Church Membership Requirements

Church Membership Requirements January 26, 2011

Many are disputing the value of church “membership” today. Some think if we are “in Christ” we are members — whether we are on a list or not. Others wonder what’s the “value added” benefit to being a “member.” Some today are advocating instead for church “covenant” commitments.

It seems to me that “membership” matters. To be an Israelite there was an official “entry rite” (circumcision) and to be “in Christ” there is an official entry rite (faith, baptism). To be a “member” of a nation one has to have an official status. To be a student, one has to be enrolled. To work for a company, one has to be hired. One is either in or one is not. So membership makes sense to me at the basic level.

But what does it take to be a “member” of a church today?

That’s where it gets tricky today, and I suppose it’s tricky because no one really wants to enforce anything. So, we don’t — and that means church membership means very little. One goes to church, sits in a pew, sings a bit and worships a bit and listens a bit and then goes home. Or one participates in a small group or in a service project, but very few churches require anyone to do anything.

Here’s the biggest problem with church membership for many today: being a member is so far out of line from what Jesus “requires” for a disciple that church membership seems more like country club membership than it does official participation in the kingdom of God.

So, let’s think about this today: What would happen to church membership requirements if Jesus’ call to discipleship, which I sketch in One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow, became our requirements? What are the top three things Jesus would require of “church membership” if he were writing out the requirements?

A pastor told me recently he and his leaders were thinking of using One.Life for a church membership class. The themes of Jesus’ vision would revolutionize what we mean by church membership — revolutionize in a way that would turn off some people who need to be offended and excite some people are waiting for the church to take its calling more seriously.

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  • David

    I haven’t read One.Life. Can you elaborate more in what these discipleship requirements are?

  • I agree that membership ought to be tied to baptism. Church’s need to stop baptizing persons who are not ready to commit to the visible church. There is no question that they maybe members of the invisible church, but Christ has instituted a visible church with officers and signs and seals with preaching as the ordinary means of grace by which sinners are saved. By presby creds are showing here 😉

  • Hey Scot,

    There’s a reason most churches don’t ‘enforce’ discipleship, and I’m not sure why you can’t see it. A quick glance through church history has proven that over and over, attempt at discipleship ‘enforcement’ leads to an excess of power. And when power is at stake, people will gravitate towards it for all the wrong reasons, and then abuse those under them. It seems the older generation, no offense, has this continual longing to go ‘back when we were young and kids were polite and people went to church and were committed, etc…’
    Looking at Jesus as a model in terms of ideas is a good thing, obviously. But culturally, it’s a terrible idea. The best place to start when it comes to discipleship is not with enforcement, but sacrifice. (a la Mother Theresa)
    The Asian church is an example of top down enforcement ideals. At my Seminary, about half of which is asian, most students were not interested in debating ideas, because they’d learned from their church’s hierarchial ideals that they were neither old enough nor smart enough to contribute. That is not to pick on one culture, as we have our own cultural foibles in North America. Why, for instance, do we center everything around food? And not just food, but great gluttonish gobs of it? And why do we focus so much on ‘being pretty’ for church? My point is that membership is a gateway to power, if only because it requires gatekeepers. Much better we teach people that the only proper response to grace is gratitude, revealed in our sacrifices and willingness to humble ourselves to serve others.

  • smcknight


    You’ve got some interesting ideas here, but I’m wondering where you are getting “enforcement” and “power.” One can find bad examples everywhere, and one can find bad examples of the lack of serious expectations… bad examples teach us but they don’t guide us.

    So, I’m asking a very serious question: what would church membership look like if Jesus set the categories?

    You have a fresh start: a member, in the grace of God etc, should strive to be sacrificial (instead of power-hungry).

    I will just have to say I’m in strong disagreement that you can say looking to Jesus as a model is a “terrible idea.” Paul did. So did Peter. And James couldn’t finish a paragraph without alluding to Jesus’ teachings.

  • normbv

    Christ church: the body of believers is going to organize themselves in multitudes of ways and there is freedom in that expression. If one entered a new country and started converting people to Christ and didn’t teach them any rules of organization then it would be interesting to see their organizational process unfold in a pure environment. However if we look backward over the centuries we can get a glimpse worldwide what indeed that would look like. People will organize as they always have and will continue in each generation working that process.

    Stephen is correct that discipleship movements often lend themselves to power exploitation. In the restoration movement we have experienced that approach about 30 years ago in a movement called the “Boston Movement” which rose and then hit a brick wall probably because of a model of “discipling” that lent itself to exploitation. Here is a quote and link about the movements approach and problems.

    “Its once assertive recruitment methods, high commitment expectations of members, and retaining the use of “discipling” partnerships have caused some researchers, observers, and ex-members between 1996 and 2001 to label the organization a cult, in the broader sense of extreme devotion to a set of beliefs.”

