“Shepherding Movement, John Piper, Church Membership” All Discussed in this Response

Posted: November 1, 2007 by Rick Hogaboam in Ecclesiology (Church Stuff)
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I am posting below a response I made to a very thoughtful critique of my original post on “Church Membership: What’s the Point?” from a blogger, John Bailey, who is an elder in a PCA church in Torrance, CA. His response is copied in first, and then my response.

Hi Rick,

I am a ruling elder at a PCA church in Torrance CA. I have a background similar to yours and have asked the same question about church membership. I am happy to hear you are becoming member of your church. We recently received new members into our church and it is a joyous occasion to me. Before someone is brought into membership the elders interview them. In the interview one thing we are looking for is an authentic conversion testimony. We are careful to assure all those seeking membership are actually Christians.

I understand your thoughts when you say, “What’s the point.” The same question could be asked about marriage or national citizenship but I don’t claim there are perfect parallels between them. What I do know is that we are a people that are afraid of commitment. In church membership we make a commitment or covenant with a particular group of people. Many would say a formal declaration of this is unnecessary and to them I defer to the marriage analogy. If formal membership is meaningless to one’s commitment than why not do it? Of course we know that it is not meaningless but instead makes one accountable.

Church membership has other implications. There is the business aspect. A member is like a shareholder and does have voting rights. I for one have strong feelings against church leadership that seem to have a totalitarian slant. The Presbyterian form of church government has many built in safeguards against this. Because of this it is important to clearly define the members and make sure they agree to the form of government before joining. But membership is significant to me in ways other than bureaucratic.

The other aspect that is worth mentioning is church discipline. Part of being a member is the ongoing submission to the leadership of the elders. A church’s jurisdiction surely can not extend to those who have not willingly agreed to be under it.

Probably the most telling thing that can be said about me is that I am a church member. There is no other one thing that defines me as thoroughly as that. My church is not perfect any more than yours is but my commitment to it is a commitment to the Biblical concept of community and purity and God centeredness. With all of the quirkiness that the idea of church membership may have I hope that some of the things I have said will push the scales back in the other direction a little.

In Christ
John Bailey


I appreciate your thoughtful response. I do like the analogies you used with marriage and citizenship. Most people are treating the formalities of marriage as unnecessary now days so I think that fits particularly well. Marriage is indeed important because it is a covenant relationship and certain rights are bestowed in the ceremony and recognized by the state. The state does indeed take into account marriage when dealing with certain legal matters…so it is no small thing. People fear such commitment because they want the entitlements without the covenant stipulations.

Church membership is indeed a covenant with the local church and a declaration of submission to the governing body. I also like how you mentioned that membership bestows certain rights, like that of voting…etc. Today, most evnagelicals cringe at the thought of submitting to the governing elders of a local body. Membership is definitely the way to communicate within a local church that such submission is indeed taken seriously.

I am also aware that such a paradigm has lead to abuses in many cases, particularly with the “shepherding movement”, where elders basically ran the lives of church members…even to the point of directing decisions on what homes to buy, entertainment choices, apparel, etc. While Scripture does speak to some of these issues and I find it refreshing in some cases that churches actually take the whole counsel of God seriously and try best to implement it in their lives, I still cringe at some of the pain inflicted upon people who were told not to buy a certain car or marry a certain individual when the issues were well within the confines of Christian liberty. It is important to remember at this point that all elders will have to give an account for how they led God’s people.

I guess that we have seen the abuses of both extremes: the abusive elders who govern people’s lives on one hand; and the commitment free entitlement mentality of those who “church shop, church hop” and simply leave when the going gets tough or their “needs” are no longer being met.

I think we are both on the same page in wanting to foster a God-centeredness in the local Covenant community and strive for continued sanctification as a corporate body. I guess at the end of the day, some of your most committed believers could be the ones without official membership and you would heartily commend such folks.

BUT you bring up a great point in asking: Why not become a member?

Actually, I can now think of a situation in one church: Bethlehem Baptist, pastored by John Piper, where they attempted to amend the bylaws for membership requirements to strike the prerequisite of baptism by full immersion. They have a contingency of folks who have been baptized as infants and would like to become members of a church that they love and Piper was sympathetic to such a situation and wanted to bestow upon such folks membership status. Anyhow, the church was not ready for such a change and such folks remain outside the formal membership of the church.

This incident really got me thinking about what should be “required” for membership into the local church. You mentioned that the prospective members must give their testimony before the elders. Is there any baptismal requirement? Is there an affirmation of faith to any particular creed, statement of faith, etc.?

What do you think should be the requirements for local membership?

Also, I mentioned that RCA requires only an annual attendance to sustain active membership and I am wondering; what constitutes active membership in your local PCA church?

Thanks for your dialogue!!!


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