Do You Need To Be A Church Member?, Part 5

church3.jpgThis is the last word.

Well, at least it is from me…

On church membership…

For now, anyway.

These last two are among the most compelling reasons (in my view) for formal church membership. The common bonds between them are: (1) They are both absolutely biblically unassailable. If you happen to be a Christian who bases his or her life on the precepts of the Scriptures, these two statements are indubitably true for you. And (2), 21st century, postmodern, individualistic, egocentric people won’t like either of them.

5. You need accountability and (if you’re bad) church discipline.

Accountability is good for you. Maybe I should say that again for emphasis (I’ll even add italics and red font and an underline where I especially want the emphasis, so that you can really tell what I’m emphasizing): Accountability is good for you. Friends, if you a serious about your faith; if you really want to honor and please God and set in place bulwarks against sin, your flesh, or the devil getting at you and making shipwreck (to mix metaphors) of your faith entirely, you want to be accountable to your church.

It is absolutely astounding to me how many people I know who in most ways vigorously pursue a Cross-centered life, and yet are unwilling to submit to formal membership so that they can have the benefit of having lifeguards on duty in case they find themselves in an undertow. Obviously, ideally speaking, a member of a church will never face church discipline, and the shepherding ministry of the pastors and elders in their life will always be limited to encouragement, exhortation and guidance.

And, ideally speaking, good swimmers will never find themselves in an undertow, get a cramp, have a wave smash them into a reef, get stung by a devil ray, or get chowed on by a shark. Does that mean we shouldn’t have lifeguards on duty in case the ‘ideal’ is not always the reality?

In fact, the worst thing that could happen to you in the above situations is that you’d drown and die. So what? Church discipline is designed by God to prevent you from living in Hell forever. At some point, it might be helpful to explore what biblical church discipline looks like and what sorts of circumstances it is meant to address, biblically speaking, but this isn’t the place.

Another way to look at it is this: Most churches today do not even try to practice church discipline on regularly attending non-members because of the massive and threatening legal issues. So, for example, you might have pastors and elders who want to practice church discipline on a man who is cheating on his wife, in hopes that it will shake the man from his sin and stupor and save the marriage and the man’s spiritual life, but they hesitate because they cannot afford to open themselves up to a lawsuit that might harm the faithful members of the church.

Don’t put your pastors and elders in that position. Be a joy to pastor (Heb. 13:17).

In every church membership covenant, there needs to be a clause in which the new member gives consent to be disciplined by the church, and then churches need to move people from “regular attender” to formal member for the safeguarding of their soul.

6. You need to submit to your elders and pastor(s).

Ecclesiology (theology of the church) 101: Submit to your elders and pastors. If your pastors and elders, whom God has set in leadership and authority in the church that you “regularly attend” think it is good for you to become a member, why in the world would you hesitate? The rational for refusing to become a member that goes: “I just don’t see what the benefit is,” is incredibly self-centered, arrogant, and rebellious.

Of course, pastors and elders are obviously fallible, and we don’t have a Pope (except, of course, The Pope of New Hope). This isn’t an ecclesiastical dictatorship. So, there is a place for discussion and disagreement and even lay revolt (in the case of egregious moral failure or doctrinal infidelity on the part of the elders or pastors). But if you persistently set yourself in judgment over the judgment of the pastor(s) and elders in something as simple as formal membership, you are sinning.

It is a very, very dangerous thing to rebel against or disregard the authorities God has set over you and must be undertaken very cautiously. I am sobered by what God said about Israel’s rejection of Samuel’s counsel and leadership: “And the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.'”

Once again: Be a joy to pastor. Why would you do something that would make your pastor grumble (Heb. 13:17)?

Now, I’m not so arrogant as to place QED at the end of this post, but I will say that I am more convinced than ever of the crucial importance of church membership, having taking the time to set my thoughts down on… well… a computer screen. Please know that everything I’ve written, I’ve meant for your (and my) good.

I realize that many who read this blog are members or regular attenders of New Hope Church, where I pastor. I primarily have you in mind, because you’re the flock I care about most. If some of this has felt like a shepherd’s staff gently guiding you back into line, I’m glad. If some of it has felt like the rod striking you in the ribs, well, good shepherds also need to do that from time to time.

Soli Deo Gloria,



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

  1. Concerning church discipline and membership, here’s where our church has problems. As I look out across our church, at first I see two groups–those who are members and those who are not. Of those who are not members, there are two groups–those who are active in the church, and those who are not. We normally don’t discipline those who are not active in the church, and I’m OK with that.

    So, that leaves us with two groups that we probably should discipline–members and active non-members. Here’s the problem with church discipline. Let’s start with the members. Most of the time when we try to discipline a member for open, gross sin (say adultery or a public sexual sin), they normally say, “You can’t discipline me, I’ve decided I no longer go to church here.” Our legal system is beginning to lean toward saying they are correct, and the church can run into legal problems disciplining a person who claims to no longer be a member. The problem is that the rest of the church sees a member fall into gross sin with no consequence, and the precedent is set.

    When we try to discipline an active non-member, they claim they can’t be disciplined because they are not a member, and to a certain degree they are correct. The problem is that the rest of the church then sees an active church attender who “gets away” with open sin, and a another precedent is set. Many people often do not even recognize that active non-members are not really members.

