August 10, 2020

The Church Membership Question: Interview with Jonathan Leeman

UPDATE: Thanks for the good response and discussion. If you would like to read an excellent defense of the Baptist view of church membership, John Piper has written an excellent article on Church Membership and Accountability. A very good survey of the basics.

This post begins several posts on the subject of the church and church membership. I have two interviews in the works, at least two related posts and we’ll see what else may appear on the docket.

My concern is simple: Is the concept of local church membership viable- even essential- today or should it be abandoned?

This is a critical question; one that many in the IM audience struggle with as they sojourn in the evangelical wilderness or look toward finding a church that is a Jesus shaped community.

This series will have particular reference to the discussion on church membership that is now going on in the Southern Baptist Convention, where a resolution (non-binding) on Integrity in Church Membership Reporting was a major item passed at this year’s national convention gathering.

Today, I’ll be interviewing someone who deals with the issue of church membership through academic study and through his part in one of the most influential para-church ministries in evangelicalism: 9 Marks.

My guest today is Jonathan Leeman, director of communications and web content editor/author for 9 Marks Ministries, wher he writes, teaches and maintains a very helpful blog. He has an M.Div from Southern, which makes him as smart as your Internet Monk, but he’s trumping me with a Ph.d in ecclesiology, i.e. the Biblical study of the Church. He has a wife and two daughters, and he happens to be writing a book on church membership and church discipline for Crossway.

Glad to have you on board Jonathan. Let’s talk about church membership.

1. The first time I heard a Baptist minister say that church membership wasn’t important, I thought I was dreaming. Now I am constantly dialoging with younger evangelicals who see no place for church membership in the churches they are trying to grow. How did we get in this situation?

Great question. Thank you for this opportunity to consider these matters with you. My sense is that a large number of factors are involved, both inside and outside the church. Here are a few inside the church:
– evangelical essentialism (the evangelical knack for discarding everything that is not perceived as immediately essential to the gospel, even if it is biblical);
– formalistic, over-institutionalized churches (which often yields nominal Christianity);
– little to no teaching on the topic;
– churches that have been fixated on best business practices, efficiency, and growth rates, hence, membership being practiced in a distorted way (with a “club benefits” mentality instead of a “family” mentality);
– a failure to practice corrective church discipline;
– a weaker understanding of the gospel and conversion

In Western culture broadly, there has been a growth of
– individualism, i.e. refusal to accept corporate accountability;
– geographic mobility;
– reluctance to commit (consider divorce rates, abortion rates, decline in civic participation, increased job mobility, etc.);
– suspicion toward all authority;
– consumeristic conceptions of love and faith

I could keep going.

2. When I was growing up, one of my most abiding memories was going to large evangelistic crusades and seeing people go forward at the invitations, but in actual fact, relatively few of them ever became church members. Can we give Christian assurance to those who choose to not become members of local congregations?

Let me answer that two ways. First, Jesus gave the local church the explicit authority to give such assurance through membership (Matt. 16:19; 18:18-19; John 20:23). No other individual or institution on earth has been given the authority to give assurance. Second, and more to your question, I would argue that the person who claims to be a member of the church (universal) without being a member of a church (local) is in an analogous position to the person who claims to be righteous in Christ (by position) but does not pursue a life of righteousness (in practice). In other words, let me propose that such a person is in a very dangerous position, and it raises real questions about the nature of their “faith.”

Now, I recognize these are challenging words. If you’re reading this, and what I just said offends you, let me plead with you to respond by asking more questions, not immediately jumping to judgment.

3. Does the story of the Ethiopian eunuch teach that baptism should be performed immediately and without any reference to local church membership?

Great question. This passage has provoked me to stop and think as well. Bottom line: I don’t think so. Two factors should be kept in mind. First, Philip was in Samaria, what was then an unreached people group. No local church existed! Someone has to be the first. The situation is analogous to, say, Adoniram Judson in 19th century Burma. Second, there was nothing like American cultural Christianity in that ancient near Eastern world. In fact, new converts were almost certain to encounter cultural opposition and persecution. As such, for that eunuch to have “walked the aisle” presumes a more careful counting-of-the-cost and deliberateness in his decision; the sort of thing for which a church might delay baptism.

