Liberated From Formal Church Membership
The issue of “formal church membership” (also called “defined” or “explicit” church membershipthe odern phrase has for the same thing has been“church ) is one that many believe in and many don’t. Most of the articles about the practise of formal church membership are justifying the practise and only a few are written against it. Therefore, this article summarises my experience of formal church membership and warns of the dangers that could come to all churches that practise a formal type of membership. All the articles I have read and sermons I have listened to, admit that formal church membership is NOT taught explicitly in the bible, although they believe it is implied. This is a serious admission for such a divisive teaching. Possibly the main reason why so little is written against the practise is because the burden of proof is on proponents to support the practise, rather than on those who argue against it, since it is not easily seen in the bible.
In the past a formal membership may have been seen to protect the church against heresies and sin influencing the body of Christ, and it may have helped in some cases. However, how much more could God have blessed His body of believers if they had used His methods of order rather than using a system that was never instructed in the bible? Notice that a reformation took place about 1500 years after the early church practise (as described in the bible) and a stiffening of creeds and confessions still has not preserved the simplicity that the early church seemed to function with –without a formal membership. It is becoming clearer that the scriptures view formal church membership is a bondage that limits growth and freedom in Christ. It is a divisive teaching that encourages a judgemental attitude among those who practise it, as well as those who don’t, which is a bad testimony to the body of Christ. It also adds to the simple proclamation of the gospel by implying a kind of ‘second-level’ commitment to Christ, when all He requires is our repentance and belief in Him.
Those who believe strongly in a formal church membership are hard to convince that they are wrong, no matter how objective and simple the biblical arguments are. One reason is that once someone begins to accept the challenge, and change their thinking, it opens up a whole realm of freedom that challenges many more things are done today, and most are not free or ready for this sort of reformation. The experience of being transformed or reformed to the simple truths of God’s word is a liberating experience and will allow you to serve and bless others with a fresh zeal and passion for Christ. May He be glorified as you read and humbly examine what is being written.
Where is it in the bible?
The foundation for any discussion should be the bible and the bible does not teach us to practise an official or formal church membership. In the New Testament, being members of Christ is associated with being adopted into the Body of Christ, whereas the word “fellowship” is concerned with the local gathering of that body. When a person becomes a Christian, through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, they are immediately made a member of the Body of Christ. "For by one Spirit are we all baptised into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit" (1Cor. 12:13 Cf. Romans 12:4-5). "We are members of His body" (Eph. 5:30). All Christians, as believers, have been "called unto the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord" (1Cor. 1:9). These verses indicate that we cannot do anything to “become a member of the church,” it is only the work of God in conversion. As Ephesians 2:8-10 says, “It is by grace we have been saved through faith – and this is not of yourselves it is a gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
Many of the articles and sermons regarding formal church membership make these sorts of statements about the practise:
“The bible itself doesn't mention membership; it evolved into its present form over a long period of time as people had an increasing number of options to choose from¼”
"Although no explicit statement is given to show that the New Testament believers covenanted together to become churches..."
“It is at best naïve to say that there was no formal membership in the NT church. Whilst it is not explicit it is everywhere implicit”
“The biblical evidence for church membership is abundant and overwhelming¼ [a page later] When examining the biblical evidence for church membership one must keep in mind that there are no explicit commandments in the bible which says, “Go join the local church.” But, even though there are no explicit statements on this issue in Scripture, church membership is clearly inferred from other biblical doctrines.”
In other words they all admit that formal membership is not taught in the bible, and only if you have a more insight or a system from outside the bible will you then be able to see it. That is you need a different starting point than the bible in order to see the implicit teaching of formal church membership.
Some argue that it is necessary because of false teachers and immorality that leaks into the body of Christ. Being protective of doctrine and moral purity is not a good reason to have a formal church membership. If that were the case, Paul would have given instructions on what that means. But when the Apostle Paul wrote to churches with doctrinal errors and morality problems he never advised them to write a constitution and start practising formal church membership. The bible is sufficient for all matters in the Christian life, so we should not look to worldly practices of membership to solve difficult issues, we need to look to the bible.
