Is Church Membership Necessary?

Is Church Membership Necessary? November 8, 2014

I don’t think so. It’s not in the New Testament. Thus, the early church didn’t have our tradition called “church membership.” So, during that first century there was no “joining a church.” People were members of a local church because that’s the group with which they assembled to worship God together and fellowship with one another. Of course, a church to them was a group of people, not a building.

This raises the question about how Christians decide on their church polity. Are we at liberty to decide such matters merely on the basis of the thinking of church leaders? Or are church leaders supposed to follow the practice of the early church as set forth in the New Testament as a guideline for church polity? Why do Protestants and other non-Catholic Christians claim sola scriptura (“only scripture”) regarding theology, yet they don’t usually say this about church practice? I admit that some issues, such as a presbyterian or episcopalian structure, are not easily settled from an examination of the New Testament (NT) data. (Most of it is in Paul’s letters; thus, they are churches Paul established or at least ministered to.) But it’s pretty easy to tell from the NT that the early Christians didn’t have our formal church membership.

What is traditional church membership? Usually, it is little more than subscription to a set of propositional beliefs set forth as a “creed” or “doctrinal statement.” Some church denominations, such as the Roman Catholic Church, have required its candidates for membership to be water baptized by its church authorities and perhaps undergo some theological instruction, such as the RCC’s Catechism, in order to attain full church membership. But there is no correlation of water baptism with a specific church in the NT or that church officials were required to administer water baptism. It is quite likely that those who evangelized also baptized, thus perhaps irrespective of church leadership.

And the NT churches clearly did not have creeds or doctrinal statements. This has been a big issue to some church denominations in church history. Thus, the Quakers, the Church of Christ, the Plymouth Brethren, and others have been non-creedal or anti-creedal due to this NT silence and what they have deemed as errors due to church membership. When discussing this subject, it has generally been asked, “What is essential belief in becoming a Christian?” or words to that effect. The NT does have what can be regarded as some creedal fragments. Confessing that “Jesus is Lord” is perhaps the main one (1 Cor. 12.3). Another is belief that Jesus died for our sins, was buried, and arose from the dead (1 Cor. 15.3-4). Another, for at least Jews, is to believe that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel (e.g., Acts 2.36). But the early church did not require adherence to detailed theological beliefs as so many church creeds have had.

One time I attended a Christian men’s retreat in Texas. It was hosted by the Fellowship Foundation centered in Washington, D.C. That group is most renowned for hosting the annual Presidential Prayer Breakfast. The keynote speaker was Dick Halverson, a D.C. pastor and the foremost leader of that group. He later became Chaplain to the U.S. Senate for over ten years. Dick was a wonderful fellow and a friend of mine. He said during one of his talks to us that “creeds have been the source of much sin in the church.” He never did elaborate. But I think he meant that churches differing on their theological doctrine and requiring members to adhere to these different intricacies was not right.

I have never joined a church. But I believe in the church. I have been a Christian almost all of my life. And I’ve always gone to church. I’ve disagreed with some things about the churches I’ve attended regularly throughout my life. But despite these disagreements, that has never prevented me from attending church. So, I don’t “throw out the baby with the bathwater.” More importantly, I believe in Christians worshipping God together and fellowshipping together no matter what the forum.

When my wife and I raised our children, we attended one church for twenty years. It was an independent, community, Bible church. Its leaders decided to revise their church constitution and re-examine their “doctrinal statement.” They knew that I could not be a member of that church because of its article in its doctrinal statement about the second coming of Christ, which was the pretribulationism doctrine (rapture before the tribulation. I had been taught this early in my Christian life, when I was eighteen years old. But twelve years later I went to Mosher Library at DTS. For 14 hours per day for five days I did a deep study there on this subject and changed to post-tribulational belief, to which I have held ever since.) These leaders of my church, all of them my friends, invited anyone to attend their several meetings and ask questions. I did. They knew that I differed with this article in their doctrinal statement. I asked them if they believed I was a genuine Christian. They all replied positively. I then asked, “how can you not regard me as a non-member of this church when you believe that Jesus has accepted me as a member of his universal church?” No one answered. They were surprised and had obviously never thought of that. They, and perhaps all Christians, would say that you don’t have to believe in pretribulationism to be a Christian.

