Why do we have a “Membership Process?”


Why do we have a “Membership Process?”

The topic of Church Membership has garnered great interest in recent years, and a discussion of the meaning and value of Church Membership can be a rewarding in the context of any local church. Biblical investigation, historical study, and personal introspection are all in order when addressing Church Membership.

We are able to look to the Scriptures, as well as church history, for our understanding of every aspect of the Christian faith and the practice thereof. When church history agrees with Scripture, we may gain insight from the application of biblical truth in a context that is not our own. When church history diverges from the teaching of the Bible, we are better equipped to learn how we may avoid the trap ourselves and learn from the mistakes of others.

Because First Baptist Church of Diana is a biblically faithful church, the Bible authoritatively instructs us, and we must implement our understanding of the Scriptures accordingly. This means that we are also free from pragmatic or humanistic governing. No tradition, strong feelings, or prideful impulse may cause us to abdicate our responsibility before God.

In fact, it is our great joy and heavy burden to be faithful to God in leadership over the sheep God has placed under our care. This is a task that we all are inadequate to accomplish apart from the work of God in and through us.

The Perception of Membership Today

First, to say that the value of church membership has diminished among the majority of people today is not to say that membership is not valuable or that I agree with the assessment. I intend only to point out that the perception of most people is that church membership is of little or no value whatever in their daily lives. Even those who choose to join a church seem to have a lower view of membership in our day. This is a real concern, but our own evaluation of the general perception regarding church membership will drastically impact our decisions regarding how to address the problem presented. Essentially, if we do not see any problem here, then we will not see any need for solutions.

While there may be many factors that contribute to the common devaluation of church membership, the fact is that it has indeed become less important in the minds many people. One Southern Baptist Convention pastor, understanding this reality, explains that the reason one may have no reservation about acknowledging the perceived meaninglessness of church membership (especially among those who enjoy membership status) is that it has little or no impact at all on the thoughts or lives of church members. He places his finger in the open wound of lacking church discipline when he says,

“Historically, Baptists have affirmed regenerate church membership, which implies that every church member should walk in holiness and purity. Yet the widespread reality today is otherwise. A person can walk in ways that bring great shame to the name of Christ and yet remain a member in good standing in a Southern Baptist church.”

God forbid that we should stand idly by if this is happening in our own church.

The same pastor asked the question, “How has meaningless church membership adversely affected the Southern Baptist Convention?” The SBC is mentioned, which is his own denomination and that of FBC Diana, but this ‘meaninglessness’ has negatively touched all Christian churches. He went on to introduce his list of unfavorable consequences by saying, “Our membership rolls most likely contain a multitude of unregenerate (or unsaved) individuals. Our Baptist forefathers would view our present condition with shock and horror.” This may or may not describe us, but if we have falsely affirmed the salvation of multitude of unsaved people, then we too should be horrified. Some of the consequences that come as a result of lax membership standards are as follows:
It Gives a False Assurance of Salvation to Multitudes
The failure to establish the grounds for or practice church discipline in our church gives the multitude of “inactive members” and/or rebellious members a false assurance of salvation. It is common for a man or woman to join a Southern Baptist church, but then to stop participating in worship and fellowship—sometimes for decades. Yet when the church says or does nothing, the individual continues to believe he or she is saved. It is also common to observe church members who live with no regard to the clear commands of God’s Word.
The fruit of the Spirit is meant to provide evidence that a person is truly converted to Christ, but many church members believe themselves to be converted without the evidence any fruit simply because their names remain on the membership roll.
It Harms Our Gospel Witness
The fact that so many Southern Baptists live in open disobedience to God’s commands and have little involvement with their fellow members greatly harms our denomination’s gospel witness.
Hypocrisy within our churches is common, and Southern Baptist churches almost universally fail to practice church discipline. As a result, Christ’s bride is stained and soiled when she should be progressing toward radiance, holiness, and blamelessness.
Church history professor Tom Nettles has said that “holiness should pave the way for evangelism.” Those who proclaim the gospel of God’s saving grace in Christ Jesus should be able to point to an assembly of believers who are new creations in Christ. Sadly, many lost men and women have been able to point to their own moral superiority when comparing themselves with the immoral and deceitful lives of church members.
It Makes for Some Ugly Business Meetings
Meaningless church membership periodically reveals its ugly face at church business meetings or in opposition to godly direction from church staff and/or lay leadership.
It Hinders our Missionary Efforts
Meaningless membership in Southern Baptist churches hinders our efforts to declare God’s glory to the nations.
Consider one other missionary statistic: Southern Baptists gave approximately $150 million last year to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions. Southern Baptists tend to take some satisfaction in knowing that the Lottie Moon Offering is the largest missionary offering in the two thousand year history of Christianity. But do the math and divide $150 million by 16 million Southern Baptists. You get less than $10 per Baptist. Apparently, obeying Jesus’ last command to “go and make disciples of all nations” means very little to many.
The pastor closes his article by saying,