The teaching about “membership” also adds something to the simplicity of the gospel. The bible says repent and believe on the Lord Jesus, be baptised for the forgiveness of sins and you will be saved. It never says become a member, it is an assumption that when a believer has put their faith in Christ that they are a member. There is not a list of things a person must believe, apart from the few things just mentioned, and then it is up to the church to disciple a new believer. All true Christians are members of the church, which is Christ's body by the baptism of the Holy Spirit (1Cor. 12:13). They should then desire to be in fellowship with others who claim Christ as their own, being part of that body (Acts 2:41; I Cor. 1:9). In the New Testament we see new Christians then meeting together for worship, for fellowship, the breaking of bread, the apostles teaching, and for prayer (Acts 2:41), and to bear collective testimony for the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 2:42, 47; Hebrews 13:13-16). They do ‘not forsake the assembling of themselves together’ (Heb. 10:25), because they want to be together.
Some write that it is similar to the teaching about the Godhead – God being three yet one. When writers equate formal church membership to teaching about the Trinity they are certainly in danger of blasphemy. There is a big difference between an implied teaching about formal membership and a literal teaching about the Godhead. Verses that seem to suggest a formal membership can also be interpreted another way, and we know bodies of believers that function biblically and in order without a formal membership who understand those passages differently (for example, the Open Brethren Assemblies; the New Life fellowships; and other independent fellowships and house churches). However, the concept and doctrine about the three-ness in the Godhead cannot be interpreted differently in a literal and historic setting. For example when Paul writes that, “For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Colossians 2:9) there can be no debate whether Jesus Christ is God or not. A list of verse about the Godhead should leave a believer with no doubt, but a list of verses about formal church membership can me read by two parties and support each of there arguments, and so we need to look further to other scriptural principles to find the correct interpretation.
If people have their minds set on a particular position they can use the bible to say anything they want to. A crude example would be if someone wanted to justify homosexual behaviour, then they would need to ignore a lot of what the bible taught against it (explicitly), and then come with a pre-conceived idea that it was okay. Then they would then find lots of examples of different characters in the bible displaying homosexual behaviour that was okay¼ Likewise, formal church membership is taught against by many explicit principles, for example making vows (eg. Matt 5:33-37); causing divisions (eg. 1Cor 1:10ff); and hierarchy (eg. Gal 3:28; Matt 19:25-28). However, if someone ignores those passages and comes with a framework to the bible then they can then use it to justify anything - for the purpose of control and the fear of confronting problems personally (that framework could be "covenant theology" or “reformed theology” - intellectualism - note the "ism" I am NOT saying don't be intellectual).
It is divisive and judgemental¼
Formal membership causes division and a judgmental attitude to others. The bible forbids the distinctions of strong and weak, or spiritual and super-spiritual, and between Christians generally. Some have suggested that divisions are necessary, based on 1Cor 11:19, but reading the context it is clear that the divisions are between believer and unbeliever or an immoral believer, not two mature Christians that disagree over a church system (taking it to mean divisions between Christians would surely be a contradiction to 1Corinthians 1:9, that says ‘let there be no divisions among you’). This happens when so-called “non-members” are excluded from using their gifts within the fellowship or being excluded from voting or even committee meetings, simply because they are falsely judged as uncommitted. When other believers judge fellow believers, often behind their backs, in regard to attendance, involvement or their position in their spiritual journey, God is dishonoured and the body is divided. Those who are not part of the ‘system’ are not given as much responsibility, and generally looked down upon or treated as a threat to other’s beliefs and they need more careful oversight. This is illustrated by the following quote, which seems to assume or imply that if people are not formal members of a fellowship then they are not Christians or involved in immorality [Church Membership and Choosing a Church”, by Brian Schwertley]:
Does the church court have an obligation to adjudicate between drug dealers in the inner city or in disputes between any others who just happen to come along? No. Of course not. Can the church court excommunicate anyone it pleases such as the Pope, a president, or an evil movie star? No. The church only has jurisdiction over professing Christians who are under its care. That is, professing Christians who have taken a vow of church membership¼ Church discipline is not only the proper and necessary course of action toward immoral church members it also must be applied to church members who are divisive and/or heretical. Paul said, “Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition, knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned” (Tit. 3:10-11). The word translated divisive (hairetikos) in this context (cf. v. 9) denotes a person who follows teachings and practices that are contrary to Scripture. Heretical teachers are divisive for they seek followers of their own perverted doctrines. Paul obviously is not referring to atheists and pagans but to people who are part of the church.
