Children, Church Membership, and the Implications of Ephesians 6:1

Reposted from It Is Written.

Should we allow minors into the membership of the church? Most evangelical churches would, without hesitation, answer this question affirmatively. Those that practice infant baptism believe the Bible warrants the inclusion of the children of believers into the membership of the church de jure. On the other hand, many Baptist churches today pressure young children to “make a decision for Christ” and accept such decisions or professions of faith without careful reflection on credibility.

On the One Hand …

In response to these two common evangelical views, Reformed Baptists have rightly stressed the need for a profession of faith as a prerequisite for baptism and church membership (contra paedobaptism) and appropriately questioned the often superficial decisionalism that characterizes far too many Baptist churches (contra decisionalism). They have, I think rightly so, highlighted the need to be cautious about hastily accepting as genuine a child’s profession of faith in light of several factors. These include a child’s lack of intellectual maturity (1 Cor 13:11; 14:20; Heb 5:11-14; 11:24-26), a child’s tendency to be changeable in his/her opinions and commitments (Isa 3:4; Matt 11:16-17; Eph 4:13-14), and a child’s proneness to self-deception (Jer 17:9; Ps 58:3; Prov 1:1-4; Eph 4:13-14).1 It is also pointed out that Luke, in Acts, refers to adult males and females being added to the church but doesn’t explicitly refer to children (Acts 5:14; 8:3, 12; 9:1-2; 17:4, 34).2 Accordingly, some Reformed Baptist churches are hesitant to baptize children and, in some cases, require an individual to reach full adult status before he/she may become members of the church.

On the Other Hand …

While I appreciate and share some of the concerns raised by Baptist pastors, I’m decidedly in favor of baptizing and bringing into the membership of the church children who are old enough to give a credible profession of faith and are able to fulfill the most basic responsibilities of church membership.3 To begin with, the Bible teaches that children can be converted and should be urged to believe the gospel (Matt 18:1-6; Matt 19:13-14; Mark 9:42; Luke 18:15-17; Eph 6:1-2). Most, I think, would concede this point. But the Bible says more. In his epistles to the church in Ephesus and to the church in Colossae, the apostle Paul likely contemplates children (i.e., minors) as church members.

To the Saints in Ephesus

For our purposes, we’ll focus primarily on the text in Ephesians. In 6:1, Paul exhorts children, “Obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (ESV). The phrase “in the Lord” may suggest that the child is to obey his parents in light of his saving union with Christ (see Rom 16:8, 13; 1 Cor 4:17; 7:22, 39; 15:58; Eph 2:21; 5:8; 6:10; Phil 3:1; 4:1; Col 3:18; 4:7; 1 Thess 3:8; Philemon 1:16; Rev 14:13). Some, however, demur, and argue that the phrase means nothing more than “for the Lord’s sake” or “because the Lord commands such submission.” But there are exegetical data in the larger context that suggest Paul was addressing children whom he assumed were in saving union with Christ and who were, in fact, members of the church in Ephesus.

The Immediate Context

First, it should be noted that 6:1-2 is tied grammatically to 5:21 which, in turn, is linked grammatically to 5:18. Paul’s argument goes something like this: he commands believers to yield themselves to the control of the Spirit rather than the control or influence of wine (5:18). This command is followed by participial clauses, which serve to explicate the command. In what ways should the Spirit’s influence manifest itself in our behavior? Answer: “By …

  • Admonishing and teaching one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (5:19); …
  • Giving thanks to God the Father (5:20); and …
  • Submitting to one another in the fear of Christ” (5:21).

The Greek term translated “one another” (ἀλλήλων) can be all-inclusive, i.e., every believer is (in some sense) responsible to submit to every other believer. More likely, though, it’s referring to one subgroup submitting to another subgroup within the body. This is confirmed by the subsequent context wherein Paul exhorts subordinates within the body of Christ (i.e., wives, children, slaves) to submit to superiors within the body of Christ (i.e., husbands, parents, masters).

