Why Church Membership Matters

This article is based on a sermon I preached on 23 September 2018, on the occasion of a new Christian joining our congregation.

Church membership is important. You’ve probably heard it before. But, why is it important? To frame the issue before I answer, I’d like to use an analogy.

The war in the European theater began when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. The Germans quickly overran the hapless Poles, some of whose army units even launched suicidal, mounted cavalry charges against tanks. Nearly nine months of uneasy calm followed, then, the Germans invaded France and the Low Countries in May 1940. In short order, they found themselves masters of Western Europe. Only Britain stood alone, but its army was forced to abandon most of its equipment on the beaches as it frantically evacuated the continent.

The US entered the war in December 1941 and began pouring men and material into Britain. The ground effort against Nazi Germany began with Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942, and then in Sicily in July 1943. However, while the ground forces attacked this “soft underbelly” of Europe, British and American flyers began a campaign to destroy German industry by means of round the clock bombings. The British flew at night, and the Americans by day.   

In the earlier years, the US lacked escort fighters with enough range to accompany these bombers all the way to their targets in Occupied Europe, and back. This meant these formations were often ravaged by the German Luftwaffe, which was delighted to find heavy bombers without fighter escort. The Army Air Corps had to increase the armament on the B-17s to (eventually) 13 0.50 cal. machine guns, but clearly something else had to happen.

Strategists developed a countermeasure to provide bombers with mutual fire-support – the combat box formation. Because of the shape of the formation, in theory, if a German fighter attacked any individual aircraft, all the gunners in the “combat box” who had line of sight could concentrate their fire on that one fighter. The German Luftwaffe likened it to trying to touch a porcupine!

The point is that an individual bomber couldn’t hope to make it to Occupied Europe and back again on its own; it needed mutual support from the group. This is what the Christian life is like – it isn’t meant to be lived in isolation from a local community of believers. We need each other to live a faithful and fulfilling Christian life.

Assumptions and church membership

We live and operate in a world based on a whole lot of assumptions; things that are so obvious and so common-sensical that nobody even mentions them. Our justice system, at the criminal and regulatory level, operates on the assumption that a person is assumed to be innocent until proven guilty – unless guilt is proven, innocence is assumed.

But, for example, you won’t find this principle written down anywhere in my unit’s standard operating procedures, or in our reports of investigation – does this mean we don’t believe an insurance agent is innocent until proven guilty!? No! It’s such a basic assumption that it doesn’t need to be written down; like the law of gravity, it’s there and everybody knows it’s there. If we didn’t believe someone was innocent until proven guilty, then why would we bother to do an investigation and have an entire system set up for due process!?

Church membership is like that; it’s an assumed fact of life in the New Testament that the writers take for granted. You see it on the Day of Pentecost, 50 days after Passover and Jesus’ execution:

  • People were added to God’s family and the local fellowship (Acts 2:41).
  • This group of people devoted themselves to learning doctrine and to fellowship with each other. In other words, there was a clear understanding about who was who (Acts 2:42).
  • They shared goods and funds among each other; again, they know who they are (Acts 2:4446).
  • The Lord added people to their number (Acts 2:47), which is both a universal and local reference.

You see it in how the NT letters are addressed:

  • “To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints,” (Rom 1:7).
  • “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours,” (1 Cor 1:2).
  • “To the churches of Galatia,” (Gal 1:2).
  • “To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus,” (Eph 1:1).
  • “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons,” (Phil 1:1).
  • “To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae,” (Col 1:2).
  • “To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” (1 Thess 1:1).
  • “To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,” (1 Pet 1:1).

Each of writers here, Peter and Paul, assume their letters will go to a particular, known and identifiable group of Christians in a particular place – and they’re addressed that way. The very word “church” means “congregation;” a marked and called out group of people. This assumes these people know who each other are. This, in turn, means there has to be a membership roster of some sort! As soon as you start marking people as Christian and non-Christian, you’re making a distinction you need to track. Even if you’re not comfortable with the term “membership list,” that’s exactly what’s happening.

And, when you add to it that the only people who are members of the New Covenant in Christ’s blood are people who’ve repented and believed in who He is and what He’s done, then you’re left with the fact that a congregation has to have a mechanism for marking out who is a Christian and who isn’t one. That mechanism is church membership, which is what the first church in Jerusalem did – people were saved, baptized, and added to the church (Acts 2:40).

