I am often asked about the legitimacy of church membership. The question comes from pastors, church leaders and even lay people. They ask, “Is church membership really necessary?” “Is it even biblical?” These are legitimate questions. But I wonder if these questions are not being asked because of an increasing societal pressure not to commit to much of anything.
I perfectly understand we are living in a different time than my parents. My dad’s loyalty and commitment to drive Chrysler products all his life and to do his banking at the Royal Bank are not the same brand loyalty and commitment that people have today. Today, people change marriages, jobs, banks, cell phone carriers and yes even churches at lightning speed. So, I can certainly understand why pastors and churches have difficulty developing any “brand” loyalty or seeing people line up for church membership. But this doesn’t make the need for commitment and membership of any less importance.
Bill Gates, the entrepreneur and founder of Microsoft has said, “Great organizations demand a high level of commitment.” I doubt anyone would debate that statement or question Bill’s emphasis on the need for commitment. Microsoft is where it is today because of the hard work and commitment of Bill Gates and its employees.
Jesus Christ, the creator and founder of the church, also weighed in on the subject of commitment. He said, “No one can become my disciple without giving up everything for me”. Now, here is one thing I am certain of– great commitment propelled Microsoft to be the successful corporation it is; and great commitment to Jesus Christ and his church will successfully propel Christianity forward.
Church membership is a means to demonstrate our commitment to Jesus Christ and his church. In Mark Dever’s book, What Is a Healthy Church, he writes, “Sometimes college campus ministries will ask me to speak to their students. I’ve been known, on several occasions, to begin my remarks this way: ‘If you call yourself a Christian but you are not a member of the church you regularly attend, I worry that you might be going to hell.”
You could say that Dever has an unique way of getting people’s attention about the importance of church membership. Why do you suppose Dever would say such a thing? Was it just for shock value? I don’t think so. Was he trying to scare them into church membership? No, not that either. Was he implying that by joining a church it would make someone a Christian? Certainly not!
Dever recognized that many Christians today have tended to view their Christianity as a personal relationship with God and not much else. They generally know that this ‘personal relationship’ has some implications for how they should live. But for a lot of Christians, it was their cavalier attitude toward commitment that really concerned Dever. And, frankly, that attitude should concern all Christian leaders. Dever says:
I’m concerned that many Christians don’t realize how this most important relationship with God necessitates a number of secondary personal relationships—the relationships that Christ establishes between us and his body, the Church. God doesn’t mean for these to be relationships that we pick and choose at our whim among the many Christians ‘out there.’ He means to establish us in relationship with an actual flesh-and-blood, step-on-your-toes body of people.
Ken Sande of Peacemaker Ministries agrees. He says, “The church should be less like a cruise ship and more like a battleship. Rather than emphasizing their casual atmosphere and fun activities, Sande adds, “it's time for churches to raise the bar, to focus on a serious mission, and ensure that every person aboard serves a vital function”. To make the shift, Sande says, “we must recapture the importance and meaning of church membership.”
But for some churches, recapturing the importance and meaning of church membership does not appear to be important at all. In a recent Leadership Weekly poll of churches, 38 percent said church attendees were frequently urged to join, and 34 percent said a membership appeal was occasionally given, the remainder said their church placed little or no emphasis on membership.
So, let’s look at a couple of questions. First, why is church membership not being emphasized in churches? Second, what do we need to do to raise the bar of church membership?
1. Why is church membership not being emphasized in churches?
First, I believe churches and leaders have succumbed to the current antagonism society exhibits towards commitment and accountability. Like parents who are afraid to discipline their children, church leaders are afraid they will be unpopular for emphasizing commitment and accountability through membership.
Even if a church has a formal membership, it is often very careless in the way it practices and maintains that membership. For example, some people’s names are still on membership lists even though the person has left the church years ago or is openly living in sin in the community.
To mitigate the embarrassment of these situations, church leaders have assigned these people to an “inactive” status on their membership roll. This accommodation was originally meant to serve the sick and shut-ins who have a valid reason for not being able to get out to church. Now, this list serves to inflate membership rolls, and to coddle every “inactive Christian” who has no legitimate reason for staying away from church.
