Church Membership?

By | 30 August 2009

This is the first in a small series of posts on church membership.

I am not convinced that church “membership”, as implemented by most churches I have attended or visited through my life, is a Biblically-valid stance to take.

Certainly we are not to forsake the gathering of ourselves together. And in order to be a vital part of the bride of Christ, we need to be engaged with a local manifestation of that body.

But does that mean that a church can or should offer, let alone require, membership?

From observing many churches, membership is a formal process whereby a given professing Christian applies to become a part of a local church. They [generally] must agree to the church’s constitution and confession of faith. They [typically] must meet with the elder(s) in an interview who will probe their background, why they want to join this church, and then be submitted to the congregation to consider.

Once the consideration period is over, the new member generally reads their testimony in front of the congregation, and then is voted-upon for reception into membership by the current members.

Various churches have differing standards over aspects of this process: how old must the applicant be, what type of background they have, how new are they to the church, etc.

My question is why is there such a formal process of joining a church? Yes, I understand that if you are not a “part” of a church, church discipline doesn’t make much sense. I do not see any direct evidence that the early church practiced a “membership” process – though some of that may just be based on the relative lack of mobility amongst first-century people. Or it could be related to the likelihood that a given city or area might only have one church because they stood out so much from the surrounding society. And certainly, claiming to be a Christian in the first century AD was not something to be taken lightly.

We also see Paul commending certain people from one city to brethren in a different city to be accepted by their gathering if/when they come. We see in 1 Corinthians Paul calling-on the church to put away from their midst the sinning brother. We also see in 2 Corinthians Paul now urging the church to take him back if he’s truly repented.

If I am a member of a church, and I decide for whatever reasons to move to a different area, or find my convictions no longer lining-up well with the church I had been attending, I believe it is my responsibility as a Christian to find a body of believers with whom I can more readily identify and cooperate with. My duty as a Christian is first to my King and His work, and secondly to the local body I work with.

I’m not suggesting that if you don’t get along with somebody in the congregation that that’s grounds for just moving-on. Nor do I think it is a good idea to try to be engaged with more than one or two churches at a time. But I cannot see how the formal practice of membership is a healthy add-on to the Christian life.

It seems that the church as a whole has taken lessons from other organizations whereby you must join to be a part – such as the Elks or Freemasons. Joining the church happens when a person is converted and baptized. Once I was converted, I became a member of the universal body of Christ. My attachment to a local representation of that body took a while because the church I was in had draconian policies which had to be fulfilled before someone could be baptized and become a member. Such policies turned-off many of the people I grew-up with form wanting to join that specific church.

I’ve attended other churches that had completely no concept of membership or belonging… and I can see the issues with that, too. I do believe it’s important to belong to a church. But the concept of membership needs to be re-examined.