The New Testament writers assume a Christian will formally join herself to and identify with a local group of believers. It’s such a basic assumption that they don’t spend time spelling it out for us; the way they write their letters and issue commands proves it.

What is church membership?

So, what on earth is church membership? It’s when a Christian makes a formal promise and commitment to serve God and spiritually grow in a local church, in a particular place, among a particular group of Christian brothers and sisters.

It’s when a Christian says, “I’m a believer, and I pledge to love God, learn His Word and serve Him with my life RIGHT HERE, with these brothers and sisters in Christ.”

It’s a covenant of commitment where you say:

  • “I want to serve God with this congregation!
  • “I want to learn about God with this congregation!
  • “I want to learn how to better imitate Christ from the brothers and sisters in this congregation!
  • “I want to be held accountable by bothers and sisters in Christ in this congregation!
  • “I want to pray with and for the brothers and sisters in Christ in this congregation!
  • “I want to use my Godgiven talents and abilities to carry out the Great Commission with my brothers and sisters in Christ in this congregation!
  • “Lord, I want to serve you here, in and among these brothers and sisters in this particular place!

Consider what the Apostle Peter said:

The end of all things is at hand; therefore be selfcontrolled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers (1 Pet 4:7).

Peter is addressing the individual congregations as corporate groups; this is plural, not singular! These congregations, as identifiable and numbered groups of New Covenant believers, need to be self-controlled and sober-minded

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins (1 Pet 4:8).

Who are they supposed to love? The command is plural; these Christians are supposed to love each other in their congregations!

Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen (1 Pet 4:9-11).

Who are they supposed to direct all this towards? Each other, in their individual congregations! 

Church membership is about:

  • Mutual support
  • Mutual accountability
  • Service to the Lord in community
  • A pledge of faithfulness to live your life to the Lord, in all its messy glory, in community with other brothers and sisters in Christ in a particular church, in a particular place

It’s where the abstract concepts of service to God, brotherly love, intercessory prayer and Gospel proclamation come out of the clouds and meet the real world. It’s why Paul and the others wrote their commands in their letters in plural; because they weren’t writing to isolated individuals – they were writing to specific congregations, to specific communities of believers all over the region.

Each church is a small embassy for Christ’s kingdom, and all its members are consular officers; Gospel-confessing representatives for God who go out into the world and gather here weekly to worship our Lord and King. Church membership is a covenant of commitment to serve the Lord in a local church among a particular group of people. It’s a commitment every Christian needs to make.  

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There are 53 Comments

G. N. Barkman's picture

Thanks, Tyler, for an excellent treatment of this important subject.

G. N. Barkman

Ron Bean's picture

Is "mutuality" a word? It should be.

For most of my life joining a church and becoming a member was what you did after you were saved and baptized. It was almost automatic and relatively easy to get your name on the membership role. There might be a brief session where you shared your salvation story and were introduced to the church's doctrinal statement and subscribed to it. Congratulations! (I think I'm still on the membership list of the church of my youth over 50 years ago.)

It wasn't until the last ten years that I encountered the Biblical model this article presents. That of members getting involved in each others lives. I tell people that it took me 4 decades to learn that "community" was a verb.

I'm now living in the buckle of the Bible Belt and I encounter people on a regular basis who are members and regular attenders of good churches who might know each other only by face yet they go to church 3 times on Sunday and usually Wednesday. As someone said the church doesn't look and act like a body, it resembles a jar full of marbles.

 

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Bruce Rettig's picture

Thanks Tyler. Keep teaching your people how important the church is for their spiritual health.

Bruce

O taste and see that the Lord is good:

Blessed is the man that trusteth in him. 

Psalm 34:8

GregH's picture

Ron Bean wrote:

Congratulations! (I think I'm still on the membership list of the church of my youth over 50 years ago.)

Am I the only one who makes sure I am removed from the roles of previous churches? I am worried about the legal liability. While churches are normally entities that attempt to shield their members from lawsuits (such as a child getting run over in the parking lot), there are occasions where members have gotten sued. I think if a church functions as a corporation but cuts corners, it could open up members to problems. So I always make sure I am removed.