4. I grew up in a church that still used terms like “extending the right hand of Christian fellowship,” “coming on the promise of a letter” and “comes today from a church of like faith and order.” We voted on those who made professions of faith, including asking for second and all opposed. Did Southern Baptists take church membership too seriously? Did all of this leave the impression that we thought the only Christians were the people in our denomination?

I’m not the historian, so you’re getting some conjecture here. My sense is that Southern Baptists did not take membership too seriously, but that many Southern Baptists often had a wrong version of what biblical church membership is (see again my answer to question 1 above). Many had a formalized, country-club conception of membership that looked bright and shiny on the outside, but had little to do with a rigorous, get-involved-in-people’s lives, call-them-to-repentance, love-them-at-cost-to-yourself gospel-centered Christianity. Membership is about submitting to Christ’s Lordship and Love as mediated through a marked-off, Bible-ruled, keep-one-another-accountable body of people. In Western contexts, that may involve letters and signatures. But those arenít the point. They are simply contextualized tools to serve the crystal clear biblical mandate of identifying who belongs to God’s people and who doesn’t- for love of the insider and the outsider. Book recommendation: see Greg Wills, Democratic Religion (Oxford).

5. Many of the readers of this web site have found it very difficult to be a member of a local church. They attend one or more churches, but membership has often turned into the predictable story of church politics, burn out, broken relationships and even manipulation and abuse by staff. What would you say to those who simply cannot see themselves ever joining another church again?

Well, first of all, I’m genuinely sorry things have been difficult. I share your grief and frustration, which is precisely why I’m dedicated to thinking and writing about this topic. But I’d then say two further things. First, aren’t you and I glad that Jesus hasn’t abandoned you and me amidst all the reasons we’ve given him to abandon us? Living the Christian life means living with people who are difficult to forgive and love. This is precisely what the local church is for: to give us the opportunity to forgive as we’ve been forgiven; to “put on” our profession to believe the gospel. Second, depending on what has gone wrong, I just might say, find another (healthier) church. We should forgive, but sometimes we need to wipe the dust of our feet and go.

6. Many years ago, I got in some serious hot water for questioning a state denominational leader who talked admiringly about churches that had received 4 and 5 year olds into membership. I’m sure Baptists take in thousands under the age of ten as full members. What is your response to those practice?

Okay, my answers have already been too long. And now you ask me this! Uh, I’d say it’s irresponsible and part of the reason membership means so little these days, leading many people to abandon it (add this to my answer to number 1 above). But not only is it why membership means so little, it’s why Christianity means so little, both to those individuals when they grow up and abandon the church, and to the watching world, who sees the church acting just like them. To give you an irresponsibly short justification to these comments, I’d say that God designed children to affirm what their parents tell them to affirm, therefore it’s very difficult for a parent, much less a pastor, to discern whether or not a five year old profession of faith is credible. I’m not questioning whether or not a five year old can be a Christian. Of course they can. I’m questioning the parent (and the church’s) ability to responsibly discern that fact.

7. The SBC finally has taken a public step asking for integrity in reporting church membership. Tom Ascol insisted that statement include specific language on repentance. Why was that idea of repentance important in this issue?

I don’t feel like I can comment on the ins and outs of this situation. In principle, I would say that repentance is warranted any time a local church’s (or a representative of the local church, like the SBC) practice of membership departs from the kind of membership we see practiced in the New Testament. So take a look at Matthew 18:15-20 or 1 Corinthians 5. Does your church exercise the same care for its holy witness? Does it care like Jesus and Paul do for how non-Christians perceive Christ and the people of Christ? Does it care for the weaker sheep among them, taking care not to see them led astray? If not, then a church should repent- change directions.

8. Thanks so much for your time, Jonathan. One last question. If you could draft a confessional statement on church membership, what would it say?

Can I cheat and simply point you both to my church constitution (see Article 3 on membership) as well as my church covenant? I think both of these are excellent statements. Thank you for your ministry, Michael!


