Bible-based | Christ-centered | Family-focused | Mission-minded
When the church of our Lord began on the Day of Pentecost, some 2000 years ago, a few thousand people became new members when they were baptized. The Bible says they were, “praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:47). Later, in Act 5:14, it says, “And believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women.” This indicates that within a very short amount of time, the church of Christ in Jerusalem grew to a very large number of congregants. The church continued to grow when “those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the won!’ (Acts 8:4). For the next several years, churches of Christ were planted in Samaria (Acts 8), Damascus (Acts 9), Caesarea (Acts 10), Antioch (Acts 11), and “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 13 and forward). In the first century, there were churches of Christ in many cities with many members making up the various congregations (cf Acts 9:31; Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:1,19).
With so many churches and so many congregants, there were times when some members would move from one place to another, leaving one congregation and joining with another. For example, Priscilla and Aquila are identified as disciples in Corinth who had come from Italy (Acts 18:1-2; Romans 16:3). They are also seen in Ephesus (Acts 18:24-26). So, how did they change churches, or move their membership? Did they have to be rebaptized each time they moved and went to a new congregation? What was the procedure? This is an important topic because many have been curious about this, asked me about it, or inquired what must one do to “join the church here at Margaret Street.” So, let’s answer the question.
First of all, as we have noted, God adds one to the church when they are saved by obeying the Gospel. It is not through us or any other means. Putting on Christ in baptism makes one a member of what is known as the “church universal,” which is the body of Christ (Gal 3:27; Col 1:18; 2 Tim 2:10). His body consists of all members and all congregations throughout the entire world. This means that as a baptized believer, you and I have brethren all around the globe. You can walk into a church of Christ in any country on earth and instantly have a family connection because “there is one body” (Ephesians 4:4) which makes up the “household of God” (Ephesians 2: 19).
Secondly, the Bible gives us guidance in passages like, Romans 16:1-2. Our brother, Burton Coffman explains, “The first two verses here are an apostolic example of what is called today a ‘church letter,’ or letter of recommendation borne by a Christian transferring from one place to another.” It seems that Phoebe had moved to Rome and was planning to assimilate herself into that congregation. Paul was verifying, by written letter, that she was a faithful member of the church and would be a valuable asset to the membership there. Thus, she “transferred” her membership from one congregation to another. Phoebe was already a member of the Lord’s church through her baptism. In this passage, we learn that she was changing locations of where she would worship and serve.
Thirdly, this is how it still works today. When various members of the church move from one town to another because of a job change, a desire to be closer to family, or a host of other reasons, they will seek out a congregation in that local area to join. This is often referred to as “placing membership” with that church. As we have seen from the above examples, if they are already members of the body of Christ, all they are doing is transferring the location of where they will worship and serve. Another way of looking at this is to consider that they are moving the oversight of their souls, by one eldership, to that of another eldership (cf Hebrews 13:17). It does not require being baptized again, but instead, a letter of recommendation, or a meeting with the eldership to verify that they are, indeed, faithful disciples. If their baptism and faithfulness is confirmed, then they are identified as “placing membership.”