August 5, 2020

The Church Membership Question: What I Believe

There’s one more interview out there in this series, but I don’t know when it’s going to arrive, so this will be the “closer” for now. Thanks to everyone for reading, linking and commenting.

Here is the original goal of this series of posts: I wanted to examine the question, “Is the concept of local church membership viable- even essential- today or should it be abandoned?

Obviously, this is an important question, and also one that many people have already answered in the negative. I have been surprised to learn how many of my friends in “churches” that grew out of the Jesus Movement and the Charismatic renewal have rejected any concept of church membership as legalistic. Certainly, many in the emerging church have made a similar decision, and the church growth movement- ironically- contains many examples of “churches” without members.

On the other hand, there are ministries like 9 Marks that are working diligently to encourage meaningful church membership. Many denominational churches continue to work towards a renewal of meaningful church membership.

I am unashamedly in the second group.

We should be clear about what we mean when we say “church member,” because Jonathan Leeman is correct that a “country club” definition of membership has been part of the demise of the practice.

A member of a church is someone who is in a formal, covenantal relationship with a local congregation, a relation that is recognized by other members and leaders of the congregation, and a relation that is bounded by baptism, participation at the Lord’s Table and covenanted responsibilities spelled out in scripture and expressed in a church covenant.

This definition assumes that the church exists not simply as a “gathered” people, but also as a covenanted people. In fact, many churches exist as both, with a contingent of those gathered, but not covenanted.

Do I believe Jesus taught this? That is the Jesus shaped question. To use my own methodology of CIA, I need to have a connection to Jesus, an imitation of Jesus and an application of Jesus’ example and teaching.

I think we have all of these with church membership, but with the understanding that Jesus’ ministry stood at a point where we see the end of the old covenant, and only the beginnings of the new. So Jesus is preparing his followers to exist as Christian congregations, and preparing his apostles to lead congregations in a movement, but we do not see those congregations in practice until the era of Acts and beyond, i.e. the epistles.

If Jesus is not preparing his movement to be expressed in actual covenanted and bounded congregations, then we have a lot of strange material in the Gospels, and the rest of the New Testament becomes, frankly, inexplicable if not nonsensical.

This doesn’t mean that everything we do in the name of church membership can be credited to the example of Jesus. I simply mean that Jesus created a movement that baptized, that used the Lord’s Table BOTH as invitation AND as defining practice, and that had leaders with specific responsibilities addressed to a definable, identifiable congregational expression.

If you reject church membership, I think you have an individual relationship with Jesus in an audience context, but you have no specific, exclusive, public, covenanted identity as a Christian in the midst of a congregation of Christians. Without this, I believe the epistles, in particular, become problematic and specific material in the epistles regarding leadership, discipline, submission, etc. becomes meaningless.

When I listen to people who don’t believe in church membership expound on the epistles- as I did this past year in one of the pastoral letters- it’s obvious that the epistles aren’t very cooperative to the assumption that this is an informal gathering and not a formal covenanting.

I have to admit that I am somewhat amazed that the congregational nature of the epistles doesn’t settle this. Votes are taken. Leaders are chosen and given duties. Missionaries are chosen and sent. Presbyteries lay hands on ministers. Money is administered. Discipline is offered. Worship is described. Specific commands are stated to specific groups. In Revelation 2-3 and elsewhere, individuals within the congregation are addressed.

Yes, I believe the church is invisible, universal, broadly geographic and not restricted to a place. But yes, I also believe that when Jesus addressed the church at Ephesus, in whatever congregational forms it existed, it was not an option for everyone to say “That doesn’t apply to me. I just go here.”

Membership simply means that a person has entered into a formal and covenanted relationship with a part of the universal body of Christ, normally in some form of a local congregation. It is that identification that recognizes baptism, discerns gifts, calls to leadership, invites for service and exercises authority and discipline.

I can announce that I am a Christian, but it is in a covenanted relation that I am recognized as a Christian.

Before I close, I want to say that I recognize that church membership has many potential and actual abuses. I’ve witnessed many. We have a lot to repent of, and those taking membership more seriously should keep this in mind. Some churches have gone over into cultic and abusive behavior and Jesus would have none of that.