TylerR's picture

I was once a member of a Baptist church where the church hadn't maintained membership lists for years. They voted people in, but never kept track of who or when. They also never removed anyone who'd died, moved away, or vanished into thin air. It made it tricky when we called a new pastor. Nobody knew who was a member.

The whole situation was so embarrassing that no one in leadership wanted to ask anyone if they were a member as the pastoral vote drew nigh. Nobody really remembered. There was a lot of this going on:

  • Deacon #1: "Didn't she get baptized in 2008 or so? Or, was that someone else ... ?"
  • Deacon #2: "No, she came for membership but never went through with the baptism."
  • Deacon #3: "No, she was baptized. You're getting her confused with that other lady.
  • Deacon #2: "Yeah, you're right ..."
  • Deacon #1: "No, she was baptized. It's the other lady who never came for baptism, and I never really trusted her testimony anyway."
  • Deacon #3: "I don't think that's what happened ..."

etc., etc.

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

dcbii's picture

GregH wrote:

I think if a church functions as a corporation but cuts corners, it could open up members to problems. So I always make sure I am removed.

Seems like a sound policy to me.  My current church keeps an actual roll, and has policies for removal in a timely fashion.  However, since not all churches do this, it makes sense to have yourself removed when you leave a church.

Dave Barnhart

Bert Perry's picture

GregH wrote:

 

Ron Bean wrote:

 

Congratulations! (I think I'm still on the membership list of the church of my youth over 50 years ago.)

 

 

Am I the only one who makes sure I am removed from the roles of previous churches? I am worried about the legal liability. While churches are normally entities that attempt to shield their members from lawsuits (such as a child getting run over in the parking lot), there are occasions where members have gotten sued. I think if a church functions as a corporation but cuts corners, it could open up members to problems. So I always make sure I am removed.

I would be concerned, perhaps, if I had been a trustee, but otherwise, not that worried.  The legal term for what you're describing is "penetrating the veil", I believe, and it generally takes a lot before even the most aggressive plaintiff's lawyers do that.  Even if they did, they would have an interesting time trying to assign blame to you for things that happened after you left.  

Probably still a non-zero chance that it could at least cost you some legal fees if (a) a former church really messed up and (b) someone forgot the principle of causality, but not something I'd lose sleep over.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Bruce Rettig's picture

Without membership that is actually measurable, there is no way to practice church discipline...greatly hindering the health of the church.

Bruce

O taste and see that the Lord is good:

Blessed is the man that trusteth in him. 

Psalm 34:8

GregH's picture

Bert Perry wrote:

 

GregH wrote:

 

 

Ron Bean wrote:

 

Congratulations! (I think I'm still on the membership list of the church of my youth over 50 years ago.)

 

 

Am I the only one who makes sure I am removed from the roles of previous churches? I am worried about the legal liability. While churches are normally entities that attempt to shield their members from lawsuits (such as a child getting run over in the parking lot), there are occasions where members have gotten sued. I think if a church functions as a corporation but cuts corners, it could open up members to problems. So I always make sure I am removed.

 

 

I would be concerned, perhaps, if I had been a trustee, but otherwise, not that worried.  The legal term for what you're describing is "penetrating the veil", I believe, and it generally takes a lot before even the most aggressive plaintiff's lawyers do that.  Even if they did, they would have an interesting time trying to assign blame to you for things that happened after you left.  

Probably still a non-zero chance that it could at least cost you some legal fees if (a) a former church really messed up and (b) someone forgot the principle of causality, but not something I'd lose sleep over.  

Well yes, it is a low risk, and yes, I am referring to piercing the corporate veil. In business, it is common in any lawsuit to trying pierce the veil and go after the shareholders personally. In a church liability issue, I would expect that lawyers would try to do the same thing, especially if the church was broke and maybe was not paying for enough insurance and there were well off members in the church. 

So yes, a low risk but with the potential downside, a letter to ensure you are off the rolls is in my opinion a common sense thing to do to protect yourself. Even if there is almost no risk of a judgment, it could keep you from having to pay an attorney.

Bert Perry's picture

This is perhaps a touch off topic, but per Greg's comment about specifically disenrolling to prevent legal issues, it also strikes me that doing so would be a good way, in the sad case it were necessary, of saying "you are not qualified church leadership in my opinion."  I've yet to do so, and am probably on the rolls of a church in Waseca to this day because I did not back in 2010, but when I leave a church, that is in a nutshell what I am saying about the leadership.  