  1. “it’s very difficult for a parent, much less a pastor, to discern whether or not a five year old profession of faith is credible.”

    Yes. It is also difficult to tell wheat from tares. So we should consider both part of the field. I can understand if certain adult responsibilities are reserved for the mature. But if the statements about giving assurance through membership are right, then are children not to be assured?

  2. Michael,

    Wow, this is going to be great. I can’t wait to read all of your posts. Church membership for me has been one of the most troublesome doctrines for many of the reasons outlined here. I have come to a completely different view than what most evangelicals state in their constitutions. Your interviewee is a pretty standard example for me of the system with which I have problems.

    I believe that most people misunderstand membership, because they misunderstand the church and Christ’s relationship to His body. Most attempts at a doctrine of membership (like the one outlined in the linked constitution) I believe actually create the problems that they try to avoid. Most church memberships I have seen actually divide the church in the name of unity. And I believe that these things are mostly unintentional. The most basic problem is that people think that individual believers must “become” members of churches, when in fact the bible always states membership in terms that show all believers are already members. God places the members as he desires; we don’t.

    I’ve studied membership for over a decade and have a series on my own blog (“Re-Thinking Church Membership”, now at 24 posts) about what I believe membership should be, problems with status quo membership ideas, and personal experiences with various church memberships. I invite you to read my series and welcome comments.

  3. You know Rick,there are a lot of things I could say about infant baptism and Luther’s doctrine of infant faith, but if I were a paedo-Baptist I’d be cautious about implying that my credo brethren don’t give “assurance” to their children. The issue of Baptism and church membership doesn’t mean that credo churches only tell their children they are going to hell and have no part in Jesus. Most of us are nurturing faith toward a credible and meaningful profession, not excluding faith in our children.

    As Fred Malone has demonstrated, credos can cogently believe and practice what it means to have covenant promises to children without buying into what they believe are errors regarding who is to be baptized. We all aren’t running tent revivals in children’s church.

    The baptism discussion was going very well at Frank’s blog. What happened to it? I believe I read at your blog that the discussion frustrates you because we just can’t see your point of view? It’s a bit frustrating here to assume that we’re going to decide that Jesus really did say children should be baptized, he just did it in a way that no Christian could agree on it.



  4. Michael,

    I found the following statement interesting:

    Second, and more to your question, I would argue that the person who claims to be a member of the church (universal) without being a member of a church (local) is in an analogous position to the person who claims to be righteous in Christ (by position) but does not pursue a life of righteousness (in practice). In other words, let me propose that such a person is in a very dangerous position, and it raises real questions about the nature of their “faith.”

    Why does this apply to individuals, and not to local churches? In other words, if the individual should be a member of the local institution, then why shouldn’t the local institution be a member of the universal institution? The argument works the other way around as well. If the local institution need not be a member of a universal institution, then it seems inconsistent (or ad hoc) to claim that the individual should be a member of the local institution. If anti-institutionalism (or at least non-institutionalism) is fine for the local church with respect to the universal church, then why is anti-institutionalism (or non-institutionalism) not fine for the individual with respect to the local church?

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  5. Thanks for the post (and JL’s participation)

    Have we have added a whole bunch of things to church membership that there is no direct instruction on in the bible? I mean, there are not even any type of statements to things such as SOF’s and Church Covenants that get put in place now before church membership occurs. (see the SBC SOF, for example). Do we really have to have some type of intellectual affirmation of every point of the SOF before you are allowed as a member? This seems to me to disqualify any person who has been a believer of less than 5 years.

    Is there really any justification to deny church membership that way? Why would you want to – that person who is not truly under church discipline. That person has not made a commitment to the local body.

    thats my nickel. spend it as you like

  6. American church membership is a legal matter. Members have privileges and powers laid out in the church’s corporation papers. Who decides who can become members also is spelled out in legal papers enforceable in secular courts. Witness the schism in the Episcopal Church being played out in courts.

