9 Ways We Get Church Membership Wrong

Continuing in this series on reviewing local church culture with articles here, here and here. Now we zero in specifically on the topic of local church membership.

The renewed focus on local church membership in reformed evangelical circles over the past decade came out of a Godly desire to see people stop being so causal and non-committal about their relationship to their faith in the context of the local church.

Unfortunately, in our zealousness for reform in this area, we’ve gotten off track and this has led to the opposite result we were after. Many are actually taking things even less seriously because they sense that rather than rectifying the problems, we’ve just created a bunch of clubs. The longer this goes on, the more that this error will be exposed so we’d better right the local church ship now before we veer too far off course.

I say this while recognizing and appreciating the appropriateness of the practice of local church membership. It is to be recognized that there are many well-meaning Christians who currently affirm divisive error in regards to what I write below yet are well intended and are not deviously “twisting their mustache”. As someone who used to affirm these practices and needed to repent myself I’m glad this was brought to my attention. I believe this to largely be a “blind spot” issue that is nonetheless severely damaging, has victimized many and constitutes serious error that needs to be rectified quickly.

So we must ask, how does the Bible address membership? What are the pitfalls we must avoid?

1 – GETTING THE RELATIONSHIP WRONG

First, we must understand that the function of church membership is not for the local church to testify to a formal relationship between the believer and itself, but for the local church to testify to the formal relationship between the believer and the universal church.

Biblical, local church membership is first and foremost a testimony about universal, visible church membership. We know there is one visible, universal church of all professors of the true religion. As it pertains to the language of “membership” in Romans 12, we aren’t talking about the members of a local church, but of the church universal.

“For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”
Romans 12:4-5

So all Christians are members of one visible, universal church.

As the Westminster Confession States:

The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation

2 – WE AREN’T MEMBERS OF A PHYSICAL CHURCH BUILDING

Second, we also know that although there is one universal church, there are also individual local “churches” (Acts 15:41, Rom 16:16, 1st Cor 14:33, Gal 1:2, 1st Thes 2:14, Rev 1:4).  

So in the first century, it would not have been strange to ask someone “what church do you fellowship with?” referring to the local church. The person might reply, “The church in Corinth”.

These churches are not buildings of course, they are communities of people. These people would have understood themselves to be members of Christ among the Christian community in Corinth. These communities are not described as being the church only when they are gathered together on a Sunday. Simply, they are the people of God in a specific locality pursuing kingdom activities. 

3 – WE AREN’T MEMBERS OF LOCAL MINI-TEMPLES

Third, we know that the temple where God resides is comprised of the whole number of believers.  This is not in a physical building but a spiritual building where God resides with his people by the Holy Spirit living within them. So while Paul likens the universal church in the model of a temple, we must not get this confused and assume local churches are each a little mini-temple. We must not conjure up images of Levitical temple practices.

“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
Ephesians 2:19-22

Ever walk into the building your local church meets in seeing items for sale on the resource table or even a coffee shop and think piously “Jesus would have driven out these money changers with a whip!”.  You’ve just demonstrated you have a local-church as a mini-temple mindset. The house of the Lord is not a physical building, it’s the people. The high priesthood is not an elder, it’s the Savior. So if each local church shouldn’t be trying to be some recreated mini-temple, what should we be about? The short answer is that we should be about the same thing the church was about in the New Testament, a Gospel saturated social order. 

In the new testament, believers mainly met in the synagogues or in homes or wherever worked for them. Second temple, pre-AD 70 synagogues were for pretty much everything. They were decidedly NOT mini-temples though prayer and singing and so forth would occur there. They were a center for courts, law teaching, welfare administration, schools, commerce, festivals, hostels, political meetings etc. 

What is the relevance of all this to local church membership? It’s massive.

In the first century, when a member of a local church community was excommunicated, he wasn’t just banned from a ritualistic meal or attendance at a Sunday Service or small group meeting. It was much more painful than that, he or she was expelled out of a Christian social order and was foisted into a pagan social order. To the degree that we limit the local church to a mini-temple, pour most of our resources into supporting mini-temple activities where the emphasis is mainly on rituals we limit emphasis on social order. Having done this we limit the effectiveness of discipline upon church members.

4 – PROFESSIONS ARE TREATED AS CREDIBLE UNTIL PROVEN OTHERWISE

Fourth, any Christian individual or household who wants to join in long-term and consistent fellowship among the people of a local congregation are entitled to have their membership in the body of Christ immediately recognized as long as:

  1. They profess the true faith and have been baptized accordingly.
  2. They are not currently in the midst of unrepentant excommunicable sin.

Let it also be noted that there was not a month’s long evaluation process, or a time of testing for recognition of membership. There was immediate inclusion and immediate baptism (many times of entire households).  The philosophy of recognition of profession of faith is “credible until proven unfaithful”, not “unfaithful until proven credible”.

