Do You Need To Be A Church Member?, Part 1

hands2.jpgChurch membership seems to be becoming a hot issue.

Is it really necessary? Is a person who has regularly attended a church for years but has not pursued formal membership sinning? How rigorous or lax ought a church’s qualifications and expectations for formal membership be? Should we draw a wider or a more narrow circle in terms of how much theological agreement church members ought to have with each other and with the pastors and elders? Should church members have priority in access to elders and pastors, counseling and discipleship opportunities, and other church resources over non-members? Is church membership ever taught in the Bible?

These questions and more are very live right now, particularly among younger generations, which is what makes it an interesting question to me, and one I feel the need to formulate some answers to. Over the next few days I’d like to post some excerpts from Mark Dever’s book, What Is a Healthy Church?, just to stir the pot a bit and get some conversation going, and then offer some of my own thoughts.

Let’s begin with this: Dever writes,

“Sometimes college campus ministries will ask me to speak to their students. I’ve been known, on several occasions, to begin my remarks this way: ‘If you call yourself a Christian but you are not a member of the church you regularly attend, I worry that you might be going to hell.’

You could say that it gets their attention.

Now, am I just going for shock value? I don’t think so. Am I trying to scare them into church membership? Not really. Am I saying that joining a church makes someone a Christian? Certainly not! Throw any book (or speaker) out the window that says as much. So why would I begin with this kind of warning? It’s because I want them to see something of the urgency of the need for a healthy local church in the Christian’s life and to begin sharing the passion for the church that characterizes both Christ and his followers.

Many Christians in the West today (and elsewhere?) tend to view their Christianity as a personal relationship with God and not much else. They generally know that this ‘personal relationship’ has some implications for how they should live. But I’m concerned that many Christians don’t realize how this most important relationship with God necessitates a number of secondary personal relationships—the relationships that Christ establishes between us and his body, the Church. God doesn’t mean for these to be relationships that we pick and choose at our whim among the many Christians ‘out there.’ He means to establish us in relationship with an actual flesh-and-blood, step-on-your-toes body of people.

Why do I worry that if you call yourself a Christian but you are not a member in good standing of the local church you attend, you might be going to hell? Think with me for a moment about what a Christian is” (What Is A Healthy Church, 21-22).

I’ll post his answer to that (staggering) question tomorrow.

In the meantime: What say ye?


13 thoughts on “Do You Need To Be A Church Member?, Part 1”

  1. How does he define “member?” To be a member, does one have to be a card-carrying participant at a local church? Or is it more broad than that? Can someone be a “member” by Dever’s definition by being significantly involved in his church (regular attendance, small groups, Bible studies, misc. service, etc.)? Personally, I find no Biblical requirement to be an “official” member of a church, but I do believe there are clear Biblical demands for participation in a local body of believers. Yet some people put the former ahead of the latter. In other words, some believers become members of their church yet are only nominal participants in said church.

  2. I say that Dever has to tell me the purpose/point of church (Church?) first, before we can talk about membership.

    Darius: Dever means member in the sense that someone is recorded on a formal membership roll and not simply an ‘active’ member of the community.

    But Dever’s point isn’t that everyone who attends should be a member; it’s that everyone who is a member should be an active participant in the community, and that membership represents a commitment to that community. Membership also, then, signifies the community’s acknowledgment of the member’s faith. He likes covenant imagery, I recall.

    Essentially, he’s drawing a line and arguing that if someone is truly a Christian, then by definition they believe in the necessity of relationship, and thus will align themselves with the local church through the outward sign of membership. To Dever, there should never be members who are not fully participatory, just as there should not be regular attenders/participants who are not members.

    He also has written about criteria for membership; so he is careful to ‘weigh’ a candidate — membership to him is very definitely not simply filling out a form.

    This is just my understanding of Dever from reading one of his former books. I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s “answer” and being corrected by McWhite. 🙂 Apologies for rambling.


  3. Ah, ok. In other words, it is similar to marriage. A man and woman can live together without officially being married and yet, in a sense, be married and consider themselves as such. However, they lack an outward commitment to the marriage. Likewise, a person can attend a church, be very much involved in it, yet not be an official member, thus lacking an outward contract of commitment. I can understand that argument (especially if there are strict criteria for membership).

  4. Darius:

    I’d think marriage is an excellent metaphor for Dever. It seems so obvious, that he probably used it and I’ve just forgotten.

    Oh no. Does this mean me helping do music at McWhite’s church is adultery? Aieeeeee!!

  5. i guess my question is “why would you not be a member? – especially if you are a regular attender and want to pursue godly life in community?”

    answer that. in fact i have asked that question of many people in our church and have yet to get a good answer.

  6. My wife and I just recently became members of NHC after faithfully attending (and being involved in) there for more than 4 years. For us, it wasn’t a matter of why wouldn’t we be members as much as why should we be members? What exactly did membership offer that we weren’t already participating in? We eventually came to the decision that although official membership is not an absolute necessity to us, we might as well go through with it.

  7. Maybe the right question isn’t “what does membership offer us” but rather “by being members, what do we offer the community”?

  8. Or “by being members, what do we offer the community that we didn’t offer before?” And I would say nothing except perhaps more accountability and a commitment to support the community. However, people can change memberships all the time, so the commitment issue (and parallels with marriage) quickly fall apart.

  9. darius (and others) – i would ask the question – “if the elders (leaders) of the church are asking for a commitment through membership – why would we NOT submit?” if it is not sinful and the leaders of the church are asking you to submit – why not?

    it’s a problem with our culture or maybe our generation. people need to know why? or they need to know the benefits of submitting – before they will submit. we need to give it up and submit unless it is sin.

  10. Good question Vince. To me, this is where the parallel to marriage is the strongest… why would you NOT get married? Even if it’s just a piece of paper and doesn’t mean you’re any more committed to your spouse, why not show your spouse (and your “community”) an outward sign of your inward commitment?

    What hurts that argument (though not fatally) is the relative ease with which someone can break the marital contract (and church membership). What’s the point of outwardly committing to a spouse (or church) if you can, at a moment’s notice, end that contract? Although, the marriage analogy breaks down here, in that moving from church body to church body (assuming it’s not done in a completely arbitrary manner) isn’t necessarily wrong.

    And as Bryan said in his most recent post, the exceptions do not affect the rule. It would be nice to eliminate the likelihood of the exceptions, but that someone can easily divorce his wife doesn’t make all marriages meaningless (though it certainly lessens the societal/communal importance of the “contract”).

  11. Darius,

    You make an interesting point, but it needs to be qualified (in my view). You’re making church membership parallel to the state of marriage in the 21st century. The household metaphor is much, much stronger in the first century in large part because marriage was a far less violable arrangement.

    Yes, marriages break up easily these days and, yes, church membership can easily be discarded these days. But church membership was meant to be far more static just as marriage was meant to be far more static, and I think we should be working toward and expecting both of those things from believers.

  12. I’m with Brett. If there is no benefit to joining, why bother?

    I’m a member of my church, but there is no service I’m allowed to give that I couldn’t if I weren’t a member. My teenagers have never joined the church formally, and don’t see any value in joining. They have active faith, are active participants (even workers), and probably get more out of the congregation than I do. Their association with the church is more of “friends with benefits” while mine is a “comfortble” marriage.

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