    Paul urged the Corinthians to excommunicate the sinning from their midst, “to deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:5 KJV). This happened with spiritual power, much as Ananias and Sapphira were killed, that we neither understand nor practice in the West these days. That excommunicant was not able to come back into the congregation except by spiritual repentance. He was given over to Satan to be tortured. Coming back without repentance would have been akin to trying to walk past the angel with the flaming sword who guarded the way to the Tree of Life. Revoking a membership letter would not have sufficed.

  7. Hhhhmmmm…I’ve been in a process of re-thinking a lot of what we do here in America in the name of “church”. And, frankly, I’m not finding a whole lot of it in the New Testament.

    Take the typical evangelical concept of church memberships, membership vows, church covenants, attendance records, etc.

    What does it take to become a member of Christ’s Body? Why are we so reluctant to consider those who profess to be His followers, and who assemble with us, to be members with of the local expression of His Body? Why the insistence on additional/different membership requirements, on signing covenants, on including said covenants in — of all things — the remembrance of the Lord’s Supper?

    I’m sorry. It’s things like that that have made me, a lifelong church attender, and a multi-decade believer in local church membership, so weary of all this “playing church”.

  8. Jeremiah Lawson says

    Michael the Poet, they do? Not every membership contract/covenant I’ve seen doles out any privileges or powers to members as such, who in some contracts are not even considered legally viable members of the church as a corporation but only as “members” in a strictly spiritual sense with no legally meaningful input on the structure or procedures of the organization. This isn’t uncommon is it?

    I feel in some ways technology and media distribution makes it harder to argue for what traditionally may have been a great way of retaining social fabric in a church. In an age in which pastors can make their sermons available on-line, and people can tithe on-line, and people can even serve on-line and some churches wire-feed a single pastor’s sermons to multiple campuses the compelling reason to attend a church may have nothing to do with actual fellowship or service or even hearing the preacher so much as a recognition that it’s sort of, I don’t know, good to gather with God’s people even if there’s not necessarily fellowship there?

    I would submit that the nature of virtual church has changed but that we’ve had virtual church for generations. 🙂 We just have a fancier, internet based way of doing virtual church and sometimes it’s tempting precisely because “church” at the physical location can be so wired it feels a bit weird. Still, I do plan on going tonight.

  9. Michael,
    Our assembly this morning was a babyshower during which we welcomed, thru baptism into the body of Christ my grandson, Evan, an 18 year old who will be heading for Portland, OR, to enroll into Cascade College. We sang songs and read scriptures dealing with being “in Christ,” beginning with Gal 3:27: baptism is the means of “putting on Christ” resulting in all the blessings of being “in Christ”: no condemnation (Rom 8:1), redemption/forgiveness (Col 1:14), access to God (Eph 3:12), victory (2Cor 2:14), sanctification (1Cor 1:2), AND membership in the Body (Rom 12:5).

    This last passage deals directly with membership in a local congregation: ONE ANOTHER. The most rudimentary study of the “one another” verbs demand knowledge of who “one another” is. Additionally, the elders are charged with the care and feeding of the flock. How do they know who that is without some sort of membership roll?

    Looking forward to the continuing discussion of this very important aspect of being a child of God.


  10. Bryan,

    I believe that the local body is required to sit under some sort of authority; someone who keeps the congregation and the pastor/elders accountable for their actions and their doctrine. Paul clearly held that authority over churches he started. He claims such authority on more than one occasion.

    I believe in apostles who travel, planting churches, eventually turning them over to men and women who God has raised up to shepherd that flock. I believe that those pastors are accountable to the planter. I also believe that pastors need a circle of other pastors who can speak into their lives for both support and correction.

    However, if you are going where I think you are going with this, what do the individual churches do when the planter or a successor err and leave the true faith, demanding that he be followed? Didn’t Paul say anyone who preaches a different gospel is accursed? Do you, as a shepherd, lead you sheep astray simply to stay in an organization?


  11. Brilliant. Great, pastoral advice — from the iMonk blog.

    Now I’ll have to kill myself or something — apparently this is not the universe I thought it was. 🙂

  12. Bryan:

    My patience with Catholic convert apologists is going to be very short on this thread. When a child gets a hammer, everything is suddenly a nail. This will make a great post on your blog. I won’t take this thread down that road.


