Growing up in various Baptist churches (my father was in the Air Force, so we lived in numerous cities) we would prayerfully consider where to attend church and when the "right" one was found, we would join. In those days, the process of becoming a member of a church was quite common.
- You walked down front at the close of the worship service while the music minister led the congregation in "Just As I Am" or another "come on down" hymn.
- You introduced yourself to the pastor. If you had your family with you, you introduced them as well.
- The pastor would ask "Why are you coming down today?"
- If already a Christian, you would say "I'm coming to join this church by moving my letter here."
- Then, most often, it was a "Well, amen! We're glad to have you." The pastor would have you turn around and face the congregation. He would introduce you and say something like "If you approve of having John Doe join our church, say 'Amen!'"
- The congregation always said "Amen" and boom, you're a church member.
There was a longer process if you hadn't been baptized by immersion or were coming from another denomination. Yet, by and large, it was often a very simple process.
I grew up thinking this was correct. While common, it certainly was not the best understanding of church membership. In fact, looking back now, this process was terrible and terribly problematic for the local church.
Is Church Membership Biblical?
Sometimes you will hear the argument that membership in the local church is not biblical. There are newer churches who "don't do membership" and see it as a man-made administrative step that leads to legalism. To put it bluntly, those churches are wrong, regardless how spiritual their reasonings may sound.
The church universal is often spoken of when seeking to minimize the membership expectations of the church local. Some "seeker sensitive" churches of the 1980s and 1990s built models that left membership in the margins, if referenced at all, in an attempt to be "relevant" and grow a crowd.
Matt Chandler, Pastor of The Village Church in the Dallas, Texas area wrote of this a few years back. he stated:
With conflicts already brewing over other doctrines that I viewed as far more central, I wondered if we should let this church membership thing slide and come back to it later. I was preparing at the time to preach through the book of Hebrews and “happened” to be in chapter 13 when verse 17 leapt off the page: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
Two questions occurred to me. First, if there is no biblical requirement to belong a local church, then which leaders should an individual Christian obey and submit to? Second, and more personally, who will I as a pastor give an account for?
These two questions started my search for a biblical understanding of the local church, and they began around the ideas of authority and submission.
Regarding the first question, the Scriptures clearly command Christians to submit to and honor an elder body (Heb. 13:17, 1 Tim. 5:17). If there is no understanding of local church membership, then who are we to submit to and obey? Is it anyone with the title “elder” from any church? Should you as a Christian obey and submit to those loons at Westboro Baptist? In order to obey Scripture, must you picket soldiers’ funerals, as the pastor of Westboro seems to imply?
Regarding the second question, the Scriptures clearly command an elder body to care for specific people (1 Pet. 5:1-5; also, Acts 20:29-30). Will I as a pastor be held accountable for all the Christians in the Dallas Metroplex? There are many churches in Dallas that I have strong theological and philosophical differences with. Will I give account for what they teach in their small group, how they spend their money, and what they do concerning international missions? (9Marks Journal, April 28, 2011)
In addition to this, the concept of church discipline falls apart when there are no clear membership roles or expectations. Paul's confrontation of the church at Corinth clearly reveals an expected behavior of those who claimed to be part of (members of) the church body.
While church membership may not seem cool for some, it is biblical.
What Is Church Membership?
A clear understanding of what it means to be a member of a local church is essential. Pastor Dean Inserra stated that years ago following a new member's class at his church a potential member asked him "What changes for me on Monday if I join the church today?" It's a challenging and needful question. It led Dean to clarify the membership process and expectations in his church, to the benefit of the church body.
All pastors should contemplate that question. What is the big deal? What changes?
If the answer is "Well, you get to vote in our business meetings," you likely are not fully understanding the need for people to be church members. And...if someone joins the church just to vote in a business meeting, you likely have more issues, or will, you have deeper problems.
Jonathan Leeman of 9Marks gives a concise definition of church membership here...
Church membership is a formal relationship between a local church and a Christian characterized by the church’s affirmation and oversight of a Christian’s discipleship and the Christian’s submission to living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church. (9Marks Journal, August 22, 2014)
When a person seeks to join a local body of believers (the local church) the church, or designated pastors, elders, and leaders are not to just say "Come on and join. It's easy. There's nothing to it." but to clearly delineate what the covenant relationship means.
Church Membership Is a Relationship
The relationship between men and women in a local church is covenantal. It is relational. The relationship begins with God and is centered upon him. God is relational. The Trinity expresses this clearly.