At least I like to believe that I'm not leaving a church for frivolous reasons, and no, I'm not doing so at this point. But if it is important to declare that allegiance, at times we might suggest it's important to withdraw it. 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

G. N. Barkman's picture

At our church, we ask everyone applying for membership for the name and address of their former church.  We send a letter to the former church informing them of our intention to receive so and so into membership, and ask for a letter of recommendation or transfer.  Likewise, whenever anyone leaves our church, we ask their new church for a letter communicating that they have been received into membership (if they do not offer one).  We respond with a letter commending them to the new congregation and then we remove them from our membership roll.  These communications are read to the congregation, and transfers are approved by congregational vote.  I thought this was standard procedure in Baptist churches.  (I believe it is supposed to be.)  Returning to sound practices of churchmanship would go a long ways to restoring spiritual health to churches.

G. N. Barkman

JNoël's picture

I love this article! And I bet everyone who agrees with it loved it, too.

I'd love to see an article like this written in such a way as to be better suited to give to someone who does not believe in church membership, in a more exhortative manner. I feel like this has more of a preaching to the choir tone, if you know what I mean.

 

Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

TylerR's picture

It was a happy sermon I preached to my congregation after we'd just accepted a new member. My real goal was to persuade perpetual "attenders" to consider church membership. It lays the groundwork for my subsequent contacts I'll be making with the folks in the coming weeks.

For a defense of church membership, I think you'll find good material in Bauder's book, and in Hiscox.  

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Bert Perry's picture

When I came to Christ, my pastor came up to me, shook my hand, and said "welcome to the family."  Maybe worth contemplating.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

What dost thou mean?

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Kevin Subra's picture

I get where you are coming from, Tyler, and I love the illustration from WWII. However, I would say that you argue from deduction, not something clearly revealed in Scripture (which is basically the foundation you laid at the beginning). Even as the thread of comments drifted off into, membership really doesn't mean anything if you can be gone from a congregation and still be a member there after 50 years.

I guess I would argue that commitment and involvement are the indicators of true membership, not a roll or list. Everything in Acts 2 that you referred to would and could happen by practical participation, and even could not happen just by the existence of a formal list.

When you reference locations, they are cities, which, if they argue for anything, it is for a single assembly in a given community, rather than a multitude of local assemblies which are what accustomed to now.

People that know me are aware that I am very much for faithful involvement and commitment to the local church. That is not my issue. My issue is trying to be faithful to what the Scriptures expressly say (and don't say).

I don't disagree with your outcome. I just cannot prove that a formal list was kept or required. From what I can find in Scripture, it was the ongoing practical commitment and involvement of believers that made the local church functional, as opposed to a formal list. It was action rather than a formality that made the church function as the church.

My thoughts.

For the Shepherd and His sheep,
Kevin
Grateful husband of a Proverbs 31 wife, and the father of 15 blessings.
http://captive-thinker.blogspot.com

TylerR's picture

I'd say a "formal list" is the practical outworking of the community. Does it have to be "written down?" Not necessarily, but there is always going to be some process by which someone is "accepted into" a local church. Either this list is formal or informal; but it exists in some objective form. Call it whatever you want, but you'll end up in the same place - some people are part of the congregation, and some people aren't. 

  • How is this "belonging" expressed?
  • How should the pastors vet it?
  • How should the pastors affirm it? 
  • In what circumstances should baptism be administered? How does the "vetting" play into this?

When you answer these questions, you find yourself grappling with the issue of "church membership." Your conception may not be as formal as what I'm advocating, but what's the functional difference? 

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Kevin Subra's picture

Again, I understand what you are saying. It is just that "church membership" still cannot fully answer any of these questions. A person can be a "church member" (which is not specified or defined in Scripture) and still not function as a member. It still requires ongoing participation by the believer, so the list solves nothing. 

Further, if there is no formal list, it does not need to be vetted or affirmed. Obedient participation is self-affirming and self-vetting.

Baptism does not require a membership list, but an open affirmation of belief in the Savior.

I would say, for your last question, that the membership list is superfluous since it cannot actually perform any function without ongoing participation and involvement of those who could do so without the list.

I would still need to say that the Bible does not clearly indicate a requirement for a formal church membership, so though one may desire to bring this requirement into an assembly, it is a practice that should not be considered biblically necessary.