  13. Jeremiah: I’ve never looked at church bylaws and incorporation papers. I do visit one church where I could look at them if I asked. I think the book of bylaws is as thick as a phonebook, even though the church has maybe forty members? But I’ve been in churches where the congregation votes on members and, if I recall, new pastors. Those who vote them in can vote them out. Hierarchial systems of church governance are different, though. Pastors are put in place by bishops, not members.

  14. “but if I were a paedo-Baptist I’d be cautious about implying that my credo brethren don’t give “assurance” to their children.” —iMonk

    I was less suggesting that in general than reacting to how the post linked assurance and membership. I concluded that from the line “First, Jesus gave the local church the explicit authority to give such assurance through membership (Matt. 16:19; 18:18-19; John 20:23). No other individual or institution on earth has been given the authority to give assurance.”

    He does not just say that the church gives assurance, but that it does so through membership. When he says no other individual or institution has such authority, he does not say whether the church has other ways of offering assurance. (Perhaps part of the problem here is that the language used is not easily recognizable as coming from a standard position, so it is hard to know exactly what is being affirmed or denied.) If assurance and membership are so linked that apart from membership your assurance can be questioned, then what does that say of not allowing children into membership? Either assurance is much broader than membership here, or we need to include children.

    It may be that the position is such that it can handle children. But I find it troubling that the faith is spoken in terms such that adult faith is normative and the implications of the understanding of what faith is for children need not be discussed. If you read the post and have to try to figure out how children are to be assured only from the post, what conclusions can you draw?

  15. In my denomination (Assemblies of God) membership essentially comes down to three things. (1) they agree with, or don’t object to, the Statement of Fundamental Truths (our creed, sort of; it includes positions on the Trinity, scriptures, baptism, salvation, ministry, and Pentecostal stuff). (2) They attend regularly. (3) They financially contribute to the church. If they lack in any of the three, their membership is dropped.

    Pretty much the only reason you need to be a member is to be a church officer or vote in church business meetings. The reason the church wants you to be a member is because if a church has too few members, the denomination automatically takes over certain leadership functions. (This is so a church doesn’t shrink down to one person, who then automatically owns the building.)

    And then there’s church discipline. Legally, the church can’t discipline anyone (either disfellowship or demand behavioral changes) unless they’ve agreed the church can do so by becoming a member. Disciplining a non-member, especially immature Christians who are used to getting their own way, can get legal quickly.

    If it weren’t for the legal stuff, we wouldn’t care about membership. We’d do what we do with all our attendees (meaning those who haven’t become official members): We’d let them preach, teach classes, lead singing, minister, evangelize, go on missions trips, perform music, and absolutely everything else the members do. And we’d challenge them, in every sermon, to be better Christians, be accountable to God and others, and boldly proclaim Jesus.

    But, as James Madison rightly pointed out, if we humans knew how to behave, we wouldn’t need governments. Or church governments. Or deacon boards. Or membership. We’d just follow Jesus. Since we don’t, we’re forced to legally define who is in the Kingdom, just in case someone decides to drag the legal system into it.

  16. This looks like it will turn into a fascinating discussion. I’ve done a few studies relative to the topics being discussed. The first is an interview with Xenos on membership and church discipline. This is an example of a church/mini-denomination that has no notion of formal membership nor a profession yet still maintains a full discipline structure. Often the argument is made that discipline assumes membership and Xenos provides a fascinating counter example.

    Another which is referenced in the comments is Marian Guinn v Church of Christ Collinsville which address the differences legally between actions taken by a church that does or does not have membership with regards to discipline. There are other cases which are key here but that one has most of the details.

    Finally the How to leave a church addresses what is required by a member to sever the legal relationship between a church and him/herself.

    Looking forward to reading as comments develop.