In light of this, it appears that the “children” envisioned in 6:1-2 are, in fact, a subgroup of those who can and should be “filled with the Spirit” (5:18) and motivated by “the fear of Christ” (5:21). Such language can hardly be applied to unbelieving children who happen to be attending the corporate meetings of the church.

The Larger Context

Second, it should be remembered that Paul has already identified the recipients of the epistolary directives as “the saints who are at Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus” (1:2; emphasis added). He is writing specifically to those who are no longer “strangers to the covenants of promise” but are “are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:12, 19). So along with the “wives” and “slaves” who, as members, are called on to demonstrate their union and allegiance to Christ by submitting to their God-ordained authorities, we must include the “children” who, as members, are called to do the same.

Of course, the semantic range of the Greek noun teknon, translated “children” (τέκνα) is broad enough to include any minor, including older children in the stage of adolescence. Accordingly, we acknowledge that the text does not specify the actual age of the children in view. The text does, however, assume those addressed are old enough to understand the directive Paul is giving as well as the substance of his communication in the epistle. Thus, they may, very likely, be older children. But they are, after all, children or minors, not adults. Consequently, if our reading is correct, the position that limits baptism and church membership to adults is without biblical warrant and would seem to run counter to practice in the apostolic church.

Cautions and Qualifications

We may grant that there are potential dangers of bringing young children into the membership of the church: we could unwittingly diminish the significance of baptism, breed a spirit of presumption, and create a climate for religious formalism. Moreover, we should concede that some of the privileges and liabilities of church membership require a level of adult-like maturity that children may not yet possess (Prov 1:1-4; Isa. 3:4; Matt 11:16-17; 1 Cor 13:11; Eph 4:13-14; Heb 5:11-14; 11:24-26).

Even so, the likelihood that children were members of NT churches and the overlap between childhood and adulthood (i.e., adolescence) should caution us against making any hard-fast rule as to the exact age when a young person may be brought into church membership. Since there are some membership responsibilities that require an adult-like maturity (e.g.s., office-related functions, difficult church discipline cases, etc.), it may be best to grant children all the benefits and responsibilities of membership with the exception of office-bearing and voting privileges until they become adults.

Benefits and Blessings

But there are benefits to church membership concerning which we don’t want to deprive our children. While attending church as non-members exposes our children to various means of grace such as congregational singing, corporate prayer, the ministry of the word, and Christian fellowship, formal membership in the church provides converted children with further means of grace such as formal pastoral care, greater accountability, opportunities to serve, and a deeper level of fellowship and belonging to the family of God.

In conclusion, then, I believe the NT warrants the inclusion of minors into the membership of the church. The practice of restricting membership to adults, despite its good intentions, does not appear to be a good and necessary inference from Scripture. Elderships must exercise caution and discernment when assessing a child’s profession of faith.4 But we should not operate from the assumption that the NT limits baptism and church membership to adults. Moreover, we shouldn’t assume that minors are incapable of fulfilling many of the responsibilities of church membership (with the exceptions of voting on major decisions and holding office). Not only may children be converted but also they may become a valuable asset to the church as participatory members.5 Therefore, we should allow children who make a credible profession of faith into the membership of the church.

Notes

1 These childlike characteristics are highlighted and expounded in Dennis Gundersen’s excellent study Your Child’s Profession of Faith (Amityville, NY: Calvary Press, 1994).

2 See David Merck’s helpful study, “Children and Church Membership” (unpublished). You may be able to get a copy by emailing Truth for Eternity, which is the publishing ministry of his church: office@girbc.org.

3 Since first publishing this article, I have edited this sentence to clarify my position. The point of the article is not to argue that any child at any age may be a member.

4 Three marks of a credible profession of faith include a spontaneous awareness of and sorrow for one’s personal sin (Matt 3:6; Luke 18:13), a genuine understanding of and belief in the basic truths of the gospel (Rom 10:9; 1 Cor 15:3-4; Heb 11:6), and a sincere willingness to trust and commit oneself to Christ (John 1:12; Rom 10:9; 2 Tim 1:12).