“A recovery of meaningful church membership is desperately needed. Perhaps then we will know something more of “him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us. To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever!  Amen” (Eph. 3:20-21).[1]


Early Church Membership

Second, lets look at what church membership looked like for the first century Christians. Their contrast with congregations in our own day is tremendous and shameful. While some might understand the membership process to have been totally lacking during the early days of Christianity, there was a clearly defined distinction between those of the kuriake (those who belong to the King) or ekklesia, (called out ones) and those outside the Church (those who remained unconverted). The beliefs of the early church, for instance, were clearly stated in the form of creeds or proclamations of belief. The most simplistic, yet defining of these, is “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor. 12:3; Rom. 10:9). The early church members proclaimed this short phrase in direct contrast to affirming the lordship of another – namely Caesar. Theirs was a clear demarcation between themselves and everyone else.

Additionally, we find that Christians were taught that there were a number of essential beliefs, which were distinguishing marks of those who were “of the faith” and those who were not. Some examples are the belief that Christ came in the flesh (1 John 4:1-6) and that God is triune as well as exclusive (2 Cor. 13:14; Eph. 4:4–6).

In order to join a church, a person had to formally confess this body of truth, “the Faith” or “common salvation” (Jude 3; 1 Tim. 1:19), which may have also included other crucial beliefs such as the return of Christ. This may have taken place at the time of baptism. During baptism, an individual would affirm these key elements of the Christian faith in order to identify their common salvation (cf. 1 Tim. 6:12).

In the post-apostolic era, inspired by these apostolic statements or creeds, there were other statements fashioned in order to illuminate the distinction in their own day. For example, Irenaeus (c.130–c. 200), bishop of Lyons, quoted what may have been his own church’s statement of faith in Against Heresies (180), defending Christianity against Gnosticism.

The Graeco-Roman world was not like the Jewish Christians. Thus, after the initial Jewish converts trusted in Christ as Savior and began to spread this Gospel to the Gentiles, the churches began to encounter people who were prepared to believe in Christ Jesus as Savior and Lord, but they were ignorant concerning Scripture and the theology it contained. Gentiles simply had no understanding of the Old Testament or of the God who is.

The churches answered this problem by teaching and requiring fundamental affirmations of the Christian faith; these included biblical, doctrinal and moral components. The church needed to teach people about things like God’s creation of the world and the life of virtue that flows from a true confession or belief. Essentially they taught them the fundamentals of the faith and what it means to live a life in submission to Christ.

At least by the end of the second century, catechisms (the systematic articulation of Christian belief) and the process of catechizing (teaching through the afore mentioned beliefs) had developed. For example, Irenaeus wrote of a catechism, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching (c. 190A.D.). The first half of this work details the history of salvation and the second half presents proofs for the truth of Christianity from the Old Testament. He taught through the specifics and doctrines of the Gospel and then through a course in apologetics.

By the following century, there is clear evidence (the writings of Hippolytus of Rome between c.170–c.236) that catechizing could take up to three years. While the person being so instructed (called a catechumen) was regarded as a Christian, he or she could not receive the Lord’s Supper until baptism, which was after he or she completed catechism. As the second-century Christian author Justin Martyr maintained: “no one is allowed to partake” of the Lord’s Supper “except the one who believes what we teach to be true, and who has been washed…and who lives in exactly the way Christ handed down to us” (First Apology, 66).[2] This statement is bursting with implications concerning the weightiness of membership and the seriousness of those who were considered members.

While we are wise not to view the early church as having the same authority as Scripture itself, it is foolish to think that there is no value whatever in the example. We might do very well to understand why they placed such importance on church membership and how they made that importance clear and visible to all. Not only did the early church make stark distinctions between themselves and the world around them, they did this at great risk to themselves. The Apostle Paul exhorts his readers (recent converts from Judaism) not to turn back from Christianity – their newfound faith. For these brave souls, embracing Christianity involved great sacrifice and pain; they were being cast out by family, friends and their community; cast out of the temple and synagogue; cast out by a religion that by this time, through its adaptation and concession, had become officially recognized by the Roman Empire. Those early believers were driven to become an outlaw band of men and women who possessed no worldly status and clung only to the promises of God.

The model of the early church may or may not be ideal, but the fact is that there was a much greater understanding of the importance of membership and there was a much higher level of commitment on the part of leaders and members when compared to today. There was a clear requirement of belief and practice, faith and discipline.