    The solution, I think, is to make a clear distinction between members and non-members somehow. We then must get all members to agree that they are subject to discipline. We also must continue to pressure active non-members to become members, and I guess pressure all non-members to become members if they are believers.

    I know I rambled some, but I’d appreciate anyone’s comments.

  2. I attended a church in college that actually “disciplined” a member in front of the congregation of about 300 (for what I think was adultery, though that was not explicitly said). They brought the couple up and discussed how he had repented and was asking for prayer/accountability as he and his wife worked to repair the damage that had been done. This was a church with 2 morning services of about 300 each, so a decent size, but not huge. I think it becomes more difficult to discipline a member in a larger church where people may not feel as much a part of the whole community but just a sub-community within it (and where everyone doesn’t know everyone else). Ultimately though, it comes down to the church (and its leadership) fostering both a distinction between membership and non-membership AND a close-knit feeling of accountable community.

  3. It doesn’t seem that you have to be accountable, at many churches, even if you’re a member. That’s just my experience though, maybe NHC does things differently.

    There. I commented! 🙂

  4. Can you explain what legal issues are at work in church discipline? (Either McWhite or Vince’s Dad, since both of you referred to it.)

  5. Randy (Vince’s dad),

    You laid out the issues so helpfully. I always appreciate your insightful comments. I guess sometimes the apple falls far from the tree.

    Just kidding, Vince.


    Did you see how fast Roger Clemens dropped a defamation lawsuit on his former trainer?

    Same thing has happened to several churches in recent years. If a church makes something defaming about a person public (even if it’s true), and that person has not made a formal agreement to submit to church discipline, they open themselves up to a major defamation lawsuit, which, of course, can head up into the 6 and 7-figure $ range.

    I heard some horror stories during a church and law seminar I had in seminary. Churches having to declare bankruptcy and close their doors, pastors being sued, etc.

  6. Why are we speaking of “the” local church when, in fact, we are most often speaking of “a” local church? The arguments for church membership I’ve read in this dialog seem to have a specific local church body in mind. Yet when Dever speaks of being “united to every Christian”, does that not imply that we are united to all Christians of all denominations? I accept that, and therefore to me, “the” local church means all Christians in my vicinity.

    I think of churches (with a small “c”) as para-church organizations, subsets of the local church. My commitment to the local church can be expressed in a commitment to a specific local church, but I view membership as a special type of commitment that is not really addressed in Scripture. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but it’s not something that is specifically advocated in the Bible. I think it’s a stretch to apply Bible passages that speak of being united to other believers to modern church membership, which is a relatively recent construct.

    There are surely Biblical injunctions to be involved with and to identify with local believers, but where in the Bible do we find instructions or standards on selecting a specific para-church organization? Bryan, when you say we “must choose”, I find no basis for that in Scripture. It may be a practical consideration, but Scripture is quite silent on it.

    And then we have the manner of participation, which is a separate issue. Here again, we find in Scripture nothing that has any bearing on our modern construct of church membership as the most desirable way to be involved.

    Church membership is a far more important issue for the specific local church than it is for the individual Christian. But that is primarily a “business” concern, not a spiritual one. Which brings me to the thing that bothers me the most. Church membership appears to be promoted most by those who have a stake in it. It’s not something that just flows out of anyone’s reading of Scripture. I am not questioning the motives of those who advocate church membership. But I think it has to be recognized that church membership is valuable on a practical level, not on a spiritual level, though there are certainly spiritual benefits in it.

    I find church discipline to be the most compelling reason for church membership, and at the same time, the least compelling. The problem is that I have not encountered a church that administers discipline in a Biblical way — certainly none of the churches I have ever attended. I have experienced two types of deviation:

    1) The church is too big to effectively administer it. No one knows what is really going on in most members’ lives. I have encountered this most in evangelical churches.

    2) The church fails to accept its responsibility to administer church discipline — and sometimes administers it where it is not warranted. I have encountered this primarily in the Wisconsin Synod Lutheran churches I grew up in. I always thought this was odd, given its reputation as one of the more conservative Lutheran bodies.

    Bottom line, while church membership is a good thing for those who percieve it may benefit them and especially for individual churches themselves, there is no particularly strong Biblical case to be made for it, and a diminishing practical case for it. Yet those benefits (or valid substitutes) can sometimes be fully realized by non-member participants/attendees and the churches they attend, though not always in the same way as for members. It is on those grounds that I have chosen not to become a member, not on the grounds that “I don’t see the benefit.”

  7. well said wiseacre.

    To Vince’s Dad
    The problem is that the rest of the church then sees an active church attender who “gets away” with open sin, and a another precedent is set.

    That’s not the problem. The problem is a believer’s rebellion and the fear of the church to do anything about it that the individual cares about. The reality is that if the rebellious individual will not accept discipline and repent, then shunning is the only (biblical) thing left. If the person takes themselves out by “quitting” the church, the issue of church discipline has been resolved and the person is left to their choices and the consequences thereof. If others in the church see someone “getting away with it” then maybe the church needs to “educate/market” their churchly duties a bit better. If there are concerns about others “following suit” then the church has bigger issues on its hands.

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