Second, membership is not emphasized in churches because they know that people don’t want to be committed and accountable. They would rather live their lives on the edge and outside of any accountability. So, rather than pushing back against this cavalier attitude in their discipleship training, churches reason it is better to have a person who is uncommitted and unaccountable show up once a month, than challenge them to become a member and drive them away forever.
Such thinking caused Millard Erickson to lament, “Increasingly evangelicalism is becoming pragmatic. It does not ask so much whether ministry is doctrinally sound and in keeping with the basic theological position of the church, but by what results, it is producing.”  The only benchmark some churches have is whether or not people show up for their services and not if they are discipled and accountable to Christ and his church.
Third, some Christians cringe at the idea that church leaders should have any authority over them through the “restraints” of church membership. Rugged individualism permeates their psyches; and consequently, they do not take well to the idea of submitting to authority.
Yet, Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your spiritual leaders, and do what they say. Their work is to watch over your souls, and they are accountable to God. Give them reason to do this with joy and not with sorrow. That would certainly not be for their benefit.”
It is evident that church leaders—not familial or civil leaders—are in view here. It is the elders of the church who have been given the responsibility to shepherd the flock of God under their pastoral care and to exercise proper spiritual oversight (I Peter 5:1-2). This involves ruling over the affairs of the church. As Christ’s servant leaders they rule in his stead. When we submit to their lawful rule, we are actually obeying Christ. Leaders are to watch over our souls and are accountable to God. Think about those words for a moment. Think also about how we are to do this. We are not to give our leaders sorrow but to help them have a joyful ministry. Anything less than our full support would certainly not be for their benefit.
Fourth, some would argue, “Haven't there been abuses with this kind of authority?” Yes, regretfully there have been abuses. But this does not mean that people should abandon all accountability to biblical leadership just because of some tyrannical leaders.
Biblical authority must never be used as a license to abuse people. So, here’s some wisdom to consider. No one should ever give a pastor or any of the church’s elders blind allegiance; nor should they ever see their mission as one of always challenging that leadership. Instead, they should strike a delicate balance between an unwavering loyalty and an uncompromising watchfulness.
I know some might object, “I’m not a member of any church for this very reason, therefore, no church will ever have authority over me.” But Hebrews 13:17 states what should be the norm for every Christian. It is not an option. It is a biblical command. If people try to live their Christian lives outside a healthy biblical community, they will do so at their own peril.
Fifth, the lack of emphasis on commitment and accountability through church membership often coincides directly with the church’s view of sin. If sin is no longer taken seriously–then membership, where the believer would be held accountable for their behavior, won’t be taken seriously either.
Thomas Oden sees the church’s current treatment of sinful behaviour as just “social influences” and laments the subsequent lack of any emphasis on personal confession and culpability:
The confession of sin is now passé and hopelessly outdated to many minds. Naturalistic reductionism has invited us to reduce alleged individual sins to social influences for which individuals are not responsible. Narcissistic hedonism has demeaned any talk of sin or confession as ungratifying and dysfunctional. Autonomous individualism has divorced sin from a caring community. Absolute relativism has regarded moral values as so ambiguous that there is no measuring rod against which to assess anything as sin. Thus modernity, which is characterized by the confluence of these four ideological streams, has presumed to do away with confession, and has in fact made confession an embarrassment to the accommodating church of modernity.
As Oden points out, holding anyone accountable for their sinful actions now seems an embarrassment to both the individual and the church. And membership – the very vehicle that could be used to hold people accountable for their sins – is now an “unnecessary appendage” to the Christian’s life of discipleship. The consequence of such thinking is that no contemporary church should ever subject anyone to personal or corporate accountability or confession, let alone, culpability.