The relationships Christians are to have with other believers flow from this relationship with God. Within the local church, those relationships are even more connected. The "one anothers" of Scripture are played out within the body. There is no mistaking this. The "Jesus and me" mentality that sees church as the place where I go to get my fill of weekly spiritual teaching so that I can get through my week, tends to place "me" at the center of everything.
No wonder so many get bored and tired at church and are seemingly always looking for the latest edition or version available.
This me-centered, independent mindset prevails in our culture. It leads to the shopping for churches and consumerism disguised as Christianity.
It also leads to a belief that people have the right to be a member of the local church.
Church Membership Is Not a Right
As Americans, we love our personal rights. We even have a "Bill of Rights" in our Constitution that have allowed freedoms to be expressed and experienced that are unavailable in other areas of the world. We truly are blessed to have these. However, sometimes we transfer what we believe to our rights to aspects of life where they do not apply.
When it comes to becoming a member of a local church, no one actually has a right to be welcomed in as a member.
I know this sounds like we have some super-exclusive club where certain people will not be welcome. That becomes some of the pushback for churches who require membership. Truly, in the past, some have used unbiblical guidelines (such as race) as determining factors regarding who can or cannot be a church member. I am not speaking of such vile circumstances.
Some basics are expected and those must align with the church's declared and shared doctrine. A person should not be admitted into membership if certain doctrinal differences exist, especially if they're first- or second-level theological issues (view of Trinity, justification, mode of baptism, meaning of Lord's Supper, etc.)
For a person to be accepted in membership of a local church, there are definitely expectations that should be understood. These are not only things expected from church members, but things the potential member can expect from the church. This is a relationship and therefore, there are expectations.
When churches minimize what it means to be a member and lower the standards expected of church members, membership not only becomes unbiblical but troublesome.
What About Members Who Abandon the Church?
Most churches I know have a list of church members who never attend. This list includes a small percentage representing those who are incapacitated or unable to leave home and attend worship services or other activities. Their health is failing or they have physical or other disabilities keeping them from the local gathering. For those individuals, membership has not been abandoned. In fact, the church has expectations to continue the relationship (remember, it's a covenant relationship) and to help when family members are not able to do so.
What about the rest of those disconnected "members"?
Most pastors know this passage in Hebrews, yet we often only focus on a portion of it.
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17 ESV)
I fear that we love the "obey" and "submit" portion, but skip over the "those who will have to give an account" portion. Simply put, the displaced and non-attending church member should be contacted and sought to be drawn back in to the fold.
Why? Because we (pastors and leaders) will have to give an account to God for our care.
However, there are likely members who haven't attended in years and would not want to come back into the fold simply because doing so would put them immediately into a process of church discipline. Yep, that church member living opening in sin cannot just slide back into church. Therefore, they seek to hide away from church, while simultaneously keeping their membership in the church.
It's bogus. It's sinful.
Some may not even know they're still considered members of the church. Maybe they've been attending elsewhere. Perhaps they moved away. Some may actually be members at another church that either "doesn't do membership," is of a different denomination, or simply is poor in their administration that they never saw fit to reach out and connect with the former church.
We actually had some church members who were serving at a sister church as deacons and Sunday School leaders years ago. Why? Mainly because our membership process at the time did not allow us remove members unless another church sent for their "letter" (membership) or the individual requested to be removed from the church roll.
Why Would Someone Want to Remain a Member and Not Attend?
The cultural Christian reality explains this well. Dean Inserra's book The Unsaved Christian covers this well. There are many reasons, but some that come to mind are...
- Membership allows someone to use the building for a wedding at no or reduced rates.
- Membership allows someone to use the building for a funeral.
- Membership looks good on the postcard or website in some areas if you decide to run for office.
- Membership allows for some to claim connectivity with others when there is no relationship.
- Membership in the church is like membership in the Rotary, Lions, or any other community organization. It's good for business.
Church membership can be a mess.
While our church won't be dropping church members wide-scale, we will begin to delete the "Sunday School members" who haven't attended in months. We will eliminate names that have been passed and promoted for years.
People matter, but membership is more than a name on a roll.
Joining a church is a covenantal agreement. Anything less is superficial at best, and sinful at worst. So, no you don't have a right to be a member of the local church, but God desires that you be a member. It is good. It is right. It is holy and it allows for the believer to be a disciple who makes disciples.
If you're actively attending another church and engaged in ministry there...join it. Don't keep your membership in one church and act like a member in another. :-)