Category Archives: Church Membership

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.


Do You Need To Be A Church Member?, Part 3

church1.jpgOkay, so I couldn’t wait.

In rereading Dever’s answer, I realized that it really wouldn’t advance the conversation much from where it was yesterday, so I decided to jump the gun and post some of my thoughts today—maybe one or two points today that you can then jump in on and tear apart, and I’ll just keep on posting until all my best arguments are out there.

Now, truth be told, I didn’t really start thinking seriously about the place of membership in the life of the local church until I started reading Dever (9 Marks of a Healthy Churchan absolute must read), so if you detect his influence in what I say, you can understand why. That being said, I do not agree with Dever at all points, and in this particular book (What Is a Healthy Church?) it seems to me that the answer he gave was a good answer for why all believers should be involved in a local a church, but did not necessarily answer why all believers should be formal members of a local church.

So, I’d like to lay out a few points regarding why I think church membership is imperative for believers. But before I do that, a caveat: Some of what I’m going to argue will not apply to every church because not every church takes membership seriously. In other words, some churches are (in my view) inappropriately lackadaisical about formal membership, and in those churches it would be difficult to expect individual believers not to be similarly lackadaisical. So, in my response on this issue I assume that a given church takes membership seriously, even as I admit that many (if not most) do not.

That being said, here are some reasons why I think that if you are a Christian it is imperative for you to be a formal member of a church that takes membership seriously:

1. You need to make a distinguishing declaration. Let’s be honest: membership, as we conceive of it, is probably not something that the first century church practiced. There is little biblical evidence of ‘church membership’ per se, and it seems that formal church membership didn’t become a regular practice of the church until at least the second century. But here’s the reality: Declaring yourself a follower of Christ WAS a distinguishing declaration in the first century. The social and (later) legal penalties of declaring yourself a follower of Christ in first century Palestine put beyond a doubt with whom you were aligned: Jesus and his people. The title of “Christian” was not something undertaken lightly in the time of the composition of the New Testament.

Sadly, the same does not hold today. Most Americans, on some survey or in some church at one point or another, have declared themselves to be ‘Christian’ with no particular commitment to Christ and his body whatsoever. It seems to me, therefore, that formal church membership is a useful and meaningful practice by which we can distinguish ourselves as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession…” (1 Pet.2:9).

Now, I’m not saying that there are no nominal (i.e. disingenuous) formal church members. Of course there are, and every church has them. This is a cumulative case argument and there are exceptions to every one of these points. Nevertheless, I’m more interested in the rule than the all exceptions.

2. You need to take seriously the biblical metaphor of household. Paul refers to those who are “of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10) and “members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19), as does Peter (1 Pet. 4:17). The connections between church and household in the Pastoral epistles are legion (1 Tim. 3:4; 3:5; 3:12; 3:15; 5:4; 5:8; 5:14; 2 Tim. 1:16; 3:6; 4:19).

“Household” (oikos) was a common word in Greek and was well-understood. It is almost synonymous with “family” (see Acts 10:2; 11:14; 16:15, etc.). So, in this regard, the “marriage” analogy raised in some of the comments yesterday is entirely valid. The entire (capital “C”) Church of God is a “household” or “family” of sorts, but so is each local church a “household” (cf. 1 Tim. 3:5; 3:15) within the larger household. Christians must be members of both. Membership in the universal Church is a matter of union with Christ. Membership in the local church is a matter of union with other believers. Neither commitment ought to be taken lightly. You don’t commit to Christ and then only half-heartedly commit to the local expressions of his Body. Ever.

Now, obviously that doesn’t mean that we cannot associate with, serve with, enjoy fellowship with, etc., other local churches—of course not. I’m not a separatist. That said, all believers must choose a local church that they will commit to as a household, and serve in that church, submit to the leadership of that church, worship regularly at that church, give financially to that church, and consider involvement with other churches “icing on the cake.”

Let me leave it there for the day. I’ll be back for more tomorrow (including the argument I am probably most passionate about). Let the comments fly.

Do You Need To Be A Church Member?, Part 2

cathedral1.jpgGreat discussion on this issue so far. Thanks for that.

Let’s hear from some of you readers who rarely comment—I know you’re out there, I see you on my stat tracker! Just click the red ‘comments’ link at the bottom right of the post and fire away.

I do want to give some of my own thoughts on this, but I did promise to give you Dever’s answer first. So, Dever’s take will be today’s post. My take will be tomorrow’s. To a certain extent, yesterday’s discussion already went beyond what Dever says here, but for what it’s worth, here is his answer to the question posed in yesterday’s post: “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?” (p. 22)

From chapter 1 of What Is a Healthy Church?:

A Christian is someone who, first and foremost, has been forgiven of his sin and been reconciled to God the Father through Jesus Christ… . Yet that’s not all! Second, a Christian is someone who, by virtue of his reconciliation with God, has been reconciled to God’s people… .

Through Christ, then, being reconciled to God means being reconciled to everyone else who is reconciled to God. After describing in the first half of Ephesians 2 the great salvation that God has given us in Christ Jesus, Paul turns, in the second half of Ephesians 2, to describing what this means for the relationship between Jews and Gentiles and, by extension, between all those who are in Christ… .

When a person becomes a Christian, he doesn’t just join a local church because it’s a good habit for growing in spiritual maturity. He joins a local church because it’s the expression of what Christ has made him—a member of the body of Christ. Being united to Christ means being united to every Christian. But that universal union must be given a living, breathing existence in a local church… .

Except for the rarest of circumstances, a true Christian builds his life into the lives of other believers through the concrete fellowship of a local church. He knows he has not yet ‘arrived.’ He’s still fallen and needs the accountability and instruction of that local body of people called the church. And they need him… .

So who’s responsible for thinking about what the gathering of people called the church should be like? Is it pastors and church leaders? Definitely. How about every other Christian? Absolutely. Being a Christian means caring about the life and health of the body of Christ, the church. It means caring about what the church is and what the church should be because you belong to the church, Christian. Indeed, we care for the church because it’s the very body of our Savior… .

God will ask each member of the body, ‘Did you rejoice with the other members of the body when they rejoiced? Did you mourn with those who mourned? Did you treat the weaker parts as indispensable, and did you treat the parts that most think less honorable with special honor? Did you give double honor to those that led and taught you?’ (see 1 Cor. 12:22–26 and 1 Tim. 5:17).

Christian, are you ready for the day on which God will call you to account for how you have loved and served the church family, including your church leaders? Do you know what God says the church should be?” (pp. 22-32).

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?