That’s what I mean by creating detailed creeds and doctrinal statements and requiring people to subscribe to them in order to join that church or parachurch organization. That divides the church–the body of Christ. The institutional church created church membership and creeds to get people to believe its propositions in opposition to what it deemed as heresy. Sometimes, that may have been necessary, but most times I think it was not and therefore it went beyond the NT. I believe I am a member of the church I attend regularly. Why? Jesus accepts me into his big church, and no one has a right given to him by Jesus to regard me as a non-member of the little church where I worship.

I used to live in metro-Houston. I once went to Dallas to have lunch at a restaurant with leaders of Dallas Theological Seminary upon their request. DTS is the main seminary in the world that promotes pretribulationism. During lunch I said to President Don Campbell, “your seminary educates men mostly for the purpose of them becoming pastors of churches. And you encourage them to tell congregants to read and study the Bible. But what if I study the Bible and decide my church is wrong about some doctrine the seminary taught that pastor, yet the seminary says it is not necessary to believe that doctrine to be a genuine Christian? And what if that doctrine is in that church’s creed or doctrinal statement? I can no longer be considered a member of that church, yet I’m still regarded as Christian?” Mr. Campbell answered promptly, “You just need to go find another church?” That’s my point. That’s why people say, “doctrine divides, but love unifies.”

Yes, there are other reasons for church membership. One reason is to get people committed to financially giving to the church. But I think the main reason is the peculiar doctrines upon which Christians disagree. I think it is not spiritually healthy for churches to have intricately-developed creeds. It is healthier to allow some freedom of thought. I would say the non-negotiables should be that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior and that he arose from the dead. Going much beyond that is getting into the sin territory the Honorable Dick Halverson was talking about.

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  • Cleveland Dawsey

    I am surprised you did not bring up probably one of the most important reasons for churches having a membership roll: the legal issues. In this country, churches are tax-exempt structures which have constitutions and charters etc. Sometimes having a list of members has been useful in legally contentious situations. I agree that when Christians are called members of anything at all, it is members of Christ’s body and so of one another. I realize you were approaching this from a theological and not strictly pragmatic point of view, but I think it need to be at least mentioned. Very good article.

    • kzarley

      Cleveland, that is a good point that I didn’t think about, and I should have. It is especially relevant for legal purposes in our very litigation-oriented society and when the church owns property and buildings, which most churches in the free world do. But here in the great USA, a local church can incorporate as a nonprofit, thus get 501c status to avoid paying taxes, and have a board of directors or officers all with no formal church membership. The board can have an insurance policy for legal liability protection. And the church can have a constitution with bylaws made well known to aid in such protection. Some church denominations have been successful without formal membership, such as the Open Plymouth Brethren and others. I’m no expert on this, but I think the church is better off without it.

      • Cleveland Dawsey

        Case in point: Back in the ’80’s I was on the staff of a fairly sizable church just north of New Orleans. We had no membership. That is until we decided we needed a bank loan to finance part of the building of a new sanctuary and Sunday school facility. In order to secure the loan, the bank wanted to know the size of the church’s membership. You can’t lend out that kind of money if you don’t have the giving membership to cover it; I suppose that was the reasoning. Makes sense. Since I was not in on the process, I was hearing this second hand from the pastor. I do not know the details. Plus it has been over thirty years ago, so the particulars are a bit sketchy to me now. At any rate, we put together a membership roll. We secured the loan.

        • kzarley

          I would think history of church income from donations would be more meaningful in that situation. One thing churches often do with formal memberships is ask members to pledge toward a building project. I don’t like making promises like that. I’d prefer that the church gets much or all of the money saved up in advance. I don’t look at it like a house mortgage. Church leadership can change, and the new leaders may have different plans. A church pastor once badgered me to sell the church seven acres for a church relocation and building program. They couldn’t borrow the money. I didn’t particularly like the deal, but did it on a ten year contract-for-sale. About a year later the church changed pastors and asked me to cancel the sale and return their payments. No way.I had spent that money.

          • Cleveland Dawsey

            There was not much chance of a change of leadership. The pastor started that church in 1977 and is still there. I am with you on the debt question. It is an albatross around the neck, without a doubt. But they have probably retired the debt by now, which is good, because they are not as large a congregation as they were back then. Times change.