This is such a sad reflection of pride and legalism. After all, what do the advocates of this teaching do with a so-called Christian who is not a member of their church and caught in immorality or is a heretic? With their way of thinking they wouldn’t do anything. However, it is clearly the responsibility of every Christian to exhort and admonish another, brother or sister in the Lord (1Cor 5:11), no matter what local fellowship they are part of. It is not limited to a select few but does not apply to unbelievers (1Cor 5:12). This writier is the one being divisive among the Christian body and should be warned and admonished.
Baptism is the sign of membership or faith in Christ – that is, of being elect of God. A Christian actually becomes a member upon repenting and believing in Christ’s work on the cross for their sin, not at his or her baptism, that was the sign of them being born again.
It is the work of Satan to divide believers using man-made categories or levels of commitment to Christ. Formal church membership has built into it an adding to the gospel, a second step of Christian commitment, in which a person first becomes a Christian and then becomes a “member”. It is an extra-biblical teaching that should not exist in God’s church, and something I will argue passionately about for this very reason - it is a salvation issue by the fact that it adds to the “Christ alone by grace alone, through faith alone" gospel truth.
The difference between a church attender and a born again church member is salvation! That is a real “member” of Christ’s body. Repentance and belief are two key ingredients that are evidenced by their fruit. This is a key area of disagreement for those who believe in a formal church membership. In the Old Covenant not all those who belonged to Israel were believers, but they were called members of the Israelite community – some were merely “attenders” of the community. However, in the New Covenant only believers are members of the church. Many more people may attend a Christian gathering but only the elect should be called members of the body of Christ, and it is not an extra title above being a Christian. Being a Christian and a member of the body of Christ is the same thing. Further those who are members are not called that because of anything they did by making a vow or signing a constitution, that is, joining up with a so-called membership. They are members because they repented of their old life, going their own way, and believed in Jesus Christ, beginning a new life going His way. Repentance and belief in Christ is what makes a person a member of the body of Christ, which only occurs when God begins a good work in them, and He is faithful to complete it (Php 1:6).
It creates more structure than the bible teaches.
The leadership or oversight of a church should be male, that is the role of the pastors/elders/overseers (same thing) – a plurality of oversight (cf. 1Timothy 3; Titus 1; Acts 20; Eph 4; 1Pet 5). This is of course, understanding leadership as Christ taught and modelled (cf. John 13-17 – Jesus led from the front by his example and authoritative teaching, he didn’t drive followers from behind). Where a formal membership exists women are in a position of leadership over male believers that are not formal members and hence a sin is committed. If changes or decisions have to be made it should be by the godly oversight that God has gifted a fellowship (seen from the bible and modelled by Christ). There should always be a 100% agreement within an oversight - or a consensus that is unified. The point to be fixed clearly in the mind from the above scriptures is that, in the New Testament, churches were never shepherded by one man, whatever his title or designation, but by a plurality of men raised up by God from within a local fellowship.
The hierarchal structure that formal church membership creates, that is, making Christians better with a title or credential quenches freedom and the use of gifts. This occurs when responsibilities are restricted to only formal members; therefore many who have a different view of “membership” are not encouraged to use their gifts among God’s people. This can leave people living their lives indifferently to kingdom objectives – such as Matthew 25:31-46 lists, or ever feeling like they are part of the Christian community. The sorts of people that used to flock to Jesus no longer have any regard for the "church"; the prostitutes; sick; outcasts... "sinners", because of the exclusive culture that formal membership results in. Matt 25:38-40 says, "`When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? `Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?' "And the King will answer and say to them, `Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.'"
A common misconception is that having no formal membership means a total rejection of any kind of order or organisation? This misconception likely results from a fear of losing control by those leaders who lord over other believers in their power positions. We must not descend into anarchy, where anything goes but do strive to keep a balance between spontaneity and disorder which is clearly outlined in the bible (eg. 1Cor 11-14; and the book of Acts).