  • Watchman

    It’s ironic the title of this article is “Church Membership” then there’s a picture of a person being baptized. This is one thing church member ship should NOT include. Unfortunately, many denominations do this. Aren’t we baptized into the body of Christ rather than a particular church?

    Membership at our church requires three things: 1) Everyone must attend a “Discovery” class. A brief 2-hour class describing the history and beliefs of our church and what is required of you; 2) Regular tithing; 3) Must be willing to serve in some capacity at the church.

  • Rick


    “Must be willing to serve in some capacity at the church.”

    What if they are serving in some capacity away from the church?

  • This makes me more eager to get my hands on my copy. In limbo over ordering it with a book that is to be released in March! But this really makes me think in view of the book I am nearly finished reading, “Amish Grace,” (hyperlink too long,and short on time here, but by Donald Kraybill and others. The good in what the Amish do, even with the dangers within it, I think so much better reflect what God calls us to in Jesus as his people. It is a call to community no less. A powerful one. In which we have to allow ourselves to be shaped within community in Jesus. Otherwise we miss out in what God calls us to in Jesus.

  • I think membership is important because it has a quality about it that can help a person feel and know that they ‘belong’ to something bigger than themselves. I think the capacity to take ownership is also important. The idea that “I’m no longer a passive pew warmer, but an active participant” could come about as a result.

    I think a few things should happen in order to be an official member of a local congregation:

    1.) A class (or series of classes) outlining what it means to be a follower of Jesus and how this relates to membership.

    2.) Faithful attendance and giving.

    3.) Consistent service

    4.) Ongoing growth and development through prayer, bible reading and study.

    The themes of commitment and service should be stressed. I think that when it comes to discipleship, Christ is more concerned about quality, than quantity.

    There are costs to be seriously considered and a price to be paid. This far exceeds a club membership and demands active participation.

    Consider the Cost —

  • normbv

    Ted #8

    How does the Amish approach transend to Urban life for the church? Isn’t it built upon an agrarian way of life? What happens to Amish when they move to the City?

  • EricW

    @Watchman 6:

    2) Regular tithing;

    Ah… so your church is a Jewish congregation living in the land of Israel and centered around a Tabernacle/Temple served by a Levitical priesthood under the Mosaic covenant.



  • Deets

    Scot, Your question is not easy as it is most difficult to discern how Jesus would react to the culture of the day. Jesus had disciples, both the inner circle and greater group, and Jesus established the church, but there isn’t an real evidence that he had in mind establishing a local organization that would demand membership. I don’t think that he would have demanded commitment to the visible church as Joseph #2 seems to be calling. I think he would have required a commitment to loving God through humble contrition, and a commitment to loving others through active faith.

    So if those are the first two of the three requirements you’re asking for, I’ll push a little on the last. I would suggest that Jesus would require a sense of optimism, even idealism, that is rooted in faith. As Stephen #3 points out, sacrifice is important. The reason Christians don’t sacrifice more, is that they lack faith in God and in their fellow that they will receive anything back.

    So, I think Jesus would make the 3 requirements of membership to be:
    1) Loving God in humility.
    2) Loving others sacrificially.
    3) Faith that expects big things to happen so is not afraid of putting it all on the line.

  • Cathy

    In One.Life, as I recall (both copies loaned out), you explain that Jesus’ Kingdom vision is of a “society” in the here and now. This is where the blinders began to fall off for me. This society envisioned by Jesus…the Kingdom…is what “church” is supposed to be. It is visible and concrete and real. But it is not an organization. I think we confuse Sunday worship with being “church.” Baptism as a symbol of church membership misses the point, because real baptism is about the repentance/total turning away from a life that is not dedicated to the greatest commandments…the Jesus Creed. I think Jesus would require (1) that kind of REAL repentance/baptism, (2) dedication to living 24/7 Jesus Creed reality which would become visible in everything we do, say and think. Jesus might boldly reintroduce some of the beautiful Jewish rituals found in the home as family gather around the table, etc. (3) communal sharing of our goods and caring for those in need (not redistribution of wealth or government programs). These would ultimately lead to worshiping together, but I don’t see such worship being under the ownership of a denomination or a particular pastor. Worship is supposed to focus on God, not on us, which is totally the opposite of the “showtime” atmosphere in so many places today. I think Scot is right; what we have going on today resembles country club membership; Sunday entertainment.

  • smcknight

    Deets, I can appreciate the hesitancy about “membership” for no one had such lists at the time, but I would say at a deeper, pragmatic level, it is both unavoidable now and was then. Pragmatics at some point will require a level of commitment. Some may not like that, that’s fine but I’ve made my case that Israel had “Entrance requirements” too.

    And I’d rather that we avoid this discussion about whether or not folks like membership. And if one doesn’t then one might prefer to watch… but supposing we do have members and supposing it’s a tolerable idea…

    What do you think Jesus would require … and how does that compare to what we require today?