5 For a helpful defense of including children in church membership along with wise pastoral counsel in assessing a child’s profession of faith and dealing with the difficult cases of disciplining minors, see Ted Christman, Forbid Them Not: Rethinking the Baptism and Church Membership of Children and Young People (Owensboro, KY: Greenwell-Chisholm Printing Co., n.d.). The booklet can be ordered through Heritage Baptist Church (phone: 270-685-4002; email:jhobson@hbcowensboro.org).

Bob Gonzales bio


Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological ReviewThe Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.

937 reads
1467 reads

There are 20 Comments

Mr. Ed's picture

First of all we have to ask if we are talking about a local church or universal church.  The local church has its own polity, the church universal is governed by God who sets the rules of membership where there is neither Jews or Greeks, male, female, young or old distinctions.  

Second is why have church membership?  Church membership is necessary when a church is incorporated as a body of believers (or whatever brings them together) for the purpose of business operations.  Those operations would involve such things as owning property in the name of the church, not in the name of a person or persons.  The early church had no buildings since they met in the open or house churches.  The early church did not have business meetings to select the pastoral leadership except for the time when the apostles only selected a replacement for Judas (which I feel was a human directed decision rather than God directed) (I believe that God's replacement was Paul).  The early church decided on deacons to oversee the daily distribution of food in Acts 6.  The early church did not have a constitution or by-laws to follow which were agreed upon by the body as a whole.  

Third, membership is necessary for accountability of the members.  We can not be subject to one another unless we know who the one another is.  That includes the leadership as well as the person in the pew.  The Bible is to be our primary rule of faith and practice, any additional rules are to be spelled out and agreed upon by the people who covenant together in a local body.  

My question now is, do I need to be a member of a church?  Is there any "value" to being a member?  If I faithfully attend and support the work of a church do I have to be a member?  Or should I ask, should I be a member of a local church?  I can worship God in church without being a member.  I can be a born again believer and not be a member of a local church otherwise I would never visit a church when away from my local or regular body.  I can participate in the Lord's Supper in most churches without being a member.  Not being a member of a local body of believers may limit my serving in that local church.   I am sure they might let me cut the grass or clean the building, but not sing in the choir or teach a Bible class.  I understand those restrictions.  My personal experience in the past had to do with the leadership of a church not following their own rules which cheapened or made my membership of no value to me.  At the present time, I am not a member of the local church I faithfully attend and support financially.  I could attend business meetings or read the materials shared, but since I have no say in the business of the church, I do not.  If there is something I would find I could no longer support, I would find another body of believers.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Mr. Ed, your third reason answers your own question in the affirmative.  Yes, church membership is necessary to carry out obedient New Testament Christianity as structured by Christ, the head of the Church, and in keeping with New Covenant instructions of how believers relate to one another within the Body of Christ.

G. N. Barkman

Mr. Ed's picture

Church membership as practiced in today's US churches is not mentioned in the Bible.  I do not see where membership in any local church is carrying out obedient NT Christianity as structured by Christ.  Often times the head of the local church is not Christ, it is the pastor or the board of elders, or deacons, or dare I say the influential members who control the purse strings.   If you are talking about the church, the bride of Christ, etc, I am a member of that church.  

I attended a church planting service where the pastor said, "We do not have membership here, if you attend you are a member."  If that church ever got established I am sure they have a membership list once they own property.  I know of a fellowship in my area that does not own property, meets in a building owned by someone at no charge, has no paid staff.  Someone preaches, offerings if taken are given to ministries, lots of fellowship breaking of bread and much more.  Their service on Sunday could last 3 hours or more.  I have never been there because I am staying where I am now.

Bert Perry's picture

Regarding the question of whether it must be "American-style" membership, of course not, but it is worth noting that 1 John makes clear that church members had a good idea of who belonged and who did not, and Paul's expulsion of Hymeneaus and Alexander makes clear that there was something akin to membership there, too.  

Regarding young people, if Jesus can say "let the little children come to me", I am at a loss as to why we would withhold membership--at least membership without voting rights until they're adults--from children who have come to faith.  Let them into the club, as it were, and we just might find that they decide they want to stay.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

I'd more or less agree with Bert that really all the scripture requires is a way to recognize who is in the church and who is outside the church (the biblical language was "added to the church").  If one church does that completely informally, and another has a formal membership with ceremony, I'd argue that both are biblical if they meet the scriptural requirement to know who belongs to the church and who doesn't.