Another possible reason why a fellowship may desire formal membership is because they pay a full-time worker. Therefore, he would certainly want to encourage membership to ensure that his wages are paid, since it is the responsibility of the formal membership to make sure there is enough money. He needs that support around him so that he can hold certain people responsible for the weekly expenses (mostly his pay). Not at all like the biblical model of trusting God for such extra supports, namely having faith that the Spirit would lead believers to gift money if they saw the need. Since a worker in the word and doctrine is worthy of double honour, then they certainly shouldn’t be denied extra pay from Spirit led believers, on top of their existing wage because they may have taken time off to prepare teaching for the believers (1 Cor 9; cf. 1 Tim 5:18). Remember, the examples of believers giving formally in the bible are only for relief in other fellowships, not for their own expenses.
In some ways this is a catch ‘22’, due to a group supporting a professional to do the work in a body of believers. On the one hand it may lead the body to a dependence on the professional to hear from God and tell them what He has said from week to week and people could stop listening to God for themselves. Therefore if the professional nature of preaching/teaching was done away with, then the support may not come because people don’t listen anymore, as it would have in early church. So that when someone labours in the word the pay they are worthy of may not occur because people have stopped listening to God for themselves. God could be prompting people to gift money to those devoting time to labouring in the word but they do it because they have forgotten how to listen. So it seems that this system has been invented to cover a lack of faith.
Is it really necessary?
The teaching of formal membership is divisive and unnecessary, therefore unloving and in violation of the second greatest commandment of loving your neighbour as yourself (Matt 22:37-40; Luke 10:27). It excludes believers from certain meetings on the basis that they might disrupt or mislead the direction of those in the formal membership group, but this is avoiding issues that need to be resolved. The church of God should strive for unity at all times. As Romans 12:18 says, “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.”
Formal membership tends to reinterpret the word “member” as only regarding some Christians who have signed or committed themselves to a man-made constitution, and so takes away from some basic application for all those who follow the Lord Jesus Christ. The added extra-biblical commitment required takes away from the role of the Spirit in the life of a believer and the need to trust God with those He saves to led them into fellowship with other like-minded Christians. Organised membership leads towards a lording over type church that demands commitment, rather than allowing the Holy Spirit to bring real commitment – not dependent on man-made rules and regulations, as the bible explicitly says (Colossians 2:8-23). Does not the bible teach us to “walk by faith”, “walk in the Spirit”, and “be led by the Spirit” (2Cor 5:7; Gal 5:16; Rom 8:14).
Jesus warned the Pharisees, and Paul wrote to the Galatians, regarding the way they added to the basic facts of the gospel. Matt 23:4 & 13 says, "For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers¼ But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.” Also read Galatians 5:1, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of slavery.” These verses must be read in context with the warnings about not using our freedom for sin or to stumble weak or less mature believers. Remember that our freedom is in Christ as a slave of God, and we are set free to love (cf Gal 5:13). Formal membership has potential to load people with more meetings, more rules and less studious study of the Scriptures. Christians should be just as committed to a fellowship if they have a formal membership to make them, as if they didn’t have this formal type of membership.
The Church is meant to be a family:
The church is a brotherhood, a family, in which there are no classes of people or lords under Him. The body of Christ is a humble, servant community in which each one considers the others more important than themselves (Phil. 2:3). We have one Master, one Lord, one Head, Jesus Christ. Under his headship all of us are equally humbled; no one can hold a position of superiority over others. The roles of Shepherds, Elders and Overseers are included in this, and their role of leading is often misunderstood as an authority figure, but Christ taught and gave an example of servant-leadership to those who oversee the teaching – similar to a father’s role in the home.
Whenever a child is born, he or she automatically becomes a member of that family. He or she does not need to become a member. They are a member and should be valued by the rest of the family who help care and nurture this new family member. They never cease being a member either, even if they move away they remain part of the family. The same is true spiritually. When you were born again, you automatically become a part of God’s universal family and are also a member of a local expression of God’s family. They should share in the blessings of care, nurture and growth, and in turn share that with others because they are part of a spiritual family.
Membership, as taught by those who encourage a separate vow or joining of a church, as another level of commitment in their Christian walk, agree that it is an implied teaching.