  • Adam

    If we use Jesus as the example, I think the only requirement is that Jesus calls you. In Matthew 4, Jesus simply calls James, John, Andrew, and Peter and they follow. They are now members. In Matthew 10, Jesus simply names the disciples. It seems that all are welcome in the Kingdom. There are no requirements to enter other than accepting the invitation.

    The reverse of that; what happens when a destructive person enters the community? The idea of membership suggests that we are trying to protect the community from destructive people entering. I am starting to learn that it’s not possible. If the community is “protected” it’s not really a community because all of us are destructive in some way. Welcoming the destructive person and then learning how to forgive them is essential to living out the Kingdom of Jesus. As said in the Lord’s prayer, “forgive us our sins as we forgive others”.

    So, I’m not for membership, at least membership defined by human standards. I think if someone wants to be “in” I will assume that Jesus called them in and they have accepted.

  • Paul

    I see membership (or community covenants or whatever) as similar to a rule of life that we voluntarily make with one another to help us guide our community as we seek to fulfill our part in God’s Kingdom vision.

    Membership in this way could be a fluid (changeable) basis for encouragement, discipleship, and (if needed) even church discipline.

    But in order to do anything really beneficial and helpful, membership needs to be somewhat specific (or else what is the point?)

  • Fred


    What do you mean by the “destructive” person?

  • Joel

    I’ve attended a wide variety of churches, starting with Brethren/Baptist through “community churches” and Anglican/Church of England. While attending an Anglican church, the priest asked why I was not on the parish list. I attended regularly and even helped lead a small group. Being familiar with the more Anabaptist concept of membership, and less familiar with the Anglican concept of confirmation I stammered a bit. He stopped me, not interested in that. He said warmly, “You are part of our parish. You belong be on the parish list”. Our theological differences didn’t matter. He really just said one word, “Belong”.

    That’s the issue I have with church membership.

  • Adam

    Not sure if this question makes any sense but,

    What if membership were used as a means of inviting people in but could not be used as a means of keeping people out?

    An example of what I mean:

    When children grow up, it is helpful to mark their right of passage with a celebration or ceremony or something. The event marks the transition from childhood to adulthood. Once they were outside the adult-club, now they are in. But a child who never had such a ceremony can’t be denied their adultness. They still become an adult whether or not it’s recognized.

    What if membership were like that?

  • Deets

    I thought I answered your question with my three points:
    1) Loving God in humility.
    2) Loving others sacrificially.
    3) Faith that expects big things to happen so is not afraid of putting it all on the line.

    How does that differ from today? Churches have different requirements from, as little at being baptized, to as much as proof of a pure doctrine and lifestyle. I really don’t think that Jesus would include doctrine. If anything, I think he battled the doctrine of the establishment point more to a doctrine of life lived for God.

  • Paul

    Adam #18,

    I like the idea of marking membership as you describe.

    But you also seem to see membership as a way to exclude people (which it definitely could do in the wrong context). But must it be this way? Could membership have what you describe above & also a commiment to one another to follow Jesus in specific ways as a community?

  • Anderson

    I’m less interested in conditions that must be met for one to become a member than holding one another accountable to the vows we take upon becoming a member. I agree with Adam, above, that the only requirement for membership is being called by Jesus/led by the Holy Spirit. But upon answering that call, one must be faithful to the vows she makes to mature in faith and to serve and participate in the ministries of the local congregation and the universal church.

  • Randy L

    The discussion over church membership requires first that we understand that Christians are simultaneously part of the invisible Church and part of an institutional church.

    Churches often wrestle with accepting their identity as an institution. They often like to pretend that they simply a portion of the invisible church. That tends to make them incompetent at dealing with institutional issues, including membership.

    Church membership can never be a guarantee of one’s status as a follower of Jesus. But it is reasonable to set standards that bar membership from those whose conduct or beliefs are clearly antithetical to the faith. In other words, we cannot require that someone be a faithful Christian to be a member; we can require that they not be an enemy of the faith.

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with a church asking people to make certain commitments, including time and money to the degree of their ability, in order to be a member. The danger is confusing any such requirements with being a test of discipleship.

    The church’s ruling board ought to be able to discern situations where a person reasonably cannot contribute in an “extracurricular” way, or may not be able to support church financially (missionary workers, the elderly and disabled, etc.). But if a person says he or she just wants to show up on Sunday and leave it at that, I don’t see the compelling reason for membership.

    It’s a lot like a bicycling club I belong to. We don’t require membership, but we encourage it. If you want to be involved in any form of leadership, or vote in our meetings, you need to a member. If you don’t join (by paying nominal dues), you can still ride with us. If you don’t wear a helmet or if you do things that endanger other riders or otherwise disrupt the group, you will be asked not to ride with us.

    I don’t see why church membership should be much different.

