Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
August 13, 1950

Church Membership

James W. Rushing, Overton, Texas

Many members of the church have some definitely sectarian conceptions in regard to church membership. One of the most prevalent is the belief that a Christian has to go through some formal process of "moving his letter" before his membership is changed from one local congregation to another.

That very expression is often used, and at other times the same idea comes out in a conversation such as the one I had with a lady recently. I had never seen her before, so after the services I introduced myself and asked her to sign a visitor's card. She took it but remarked, "Well, I'm not really a visitor. I'm a member of the church and used to live here several years ago. We've moved back now."

I said that I was glad she was back and hoped that she would not delay identifying herself with the congregation.

Her reply was, "Oh, my membership is still here. I never did move it."

Whether a member of the church realizes it or not, his membership moves when he moves. A local congregation is made up of the Christians who assemble and work together in any place. When a person moves and ceases to worship and work with a congregation, his membership in that congregation terminates whether he takes any formal action in the matter or not. He becomes one of the Christians living in the locale to which he moves, therefore, part of the body of Christ in that place. If he does not identify himself as a member of the church where he moves, that does not mean that he is still a member of the congregation back where he did live, but only that he is not a faithful member of the congregation where he now resides.

Even if no congregation meets in the vicinity of his new home, the situation is not altered. Moving into an area where there is no church, the Christian becomes the church in that place and must carry on the worship and preaching the gospel to the best of his ability as he strives to build up the church there. The idea that a Christian can sit idly at home or attempt to worship with some denomination when he finds himself in a place where there are no Christians is Satan's own invention.

The elders of a congregation are responsible for watching in behalf of the souls of the members of that congregation. Elders of a congregation in Dallas cannot watch in behalf of the soul of one who moves to Los Angeles; and certainly the elders there cannot watch in behalf of the soul of one who never lets it be known that he is a Christian and has moved there. One who thinks that he can maintain membership in a congregation when he has moved away and is no longer under the oversight of the elders there, is deluded.

And this principle needs to be included in considering the discussion of missionary work and "sponsoring" congregations. Can Christians in Africa be members of a congregation in Nashville, Tennessee? Can Christians in Frankfurt, Germany be members of a congregation in Lubbock, Texas? I believe not; and if they cannot, how can any of them be under the oversight of the elders of those congregations?

Christians make up local congregations, large or small, wherever they live and assemble together. Christians in Frankfurt, one or one thousand, Americans and Germans, make up the church of the Lord in that place. Since they do make up a congregation, the elders of the congregation in Lubbock may certainly require evidence of soundness and diligence from anyone whom they support, but they cannot have control of the church there without being elders of two (or more) congregations, an unscriptural practice.

I do not intend the foregoing as an accusation, but as an illustration. The idea that one or more preachers can be "under the oversight" of elders thousands of miles away is ridiculous. The evangelist may be dependent on a congregation far away for financial support and advice, but I cannot see how he can be a member of it, or scripturally under its elders if he is not a member.

Did Paul continue to be a member of the church at Antioch simply because he set out on his evangelistic journey from there? Was Apollos a member of the church at Ephesus and under its elders while preaching in Achaia because the brethren in Ephesus recommended him?

Some might be inclined to protest that the elders of a congregation have a right to oversee a work they are financially supporting, but I would ask for the scripture. Did the church at Philippi oversee the congregation being built up in Thessalonica when they supported Paul in that work? As mentioned before, a congregation would certainly want to be as sure as it is humanly possible to be of the soundness and diligence of one whom it supports, but right there its authority in far places ends.