What is the biblical purpose of church membership?

Lastly, the purpose of the local church in general and that of its membership will and should dictate the practical policy and application. This means that preference, contemporary trend, and level of difficulty should have no significant bearing on our policy or application thereof. It seems clear that the purpose of church membership is to commit to the oversight of church leadership as those leaders commit themselves to the task of shepherding that local flock (2 Tim.). The early church not only devoted themselves to fellowship, eating and prayer together; they devoted themselves first to the instruction of the apostles (Acts 2: 42-47). There are numerous features of acting as a responsible shepherd, not the least of which is ensuring that discipleship, accountability and godliness are the chief pursuits of the shepherd himself. However, I would like to focus on the ‘sheep’ for our consideration of the subject at hand.

One pastor explains that the pastoral authority and expression thereof is much like that of a parent. He says,

“It is the elders [elders, pastors, and overseers are interchangeable terms in the New Testament] of the church who have been given the responsibility to shepherd the flock of God under their pastoral care, to exercise proper spiritual oversight (I Peter 5:1-2). This involves ruling over the affairs of the church. As His ministers they rule in Christ’s stead. As we submit to their lawful rule we are actually obeying Christ.”[3]

When we express godly and righteous authority over our children, we demonstrate the character and nature of God to our children – albeit imperfectly. This is exactly what is to be done in the context of a local church as well. If leaders are passive and aloof towards sin in the congregation, then the members will believe God is too. If leaders are loving disciplinarians, then the members will believe God is too. If leaders waver or become vague in their description of the actual content and implications of the Gospel, then the members will think precision is unachievable and/or unimportant. God forbid that church leaders would commit to anything less than gracious, faithful, loving, God-glorifying service to Christ and His Church.


Common Objections Answered

We’ve never done this before.

First, our life experience can be a valuable asset in our decision-making. However, life experience is totally irrelevant when compared with the authority of Scripture. Church members and leaders must allow the Bible, not tradition, to establish what you do in church.

Second, the whole of the Christian experience is chalked full of things that a sinner has never done before. Every Christian began to love Christ, at some point, for the very first time. Every Christian began to fight against their sinful impulses when they were empowered to do so by God’s Spirit, and this was never even a desire before they became alive in Christ. Christians are to abandon privacy and unanimity for Gospel-centered community and humble Christ-ward pursuit, and this exchange is completely foreign to sinful humanity.

Last, consider the prevalence of church discipline in the New Testament (e.g., Matt. 18:15-17, 1 Cor. 5, 2 Cor. 2:6). Church discipline can hardly take place in any context without the elevating the perception of what it means to be a church member. If one can be put out of an identifiable assembly, then one can also be put in; and both of these transitions should be made with humility and thoughtful intentionality motivated by biblical conviction and faithfulness.

Church Membership is legalistic and unloving.

It certainly can be, but it doesn’t have to be, and indeed it shouldn’t be. On the contrary, allowing someone to remain comfortably on a church membership role without ever confronting the question of where he or she stands with God is perhaps the most unloving thing one can ever do. Admittedly, increasing the value of church membership will not automatically cause your congregation to be more loving, but it will be a potent display of Spirit-wrought and Gospel-centered community. To say the least, such a display will be hard to ignore and even harder to accuse of being ‘unloving.’

Valuable Church Membership is too time-consuming.

A pastor’s fundamental calling is not to administer programs but to “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). What could be more integral to such a calling than seeing new members in and old members out?[4]


Closing Summary

Church Membership has, contrary to contemporary Baptist tradition, been perceived as something of great value and significance. The purpose of Church Membership is described and illustrated on the pages of Holy Scripture, and that purpose is to provide biblical leadership and familial accountability and encouragement for all who claim the name of Christ. The most frequent objections to raising the value of Church Membership by implementing a membership process are purely emotional and unsubstantial.

Therefore, there is no doubt that Church Membership should be held in high regard. There is also incredibly good reason to implement and uphold a membership process of some kind, rather than merely admitting new church members immediately upon their profession of interest or desire to join. The Scriptural mandate and the prescribed direction seem clear, and FBC Diana believes a membership process is the best way to faithfully submit to Christ through the local church in our contemporary American context.

[1] This content (results of lax membership requirements) was taken largely from an article at the following website: http://www.9marks.org/journal/meaningless-membership-southern-baptist-perspective

[2] http://www.9marks.org/journal/joining-church-ancient-way-clement-egeria

[3] Pribble, Stephen; Is Church Membership Optional?  http://www.reformed.com/publications/ischurchmembershipoptional.php

[4] These objections and the subsequent answers are largely taken from an article at the following website: http://www.9marks.org/journal/implementing-membership-existing-church