  • Adam

    Fred (#17)

    Some examples of destructive people or destructive/divisive relationships:

    A key component to community is safety. If people don’t feel safe they don’t reveal themselves to each other and the community doesn’t grow. A destructive person makes things unsafe for others. This could be a person with abusive habits, people who are narcissistic, people who are extremely transient and avoid commitment, people who never give and only take (this could be intentional or unintentional).

    Others have commented on here that commitment is important to membership, because an uncommitted person is hurtful. When people have commented that membership implies power, I believe that is true. It’s not a self-serving power, the implied power is to protect from hurt.

    Example: You are required to commit for 1 year to be a member. You can’t be a member if you don’t commit.

    I understand this kind of rule, because people who come and go at their will are hurtful to us when we try to be vulnerable. But the rule doesn’t really address the underlying problem; A person is engaging in behavior that is hurting other persons. This is where, I think, forgiveness comes into play. Forgiveness actively seeks the restoration of the relationship. It addresses the wrong and re-invites people back to the community.

    So, the idea of having requirements and prerequisites to membership, seem to be trying to deflect pain before it happens so that we don’t have to do the work of forgiving someone.

    That is how I see Jesus acting towards us. Before we met the requirements he invited us in.

  • Alice Y.

    1) When you have problems, take them up with God: seriously, whole-heartedly, with full confidence. If necessary, get help from your friends in taking your problems up with God.
    2) Practice sharing what you have with others when you see needs.
    3) Be ready to help, be ready to serve, and be ready to work together.

  • Fred

    Thank you, Adam.

    I understand your comments but what concerns me is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I wonder if the O.T. prophets would be accepted for church membership today.

  • Calebite

    Two thoughts to add, neither fully answer the question:

    1. Whatever membership looks like, I think it should be an individual commitment/covenant, and not a congregation vote of approval. That way, it’s not about exclusion, but about committing to belong to a local part of the body of Christ.
    2. This commitment should be re-occuring. Growing up Baptist, people would do letters of membership, transfer membership, and keep membership in a local church even though they lived in a different town. In other areas/denominations, churches will brag on a 400 person membership, and have 65 people attend on a big Sunday. If membership is an individual commitment, that occurs annually for example, it remains about belonging to the local manifestation of the body of Christ, and not about a personal status, like country club membership.

    Within that, churches can display a lot of variety in what they ask people to commit to. When we enacted membership in one church, we asked people to commit to large areas of discipleship (growing, gathering, going, gifts, giving or some list of g’s like that). This allowed us to encourage them to live a missional life (going), but we didn’t define that specifically. This allowed us to encourage them using their gifts for ministry, but we didn’t say in the community or in a small group or in the church service.

    There are probably better ways to do this, I’m not saying this is the ‘biblical way’ or even the best way. But, we did find it to be a useful tool to encourage following Jesus in both a personal and corporate way.

  • Robin

    I think church membership, in a visible, local church, is essential to being a Christian, and I am surprised that noone has brought up Matthew 18 or Paul’s discipline imposed in Corinth. Discipline doesn’t make sense unless there is a visible, local, organized body of believers, and unless members of that body are held accoutnable by that body when people seriously stray from the teaching of Christ. There are just lots of parts of the NT that don’t make sense without a visible local body that has the power to reject people when they are acting like un-repentant non-believers for an extended period of time.

    As far as what Jesus would require, and trying to stick to things it looks like the NT church required…some forms of sexual immorality (at least public) would definitely get your membership card revoked, lying to the church; discontinuing regular, Acts 2-type, fellowship with other believers would be grounds for dismissal. In general, when I think about reasons people got booted, it was usually for public sins committed, without repentance, for a long period of time. So I would be in favor of booting politicians that blatantly made false campaign promises and never repented, people who committed tax fraud and got caught, if they never repented, etc.

    Public sins that bring shame to the name of Christ, if there is no repentance, should disqualify someone from identifying with the local followers of Christ.

  • Robin

    Sorry, I just focused on what would get you booted. What positive requirements would I set up?

    1. Believing, baptized follower
    2. Makes reasonable attempts to contribute financially to the ministry of the church
    3. Makes reasonable attempts to contribute time and energy to the ministry of the church
    4. Regularly attends services and other fucntions (prayer meetings, small groups, Sunday school) as much as they are able
    5. Attempts to eliminate personal and public sin from their lives
    6. Attempts to follow Christ, as evidenced by regular attempts at prayer, bible reading, evangelism, fellowship, acts of mercy and compassion, loving their neighbors and enemies.

    Which of these are actually enforceable characteristics of membership? Baptism. Everything else is subjective.

  • Jim

    we follow the duck theory: if it quacks like a duck, walks like a duck it’s a member.

  • Having within the last 6 months been excluded from a fellowship through them embracing an official church membership, I’ve grown to dislike the concept of church membership. Before the official church membership, we were all one happy family, accepting and loving one another, working together to promote the expansion of the Kingdom of God in our lives and through our lives. Love and respect for one another reigned supreme.

