combining spiritual things with spiritual words" (1 Tim. 1:13; I Cor. 2:10-14).

Belonging to the Church

We often hear expressions like, "We belong to the church," or "What church do you belong to?" What do we mean when we talk like this? The word, "belong," may be used in the sense of sustaining a relationship to others. Now, if that is what we mean by "belonging to the church," we may be right technically, but actually leaving a wrong impression with someone. Again, we might use "belong" in the sense of possession, but who among us believes that the church has a right to possess him. Certainly, we do not wish to convey this idea to anyone. We should know that we do not "belong" to the church, we "belong" to Christ who bought us. And, if we mean that "we belong to the church" in the same way that we "belong" to a civic organization and "hold membership" in it, then, I believe we have false concept of the church of our Lord.

I stated earlier that I am a Rotarian. I BELONG to the Rotary Club. I am a MEMBER of the Rotary club and therefore, hold MEMBERSHIP. The Rotary Club is an institution, or organization, an entity that is a functional unit, body corporate. It is chartered by man's law and enjoys all the privileges that any other corporation does under the law of the land. This institution can exist and be referred to in the abstract, that is, in a sense that it is separate and apart from the people that make up its membership.

Now, I have said all that to say this. The church of our Lord Jesus Christ is NOT like a "club." It is NOT a "something that can exist and be referred to in the abstract." It is NOT "an institution, an entity that is a functional unit, body corporate." It is NOT something you can "get into," like an automobile that can take you somewhere. The church is NOT "something MORE THAN the saints that make it up," as many preachers are advocating today. IT IS THE SAINTS! That is it, period. The church is people.

When one talks of the church as being something in the abstract, an institution, he is talking about a church that is not found in the pages of holy writ. He is talking about a concept of the church that is identical to the Catholic Church or many of the protestant churches. He is talking about a "club" concept, such as the Rotary Club. This is the concept many of us have driven home in our sermons and class lessons over the last fifty years. No wonder then, that we have so many people talking about "placing membership," "transferring membership," "holding membership," "temporary membership," "dual membership," "being members of the church," and "belonging to the church," as if it were some kind of religious club cut from the same material and formed by the same pattern as some civic organization.

Tip of the Iceberg

In this article we are calling to your attention something much more serious than getting things said correctly. What we are talking about goes to the heart of a grave problem, of which the concepts of "placing membership" is but the tip of the iceberg. Let us look closer at what is being practiced today.

With the institutional concept of the church, comes the division of the people into the leadership (preachers and elders) and those being led (laity). In every institutional church I know, the terms clergy and laity are readily admitted and used. Those of the Church of Christ (all splinter groups), who insist that the church is an institution, hate these terms with a passion. They deny that we have a clergy system in thc Church of Christ today, yet they demonstrate with their actions and with their speech, both of which betray them, that they function as most clergy have historically.

The clergy of an institutional church assumes and teaches that all authority here on earth has been delegated to them by Christ, and they have the exclusive right to make all final decisions among the brethren (laity). Endowed with "Divine authority," these men take charge of all the assets of the institutional church, which include properties, buildings, bank account(s), etc. Managerial duties take up most of their time. Their "authority" often covers "sole regulation of the thermostat,'' "shutting out the lights," and "locking the doors" of the "church-building."

The clergy of the institutional church demands complete control over "church membership." Herein lies the great problem for God's people everywhere. These men who want to control and command insist on determining what "truth" is for everyone. They know that if the institutional church is to survive, one standard must be settled upon and followed. Mostly preachers and some elders are the ones who hammer out what will be accepted as "truth," and what will be rejected. The laity is expected to follow what the clergy has decided for them. Some preachers and elders have been heard to advise "their flock" that they should not read certain magazines, nor listen to particular teachers because they (the flock) are not "learned enough in the scriptures.'' I heard something just like that from the Catholic Clergy over 30 years ago as a member of that institution. Many people have stopped studying their Bibles and are relying solely on what the preachers and elders tell them. Too many have left too much for the preachers and elders to decide. The logical consequence of this kind of thinking is fightings and divisions, more righting and more divisions, as the lines are drawn tighter and tighter. Does this sound familiar? Do you know why the Church of Christ is splintered into so many segments today? The more our religious leaders assume control over, the tighter the doctrinal lines are drawn around it, and the more fighting and dividing result. Sad, isn't it?

If "final authority" of the clergy is the key to the institutional church concept, control of the "church membership" is the lock...and the preachers and elders have a "lock" on "church membership." They lay down the requirements of "membership." You thought Christ did? They determine what "truth" is for everyone, and if someone comes along that does not agree with them, but sees "truth" in a different light, "membership" is refused. If not refused, one is treated to "second-class membership," which means he is not allowed to participate in the "worship service." Do you really think God is pleased with those kinds of shenanigans!?

"Placing membership" is vital to the system that permits the domination of elders. I know of several cases where Christians thought it best to leave one congregation and go to another. They were told by the elders that they had to "place membership" if they were to be accepted, and even then, the elders could not state whether they would be accepted or not. The Christians objected to the "placing of membership" concept because it is not scripturally based. They were told by the elders that "placing membership" was another way of saying, "I am willing to put myself in subjection to your rule and authority." The disciples again refused to "place membership," but said they would like to assemble with the saints there. The elders responded, "You leave us no choice. We will not be able to call on you to pray, sing, administer the Lord's Supper, or teach a class. Furthermore, you cannot expect any help from us if you need it. We are only authorized to oversee THIS flock. Since you cannot be a member here officially without placing membership, we can accept no responsibility for your souls." Such is the institutional church concept. Absolute control over the "church membership" is vital to its survival. "Placing membership" is just the tip of the iceberg!

There are a lot of good men all over this country that serve faithfully as preachers and elders among the people of God. They do not believe in the institutional church concept with all its Romish trappings. Naturally, I did not have them in mind in writing this article. They know who they are, and I am sure that they will amen my thoughts. Also, they know that far too many men are leading the Lord's people into another institutional church!


Let me encourage you to develop a love and appreciation for the word of God. Learn to rely upon it for your understanding and not upon the wisdom of men. Certainly, God intended for us to have teachers, but He warned us "to prove the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world" (I John 4:1).

Develop the habit of using Bible words and expressions for things instead of the words and expressions of the religious world. "If any man speaketh, speaking as it were oracles of God" (1 Peter 4:11).

Stand firm against any innovations such as the institutional church, but do it with the right spirit, a spirit of meekness and gentleness. Realize that no man has a monopoly on the truth of God. Also, we need a spirit of compassion and tolerance for those with whom we disagree. "Make full my joy, that ye be of the same mind, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind; doing nothing through faction or through vain-glory, but in lowliness of mind each counting other better than himself; not looking each of you to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others" (Phil. 2:2-4).