This paragraph is word for word from an article trying to support membership, and it explains it so well that it need not be changed. The implication prior to this section would seem to contradict this part. [From a two-part article on the church covenant which formed the substance of a talk given at the Reformed Ministers’ Conference in Malaysia in 1996.]
A regenerate membership:
The differences between the new covenant and the old actually define for us the nature of the substance of the church. The members of the New Testament church are people who partake of the promises of the new covenant. They are filled with the Holy Spirit; they are a people reconciled to God; they have love, peace, joy, hope, and all the other benefits of the Spirit-filled life. They are a people who show forth the dynamic, outward-looking, spiritual life that may be likened to new wine.
Then, they are a people from diverse ethnic backgrounds. In fact, external factors such as ethnicity, social standing, and cultural differences are no longer significant factors to those who become members of the new covenant community. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal. 3:28).
Finally, there is the characteristic of spiritual worship - the members of the new covenant community are capable of engaging in acceptable, spiritual, worship. They are not a people who merely carry out the motions of worship. They are a people who have been purchased by the blood of the Lamb (Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 6:20). Theirs is not a redemption that is anticipated, but accomplished. They have been set free, from bondage to the law (2 Cor. 3:17; Gal. 5:1, 13). They are able to behold the glory of the Lord “with unveiled face”, and “are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18).
Put all these characteristics together, and you will discover that only genuine believers fit the description. No unconverted person qualifies to be a member of the new covenant community. We have seen that in the gospel age, “whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved”. The members of the new covenant community are those who have called upon the name of the Lord. This is underlined in Hebrews 8. From verses 8 to 12, the inspired writer applies a number of prophecies of the Old Testament to the members of the New Covenant. Verses 10 and 11 say, ‘For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. None of them shall teach his neighbour, and none his brother, saying, “Know the LORD,” for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them.’
Most advocates of formal membership use the example of the nation of Israel making national declarations of their desire to follow and obey God, however you will look in vain to find somewhere where God is pleased with such communal vows, nor will you find anywhere where God asks for such declarations – not a formal vow made in the context of community (the Psalms have a number of public affirmations made by a worshipping community, however these are not to be seen as making a member, but from ones heart of already being a member, that is elect). There are personal vows or promises made to fulfil ones duty to another person or to God, but these are not binding someone to a group. Jesus explicitly taught us about vows when he said, "Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, `You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.' "But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God's throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your `Yes' be `Yes,' and your `No,' `No.' For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.” (Matt 5:33-37)
An identifiable group
Another key argument for formal membership is this idea that when a bible writer addresses a group, it must be a group of believers that is exact or defined, for example there is a role or “membership list”.
First, they point to passages in the bible that imply putting people out of the church. Note: as you read these passages they don’t actually say put them out, but treat them as if they were not a believer or don’t associate with them, because they aren’t behaving like one. They argue, that how can you put a Christian person out of the church if they are not formally in it?
See 1Corinthians 5:1-2, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles----that a man has his father's wife! And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you.
This is easily understood when you understand that when a fellowship puts someone out of the fellowship, it is not the same as putting him/her out of the members of Christ’s body. Putting someone out of a fellowship means that you continually call them to repentance and plead with them to get right with God, not declaring that he or she has lost their salvation. If that were possible huge biblical contradictions would be made about a person’s eternal security, that is, one minute they are saved and the next they lose it. Remember, membership must be equated with salvation, becoming part of God’s eternal family, not the joining of a club in which a membership can run out or be cancelled. 1Corinthians 5 most be seen in the context of Matthew 18 and Galatians 6¼
15 "Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother.
16 "But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that `by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.'
17 "And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.
1 Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.
2 Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
3 For if anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.
God has given us clear guidelines about how to deal with sin among a body of believers. It is not the job of Christian gatherings to get rid of people and put them out and then leave them. The goal of the above procedure is to draw them back and call them to repentance. Instead formal membership often exhibits a legalistic attitude towards people and tries to get rid of immoral people or simply leave others they perceive as trouble-makers or baby Christians who require more counsel, and allows them wander away with no intention going after them or seeking them out. Further, they then think they are doing a good job of purifying the church. The term outsider in general use is always used of an unbeliever. So when a believer is caught in sin it should be the goal of every Christian to restore the fallen brother or sister to godly fellowship. Where a formal membership exists those who practise this often only correct or watch out for others within their own group, considering it too hard to go through the biblical guidelines of rebuke and correction. It is easier to just put them out or not bother at all.