    Then they decided to do an official church membership and drew a line in the sand, and I was on the other side of the line, excluding me from membership. It was a very sad day, breaking many hearts. No longer was simple love for God, faith in Christ, and love and respect for one another good enough, but one had to agree with a specific statement of faith to which I could not fully agree.

    My family and I love the people in that fellowship very much and it greaves us deeply to not be accepted members. And they love us too. It’s really very sad.

    As I’ve thought and prayed through this I’ve come to believe that it would be best for a fellowship’s “membership” to be based simply upon a common love for God, faith in Christ, and love and respect for one another. If we have these and we desire to worship and work together in the Kingdom, then we can consider ourselves as members of that community/fellowship of faith. If you come once, you’re a visitor; twice and you’re a member!

    We’re now attending another fellowship but have not and cannot join and be members, though just our regular presence is having a positive effect on other people and is helping to build the Kingdom in and through their lives and in ours.

    Sadly, church memberships are more about exclusion than inclusion. And as noted in others’ responses, church memberships are functionally meaningless and often, if not usually, come to be abused.

    Community/felloship is created by involvement, not by membership. It’s about relationship, not membership. We are related to one another by blood, and we gather together and work together by choice. Church membership is typically used to exclude or control people, to bring people into conformity instead of celebrating the diversity in the body of Christ.

  • normbv,
    Good question, and not a good person to ask. But I do think the radical nature of trying to obey Jesus’ words literally, so that we the end result is something like, while we each have our special part and calling from God, it is in terms of the whole, of the community in Jesus of which we are a part. This means submission even where we don’t agree. Amish communities differ in rule settings, specifics, about as often as there are groups, at least there’s variance. There is something healthy about commitment to submission within church. This can be abused to be sure, and is at times in their communities. And to get away from our sense of individualism, even the rugged sort.

  • Richard

    If someone demonstrates interest in joining our congregation we have a 7 week class through the Apostles’ Creed and an inductive study of Ephesians.

    If they’ve been previously baptized, we honor it and ask them to bear testimony for why they’re choosing this particular congregation now. If they haven’t been baptized, we baptize them and ask them to give a public testimony of commitment to following Christ.

    With that membership comes a commitment to giving (to this organization, to other organizations, and to those in need) but don’t set an expected percentage or amount, participation (not just Sunday attendance but some connection with other believers), growing in personal walk with Christ, and serving others with their gifts and talents(here or elsewhere).

    If someone isn’t following through on those commitments, we bring them back to the commitments they agreed to and give them an opportunity to think through what renewed commitment might look like.

    The only privilege a member has in our congregation is voting at congregational meetings. Everything else is the same.

  • Fred

    Hang in there Sherman. I made the serious error of marrying a Catholic. If that ain’t enough to make some evangelical folks pucker up, nothing is. Funny thing is, her prayer life puts me to shame, her favorite author is A.W. Tozer and she spends her evenings making blankets for children in Haiti.

    Like you, it greaves me….but not much.

  • T

    I think this issue raises the bounded set/centered set questions. Personally, I think a local body can and even must be both. I think Robin makes some good points along those lines. One legal theorist I studied a bit in law school introduced me to 2 different kinds of ‘moralities’ or laws. Many laws or endeavors fit in the category he called the morality of duty. This described the kinds of minimal rules that would result in a kind of social or even more severe penalty if not maintained. Usually “don’ts” such as do not murder, steal, commit adultery, etc. fit here These are workable and practical things for defining what’s “out of bounds” for any society. But then there are endeavors or rules or values that don’t fit properly under this minimal kind of morality. Things like the Jesus Creed define a center or goal of the society and fall under the “morality of aspiration.” These are things that, generally, no one is penalized for failing in, rather, these are endeavors in which varying degrees of success are celebrated by the community.

    A Jesus-shaped community would have a few things that are minimally expected (a morality of duty) such as what Robin mentioned, as well as things like the Jesus Creed as a morality of aspiration. Both are necessary, but you can’t deal with them the same way.

  • Unless I missed the point of One.Life when I read it Jesus’ first requirement would be someone who follows him. That is they are obedient to his teaching and for us the teaching of the Apostles. Baptism would be a part of it. Then the Jesus creed of Loving God with all our being, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. I think Jesus would be willing to call us members of the body if we can live in this way.

  • T

    FWIW, I’d put much more on the aspirational side than the duty side. The duties of membership in a church ought to consist in only those things that are so destructive as to warrant exclusion from (church) family fellowship. Matthew 18 provides the typical process, and I think process of dealing with unnamed offenses against the body and character of Christ (aspirational morality) would be more valuable than pre-set moral minimums. Perhaps this is part of Jesus’ genius of laying out and modeling only the aspirational morality, rather than focusing on moral minimums, and setting such aspirations within a body that does Matthew 18 to resolve offenses.