In America (and probably many other nations), the way that membership is done is probably a concession to the legal and business necessities under the laws of the country the church operates in.  For ordinances, discipline, etc., the church could easily do its own thing, especially when all members are in agreement and fellowship with the church.  However, the reality of sin leads to needing some mechanism that will have legal force when necessary, thus leading to a more formal membership process for most churches.

As to children, our church constitution states that children under 16 of member parents to implicitly have the same rights and responsibilities of any adult member regarding life in the church, except for voting, recognizing that they are under the authority of the parents, and may still be unregenerate, profession notwithstanding.  For children between 16 and 18, our constitution limits participation in the ministries of the church (like platform service, serving in nursery, etc.) to those who agree to give a testimony of salvation and formally identify with the church, and we have an "associate/minor membership" for that purpose that does not have voting rights.  As the children are still minors, the parents have to agree to let them join in that manner, but the parents understand that their children's service in the church will be limited if they don't choose to let their children join.  Such memberships are also subject to church discipline but the process has to go through the parents to some extent.  As of yet, we have not had to exercise that for membership of a minor.  We wanted to have a way for older teens who clearly do want to follow the Lord to be able to understand the responsibilities of being a church member before they reach the age of majority, at which point nearly all go away to college or life elsewhere and will have to deal with joining another church when we haven't even taught them much about how to exercise church membership.

Dave Barnhart

Mr. Ed's picture

The early church was more of a family of believers from the local community.  Not like the churches of today that draw people from miles away that do not see each other except for 1 or 2 hours a week.  "Members" of the fellowship were brothers and sisters in Christ and lived that kind of relationship.   Yes the believers were known by name and we expected to uphold the testimony of their belief in Christ and when they failed, they were called out.  In todays church it might depend upon who and what the infraction is whether or not anything is done about it.  Sad to say that money talks and walks in many churches today.  In the early church it was not about nickles and noses.

Do we really need a membership in order to practice church discipline?  Does Matthew 18 apply to any relationship?  The word church in Matthew 18 is that the church as we know it or is it just the assembly like in Acts 19:39.  The use of the word church in Matthew 18 is kind of out of the time frame of the establishment of the church if you say it started at Pentecost.  

TylerR's picture

Editor

Ed wrote:

The early church was more of a family of believers from the local community.  Not like the churches of today that draw people from miles away that do not see each other except for 1 or 2 hours a week.  

Early churches were more familial, but I don't see how we can ever get back to that given how disconnected modern life is. We don't work in small communities, so we don't worship in one, either. Even in small towns, people often commute to work and the town is where people sleep - not really live.

The only tome I experienced something close to the Acts descriptions was when I was in the military and attended an American church off-base in Italy. People are away from home, and the base is a sealed community, so church became a family. Don't know how to do that in the U.S.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

G. N. Barkman's picture

Mr Ed, since church membership practices vary widely from congregation to congregation, the way membership is practiced in America today is very difficult to define and discuss.  The fact that one can identify many cases of poor membership practices is not in dispute, nor does it address the question of whether or not church membership is required by NT teaching.  Nor is the absence of the term "church membership" the issue.

You actually made the case for NT church membership in your original post when you stated that for Christians to relate to one another according to NT instructions it is necessary to know who is and who is not included in these instructions.  Who are we instructed to regard as brothers and sisters in Christ?  Who are we responsible to hold accountable to Christian standards of conduct, and remove from the church if they are guilty of grievous sin and refuse to repent?  How can we distinguish between those who are "without" and those who are "within" the church to obey Paul's instructions in I Corinthians chapter five?  (Those who are within we must judge, those who are without, God judges.)

These are other requirements depend upon a crystal clear understanding by everyone involved as to who is and who is not recognized as a member of the body.  Call it whatever you will, in the final analysis, this is church membership.
 