Secondly, those who support a formal membership use passages that speak about a flock or gathering as limiting the number to an absolute figure. They use passages from the early church as justifying this. For example the 120 gathered in Jerusalem (Acts 1:15), or the 3000 converted on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41), and the 5000 believers that gathered in different homes in Acts 4:4. This could be a good argument for our Western way of thinking in concrete and exact figures. However, turn to these verses and read them again, in each occasion the word “about” is used and Luke is recording with honesty an estimate of those who assembled themselves when they went from house to house breaking bread and sharing their meals (ie. “about 3000” were added; “about 5000” were added). Besides a list of names does not imply a formal membership, since even today many fellowships have a phone list and they in no way resemble the sort of formal membership that advocates of the teaching speak about. Not all those on that list are formal members and not all are necessarily Christians. The point is that numbers, lists or inclusive words of church or flock do not limit the number of people, but like 1Cor 1:2 says the church is “all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ – their Lord and ours” (cf. 2Timothy 2:19).
Even if there were “lists” of names in the early fellowships, they would not have to be formal. As already mentioned, Christian fellowships do exist today that functioning biblically and happily without this kind of formal addition. These lists only serve as a kind of functional list of believers who meet together, which help with the administration of the these local gatherings. If, for example, they wanted to send out a letter to almost everyone, then a list would assist in this. There would be no criteria for being on this 'members' list (apart from an individual’s desire to associate with the group), and no one at all should get upset about it, with some having the freedom not be on such a list without being judged for it. However, each person could easily contact those who were on the list and help could be sorted by each other if need be, or social gatherings arranged. Once your name was on such a list, it could mean that you would be prayed for and you yourself could be praying for someone else on the list. So it would really be a kind of address list, to help with administration and this should be seen in the context of the so-called lists in the New Testament.
Formal membership is justified by using a theological differentiation between the “visible church” and the “invisible church”. These are terms used to separate those in a given gathering from those who are elect and those who merely profess to be elect. That is to say when a modern church gathers together we can logically suppose that not every person there is a Christian. Hence the “visible church” is what an outsider looking in perceives to be the church and the outsider assumes everyone is a so-called Christian. However, God alone knows those who really are Christians and they are called the “invisible church”. These terms confuse the issue and really it isn’t a human responsibility to go about trying to sort out the elect from the heathen by inventing tests or traditions to separate the true from the false. In the case of formal membership, people are trying to sort out the “wheat and the tares” when Jesus explicitly taught that God would do that in the end times (Matt 13:29 & 30). This is also confusion between the biblical terms of “church” and “the kingdom of God”, as these terms are not interchangeable. As has been written above the church is the elect alone, however, in the Kingdom of God there are true believers and false – the wheat and the tares. Besides many people who are true believers are left out until they can prove to those in controlling-positions that they are willing to come under their control and sign up or commit to the system of formal membership that has been shown as an unbiblical and divisive tradition. What does the bible teach the church to do with those people (Christians who are in the church but not formal members)?
Most would admit that there is a fuzzy line between churches and their standard for “becoming a member”, as to where the bench-mark is. Some have a loose membership and others have a very strict one, but in both cases non-Christians could still get in and disrupt their order. Having a biblical membership that assumes everyone is Christian upon his/her profession should be enough, and then if problems arise, deal with them with biblically as we see the bible as sufficient for all life and godliness. The bible even gives an example in the book of Acts when the Apostles got it wrong and baptised unbelievers and treated them as full members in the Christian community (cf. Acts 5:1-10 & 8:9-24), and nothing is said about cancelling their membership, since they didn’t have a formal membership to be cancelled. God is in control of that.