  • glenn

    Sherman #31,
    One of the problems of not having formal membership is the church is very limited in what actions it can take against one who is hurting others. The courts have upheld this. I know a church where the people were investing their money with an unethical financial advisor who attended the church. With clear membership requirements and guidelines the church can speak clearly about this person. With no membership the church becomes liable in court for slander, etc. if it makes public judgements about the advisor. How does one resolve disputes between believers or offer protection without any type of membership?

  • Barb

    in discussions like this I’m glad to be a member of the PC(USA). I think membership is important just like marriage is important. When I read of people excluded from membership I grieve. the PC(USA) Book of Order can be read on-line. Membership is in G-5. If you believe that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior and you agree to be in community with the body you can be a member. And yet, many just come and refuse to do that.

  • Dean

    My current view is that “membership” includes anyone who confesses Jesus as Lord and engages regularly in the life of a particular group of the same identity.

    However, leadership has a higher bar. It has to do with speaking and modeling life in ways that reflect a pattern of life “in the direction of Jesus”. I would suspect that the church discipline directed by Paul in 1 Corinthians was directed at someone of greater prominence and influence than a simple “attender”.

    I’m more concerned about the volume of churches that have low leadership bars or ones that also mandate “belief statements” that are much more exclusionary than either the example of Jesus or the common faith statement of the Apostles. That troubles me even more than the foibles of immature Christians.

  • DRT

    This question is near and dear to my heart since I am in the middle of some disputed territory in my local church (if you go to me blog you will see a bit of it….).

    This church claimed we did not have membership rules, claimed that we did not have to have a stated theology, claimed a lot of things. I was a trustee in the church, counted the money each week (head teller), ran the website, finance committee, and was told we were independent (we have about 150 families, attendance about 100 on Sundays). I felt it would be good to have a bit more structure around the church so I wrote a 19 page draft strategic assessment and proposal for organization. This created quite a stir and the other trustees (and Pastor) threatened me with a lawsuit for proposing these things.

    As it turns out, they did have a constitution and by-laws document that a few of the founders knew of and they were not about to let some of my ideas get into their secret society. Not only did they have rules around membership, but clearly stated voting rights as well as four levels of membership. I resigned as a Trustee immediately and asked that they give me time to talk to the church the next Sunday. They then wrote a cease and desist letter and gave it to me. I gave them my notice and clearly outlined to them my issues and proceeded to take some time off.

    I have had enough time to calm down now (6 months) and am pursuing making the church the place everyone thinks it is supposed to be. In the six months since I was gone they have not attempted to address any of the points.

    I have met with several pastors as well as the Baptist association and they universally believe that the leadership in the church should not be hiding things and they all encourage me to continue, from a perspective of love for the community. Let me tell you, it is difficult to do that while forgiving the deceptions and slander they have put on me.

    BTW, I have tried to use Matthew 18 with them and they just refuse to talk. Part of the problem is that they have not declared any mechanism for resolving issues so it is the good old boy secret society that rules….

    So, to answer your question, I have a difficult time with thinking that membership has place in a church, except that you have to solve for how the body makes rules. What benefit do you get in being a member? Being able to vote?

  • John W Frye

    Let’s consider a vivid “membership” metaphor–the body of Christ/church (1 Cor 12). Assent to a doctrinal statement, being baptized by whatever mode, agreement with the local church’s clear vision, values and strategies, being formally ‘accepted’ into membership by authorized leaders do not in themselves make a person or persons “members” of the body of Christ according to 1 Cor 12. Membership is an act of the Spirit empowering Jesus-followers (those who express by the Spirit “Jesus is Lord”) with abilities to serve communally as the continuing incarnation of Jesus Christ in the world. Paul also wrote that as “members” we belong to all the other members (Rom 12:5). Try teaching that to a individualistic, me-centered evangelical. Leaders need to discern who are Spirit-produced “members” of the body of Christ, create a way of recognizing them in the greater body and calling them to serve with others as Jesus’ presence in the world. I would suggest: 1) Commitment to living ‘the Jesus Creed’, 2) fostering communal practices of Christian formation, and 3) engaging and conversing with the neighborhood as a contrast society of creative love.

  • Robin


    I don’t think it is always about the beneifts you receive as a member. In Corinth I have no idea what benefits the gentleman who was sleeping with his stepmother was receiving, nevertheless when Paul discovered it he demanded that individual no longer be treated as a brother.

    That, along with Matthew 18, makes me think that church membership is often about “protecting” the name of Christ from defamation by clearly delineating people/behaviors that go against what we perceive to be the teachings of Christ.

    An example…I believe President Bush (43) is a Methodist. If, when he decided to invade Iraq, without military provocation, his local/regional Methodist association had clearly stated that unprovoked war violated just war theory and was unconscionable for Christians to engage in, and that if he failed to repent (and bring the troops home) then he would be removed from membership…what would that accomplish?