But the answer isn’t to buy into the free form, self defining, “audience” atmosphere of many “churches.” A church simply can’t be anything done by someone with a Bible and a twenty year old guitarist. It’s not a concert, or a class, or a support group. Our cultural fascination with entrepreneurial start-ups has made fools of us in this area.

Evangelicalism’s curse is the cult of personality and the abuse caused by ego-maniacal preachers. And the primary perpetuation of that curse is the lack of meaningful membership and leadership in churches that should know how to have a Jesus shaped congregation, not one dominated by the forces of popularity or manipulation. Meaningful church membership will make for better leaders, better followers, better churches and more effective mission.

But church membership must be reformed as must so much else in evangelical life. I hope this series has at least moved us in that direction.


  1. I appreciate your blog very much and have learned a lot.

    I believe that in some ways church membership can be compared to marriage. Some people choose to live together without the commitment and covenant of marriage. This makes their exit from the relationship easier.

    Some people may remain in the “audience” of the church and not commit to the membership covenant so they can come and go from different churches more easily.

    Just as the public covenant of marriage takes a relationship to another level, so the public covenant of church membership takes the Christian to another level. Not everyone is willing to make that commitment or enter that covenant.

  2. What I keep seeing in discussions on membership is what I believe to be a false dichotomy. On one hand there is a “no-membership loose association of autonomous individuals” of the 60’s anti-authority Jesus freak hippie mentality. This is pitted against the other hand, a formal, meritorious, intra-congregational covenanted membership to-be-attained mentality.

    What I don’t see in Scripture is any covenanting between people in a church above and beyond what is already required of us in the New Covenant of Christ’s blood. Profession and baptism demand all the requirements in and of themselves. Since this covenanting isn’t required by Scripture, anybody who decides to assemble on a regular basis (obeying God and submitting to the elders) without covenanting is fully within obedience to their Lord Jesus Christ. For a church to say, in essence, “we will treat you as less than a member because you obey the Lord of your conscience in not signing up” is, I think, quite mistaken. Yet it happens. I know many people who have refused to “covenant” into a formal membership of a church, yet live lives of obedience contrary to the Jesus freak mentaility. Many of these people have been treated as lesser Christians because of it, simply for obeying God. People feel the different level of treatment accorded them and it doesn’t always feel good. I should know, I’ve experienced it several times.

    I believe that any professing, baptized Christian who assembles with a church is already a member and should be treated like one. What’s wrong with that? I’ve read articles and books that commented on membership within the early church. It’s unanimously agreed upon that they kept a membership list, but the method used to create the list isn’t quite clear. I’d bet that they simply made a list of who was there.

    Thanks for your series. Looking forward to that last interview. 🙂

  3. Which command of God are these non-Jesus Freaks obeying by not joining a church? I fear I missed that point.

    If a church created false standards for membership, why would you attend and then complain? It seems to me that this is a serious enough doctrinal divide that I would find a different local body with whom I could join without these reservations.

    On the other hand, it’s convenient for us to find a “principle” to stand on that allows us to do as we please.

  4. Michael,

    It seems as if there is an aspect of membership that has not really been covered in this series. Peaches makes the comment that “If a church created false standards for membership… I would find a different local body with whom I could join without these reservations.”

    For me and my wife, in our town in Canada, that is just not possible. Our town has two evangelical churches, both small, neither of which can we sign the statement of faith because of doctrinal differences. We attend a church in the next town over, which is about as close as we can get as far as a theological match. It is difficult for us to be members there for two reasons:

    The membership covenant calls for whole hearted agreement to the statment of faith. The statment of faith includes inerrancy, with which I find it difficult to have whole hearted agreement.

    Secondly, membership required baptism as a believer by immersion. Both my wife and I were baptized as believers, but my wife was in a tradition that poured. Rebaptism seems as if it would make my wife’s first baptism meaningless, when it was in fact a very significant event for her as a believer. I want to emphasize that she was not baptized as an infant, but as a believer.

    The church does not let you exercise leadership spiritual gifts (to those of junior high age or older) unless you are a member.

