Should we have a Church Membership?

An interesting question was raised at last week's Bible Study. Why does our church have membership? Someone objecting to the concept might make the following points:

  • It sets believers apart- those who are formal members and those who are not. This is not right.
  • The concept is not found in the Bible
  • All Christians are members of the church anyway, so why do we have it?
  • Baptism is the point of entry to the church, not a welcoming into membership
  • You can be a church member and not be saved
  • Reasons for membership are worldly and not spiritual.

I shall take them one by one.

It sets believers apart- those who are formal members and those who are not. This is not right.

There is much that sets believers apart from each other already, not least the Lord’s rewards and recompense when before Him we appear. Our God-given talents and gifts vary in both quality and quantity, our levels of commitment and service are not all the same. So if church membership sets some believers apart from others, it is part of an already existing structure. The question we must rather ask is whether membership is available to all Christians in the church? If it is not, for reasons others than incompatible theology, loose morals or commitment to another fellowship, then there is a problem. If a church discriminated because of skin colour, then this would be a sinful division of believers. If you are a part of a church and have chosen to not join it, but could, then the ‘division’ exists only by choice.

Being a member of Salem confers no special privileges; you will be offered no better seating (all our pews are uniformly uncomfortable), no more access to the communion table, no greater call on the pastor’s time. If anything, it saddles one with the greater responsibility of steering the church’s direction and holding the pastor and deacons to account.

The concept is not found in the Bible

The word isn’t, but the concept is. Jehovah’s Witnesses love to make this point regarding the Trinity, as though it were some deal-breaker. Yet we must ask what the Bible teaches rather than the specific English vocabulary used. JW’s might be surprised to learn that the word Jehovah isn’t strictly there either, but it doesn’t stop them from using it. In Galatians 2:9, Paul writes:

when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.

Here we have a formal and official welcoming into fellowship, a public declaration that Paul and Barnabas were of the same church as James, Peter and John. If formal welcoming into the church is taught, so is the cancellation of its membership. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul described a member of the Corinthian congregation who has been involved in sexual immorality. His remedy is to disfellowship them. The NIV writes:

Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this?

The New King James Version puts it thus:

he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you.

Taken away does not refer being physically bundled to some other location, but that his place in the church be revoked. Does this mean they physically engaged him if he showed up the following day, or does it mean they deny him a role in the church’s life? The latter, I think. Either way, we have here membership of a local church, which can be both bestowed and cancelled.

It is true that these are only two references, and so from this I conclude that the matter is relatively unimportant when compared with say communion or instituting elders. For this reason, no person at Salem Chapel is ever asked to become a member, yet they are asked to attend regularly and share the Lord’s Table. 

All Christians are members of the church anyway, so why do we have it?

There is a difference between the universal church (all Christians, in all countries, throughout all times) and the local church (a group of believers in the same locality committed to fellowship). Every believer is a member of the universal church from the Philippian gaoler to the last convert prior Judgement Day. Of the local church, this is not the case. Brother Mbongo of Nairobi is not a member of Salem because he cannot commit to it. I am not a member of Chipping or Knowle Green chapels because I cannot commit to them, love them though I do.

Baptism is the point of entry to the church, not a welcoming into membership

This argument works if you believe in a state church or in covenant theology and infant baptism. Believers’ baptism is rather a symbol of coming to faith in Christ, of repenting of the old life and anticipating future resurrection. It confers no more than that and is only symbolic of our spiritual state. It confers no greater status or authority except in the cults.

You can be a church member and not even be saved

Correct. You may also be baptised, take communion, pray out loud, sing hymns, preach an interesting sermon and clothe the naked- and still not be converted. Yet this is not a reason to forbid those practices. If anything, having a formal system of membership better ensures (though cannot guarantee) that those in membership have had a real experience of Christ. Scrapping membership would allow chaff and wolves to take over a church with greater ease.

Reasons for membership are worldly and not spiritual

It is true that some good reasons for having a formal membership are not found in the Bible. This does not make them wrong, so long as they do not take precedence over the Bible’s teachings. Here’s an example. If the treasurer writes a cheque, she must obtain a second signature from a deacon before the cheque is valid and the funds can be cleared. Nowhere does the Bible teach this practice, but it’s still a good thing to do. One might argue it ensures our finances are honest and not squandered, and this might be corroborated by the Bible’s insistence on good stewardship. But even if we couldn’t confirm this practice with a proof text, would it still be a good thing to do? Yes.

Again, we insist on having a set number of fire extinguishers on our premises. This is a secular law rather than a biblical one, but it’s worth honouring nonetheless. If someone demanded their removal because the Bible doesn’t command them, or considers them pagan impositions in the Lord’s sanctuary, they might still struggle to alter my mind.  

In 1816, the founding fathers of our chapel determined that their chapel would be run according to the congregational way, which means being run by and for the congregation. It was not to be governed by a bishop or pastor, but by those who have formally and publicly dedicated their services to it. The best way of identifying these people is to keep a register of members, as opposed to those who visit or attend but for whatever reason do not wish to formally join. Our Trust Deed must legally be observed.

Alternatives & Scenarios

It might also be worth considering the alternative. For example, a state church whose membership is made up of those residing in the parish. This sounds workable but few state churches end well and in modern Britain the majority of ‘parishioners’ are indifferent or hostile to the gospel.

If a church has no formal membership, how does it disfellowship the immoral brother? As a place of worship, we cannot prevent anyone from attending our services. If everyone who attends is automatically given a say on how the church is run, how does one stop the polygamous man from spouting his views or the polytheist from propagating his idolatry?

I know a church with no formal membership system, at which some theological liberals have started attending. Fine. Yet when I preached, they gently challenged me about some basic fundamental Biblical principles which we at Salem would take for granted. Those people have been attending for some time now. Let’s imagine they bring their like-minded friends to attend also. What is to stop them from turning a life-proclaiming evangelical church into yet another dead talking shop? Formal membership cannot prevent this- it happened in plenty of membership-based churches well enough. Yet it is at least one small barrier to it happening quickly.

How about this scenario: people who have been attending a church for only two months declare their belief that the pastor is not fit for purpose and that he should be relieved on his role. Would this be acceptable? They’ve not been there long enough, one might object. Who decides when a person has a say and who doesn’t?

Or the other extreme: a person has been attending a church for five years but they are told they have no say because there is a clique of others who have been there for twenty. Is this fair?

Here's a third. The pastor of an independent church has begun teaching that Christ never rose from the dead. He is asked to desist but refuses. He is asked to step down but he declines. What can you do about it? Other than leave yourself, the answer is nothing, unless there is some written mechanism by which he can be removed, which almost certainly requires a formal body of members to take a vote. Otherwise, he wins, the gospel loses and the church shuts in a few years anyway.

Membership of a church is a useful institution with a biblical basis. Still, I never particularly promote it or urge people to covet it. Like giving to the church financially, it will be done freely and voluntarily or not at all.

Without counsel plans go awry, But in the multitude of counsellors they are established.  Proverbs 15:22

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