For the Shepherd and His sheep,
Kevin
Grateful husband of a Proverbs 31 wife, and the father of 15 blessings.
http://captive-thinker.blogspot.com

TylerR's picture

Kevin:

I see you making a distinction without a difference. It's clear you don't like "lists!" If someone is "added" to the church because they have repented and believed the Gospel (Acts 2:41), what does this mean?

  • What is this "addition?"
  • What does it entail? 

How do you answer these questions without implicitly acknowledging a distinction between a professing believer and a non-believer who merely attends, is interested, but has not committed? If you admit this distinction exists (whether or not you maintain a formal "list"), then what is the functional difference between our positions? It seems I'm just writing the names down, while you wish to keep them in your head! 

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

TylerR's picture

Kevin wrote:

A person can be a "church member" (which is not specified or defined in Scripture) and still not function as a member. It still requires ongoing participation by the believer, so the list solves nothing.

That's why a pastor's job is to teach and get people involved in using their skills for the Lord, within the church! That's also why it's important to make membership matter. It's not a cheap thing, and it ought to be presented seriously at the outset. 

Obedient participation is self-affirming and self-vetting.

No, it isn't! You'll have people who attend and serve for the completely wrong reasons! Presumably, you'll have classes where you explain why you ought to serve, and what it means, and you need to be assured of the person's beliefs and motivations before you allow him to serve ... right? Would you let anyone who claims to be a Christian serve anywhere? How would our two approaches look different? 

Baptism does not require a membership list, but an open affirmation of belief in the Savior.

Agreed! 

I would say, for your last question, that the membership list is superfluous since it cannot actually perform any function without ongoing participation and involvement of those who could do so without the list.

Agreed; but membership isn't about a list. I think we're talking past each other. 

I would still need to say that the Bible does not clearly indicate a requirement for a formal church membership, so though one may desire to bring this requirement into an assembly, it is a practice that should not be considered biblically necessary.

I challenge you to describe, in real, practical terms, how your conception of service works in the local church. I also challenge you to explain how it looks different than what I sketched, above. I suspect we'll sound very similar! Genuinely curious to hear your thoughts. 

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Kevin Subra's picture

TylerR wrote:

Kevin:

I see you making a distinction without a difference. It's clear you don't like "lists!"

It really isn't an issue of what I like, It is the issue of requiring something that the Bible itself doesn't require. If the Bible was clear, I would have no issue (whether I liked it or not).

TylerR wrote:

If someone is "added" to the church because they have repented and believed the Gospel (Acts 2:41), what does this mean?

  • What is this "addition?"
  • What does it entail? 

As you know, Acts 2:41 does not have an object. It is stating a general observation, not an administrative act. The text does not say that they were added to the membership of a local church, nor does it describe any such activity that we go through today to accomplish such (meet with deacons, present to the church with testimonies, vote as a congregation). None of that is hinted at.

It is also an approximate number: "about 3,000," which I would say actually argues against a specific list. It is not trying to give a specific tally, but to show the great response that occurred that day.

"Adding to" does not have to differentiate between the universal church and the local church. One participates with a local assembly not to "join" a church but to live out the fact that, because of salvation, he or she is already part of the church. If one at salvation is placed into the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:13), then participating with a local church is the outworking and obligation of what one already is - a member of the body of Christ.

TylerR wrote:
How do you answer these questions without implicitly acknowledging a distinction between a professing believer and a non-believer who merely attends, is interested, but has not committed? If you admit this distinction exists (whether or not you maintain a formal "list"), then what is the functional difference between our positions? It seems I'm just writing the names down, while you wish to keep them in your head! 

Acts 2:42 defines how the group (including the new "about 3,000") made the functional connection: "And they continued steadfastly in..."

The church is not made up of non-believers, and they are not in scope in Acts 2:42 whatsoever. It is adding something to the equation that is not present in the text. Believers do these things, not unbelievers. In the context of Acts 2, assembling with believers would be a stark act of identification. If unbelievers showed up, how would they know they were unbelievers? By examining a list? No. By interacting with them. Also, as you know, it is not unheard of that people "get saved" after having been a member of a local church - even years after.

I am saying that instituting an artificial list has no real bearing on the function of a local assembly. Being on a list (or not being on a list) does not make the difference. What makes a difference is the active, ongoing participation of a believer in the local assembly.

