Church Membership – What’s the Point?

Posted: November 1, 2007 by Rick Hogaboam in Ecclesiology (Church Stuff)
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This has been my first reading of John R. Sittema, a pastor in the PCA, serving a congregation in North Carolina. I only read a single chapter, “Church Membership: Committed to Follow a Recognized Voice”. It was offered up to me by an elder in my church after we had some discussions about the idea of church membership. The chapter was to the point and spoke critically of the current trend in American evangelicalism to view membership as archaic and meaningless.

I am still thinking through the idea of church membership. I am a former student at Calvary Chapel School of Ministry in Costa Mesa (basically their unofficial seminary, not to be confused with the many Calvary Chapel Bible Colleges…the school of ministry was a master’s level study). Anyhow, I only lasted 1 semester because of some doctrinal differences that I had with their eschatology, which doesn’t make allowances for anything other than a pre-trib rapture, literal 7 years period of tribulation, followed by a literal 1,000 year reign of Christ on the earth, etc (basically, common dispensational eschatology). Anyhow, I am off track…alright back on track: Calvary Chapels don’t practice church membership and I really didn’t question it at the time nor ever since until recently. Is the idea even Biblical?

My family and I are becoming members of our church….and this is the first time in my life, even though I have been in ministry, where we are actually becoming formal members. It isn’t because we object to the idea of membership, but I have been in fellowships where the congregation has a functional status of membership by means of active involvement and participation. If someone was out of line or fell into sin, they were approached one way or another and dealt with irregardless of membership status. Basically, such a view sees the participating flock as the local church and community of God. Sure there are unbelievers among such gatherings, but they are considered just that: non-believers. So to sum it up, there are only two types of people that gather in a church with such polity: believers and non-believers.

Now when one considers the ecclesiology behind formal church membership, there are various distinctions made in a Sunday morning worship service: active members (who may or may not be believers), inactive members (who may or may not be believers), probationary members (individuals under church discipline), believing non-members, and unbelieving non-members and then a distinction is made between children of members (baptized uncommunicant covenant members) and children of non-members (essentially viewed as unbaptized, non-covenant children). You can see how difficult it may be for one to grasp all of these distinctions.

Now when surveying the basic premises of these 2 different views on membership, there is no wonder why many opt for the simple 2 category model. It is simpler to understand and to minister within. The other view has very good intentions, but gets pretty ridiculous at times in its implementation. Let me cite one example from the Reformed Church of America’s view of active membership. To maintain active membership, one only needs to attend at least 1 service per year. On the other hand, we have committed believers who love the church and are not formal members. According to the RCA, the “active” member is in good standing, while the non-member should seek membership. Now, explain to me what good the vibrant believer sees in membership when one looks at the rolls and sees hundreds of people who are designated as active members though they have only been to church a dozen times in the last decade. The elders are handicapped by this policy and can’t remove such “active” members from the rolls, even though classis fees need to be paid for each member, which was around an annual payment of $60 for each “active” member in our church. We can ask if they would like to be removed, but if they say no, then there is nothing we can do because, after all, they did come to the Easter service every year.

Another example of angst I have: Let’s say we have an elder in our church sleeping around with other women. It tears his family apart. He is approached, but refuses to stop his actions. On these grounds, he will be removed from eldership and membership….but according to the words of a local Reformed Presbyterian Pastor, “this man would be strongly encouraged to continue to gather on Sunday morning worship”. Having heard this, I was in awe. In my background, unbelievers are more than welcome to join us, even those living in sin….but if a professing believer falls in an unrepentant state, we would disassociate ourselves from such an individual and they would not be welcome in our gatherings until repentance was seen. In the other view of my friend….being stripped of membership is the only jurisdiction the church has…and that sitting under the public preaching of the word is encouraged because it may bring them back to repentance.