Notice immediate inclusion to the fellowship of the saints upon profession (Acts 2:41) unless and until someone is excommunicated (1st Cor 5:11):

“So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
Acts 2:41

“But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?”
1st Corinthians 5:11

So again there are two options: Welcoming or Excommunication. Scripturally speaking, there is no third option. Any form of “second-class citizenship” is strictly prohibited. Regardless of whatever else is said, in refusing to immediately recognize the membership of a person who wishes to fellowship, by this refusal the local church is effectively treating this person as if they are outside of the faith.

5 – EXCOMMUNICATION IS NECESSARY AND THE CHURCH OWNS IT

Fifth, let it be noted that the revoking of membership or the refusal to recognize membership in some cases is well and good and appropriate for those who have denied the gospel or who are in blatant and open unrepentant sin and have been excommunicated. As referenced above, in 1st Cor 5, Paul makes clear to the church in Corinth that excommunication is the responsibility of the church as a whole to participate in and is the responsibility of the church to carry out. Elders may lead in this process but it is not “up to the elders”.

It is also not just an excommunication out of a local church but out of the church universal.

6 – REFUSAL OF MEMBERSHIP  = EXCOMMUNICATION 

Sixth, since local church membership points to a universal, visible-church reality there can be no situation where a pastor or elder board would say something like, “Yes we know you profess the true religion but no we won’t recognize your membership among us here since you’ve been a paedobaptist your whole life. You can go to the Presbyterian church down the road, they’ll take you”.

If this person is mired in excommunicable sin and needs the gospel, the last thing you should is send him somewhere his excommunicable offense will be enabled.  If he isn’t mired in excommunicable sin and he professes the true gospel then you have no basis on which to refuse to recognize his membership. Why? Because we are not running our own club with our own special rules for membership. This is a form of local church membership which is not predicated on the dictates of scripture, but additions to scripture and which creates an ungodly second class citizenship within the body of Christ.

Other times there will be a person who wishes to fellowship in multiple church communities because of an occupation (say they are a trucker) and local churches refuse communion to this person not because of a heretical belief, false profession or excommunicable offense but because they have not been recognized as a member by other churches. It becomes a situation akin to “being arrested for resisting arrest”.

If the person is not excommunicated and if they are a true professor than they should be treated with the same benefits as everyone else. According to 1st Corinthians 11 for Christians, the communion table is self-fenced based upon the introspection of the partaker. The only means of fencing off the table is to treat the would-be partaker as an unbeliever through excommunication and this is a work of the church in response to apostasy or excommunicable sin.

7 – PERSONAL SALVATION DOES NOT = LOCAL CHURCH MEMBERSHIP

Seventh, we do not believe in salvation by local church membership, but in salvation by membership in Christ or membership among the elect. We cannot say “You are not a Christian unless you are a member of a local church.”

The function of the local church is to recognize the relationship between a believer and the universal church as best it can according to our finite abilities. When the church binds or looses on the earth (declaring membership or lack thereof in the church universal) that reality is reflected in heaven to the extent it is done lawfully and in accordance with reality. The lesson of Matthew 16:19 is that as Gary North said, “God honors lawful excommunications.”

We cannot always do it perfectly because we do not know who all the elect are. But we can make these judgments based on how scripture instructs us – that is based upon profession of faith (not proving of faith) and practice.

8 – DON’T DISCIPLINE FOR VIOLATING A LOCAL CHURCH COVENANT

Eighth, we must not deign to enact discipline on a member for failing to live up to a local church covenant. We enact discipline on a member for rebellion against the moral demands of the law as given in scripture, and no further. Again, we are not maintaining ‘our rules” of “our local church”. That’s a club mentality. Again in 1st Cor 5 the standard for excommunication is violation of God’s law.

9 – YOU ARE YOUR BROTHER’S KEEPER, NOT JUST THOSE AT THE LOCAL CHURCH

Ninth, we must never allow ourselves to deny the responsibility to address our brother’s sin simply for the reason that he fellowships at a different local church. Even as an elder, you are not simply responsible to exhort only those in your local church community. Your obligation to your brother is mediated first and foremost by your duty to Christ and not by a local church covenant.

So in light of all of this, how is a biblically faithful local church membership defined? I would submit the following:

Biblically faithful local church membership is the practice of local churches recognizing the membership of a person in the visible, universal Church after having been made witness to the orthodoxy of the profession of faith of said person and being not aware of any proven, open, unrepentant, excommunicable sin. They and their children are to be recognized as members unless and until there is apostasy or excommunicable sin.

Let us get back to the boundaries the Bible lays out and dispense with any man-made traditions that place undue burdens upon the people of God, especially when they end up creating sinful division.

Restitution for this past divisiveness would be to publicly renounce these former teachings and practices, to attempt to contact those who have been formerly treated in such a manner and to communicate welcome to them should they choose to fellowship among you in the future. If someone has been publicly denied membership for undue reasons of course the correction should be just as public.

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