The list is not biblically required, nor does it really make any true difference. In fact, it may detract from the truth. Thus we get "inactive members," or people that cannot vote even though they are faithful, and people who can vote who are not. I've seen it all my life. The formal membership does not make one committed. Active involvement does. I'd rather have 1 believer who is actively and faithfully involved than 10 who are on a list that show up occasionally. The former gets it. The latter misses one's responsibility altogether.

I hope this helps to clarify my approach somewhat.

For the Shepherd and His sheep,
Kevin
Grateful husband of a Proverbs 31 wife, and the father of 15 blessings.
http://captive-thinker.blogspot.com

Ron Bean's picture

I was in a church for 11 years that emphasized "fellowship" instead of "membership". They rejected the idea of an actual list of members. The greatest advantage was that the self-appointed leadership did what they pleased and if people didn't like it they could leave. Church discipline was handled by the leadership as well and they would often exercise their "wisdom" by telling people to quit coming unless they were going to get with the program.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Bruce Rettig's picture

Kevin,

I don't agree with your interpretation of what the Scriptures imply regarding membership. That said, from my vantage point it looks like a significant reason why you object to a membership roll is that the roll often carries names that are not actually participating in the life of the church. They fail to demonstrate an "active, ongoing participation of a believer in the local assembly" and don't accomplish what is intended.

The failure is not intrinsic to the church membership roll. The shortcomings described exist because too many churches fail to practice church discipline and hold one another accountable to the covenant that was made when the desire to be received as part of that local church was publicly expressed.

 

Bruce

O taste and see that the Lord is good:

Blessed is the man that trusteth in him. 

Psalm 34:8

TylerR's picture

You nailed it:

The shortcomings described exist because too many churches fail to practice church discipline and hold one another accountable to the covenant that was made when the desire to be received as part of that local church was publicly expressed.

Kevin, I basically see your view as idealistic and abstract; something that works better on paper than in real life. But, I think we actually agree with each other on the nuts and bolts. You wrote:

The list is not biblically required, nor does it really make any true difference. In fact, it may detract from the truth. Thus we get "inactive members," or people that cannot vote even though they are faithful, and people who can vote who are not. I've seen it all my life. The formal membership does not make one committed. Active involvement does. I'd rather have 1 believer who is actively and faithfully involved than 10 who are on a list that show up occasionally. The former gets it. The latter misses one's responsibility altogether.

Your argument seems to be against a cheap understanding of "church membership." Many pastors share your frustration. So do I. After I preached this sermon on church membership, several people (non-members) in the church became angry - but I knew they would. They were the folks who are the consumers, not the producers. They were angry because they knew I was implicitly calling them to service and commitment, instead of warming a chair. 

Can we agree on this:

  • Local church membership should be restricted to regenerate believers, and it's a means of formalizing a relationship that should naturally develop between a new Christian and a local congregation. 

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

TylerR's picture

Here is how I formalized a church covenant for lady I recently baptized, upon her joining our church. I prefaced the questions with this to the congregation:

These questions are like those the pastor asks at a wedding ceremony (e.g. “do you promise to …”). Everybody knows how the groom will answer, but the ritual of asking and answering the questions formalizes the event; memorializing it as a very important moment. It says to the bride, groom and the audience that what’s happening is solemn, sacred and special. It's the same way with these questions before baptism.

 I asked these questions to her as she stood in the water, immediately before the baptism:

  • Q1: Do you promise before God Almighty and your Savior Jesus Christ to do your best to serve God every day because you love Him and want to prove your love by action?
  • Q2: Do you agree to worship and serve the Lord as best you can in this congregation, in peaceful harmony with your brothers and sisters in Christ?
  • Q3: Do you swear to love your brothers and sisters in this church “earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God,” (1 Peter 1:23)?
  • Q4: Do you swear to try your best to “put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander” (1 Peter 2:1) in every area of your life, especially with brothers and sisters in Christ in this church?
  • Q5: Do you promise to be always trying to grow in your knowledge of God, your personal holiness, and your love for Him?
  • Q6: Do you promise to regularly read God’s Holy Word so you know how God wants you to live, so you can be convicted of your own sin, and so you can be encouraged to grow closer to Him, and be more Christ-like day by day?
  • Q7: Do you promise to be a public testimony for Jesus Christ by living a Godly life, and telling the Gospel message to others?
  • Q8: Do you pledge to remember your fellow church members in prayer?
  • Q9: Do you pledge to be willing to learn from other church members, and even be corrected by them, if necessary?
  • Q10: Do you promise to be a faithful and active slave for Jesus Christ, among the people in this congregation, as long as you’re able, or until God calls you elsewhere?