Now when you liken this previous example to the incestuous relationship at Corinth, Paul wants the man removed. I doubt that he was welcome in the public gatherings until repentance had been seen. In fact one can infer that based on Paul’s rebuke that the church had not welcomed him back after repentance and I would certainly not have in view that he was welcome in their gatherings, but formal membership was the only thing withheld. Basically, you are either in or out. Outsiders are welcome because they are not to be held accountable to discipline since they are not professing believers. Discipline and accountability are targeted towards those who are in by means of their profession of faith and active involvement.

Another example of church membership gone crazy is the implementation of a scholarship fund in a church that restricts the benefits to members only. Again, remember what it takes to remain an active member….not much. However, there may be a vibrant believer who could very desperately use the scholarship, but does not qualify unless they become a member. You basically have some teen who might come to church a couple times a year and is yet a member, while another youth may be an essential part of the youth group and attend almost every church function; but only one of these two can een be considered. You know who gets the scholarship at the end of the story and it’s laughable. Now you may say: “what good reason is keeping the so-called vibrant Christian from seeking membership?” I would respond by citing a lack of understanding of its benefits, a lack of seeing such a title ultimately affecting their faith walk, and sadly a disdain for the apparent hypocrisy that exists in maintaining “active” membership.

Having said this, I think the well intended polity of the Reformed tradition that creates subcategories for the worshipping community actually hinders the apparent value of membership to the community of believers. While it would be very simple to just disregard membership, as many of the newer church models have, I would say that such a trend can be dangerous in the other extreme.

Elders are to care for the flock. There is to be an understanding among the worshiping community that there exists accountability to the elders. Instead, we have Christians who come and go as they please and reject such accountability.

Sittema is right in his book when he says that we need to make membership mean something to protect the integrity of such a title. He suggests a celebration of sorts in receiving new members and definitely encourages the neccesary pastoral care from the elders in making certain that the professing members of the body are growing and maturing in their faith. It is here, where I shout a loud amen!!! May the church employ, as she is mandated, the gift of the elder body to care for and lead the flock of God. It is here where “membership” means something in such a polity. Even in the church models that reject formal membership, may there be a greater distinction of the people of God as a maturing body under proper leadership in the church. This is really the heart of the issue.

In the name of seeker-sensitivity, many churches have unfortunately blurred the line for what it means to be “in” the worshipping community. In some churches where there are small groups tailored for the sports enthusiast and breakfasts featuring former athletes who speak about a vague conversion experience really focused on portraying Jesus as the ultimate self-help guru during one’s career, the enthusiastic attendee may very well consider himself part of the sponsoring church…to the church’s delight. Now, where is the discipleship?….well, it is relegated to a class that is “offered”, but of course not mandatory for ongoing fellowship. Does this person consider themselves accountable to the leaders in the church (that’s assuming the church even has a plurality of leaders or elders)? Probably not, because their Christian experience is much like eating at a restaurant and picking your favorite dish. The church has catered to this mentality by allowing the conscience of such a person to go unchecked. They are encouraged to come to more of the offerings…certainly there is more on the menu. “I’ll stick with the small group that watches football games and has a short testimony from someone about how Jesus helped them through a bad day”. This is the other extreme that needs to be fought in American Evangelicalism. I am all for being relevant and contextualizing our message to reach hardened seekers. Ultimately, though, in order for one to count the cost….they must know what the cost is. American Evangelicalism is uncomfortable telling people to count the cost. We would rather suggest that they consider the cost and are somewhat content if they choose dessert only.

Ultimately, the church is the body of believers. The tares will be among us, but they are truly not the body. The best thing the church can do for the tares is by shining brightly as strong growing wheat. The distinction needs to be made so evident that the tare is made aware that they are not wheat and should be drawn to the strength and beauty exhibited in being wheat. If there are certain members who attend infrequently, show no zeal, etc…then their membership means nothing. Ultimately, our association with Christ is in the BEING the people of God, which looks like something.

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