  17. Jonathan Leeman says

    Great conversation! So many interesting threads. Let me pick one or two. Rick Ritchie raised the question of membership and assurance. I don’t want to pick the “which polity” argument here, so let me put it like this. One of the primary purposes of membership, I believe, is for the “church” (whether you define that as the local assembly, as I do, or as something larger) to provide its corporate stamp of approval on an individual’s profession of faith. In other words, when a church welcomes an individual into membership, they say to the onlooking world, “We affirm, so far as we can tell, that this person is indeed identified with Jesus Christ. Their life and profession match, and we’re happy to vouch for them.” (In that sense, I agree with Steve Scott above entirely. Church’s don’t “make” members; they recognize or affirm them.) This is what I take from the passages about “binding and loosing” in Matthew 16 and 18. To “bind” an individual is to identify him or her with yourself as a corporate body. To “loose” an individual is to de-identify yourself as s body with him or her–“he may call herself a Christian, but he doesn’t have our stamp of approval. He’s not wearing our jersey.”

    Why does the church have this authority? In part, because our doctrine of sin tells us how easily we can be self-deceived. The point isn’t for me, in my own mind, to decide that I’m a Christian. No. Paul, calls the Galatian churches to apply a statement-of-faith test to any teachers who teach a gospel other than the gospel he taught them. John calls the churches to apply the “Christ is messiah” (1 John 2:22) and “Christ came in the flesh” (2 John 7) statement-of-faith tests, as well as the “love your brothers” church-covenant test (1 John 4:20-21). Peter, Jude, James, and the author of Hebrews offer similar tests of fellowship.

    Yes, whole churches (and denominations) can go astray as well. Who would deny it? Still, amidst all the mistakes and dangers, the New Testament never once pictures the Christian faith as an autonomously declared thing, but as a corporately affirmed thing. The individual professes; the body affirms–or not. That, I believe, is the authority of binding and loosing. What do you think? Am I off track?

  18. Rebecca–you wrote “Why are we so reluctant to consider those who profess to be His followers, and who assemble with us, to be members with of the local expression of His Body? Why the insistence on additional/different membership requirements, on signing covenants, on including said covenants in — of all things — the remembrance of the Lord’s Supper?”

    Your question really made me think about this. I attend a large church that requires a course in doctrine and participation in either a Bible study group or a service group to become a member. The leaders give some provacative reasons for this procedure which I think apply to most membership processes, whatever the length.

    First, this church has had problems in the past with false teachers attempting to draw people away from the church and into cults. To counteract this, they need to be sure that people who want to be members know what the church teaches and are willing to abide by it. The leaders can be certain that members have read the statement of belief and know that if they become teachers and deviate from the doctrinal statement they will have breached a contract. There are many people who profess to follow Christ but do not, and we need a way to tell who is who. Membership isn’t perfect in this regard, but it’s helpful.

    Second, my church has a high proportion of new believers who have never been exposed to Christianity before. To join, they get a crash course in basic Christian doctrine to make sure that they are grounded in the faith. I realize this is probably not the way many churches do this, but it is important to make sure that people really know and understand what they believe, and membership is the way we do it.

    Third, we live in a very consumeristic culture that is carrying over into the way that people think about church. Lots of people just show up for service on Sunday and leave, making no contribution to the community and draining limited resources. Being part of a church is about more than getting a lesson on Sunday morning. It’s also about supporting each other and developing deep and true friendships based on the unconditional love of God. Membership allows us to teach people that Christianity is a commitment not only to God, but to our fellow believers and His work in them.

    I realize that our situation and procedures are nowhere near universal, but I think these reasons for membership apply in most circumstances.

  19. Rose Mawhorter says

    I’ve had issues with membership requirement for several years now. I believe fully that people need to commit to those that they fellowship with but I don’t think signing a piece of paper would change people’s hearts in this regard.

    One of my biggest issues with local church membership agreements is that I think it ends up dividing the body of Christ rather then uniting it. Rather then encouraging fellowship with anyone that is a genuine, orthodox believer, local churches limit fellowship to only those that conform to a certain doctrine and a certain set of rules. I have a good friend that was denied membership simply because he didn’t believe that the 10% was a NT requirement. Is this a biblical reason to disfellowship someone?