    So what do we do? I would love to hear how you and your readers would handle this.

    Right now we are considering that I would affirm the statement of faith (while metaphorically holding my nose), so that I could exercise my gifts within the church, while my wife remains a non-member. (Her giftedness lies in areas that would still allow service despite not being a member.)

    It almost feels like excommunication, not being able to be a member of a church, and I really wish that more churches would consider Steve Scott’s viewpoint that “any professing, baptized Christian who assembles with a church is already a member and should be treated like one.”

    I would add the caveat, that statements of faith are there for a reason, and I would also expect that a member would not teach contrary to the statement of faith.

    We are looking for words of wisdom here. Any help would be appreciated.

  5. Michael,

    Eclectic Christian wrote: “So what do we do? I would love to hear how you and your readers would handle this.”

    Not having a real solution for EC, I hate to have to say this, but… “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” I live in a metro area of 7 million people, so I tried several churches until I found one that I could be part of. The problem I have with statements of faith being used as litmus tests for membership is that they are far too limiting on peoples’ faiths. I have no problem with chruch leaders saying, “this is what WE believe, in minute detail” but they also should say, “we still welcome those who disagree in non-essential things.” For somebody to say, “you don’t agree with us EXACTLY, so screw you, go somewhere else” (as if there were somewhere else to go, as Eclectic Christian’s testimony bears), I would say is a form of persecution. Sad but true. And many of today’s top leaders wonder why there are so many “pew sitters”, “regular attenders” and “non-members” around. They are the ones that have created many of them with their exclusionary membership requirements.

    Iron sharpens iron. For a church to say that they won’t allow members in their midst who have different views is to essentially say, “we refuse to be sharpened by other iron.” Why can’t Baptists learn from Presbyterians (or vice versa, insert any two other traditions here).

    For me, theology has been such a personal journey and I have developed my views in such great detail that if I ever had to look for another church to join, I know for a fact I wouldn’t be able to agree with their statement of faith. Why should I be required to? I already have come to disagree with a number of points of my current church’s statement of faith, just through personal study. None of this means that I would be unable to love and minister to others. Many people live in the “post evangelical wilderness” if I may borrow a metaphor. Let’s welcome them into our churches.

  6. Oh, I forgot to add a bit of twisted irony:

    There are many extremely Calvinistic Baptist churches whose views on baptism would exclude Calvin himself from being their pastor, a teacher… or even a member! They wouldn’t even break bread with their spiritual father.

  7. I should add to my comment above that we love our church, the people in it, and the preaching of the Pastor. It is just a shame that it is so difficult to be a member.

  8. Chip Yoder says


    I really appreciate your thoughts and views on this subject, and agree with them, by the way.

    I know that there are difficult situations such as the one described by EC. I do not want to minimize the problem at all, but I worry about two things in this age of “Audience” church.

    One is atomization and the other is accountability, or the lack thereof.

    Today there is such an emphasis placed on personalization, and therefore isolation. Where’s the community? Where’s the fellowship?

    This brings me to accountability. The stats of men who are addicted to internet porn are staggering. Why is this?

    I believe a big reason is the privatization of our faith in America, and I am talking about the church. People don’t feel safe in talking to their elders because they have not built relationships with them, nor do they plan to stay if the “going gets rough”.

    One can slip into the large sanctuary virtually unnoticed, watch a sermon on a jumbo screen grab a coffee and slip back out again.

    As Michael said, we need covenant relationships where members agree to be accountable to one another and the leadership.

  9. Michael,

    Many megachurches eschewed membership and what they got was a lack of commitment to their mission; big financial debts, but no one committed to paying them; people who dabbled in Christianity;hangers-on who took and took and took but gave nothing back–or in the immortal words of Ross Perot, “a giant sucking sound.”

    I know. I was part of a church like that. It was in the top twenty of the Church Report list of top 50 most influential churches, yet it nearly collapsed for lack of a membership program.

  10. Official church membership, as is commonly practiced, is an important tool of hierarchical rule. Without it, a “member” cannot be legally “disciplined” for such things as not “tithing” without the “church” risking a lawsuit. Just another convenient way for clerics to “Lord over the flock.”