    The main thing it would accomplish would be to broadcast, to the lost, non-Christian world, that the Methodist Church believes that un-provoked aggression is contrary to the claims of Christ, that these actions do not reflect on (Methodist) Christians or their savior, and that they take it seriously when a member violates their core beliefs.

    I haven’t thought about the “positive” aspects of church membership like “be baptized”, “tithe”, etc., but I definitely think one main role of church discipline is to keep Christ from being defamed by the actions of people who claim his name while living contrary to his teachings. Of course the other role of discipline is to issue serious calls of repentance to believers who are in sin with the hope that they too will repent and return.

    I am sorry about your situation DRT. Out of curiosity, did the things you proposed differ wildly from the things that were “on the books” or are they just very protective of their turf?

  • Susan N.

    Sherman and DRT — these things that you’ve been through make my heart hurt for you both. I’ve had some unpleasant experiences in churches over my life, but it could have been worse, I realize. The subject of “church” is frankly confusing to me, and one which I am deeply conflicted about. Joining formally scares me at this point. It is a big deal to me, it matters, making that vow…

    I had to go back several chapters in my reading of One.Life to the one on Church.Life to see if I could formulate an even remotely helpful comment here. I read it and yet could not absorb it fully.

    “Church” at a local, brick-and-mortar level is synonymous with community. “Community” is defined (Merriam-Webster) as a unified body of individuals w/joint ownership or participation, having a common character, in fellowship with one another. “Fellowship” is defined ( as companionship, friendly association, mutual sharing.

    Deep connections… If a particular church provides a physical place for people to be in *authentic* fellowship — real and true and meaningful connection and caring relationships, motivated by common identity in Christ, anyone who is mutually committed to that could be a member. Then, be inviting and welcoming to outsiders; spread out, reach out, be a community to those who are disconnected. Those are two requirements I think Jesus would give us for church. A third? I don’t know. I think rules and policies and all that matter less. Just treat each other well and be good news to others.

  • Adam

    A theme I seem to be seeing in other comments is that Membership is tied to Leadership. That reminds me of a post Scot made a while back.

    If we consider Scot’s proposition that Jesus is our leader how does that affect our approach to being members?

  • Thanks everyone for your encouragement. It’s been a trying 6 months or so. I’ve come to realize that most churches base membership on (this is the order of importance)
    1) Statement of Faith
    2) Practical Righteousness
    3) Love for God, faith in Christ, and love and respect for one another.

    I’ve come to believe that this is upside down, that the single most important thing that should define a person as a member of a Christian community of faith is Love for God, faith in Christ, and love and respect for others. Pratical righteousness is then to be built upon that. And if these are in place, the statement of faith is virtually unnecessary and can be broad and inclusive. Frankly, if you claim Jesus, I claim you as my brother whether you are Oneness, Trinitarian, or Binitarian, whether you are Charismatic or cessasionist, whether you are Catholic, Protestant, Calvinist, Arminianist, or Universalist, you are my brother and we can worship together, love one another, and work together to build the kingdom of God. If a membership was developed empowering that attitude, I could be a member.

    And Glen #38, I don’t know that church membership will stop the Government from overstepping their rightful place of God-given authority. And believers suing one another has been a problem since the birth of the church. There might be some legal issues that would be helped by having an official membership, but then there is a debate as to the value of a fellowship not becoming an official Governmentally sanctioned religious organization.

  • Perhaps I am a bit naive, but all this talk of “requirements” seems odd to me. I read a passage like Matthew 11:30:

    “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

    and find this whole discussion very strange.

    At least in my view, I think Christianity is much more about the pursuit of “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6) and putting any other “requirements” beyond that seem to undermine the entire Christian paradigm.

    I whole-heartedly agree that people need the church to take stands and have something meaningful to say, but so long as people are under the impression that the church they go to will only accept and love them if they fit into that church’s particular pattern that they will, undoubtedly, begin to transfer that understanding to their understanding of God and His relatedness to us. God’s love and acceptance is not dependent upon on our meeting some “requirements.” God works through the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). The emphasis always has to be on the interior person.

    Having said that, there does need to be some sort of “requirements”; the church can not be in a state of anarchy. I just wanted to point out that an overemphasis on requirements runs counter to the basic narrative of Christianity.

    Have a wonderful day!

  • DRT

    Robin#43, It seems that Churchianity is more like a country club than anything else. I am quite disillusioned….

    Susan#44, thanks for the sympathy, it does make me feel a bit better.

    Sherman#46 and earlier, I am with you brother. I thought that we had that in my church, but as it turns out they were lying and when challenged they were willing to sue to stop the order being put in the right order.

    T#35 talked about the bounded set/centered set approach and I am 100% there. There are some organizations that can do that. The problem I am up against is that the founders consider their vision (now 10 years old) to be chisled in stone and they are unwilling, and I mean put their fingers in their ears and say la la la, do not respond to calls or emails, yet hug you in public, unwilling to acknowledge that there can be another way. In my case they are idolaters of themselves….