G. N. Barkman

Mr. Ed's picture

I gave three reasons for church membership in this day and age.  One of them, the conducting of business, was not necessary in the early church because they did not own property,  have massive budgets, or needed to vote on every little item since they had no such thing as by-laws or a church constitution.  The reason for a church to have by-laws or a church constitution is to ensure that things are done decently and in order.  We all know that without rules things will get out of hand.

Not being a member of a church does not mean that a church can not discipline that person.  Just follow the steps in Matthew 18 with anyone who attends or identifies with the church.  Once it gets to the whole assembly and no change is evident then treat him as a publican or sinner.  

In the early church people were added to their number in a sense they joined simply by accepting the gospel, were baptized and continued in the apostles' teaching etc.  Without formally joining a church with my name on some list, I can do the same.

To me church membership is  like a club membership.  If I agree with the mission of the club, pay my dues, am a member in good standing I am granted all the rights and privileges that go along with my membership.  I have been a union member (now a retiree) and a member of the American Legion, one because it was a condition of employment the other because I qualify for membership and chose to be a member.

So the question is still, do I need to be a member of a local church?    I will say because of mistreatment by a church where I tried my best to handle things according to Matthew 18 and the conclusion was a threat of excommunication if I did not confess my sin (of causing division).  There never was an admission by the leadership that they broke the by-laws and church constitution and needed to confess their sin.  At that church my membership had no value to me and I was just in the way of an agenda.  Will I ever be a member of a church again?  I wanted to be a member of the church that forced me out, where I attend now I do not have that desire.  Would I go back to the former church, yes if there was reconciliation which I do not think will ever happen.  Sad to say, no one from that church ever cared that we left.

 

 

G. N. Barkman's picture

Mr Ed, you, like many Christians, have had an unfortunate experience in a church, which has soured you regarding the issue of church membership. Your reasons for opposing church membership seem to center upon your sad tale of woe.  I am sorry for your bad experience. 

But we do not make doctrine based upon bad experiences.  We make it from Biblical teaching.

G. N. Barkman

Mr. Ed's picture

But we do not make doctrine based upon bad experiences.  We make it from Biblical teaching.

 

I must have missed that in seminary and Bible college.  I will say this pastors and church members often have a very emotional attachment to church membership.  "This is my church" and the church better do as I say or want.  This attitude can be found in the Pastors as well as the "membership."  Pastors are not to lord it over the flock.  The flock is honor those that labor in preaching and teaching.  That does not mean to blindly follow the leader because he is the leader, search the scriptures for yourself and be able to distinguish between truth and error.  When you encounter truth, embrace it.  When you encounter error, expose it and run from it.   

 

Bert Perry's picture

Regarding Tyler's comment about not knowing how to go back to a more familial type of church, there are some interesting hints in Francis Chan's Letters to the Church.  I'm going to re-read it to see if I can "get" more of what Chan is arguing, but another commenter here noted that Chan seems to be all in for house churches.  That's not entirely unfair.

Regarding membership and the requirement, I believe it is, but we need to be careful about how we phrase it, because you don't see "walk the aisle and ask for membership, which shall be granted by congregational vote" in Scripture.  Rather, we see the examples that make it clear that they did have an idea who was and was not part of the club, and you further have the question of how you administer church discipline, especially separation from the church, if we don't have some idea who belongs and who does not.

I also would agree, having left a couple of churches for various circumstances (where I'd assign the blame to the church), that a lot of people are going to need to be persuaded to covenant with a church.  The trust simply has to be earned, and all the more when others have broken it.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

MissionaryA.Berry's picture

Dear Mr. Ed

In regards to church membership: I would like to pass along what my late pastor, Phil Vos stated to me one time as we were talking about some of these things, with a few minor additions.

1Co 5:1  It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you…  Among you would delineate the church from the world.  They knew who was “among them.”

I Cor. 5:2 “…that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you.”  So you need to remove this person from “among you.”

I Co 5:4 “… In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, …” So they have a meeting place, they have a membership, they meet a specified times.