The Old Covenant and the New Covenant
Membership in the Old Covenant is different to membership in the New Covenant. Not everyone in the old covenant was a believer, yet they were in a general sense called God’s people, and given the status of being a member of that community. This is what seems to confuse many people when they look at the “church”. If a person is seen to go to a particular church then the world generally considers them as being “members of that church”, even if they are not believers. However, in the New Covenant only those people who have made genuine professions of their faith, those who are elect of God, the regenerate community, are members of the New Covenant, therefore members of the church. We need to avoid confusing these definitions without adding to the bible a special class of “formal members” that may exclude genuine Christians from that group and judge them falsely about their commitment to Christ.
Elders and Deacons imply a membership
The question asked to infer this implication is who appointed them? In the case found in Titus it was he who appointed them, but not in a sloppy manner. It was clear to all, who would or should be appointed. A list of character qualities given that separated out mature men for this role, as found in 1Timothy chapter three and Titus chapter one. This was not the formation of a special elite membership but God setting apart godly men for the purpose of shepherding God’s people. If one looks at the fellowship they are part of there are some who present themselves as godly examples to the rest of us concerning their relationship with God, humble and hospitable men who can shepherd others. Their wisdom and maturity set them up as being able to guide and lead other believers into maturity in Christ. Note that this is biblical leading from the front, not driving from behind. Those whom God appoints to these positions of responsibility can be tested with a biblical standard and are respected for that and worthy of honour. The appointment of these men do not require a vote or special group of super-spirituals’, but people recognising the gift of leadership in them (biblical and godly leadership), and appointing them on that basis. Usually, when a fellowship is established an existing oversight would appoint men on the character assessment described in Titus chapter 1 and 1Timothy chapter 3. Before that it would be up to individuals to recognise mature leaders by the same biblical standard and their faithfulness to the task of overseeing a flock of believers. The bible inspired and illuminated by the Holy Spirit is our ultimate leader – the Chief Shepherd of our souls (1Pet 5:4).
In conclusion, 5 questions to be honestly thought about:
1. Is formal "church membership" essential to being a Christian?
2. Does formal "church membership" make you a better Christian?
3. Are all "members" more spiritual or committed to Christ than all the "non-members"/adherents in a church?
4. Would those who are formal "members" be any less committed to the fellowship if formal membership did not exist?
5. Where in the bible does it give instructions about how to become a ‘member of a local church’?
These are my personal responses to the questions from my experience with formal church membership.
1. Is formal "church membership" essential to being a Christian?
NO! As there is no such thing and “formal church membership” in the bible. Becoming a Christian makes you a member of the church, it is not some “extra” that needs to be done. This answer ought to be obvious!
Note: It has been said many times that “church membership is not explicitly taught in the bible, however that does not make it unbiblical – like the word trinity is not explicitly used in the bible the concept is explicit…” I cannot agree with the parallel as I actually do think the concept of “church membership” is unbiblical and in fact sinfully divisive between believers. I add “between believers” as on other accusations it has also been said, “church membership IS divisive”. However, those who say this stop there, rather than explaining that it is between truth and error, Christian and non-Christian. God only commands division between believers for disciplining purposes – sin (that can include doctrinal error, but only serious things that are sinful and need correcting – “church membership” does not fit that category and never will.)
2. Does formal "church membership" make you a better Christian?
NO! Is your faith focused on Christ and dependent on His Spirit transforming you, or do you in need of something extra, a crutch to help you (a crutch not exemplified in the bible), or are you in some sort of club to look good and please others rather than God? (Having a form of godliness and yet denying its power (2Tim 3:5)). Sure some might say that the members attend more, give more and get more involved, but there are certainly exceptions to that and to those it could be for eye-service. Further would they continue to do those things if membership were done away with?
3. Are "members" more spiritual than "non-members"/adherents in a church?
NO! The question itself assumes division and elitism within a fellowship, the very thing I have warned of and spoken against from the beginning. What it also does is insists on intellectualism about ones faith that must be attained to in order to be part of such a group. Further, for those that do not believe in "church membership" and yet understand just as much and are equally committed to a local fellowship, it smacks in the face of the carefully drawn boundaries. This too is hypocritical and judgemental, often implying that those outside of the formal church membership group are non-Christians, sinful Christians, or heretics.