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Bert Perry's picture

Somehow 1 John's comment about participation comes to mind.  He does not refer to lists, but rather to the simple fact that people are there, or not.  Membership was simpler in the days when simply showing up for church could make you Purina lion chow, no?  It's kinda like those long gone teen years when a guy would "get the hint" when a girl started to ignore him.  

Seriously, that's what I was getting at with the "family" statement.  Sometimes it's necessary these days to formalize and bureaucratize these things, but that doesn't create the notion of belonging that being part of a family does.  The trick to making membership--whether formalized or not--work lies there.

Would like to hear more from Ron about his experience with informalized membership.  I'm guessing that a bunch of people felt it was rather abusive to not have the official controls in place if I'm reading him correctly. 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Ron Bean's picture

The church of which I spoke was planted in the early 1950's by a man  who led the place until he died in 2006. The church continues with his personally appointed successor. All salaries in the church and school were set by the pastor as were all expenditures. The pastor did personally appoint elders (I was one) who served to simply approve his decisions. Dissent in any form was not permitted. The board consisted of his brother-in-law and son, and employees who relied on the pastor for their jobs. Church members, oops attenders, never saw financial reports but were happy just to go to services. They were passively content with the status quo and the leader was content with what he saw as a successful and Biblical model of church.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

JBL's picture

In the non-membership church model, how does one go about knowing which believers have submitted to local pastoral authority and church discipline?  On a related note, there is the idea of submitting to the local body of believers in general.  

If no formal arrangement is made regarding mutually agreed submission to local pastoral authority, there is basically no shepherd/flock arrangement, or it becomes a thunderdome where ANY shepherd in a certain geographic area can exercise authority of ANY believer.

This type of informal arrangement is simply not advocated for in NT writing.

John B. Lee

Kevin Subra's picture

Bruce Rettig wrote:

Kevin,

I don't agree with your interpretation of what the Scriptures imply regarding membership. That said, from my vantage point it looks like a significant reason why you object to a membership roll is that the roll often carries names that are not actually participating in the life of the church. They fail to demonstrate an "active, ongoing participation of a believer in the local assembly" and don't accomplish what is intended.

The failure is not intrinsic to the church membership roll. The shortcomings described exist because too many churches fail to practice church discipline and hold one another accountable to the covenant that was made when the desire to be received as part of that local church was publicly expressed.

Actually, Bruce, that is not correct. I do not object to a membership roll because of its failings. I disagree with it as a requirement because it is not found in Scripture. It is not an issue of interpretation, that I see, as I do not see it commanded or mandated at all in the Bible. If someone has a roll, it is their choice to do so. To indicate that it is required in some defined format is simply extra-biblical. My view is not built on implications. Rather, the view of mandating such a roll must be.

I simply pointed out via illustration that the use of a roll does not in any way make faithfulness automatic. As I stated before, it may even detract from it, as people rest on their membership rather than live out their responsibility to the body of Christ as believers. The church is not a club that is joined; it is a blessed connection that is to be actively lived out because of the relationship that already exists in the body of Christ. (1 John 3:16; 4:11)

For the Shepherd and His sheep,
Kevin
Grateful husband of a Proverbs 31 wife, and the father of 15 blessings.
http://captive-thinker.blogspot.com

Kevin Subra's picture

Ron Bean wrote:

I was in a church for 11 years that emphasized "fellowship" instead of "membership". They rejected the idea of an actual list of members. The greatest advantage was that the self-appointed leadership did what they pleased and if people didn't like it they could leave. Church discipline was handled by the leadership as well and they would often exercise their "wisdom" by telling people to quit coming unless they were going to get with the program.

Then the issue is not the list, then, is it? This can happen in a church with membership (and does).

For the Shepherd and His sheep,
Kevin
Grateful husband of a Proverbs 31 wife, and the father of 15 blessings.
http://captive-thinker.blogspot.com

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