Do You Need To Be A Church Member?, Part 4

church2.jpgHere we go again, playas.

Numbers 3 and 4 are below, and 5 and 6 should finish us off tomorrow, unless I think of some other compelling reasons why you need to be a formal member of your church.

3. You need to help give direction to your church.

Of course, the elders and pastors that God has set in positions of leadership in the church bear the primary responsibility for casting vision and giving direction to a local body. But in a healthy church the rest of the members must not sit back and passively receive direction and guidance as though they have no stake in the direction of the church and are without a care as to where the elders lead it.

Paul wasn’t disappointed and enraged with the Corinthian elders alone, but with the entire church (1 Cor. 5:1-2), who were clearly sinfully tolerating what the elders tolerated. Paul rejoices not only over the Philippian elders, but over the entire church that was actively participating in the fruitful direction of the church (cf. Phil. 1:1). The laity of the church have a vital role to play in the guidance of the local church, and to sit back and remain passively dismissive is tantamount to being dismissive to the progress of God’s Kingdom on earth.

In a church that takes membership seriously, only members are able to have a decisive say in the direction of the church. In most churches, this takes the form of voting in official congregational decisions, but this responsibility is not limited to voting. As an elder or a senior pastor, in general I would certainly listen more carefully and weigh more heavily the counsel and direction of a member than I would a non-member—someone who has submitted to the leadership of the elders and pastors in demonstrating their commitment to this local church and are under the accountability and discipline of the leaders to whom they are offering advice, guidance, suggestions, vision, etc.

Obviously, there are exceptions. If Don Carson walks into my office and tells me I ought strongly to consider doing such and such, I’ll probably lend him an ear because he (1) is a member in good standing of his church, (2) is extremely wise, and (3) has counseled and helped a hundred churches for decades and therefore knows what’s up.

But if two non-Don people walk into my office with conflicting visions for where our church should go, one a member and one not, in general I will listen more closely to the member because that person has formally committed to the life and vitality of this church and has a stake in what becomes of it. To use the very biblical family metaphor again: I’m going to listen more closely to what my wife has to say about the direction she thinks our family should go in than what any of you have to say, because she is a member of my family. You all wish you were members of my family, but sorry, you can’t be until your daughter is fortunate enough to marry Owen.

4. You need the pastor’s time and he doesn’t have a lot of time.

Unfortunately, God has not made timelessness and/or omnipresence communicable attributes. If he had, maybe this wouldn’t be an issue and every pastor, elder, church leader, counselor, and mentor could meet with, work with, counsel, disciple, pray for, care for, encourage, hold accountable, and bail out every person who ever darkens the door of their church.

The church has limited resources. Most of them are renewable resources, like pastoral care and counsel, benevolence funds, leadership training, etc., but they are not unlimited and every pastor, elder, and church as a whole needs to make some decisions about who will become the primary beneficiaries of these resources, which (at one point or another) every church-goer is going to need. I’m not even a senior pastor and I don’t have nearly enough time to meet with all the people who would like to meet with me. Not if I want to stay sane and have a healthy marriage. So, how do we decide?

In some rare cases, triage wins. If a non-member calls me and tells me his son just committed suicide and asks if could I come and be with them, but I have a coffee meeting scheduled during that time with a member to talk about men’s ministries, obviously I’ll give the member a ring and tell him I need to reschedule.

But in general, priority in the time and resources of a church must always go to the formal members. I see warrant for this policy in places like Gal. 6:10: “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (cf. 1 Tim. 5:8). In other words, it seems Paul would say, if you have $2,000 in the benevolence fund and a member and a non-member each need $1,000 to pay a medical bill that they cannot afford to pay, then you give $1,000 to both of them. But if there’s only $500 in the fund (all things being equal) you give it to the the member.

For example, our church is located in an area of the city where we get dozens of drop-ins looking for money every month. Church members are asked to fill out some brief paperwork to help us figure out how best we can help them in their need. But, except in dire circumstances, non-members are generally asked to seek help from their own church. Because, if we give our (limited) resources to anyone and everyone, at some point we won’t have resources to be able to invest in the people who have invested in the church as members.

Similarly, if I have 5 free hours to meet with people during the week (again, all things being equal) and I have requests for 10 hours of my time, I’ll make it a priority to meet with the members because it is a primary responsibility of a pastor to care for those in his “household.” I’m more than happy to give non-members the leftovers, but there aren’t always leftovers. In a church that takes membership seriously, this should be the way pastors think about the resources of a church.

It isn’t arbitrary favoritism, or a club with secret handshakes and a “we’re in, you’re out” mentality. Joining a church is easy! Anyone is welcome to go through the membership process. You don’t need any money to join a church. You don’t need to be smart. You don’t need a job. You don’t need a suit (in fact, I think suits in church ought to be outlawed). You don’t need to know how to read. You don’t need a photo ID. All you need is to have entrusted your life to Jesus Christ and to commit formally to that local expression of his body.


5 thoughts on “Do You Need To Be A Church Member?, Part 4”

  1. The anyone-can-be-a-member idea works if the protestant church weren’t divided into so many denominations. For example, we attend a Baptist General Conference (BGC) church, and a requirement of membership is “believer baptism”. That immediately excludes anyone who was raised under the infant baptism tradition. They would have to be re-baptized (now there’s a topic for discussion!) in order to be allowed to become members. There are some active attenders who disagree with that, so they can’t be recognized as members, even though they want to.

    So, in this example, what’s the best fix? Does the denomination need to rewrite it’s membership requirements or does the individual need to get re-baptized?

  2. Kelly,

    It’s a good question, for sure. And some major churches have wrestled with this one lately.

    The question you asked was, “Does the denomination need to rewrite it’s membership requirements or does the individual need to get re-baptized?

    I think that the best answer to that question is, Yes.

    I do think the BGC ought to rewrite its rules so that baptism does not become a dividing constraint in churches, since well-thought and well-intentioned people have differing opinions on the matter. If I were to plant a church, I would want the polity of the church to be to baptize believers as adults as the rule (since I think it is clearly the most biblically defensible position), and yet also clearly state that our church would admit exceptions in certain cases where the potential member in question can clearly articulate why they believe the Bible clearly teaches infant baptism.

    In other words, ‘I grew up Lutheran and don’t want to be re-baptized’ wouldn’t cut it. But there are people who are convinced of infant baptism who don’t resort to that kind of thinking.

    That being said. You’re the ones who chose to join that church. No one made you be a baptist. So, if the elders of your church have deemed adult baptism a requirement for membership, I think you ought to be baptized as a confessing adult. If you’re unwilling to do that because of conscience or biblical convictions, I really think you ought to join a different church, where you can gladly and willingly submit to the pastors and elders on that matter.

    Them is my two pennies.

  3. McDonalds demands that every franchisee put special sauce on the Big Mac. It’s in the franchise agreement.

    Baptists got their name from that odd practice of dunking adults, usually a re-baptising – hence the term ana-baptist. All of us who follow that tradition see it as a public expression of a personal decision (instead of a parent’s choice). It’s part of the shared corporate language.

    And that’s the point for me. We become community based on common experience. In general, the military think differently than the rest of the population, in part because of their shared experience and common private language. In many ways an Air Force officer has more in common with a British AF officer than he does with a US Navy officer trained on submarines. But they have enough shared language that they are more alike than a welfare mom who never finished high school but sits home with 3 kids.

    So that leaves me a little right of Kelly. If someone wants to worship with us but not submit to our shared experience, the doors are usually open. But if they are insistent on holding a tradition that is not ours, we will recommend to them another congregation and encourage they bless them instead.

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