    I think that some of our perceived need for membership stems from the fact that our churches tend to be quite large and unconnected. If we fellowshiped in homes or even just in really small congregations and were regularly involved in one another’s lives then we would know who the true devoted followers were. Also, if we cared enough to hold one another accountable to biblical truth and to biblical living we would quickly identify those that were true brothers and sisters. We would also find it much more meaningful to disfellowship people that were in rebellion. It would chasten people.

    As far as legal boundaries to disfellowshiping people is concerned, I say screw the legal boundaries and obey God. I don’t think that we could possibly right down all the reasons that we might need to disfellowship people crossing the line into pragmatic legalism. Placing rules on people, like “you must tithe” so that you can legally disfellowship greedy people (see 1 cor 5) is doing just that. If a church lost it’s right to be a legal society or even it’s building would that really be a big deal? Obeying God is.

  20. I read the constitution of Leeman’s church and, subsequent to the article mentioning the proclamation of the gospel, found the following:

    “Only those [formal members] shall be entitled to serve in the ministries of the church who are [formal] members of this congregation; non-members may serve on an ad-hoc basis with the approval of the elders.” [Bracketed clarifications mine]

    Translation: “To become a Christian, simply believe in the gospel. To behave like a Christian requires the approval of the elders.”

    Something tells me this isn’t quite the way things should be.

  21. In response question #2, Dr. Leeman said: “Jesus gave the local church the explicit authority to give such assurance through membership” and then referenced Matt. 16:19; 18:18-19; John 20:23.

    While I can see how the verses he referenced can be APPLIED to the local church, to say that those verses are “explicit” in relation to the local church is taking them out of context. These are the same logical/hermeneutical gymanstics that lead other denominations to conclude that some of those verses are establishing Peter as the first Pope. Stuff like that raises red flags to me.

    Again, while that can be a valid application, we need to be intellectually honest with context.

  22. Jonathan Leeman says

    Thanks for pushing me on my use of Matt. 16, 18, John 20. This is precisely the sort of conversation that it’s good to have: “what is Scripture saying?”

    I don’t need to tell you that these passages have been debated by churchmen at least since Matthew and John wrote them down, and I’m certainly not claiming to offer the final word here! Briefly, here’s my take (and my assumptions).

    In Mt. 16, Jesus describes this power that he gives to Peter and/or the church with the metaphor of a key, which is why pastors and theologians throughout church history have referred to the “power of the keys.” The metaphor is a simple one. What do keys do? Keys lock doors and unlock doors. Keys allow some people to come inside while keeping other people outside. Which is exactly what Jesus intended for this assembly of people gathered in his name to do.

    Where does Jesus say this key should be used? Where will this binding and loosing take place? Again, his answer is simple and helpful: on earth. Jesus calls some assembly of people gathered in his name to bind and loose people on earth. What’s a little less clear about these passages is what exactly this binding and loosing on earth signifies in heaven. Roman Catholics say one thing. Protestants another. But just to be clear, this binding and loosing takes place among real flesh and blood people on earth—not among abstract or idealized realities.

    Another thing that is a little unclear–at least from this passage alone–is what the exact referent is of this assembly of people called the church. Romans Catholics may point to a hierarchy of bishops and call that the church. Presbyterians may point to the session. As a congregationalist, I believe the most natural reading (and what, admittedly, I’m assuming based on other texts, not this one alone) is that the referent of church is an actual local assembly.

    Now, I am not, in the space of a blog post, attempting to make an argument for congregationalism! That’s another conversation. Rather, I’m simply asking that, if you allow me to approach Matt 16 and 18 from a congregationalist perspective, based on my best attempt to systematize all the pertintent texts, here is my interpretation of them.

    With that proviso, then, let me say I believe the power of the keys are necessarily exercised locally, because human beings exist locally. Real gatherings comprised of real people are granted by Jesus both the power and the obligation to decide whether or not Euodia or Cyrus or Catherine or Friedrich or McKenzie or Farhod or Jeng is really “one of them”—a Christian, a Christ follower, a disciple. If this real, not-abstract gathering determines that the individual’s profession of faith is valid, they will bind the individual to themselves. If not, they won’t. How do they exercise their authority to bind? They bind with the two external, visible, institutional mechanisms given to them by Jesus: initiation through baptism and ongoing participation through the new covenant meal. How do they unbind or loose? They deny the individual the opportunity to participate in this ongoing meal.