Bonhoeffer believed that reproof of sin was a sign of a healthy biblical community:
Reproof is unavoidable. God’s Word demands it when a brother falls into open sin. The practice of discipline in the congregation begins in the smallest circles. Where defection from God’s Word in doctrine or life imperils the family fellowship and with it the whole congregation, the word of admonition and rebuke must be ventured. Nothing can be crueler than the tenderness that consigns another to his sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin.
I would agree with Bonhoeffer. Don't be a church that consigns another to their sin by mistakenly thinking that all the church needs is some tenderness and compassion. Church membership, when practiced properly, can produce a healthy church. It can hold people accountable and help them to deal with their sin and grow in their Christian lives.
Second, what do we need to do to raise the bar of membership?
First, let’s start by affirming what it means to be loyal to Christ and accountable to His church.
Membership is not something that the first century church probably practiced. There is little biblical evidence of ‘church membership’ as we would know it today. It seems formal church membership didn’t become a regular practice until at least the second century.
But here’s an important thing to consider about those early Christians. Declaring yourself a follower of Christ was no small thing in the first century. The social and (later) legal penalties for declaring oneself a follower of Christ in first century were enormous. So those who courageously identified as Christians then were also showing their alignment to Jesus and his people. The title of “Christian” was not something undertaken lightly at the time of the early church.
Sadly, the same loyalty is not true today. It seems to me that we need to raise the bar of what it means to be a follower of Christ. Church membership must be a part of all our discipleship training. It can help to distinguish us as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession.” (1 Pet.2:9).
Second, let’s be countercultural. Let's teach the importance of being accountable in a non-accountable world. Accountability is good for us. If we are serious about our faith, and we really want to honor and please God, then we will want to be accountable to the church and its leaders.
It is absolutely astounding to me how many people are unwilling to submit to formal membership process so they can have the benefit of having “lifeguards” on duty when they find themselves in an undertow.
In an ideal world, church members would never have to be confronted about their sin, or their behavior. It would be wonderful if pastors and elders could just limit themselves to ministries of encouragement, exhortation and guidance. But that is not the reality of the Christian life.
Ideally, good swimmers would never find themselves in an undertow, get a cramp, have a wave smash them, get stung by a devil ray, or get bitten by a shark. Does that mean we shouldn’t have lifeguards on duty in case the ‘ideal’ is not a reality?
In fact, the worst thing that could happen to you in the above situations without a lifeguard is that you’d start to sink, take in water, and then drown to death. Effective church membership, with its accountability to the church’s “lifeguards”, will help us keep our heads above water before we drown to death spiritually.
Third, we need to teach our churches about the moral and legal value of membership.
Membership classes should make it a priority to determine if prospective members have a credible profession of faith. Do they understand the gospel? Do they understand the theology of the church, your polity, your vision, your cores values, and how they are to handle conflicts? Do they have a clear understanding of your church’s discipline policy? Finally, you need to discuss expectations for members regarding financial stewardship, respecting leadership, and utilizing their gifts in ministry.
Membership can also help to legally protect the church. Church leaders should educate the church to understand what the church's disciplinary practices are, and then have them give their signed consent to be held accountable to those practices. This is the closest thing you can get to an ironclad defense against lawsuits. It is referred to as “informed consent”. You can achieve informed consent by having new members stand before the church and actually verbalize membership vows and commitments and by having them sign a membership covenant.
Lastly, the bottom line is that most churches fail to be healthy not because they lack desire, but because they lack commitment to raise the bar of church membership. The need for a strong commitment to Christ and his church is not an option. We don’t need weaker churches; we need stronger ones. So, let's raise the bar of church membership and call people to a deeper commitment to Christ and his church!
 Mark Dever, What is a Healthy Church, Crossway; Wheaton Ill., 2013) p.22.
 Christianity Today, https://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2007/july-online-only/011606.html
 Christianity Today, https://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2007/july-online-only/011606.html
 Millard J. Erickson, The Evangelical Mind and Heart: Perspectives on Theological and Practical Issues (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1993), 197.
 Thomas Oden, Corrective Love: The Power of Communion and Discipline (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1995), 56.
 Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 107.