A Theology of Local Church Membership

by The Ecclesiologist

I have been doing some thinking and writing about church membership recently.  I have been frustrated by the lack of thought that has been put into the concept of local church membership.  I remember engaging a faithful “Bible Church” attender a while back, and he continually argued against church membership.  His reasoning was that membership commitments cannot be found in the Bible.  I must admit, this debate was a breath of fresh air.  I wish more people used their Bible when talking about local church membership.

My frustration with the subject is three fold.

First, membership today is often treated like branding.  You can be a Christian and attend a local church, but to become a member is to say that you belong to a particular type of Christianity.  I am sure this idea of branding came in as a result of the curse.  In North America especially, membership was associated with one’s neighbourhood and one’s mother languages.   I understand the need for members to be Greek and to live in Montreal.  However, I feel like much of the branding that takes place today is silly.  In an average membership class you may find out that joining our church means you are a missional, city loving, bike riding, organic coffee drinking Christian, microbrew only Christian.  I find this a bit silly.

The boundaries for membership cannot be greater than the boundaries for those entitled to baptism, a hatred of sin and a profession of faith in Christ.  Membership is not branding, it is acknowledging which elder’s authority you are under.  Churches only play into this by requiring people who moved from one church to another to go through a membership class that teaches them all the distinctives of their new church.  I think it would be most helpful for the church to get rid of this type of practice.  By doing so, we might get rid of some of the so called “church consumerism” that many of these same churches hate.  Simply make sure an individual makes a credible profession of faith, and make them members. Leave your marketing pitches for another time.

Second, membership is treated as a mark of maturity.  Often Churches avoid associating membership and baptism and the result is, membership is viewed as something for the real mature Christians do.  Membership becomes a new, safer boundary marker for Christian maturity.  This is most often seen when kids go away to college, attend a church, but assume membership is not for them.

Third, membership is treated as optional.  Because membership is not tied strongly to baptism, Christians often believe membership is not part of what it means to be a Christian.  By virtue of one’s baptism, one is a member of the church visible, and therefore one must submit to elders.  To opt out of doing this is equivalent to disobeying Christ.

Let us watch how we use the power of the keys.  While it might be wisest for our members to agree with our churches denominational distinctives or our particular congregations value and vision,  let us make sure membership into our church isn’t much more difficult than membership into the kingdom.  We discipleship members, we do not seek to create them.