    Is that helpful?

  23. Here is John 20:23 with the preceding verses:

    19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

    The context: doors were locked and it appears only the Disciples were present. These are the VERY FIRST WORDS spoken to them by the resurrected Christ. It’s the only time in all of Scripture other than Genesis that we see God “breath” on someone. Obviously something very, very important is happening here.

    The plain meaning of verse 23 is that Christ gave the Apostles the power to forgive the sins of any – and more important, the power to not forgive their sins, too. How you get from that to something about assurance and church membership is unclear. Perhaps Dr. Leeman can comment.

    Also, Matthew 16:18-19 makes a lot more sense if you consider it in light of Isaiah 22:20-25. Take a look.

  24. “Translation: “To become a Christian, simply believe in the gospel. To behave like a Christian requires the approval of the elders.”

    Something tells me this isn’t quite the way things should be.”

    So we should let anyone who says they are a Christian teach our Children, preach to the congregation, have authority over others? It doesn’t matter if they have any clue what they are talking about or if they are leading people astray, we should just let them go?

    If that’s true, why does the Bible make reference to the Twelve checking out Paul’s preaching? Why does it say to not promote new Christians?

    The point isn’t that you can’t love others and serve them, but you can’t be in a position of authority until those who will have to account for the souls under their care can be sure you’re a sheep and not a wolf. I don’t see why that would bother anybody.


  25. Dr Leeman,

    Thank you for the very speedy response!

    This is really what I was getting at. What *is* the “church” in these contexts? And our answers are inevitably colored by our biases. For what it’s worth, I don’t necessarily have an answer of my own here. But if nothing else, today’s ecclesiastical climate has caused me to at least attempt to question assumptions all over the place. Especially mine, I might add!

  26. Great interview! I suffer from the generation-x mentality and only recently began attending church on a semi-regular basis (due to work). I can appreciate Mr. Leeman’s response to question 1, especially the factors he gave for outside the church. More importantly though, I agree with this statement:

    “Many had a formalized, country-club conception of membership that looked bright and shiny on the outside, but had little to do with a rigorous, get-involved-in-people’s lives, call-them-to-repentance, love-them-at-cost-to-yourself gospel-centered Christianity. Membership is about submitting to Christ’s Lordship and Love as mediated through a marked-off, Bible-ruled, keep-one-another-accountable body of people.”

    Which unfortunately the first part has been my experience with organized churches, but I am happy to report that my current church resembles that of the second part.

    Thank you for a great interview.

  27. After reading everyone elses posts I have a few pennies for the pot.

    First, I don’t attend church for the membership, I attend for the fellowship. Frankly, I don’t care if a church gives me assurances or not. My purpose in being Christian isn’t affected by assurance by others. To me, fellowship is far more important, being connected with others that share my beliefs, being a part of their lives and having them be a part of my life. I don’t need others to have faith, or belief, or to be Christian. But fellowship, not membership, does give me something I can’t get otherwise and allows me to give it as well.

    Second, I don’t think children should be considered members of a church exclusively. I think that they should be counted as a member of a family, maybe. Counting children does nothing for a church community other than boast numbers.

    Third, I will not allow just anybody to teach my children in school and I will not allow just anybody to teach my children in church.

    Thanks for your time.

  28. Rose Mawhorter said:

    “I’ve had issues with membership requirement for several years now. I believe fully that people need to commit to those that they fellowship with but I don’t think signing a piece of paper would change people’s hearts in this regard.”

    Interestingly enough, I have heard this exact same line of reasoning coming from people who argue that marriage is unnecessary.

    For my wife and I, who just left a church we had been members of for 15 years, being members forced us to spend 2 plus years trying to work things out. Leaving was a lot like a divorce and I think leaving would have much easier had we just been “shacking up” with the church.