I Co 5:5  “…To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh,…”

The point seems to be that as long as this person is “among them”, a member of the local church at Corinth (1Cor 1:2  “Unto the church of God which is at Corinth…”) not a church universal here, but a local assembly of baptized believers.

It seems as if Satan cannot touch this person as long as he is a member of a local church. 

Conclusion: So if you are just coming and going, and not a member, you are more open to Satan’s attack than if you are a member of a local church.

My first post on SI.

Hope to illuminate not irritate.

Romaklok

Mr. Ed's picture

Sounds like a local church only kind of position.  

Except for the mega size churches, I would hope a pastor knows who is among them regardless of names on a membership list. 

Since I am not a member of a local church and may never be again, I do not feel I am any more unprotected from Satan than any other believer.   Turning one over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh is terminology saying God will have to deal with him  by allowing Satan to destroy him if need be physically.  Like Job who was tested  not because of sin but because God allowed it, have you considered my servant Job.

The pastor and people of the church know who I am.  Very few know I am not a member.  And if that becomes an issue as to whether  I can attend or not,  I guess I would have to stop.  How many pastors would take that stand?

 

G. N. Barkman's picture

The issue is not whether or not you can attend.  Unbelievers are welcome to attend.  The issue is whether or not the church can regard you as a believer.

G. N. Barkman

Mr. Ed's picture

No church can put a stamp of approval on a person that determines anyone's standing before God when it comes to salvation.  Catholics and Lutherans have been doing that for centuries.  No church can discern what is in the heart and soul of a believer.  I know of a wonderful expositor of the gospel who molested children, went to prison, divorced, lived with a woman  without marriage, taught speech classes at a college, and ballroom dancing on Sunday night  toward the end of his life.  When he was my pastor I never questioned whether or not he was a believer.  He looked and sounded like one and the church called him as pastor.

So how does the church measure that one?

I can not say anyone beside myself is a believer  because I look on the outside, God looks on the heart.

 

 

G. N. Barkman's picture

No, the church cannot see into your heart.  The church does not determine whether or not you are truly saved.  That determination is left to God.  But the church should relate to you according to your public identification with Christ as a member of His body.  Those who are members of a sound local church are regarded as believers and treated as such unless they commit egregious sin that requires church discipline, in which case they are removed from church membership, and in the process have their Christian identity removed from them by the church.  Even in this case, the church is not saying that this person is not a Christian.  The hope is that subsequent repentance will demonstrate that they are, and were all along. 

The church is simply saying that until they repent and are restored to membership, the church must treat them as an unbeliever.  That is with love, respect, and a warm invitation to attend church services.  But no Communion, or involvement in church ministry reserved for members.  In other words, treated like a visitor whose Christianity is unknown until they make it known by request for church membership.  Yes church membership is not only important, it is necessary for Christian obedience, just like water baptism.

G. N. Barkman

Larry's picture

Moderator

No church can put a stamp of approval on a person that determines anyone's standing before God when it comes to salvation. 

No, but the local church does make a statement on whether a profession of faith (of right standing before God) is credible. They admit into membership only those whose profession is credible and they discipline those whose profession is no longer credible. It doesn't make a statement about reality; only credibility.

Bert Perry's picture

I obviously do not know all of the details of the case Ed mentions, but it strikes me that while some people can fake it--that's why the NT talks of ravenous wolves and the like--we might also wonder whether we're using the right criteria for establishing whether one really is a preacher of the Gospel (sometimes it seems like it's the soapbox/moral therapeutic deism), and what signs really indicate whether someone is out of line.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Mr. Ed's picture

I was saved at the age of 16 out a Lutheran background.  I was told by the pastor that led me to the Lord to start attending the Bible Church in my small town (I was visiting a church away from home) and that he would write to tell the pastor there to expect me.  So I went there, was baptized in a lake, became a member of that church all before I turned 18.  My mother did not attend that church or any church for that matter (she claimed membership in the Lutheran church but never attended).  I do not have a problem with how your church handles "associate/minor membership" since that is clearly according to the by-laws of the local church.  I just wonder how you handle a minor whose parents are not in the church?  

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.