4. If you were not a "member" would you be any less committed to the fellowship?
NO! This is a similar question to number 2. If you feel the need to answer yes to this question then you need to question who you are serving, man or God?. Certainly, it may appear that those who attend church regularly and those who give the most money are the members, but if “formal church membership" did not exist those same people should still attend and give no differently, if indeed their hearts are right with God, or are such people doing things to please others – for eye service? In other words, if formal church membership were done away with, those who are truly Christians should continue to serve the same. Those who are not Christians but trying to be part of the church for some reason would fall away and the “system” would not hide them or be their ‘crutch’ or ‘whip’ to serve in a hypocritical way. If supporters of formal membership think this is a problem they should be teaching people to be more dependent on Christ as revealed in His word and less dependent on formal membership with its constitutions and confessions – ultimately no membership.
5. The bible does not give any examples of someone becoming a formal church member. No one would deny that the believers were ‘devoted to one another’ (Act 2:42; Rom 12:10; 1Cor 16:15; cf. Heb 10:24-25), but to then say that implies a formal covenant promise by an individual is reading into the text. Having an extra formal step in the Christian life can lead to placing something more than the need for just the scriptures. A constitution can often be seen as replacing the need for careful bible study, or adding to the bible by building a hedge around doctrine like self-righteous Pharisees did, and Jesus condemned their practise. The bible and the Holy Spirit's role in illuminating it to us are sufficient. Besides, where is the line, or what is a high standard for a becoming a formal member? And who decides on such a thing? Do we have some sort of exam? What about having a select committee to interview and see if applicants reach a certain level of commitment, by their standard of thinking? “Are you a Christian or not”, and “Are you a member or not” are the same question, according to God’s sovereign election – by grace through faith.
So what is the philosophy that unifies these problems? I think it is a structure or institutional problem that tries to build hedges around doctrines and traditions rather than living the Christian life based on Biblical truth. A church could only change if they were to revisit the entire question of “what is church?” and “how should it function?” biblically speaking - start again, with just the bible.
To conclude, this article is probably written not for those who hold a formal membership position but rather those who are teachable and for my own benefit. "Formal membership" or "covenant theology" concepts are not taught in the bible so to use the bible to argue against them is pointless. They are systems of belief set in the concrete of tradition, not the word of God. It is clear that they will not change their mind when so much has been committed to it - that is, the professional preacher's wage; the building they meet it; the weekly formal meetings; their reliance on one man to do the works of ministry, hear from God and mediate what God wants the people to hear... while many Christians just live indifferently to God's instruction and call His on their lives because they are not involved in ministering to others. After all, the preacher seems to imply, that only the those who has been to a territory institution and received his degree in theology are able to hear from God and he needs the support of a formal membership to rule while the people love it so (sounds like the Israelites saying “give us a king like the other nations”, or in this case, “give us a leader like the worldly systems, or the other religions have”).
There is one church, one elect membership, one body in submission to one Lord, Jesus Christ. Let us make every effort to preserve our unity in the Spirit and the bound of peace.
A footnote on the appointment of elders:
According to Titus 1:5 the accepted manner in which older men were to be appointed as overseers of the church was by ordaining or appointment. This ordaining was mostly performed by the apostles themselves during their lifetime, however, the apostles, as in the instance cited, also delegated their authority to other men who were charged with ordaining elders on their behalf. “For this reason left I you in Crete, so that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed you.” Paul and Titus had been used by the Holy Spirit to establish the churches on Crete by authority of the apostles and elders of Jerusalem. Gal 2:1&2, Acts 15:6-22. Hence, even in Paul’s departure from Crete for Nicopolis he remained diligent to the Biblical appointment procedure and instructed Titus, who stayed, to complete this necessary task.
This process in no way excludes other appointments. For example, should a church not have been planted by a ‘mother church’ but instead be a result of rapid conversion and should it have no near associated churches with recognized elders then there would be significant ground for the church to self-appoint elders according to the age and qualifications of its own men. However, this would be very unusual and even suspicious, especially if the church claimed it was a genuine church plant from a church with recognized elders in the local district. There is a substantial difference between ordaining or appointing elders and commending or endorsing elders as Luke clearly shows.
“…the next day Paul departed with Barnabas…they returned again to… Antioch…And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.” Acts 14:20b-23
Luke points out that Paul and Barnabas performed both the ordination and the commendation.