How Church Membership is Misunderstood, Misapplied, and Abused

by Juan Sanchez July 1, 2019

Sadly, many professing Christians today see little need for “organized” religion. In fact, we regularly have to make arguments in our new members class for why church membership is both biblical and personally beneficial.

And yet, pastors committed to the importance of church membership need to be cautious. In our righteous zeal to address deficient views of the church, we may be tempted to an unrighteous zeal—a zeal to establish membership processes and practices that move beyond what Scripture requires. Regardless of how well-intentioned we may be, when we require elements of church members which the Bible does not, it won’t be long before those very practices lead us down the same path as the Ephesian church in Revelation 2:1–7. They crossed all their doctrinal t’s and dotted all their ecclesiological i’s—but they lost their first love. And who wants to be a member of that church?

So, to avoid such legalistic lovelessness, let’s consider four ways church membership can be misunderstood, misapplied, and even abused.

FOUR ABUSIVE MEMBERSHIP PRACTICES

Making it Too Hard to Join a Church

As pastors, we’re charged with shepherding Jesus’ flock (1 Pet. 5:1–4). Part of that charge is protecting the sheep from fierce wolves that threaten to lead the sheep astray (Acts 20:28–30). It’s important to implement membership processes that help us discern the difference between sheep and wolves.

Furthermore, Scripture requires believers to gather “in Christ’s name,” which implies a church knows what a members candidate believes and the candidate knows what the church believers. There must be some form for having that conversation, such as a membership class and interview. But if we’re not careful our zeal to protect the church may turn into an overly burdensome membership process. We may expect membership candidates to attend an inordinate number of classes or require a long probationary period before membership. We may demand they embrace too detailed a confession of faith or an over-reaching church covenant. We may ask them to give a more in-depth explanation of the gospel or of their profession of faith than Scripture requires.

To be sure, every church, with the guidance of its elders, must establish biblical and prudent membership processes so they can guard the flock and welcome new believers into the church. But let’s not make joining a church exasperating and overly difficult.

Expecting More of Members than Scripture Does

In a culture of little to no commitment, we must regularly remind church members of the expectations we have for one another. One helpful way to do this is by utilizing a church covenant. A church covenant, recited during membership meetings and at other appropriate times, can serve as a reminder of biblical membership expectations. Unfortunately, our low-commitment culture may tempt us to impose unbiblical expectations.

For example, some churches wrongly require too much attendance. Just consider how full a church schedule can become: Sunday gatherings, weekday meetings, committee meetings, ministry meetings, small groups, and I’m sure you could add to the list.

During seminary, I was a full-time student working three jobs (and barely making it). It would have simply been impossible to attend every event or activity of the church. Instead, my wife and I prioritized the morning and evening Lord’s Day gatherings.

Pastors, be cautious that you don’t require your members to participate in a ministry the Bible never requires. While discipleship must be an important part of every Christian’s life, the Bible doesn’t require that every member be a part of a small group. Discipleship may happen in a variety of contexts, and because our church members are in different seasons and stages of life, it’s unwise to make something like small groups mandatory. Again, every church, with the guidance of its elders, must establish the best ways— “trellises,” if you know that language—to care for its members and encourage growth in Christlikeness. But let’s be careful not to expect more of our members than what Jesus did.

Cultivating a Culture of Fear of Church Discipline

Pastoring is hard. Really hard! It’s a lot like parenting. You raise your children, you instruct them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord, and you pray they will embrace Christ and follow him all the days of their lives. At some point, though, our children have to make their own decisions and embrace the faith as their own. Likewise, in pastoring a church, we “raise” God’s children, instruct them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord, and pray that because they’ve embraced Christ, they will follow him all the days of their lives.

Sadly, not all professing Christians persevere, which means that not all church members follow Christ in continued repentance. In those cases, we must enter into the rescue operation that we call church discipline (Matt. 18:15–20). If we’re not careful, though, we may be tempted to “carry a big stick,” use the pulpit to “bully” members, and tuck church discipline in our back pockets as a trump card.

Though fear can be a powerful temporary motivator, it’s a lousy long-term heart changer. Remember, if we set up legalistic standards the Bible doesn’t require, then whenever church members don’t follow our extra-biblical standards, they’ll be in rebellion. As Jesus reminds us, we’re the servants of God’s flock, not their lords (Matt. 20:25–28). So rather than threaten the sheep, we must lovingly lead them, encourage them, and feed them.

Making it Too Hard to Leave a Church

We want to dismiss members from the church in such a way that they’re under the care of another local church and another set of loving pastors. Still, if we’re not careful, our attempt to care well for members leaving the church can make it feel like they’re property or prisoners, not brothers and sisters. And so, just as we should have biblical and prudential processes for taking members in, we should also have the same for departing members.

When members leave to go to another church—unless they’re leaving so as to escape church discipline—we should help them, as much as possible, find another gospel church they can join. Some members may not ask for our help; some may not need our help; but all should be pastored in the process of leaving our church to join another. Remember: they’re God’s sheep, not ours.

LOVE YOUR SHEEP

I’m sure you can add additional ways we can abuse church membership. These are just four. To fight the temptation to abuse church membership, we must remember that the ascended Christ has structured his church (Eph. 4:11) so that faithful men who are able to teach others will care for his sheep (2 Tim. 2:2), leading them to the green pastures of his Word and protecting them from the threats of savage wolves (Acts 20:28–31).

We’re not lords; we’re servants. We’re not owners; we’re stewards. We’re not cattle drivers; we’re shepherds. And we’re guiding the sheep in our care to the chief shepherd. May the Lord grant us the grace to love the sheep as he loves his sheep.

Editor's Note: This originally published at 9Marks