  • Cathy

    Thanks Susan @ #44. That is about as close to what I’m thinking as any other responses so far. It’s quite difficult to keep trying to put patches on the dysfunctional Christian “churchianity” we have in the U.S.and think it’s going to change anything. It’s going to have to be a radical change with new requirements…in spirit and in truth. If we are trying to accomplish a Kingdom vision of community/new society, then we have to get past the splintered, non-unified, “church building on every corner” kind of Christianity that got us where we are today. What did Jesus require? Why isn’t that good enough for us today? Where two or more are gathered in His Name… Jesus said His followers would be identified by their love…that seems to be the requirement that is necessary to go forth and do His work. Do we have to complicate everything so? Just some of my thoughts.

  • DRT

    I thought you all (being as you are ministers and educators) would appreciate the full effect of my situation. After i wrote the draft strategy, the way I found out about their intention to take this to the next level was that the Pastor of the church went unannounced to my wife’s place of business and told her that this is going to become litigious and at the end of the conversation (after also questioning my sanity) prayed with her to keep this just between them…..a really really nice guy….

  • Randy Gabrielse

    I really believe that if one really wants to ask this question, he or she should read Sara Miles’ “Take This Bread” before doing so. I certainly would not expect everyone to follow her example (I don’t think I could), but I do believe that wrestling with it would make for a more interesting conversation. It has certainly given me pause for thought about this.

    Randy Gabrielse

  • Mark B

    Membership is one of those things that is necessary for the good order of a congregation, but doesn’t have much to do with the gospel. Here is what I mean. Jesus’ requirements – “pick up your cross and follow me”. The Father might not ask that, but the disciple has to be willing to go there. Now that is a maturity typically gained through time as one learns through practice to trust God. Such that when that cross comes, you can truthfully say ‘not my will, but yours’. Creating disciples who will pick up the cross is the mission. Membership is more about those crowds who followed Jesus. Eventually Jesus would ask some of them to do or believe something tough. Many would leave. Some would stay. The members of a congregation are the seedbed for growing disciples. Membership is “come and see” territory – a much lower bar.

  • MD

    My definition of a local church: Followers of Jesus upholding one another in the ways of the Kingdom of Heaven.
    These followers will identify the more mature among them – who will provide oversight and offer counsel and/or guidance as needed.
    The common life of these people will be dynamic and Spirit-led. It can be organized, but should not have the elements or characteristics of an organization.
    An organization might be created to handle tax-deductible contributions, take care of building needs, pay bills, ……. maybe even hire one or more persons to do specialty pastoral work: marry, bury, preach, ………., whatever. If such a person is hired, however, that person will have authority defined by a job description applicable only within the functioning of the organization – not the church. If an organization is created, it would be done only with the understanding that the organization is to serve the church. The church should not be under the authority of the organization.
    I don’t believe it necessary to define “the ways of the Kingdom of Heaven.” Jesus did that well for us.

  • God defined church membership in 1 Cor 12:13 “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. Whether Jews or Greeks or slaves or free, we were all made to drink of the one Spirit” and Romans expands on this (12:5 “so we who are many are one body in Christ, and individually we are members who belong to one another”)–note that this is an indicative (not imperative). It is true that all Christians are members of the ekklesia whether or not they like it, attend meetings, etc. Formal membership in an institution is a man-made thing, and groups are free to do what they please, but it is not “church membership.” I think the itch that this controversy is trying to scratch is the poor engagement of Christians in eachothers lives and the paltry “ministry” accomplished by the saints. Here there is a strong case from the 100+ commands in the NT relating to “one another.” See Dennis McCallum’s treatment of this topic in “Members of one another.” Failing to have a deep and persistent level of involvement in the body of Christ is a sin every bit as serious as alcoholism, pornography, etc. Choosing to go it alone is also suicidal.

  • Scot our church is doing what you propose, setting a high bar for what it means to be a member by tying it to the life of discipleship Jesus calls us to. Very counter-cultural for a notorious non-joiner generation like ours. And our young adults eat up the challenge – it’s great! High bar membership has been one of our best tools for spiritual formation.

  • Dean

    Just an add-on to my comment # 40. I also subscribe to the position that those who commit and are accountable to high standards of leadership are properly qualified to administer the “business” of the church. I’m not democratic in the sense that those who don’t make the commitment have the same degree of “voting” rights. It’s a combination…high standards, greater responsibility, sharper accountability. I can entertain higher “membership” criteria on that basis. However, the de-Christianizing of individuals not at that point troubles me too.

  • Patrick Watters

    So, what are those top three things Jesus requires?

  • Patrick Watters

    Sadly, the man-made rules for “membership” can take precedence over what Jesus requires . . . that’s where covenant relationship turns into contract bureaucracy much too often.

  • Patrick Watters

    BTW, yes, I’ve read the book, especially chapter 8 on this topic.