Our church was once a viper pit. Members gathered in Christ’s name, but little else distinguished them as Christians. They devoured one another during disagreements. Emotionalism, political preoccupation, diluted doctrinal affirmations, and lack of discipleship left the flock spiritually anemic. The congregation withered, leaving only a few faithful members.
One of the clearest causes of our church’s near-death experience was unregenerate church membership. Joining our church was as easy as walking an aisle, praying a prayer, and asking for admittance. The pastor would introduce the candidate to the congregation and call for an “amen” to welcome him or her into the fold. While easy entrance into membership appeared loving, in reality it opposed love.
Today, we practice regenerate church membership. In other words, we aim to welcome only true, born-again believers into the fold. Jesus taught that being born again — being regenerated — is essential to entering God’s kingdom (John 3:1–5). New Testament letters addressed congregations of new creations in Christ who were set apart from sin and striving to obey God (1 John 3:1–10; Ephesians 2:4–5; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Titus 3:5). Regenerate church membership, then, isn’t a VIP list of elite super-Christians. It’s a faithful list of true Christians.
“Regenerate church membership isn’t a VIP list of elite super-Christians. It’s a faithful list of true Christians.”
Though churches lack the omniscience to guard membership perfectly, we still aim for the names on the membership rolls to reflect the names in the Lamb’s book of life.
Is Church Membership Biblical?
Before considering the why and how of regenerate church membership, however, some may wonder whether our churches should practice church membership at all.
By church membership, I am referring a formal process of identifying and integrating believers who have voluntarily committed to follow Jesus together. The steps of church membership usually include examining a prospective member’s testimony, assuring his or her doctrinal orthodoxy, and making sure everyone agrees on the biblical expectations for following Jesus together.
I used to think formal church membership was unbiblical. In fact, the first church I pastored was intentionally inaugurated without membership. We viewed membership as extrabiblical, legalistic, and a threat to organic fellowship. But over time, our assumption proved to be misguided. We often struggled to know who “we” were. Leaders’ God-given authority was limited by attenders’ anemic affiliation. People were easily overlooked and neglected. Church discipline was confusing and, at times, counterproductive. In the end, we learned that biblical love required deliberate definition.
The New Testament provides a vision for the centrality of the local church in a believer’s life. Followers of Jesus are assumed to know one another, hold each other accountable, and submit to qualified local leaders who will give an account of them to God (Hebrews 13:17). Local churches keep lists of members who need care (1 Timothy 5:9–12), bear responsibility to address hypocrisy (1 Corinthians 5:1–13), and consider one another when partaking of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:18–34).
Churches don’t have to call their approach to these practices church membership, but it’s nearly impossible to argue that the concept itself is unbiblical. All over the New Testament, we find this intentional, committed, accountable love that affirms and encourages one another’s devotion to Jesus in a local congregation.
Why Pursue Regenerate Membership?
Sadly, many churches coddle and comfort people in their sin rather than calling them to repent and conform to Christ. This low standard for membership dims the church’s radiance and offers false advertisements about God. And Jesus takes these sins very seriously.
When Jesus walked among the seven churches in Revelation 2–3, he was moved by what was happening among them. He applauded their obedience (Revelation 2:2–3, 13, 19, 24; 3:4) and was appalled by their abominations (Revelation 2:4, 14, 20; 3:2). He encouraged good works to continue (Revelation 2:10; 3:5) and warned against allowing sin to abide (Revelation 3:3, 18–20).
Jesus still walks among churches today, calling us to obey him in everything, including how we approach church membership. In light of this, consider four motivations for pursuing regenerate church membership.
1. Regenerate membership pleases God.
Churches filled with unbelieving members will be marked by worldliness that serves selfish desires. Churches filled with believers, however, will be marked by loving obedience (John 14:15), a burden to evangelize the lost (Acts 13:1–3), concern for the spiritual welfare of fellow members (Hebrews 3:12–14; 10:24–25), a desire to restore wayward sheep (James 5:19–20), and a will to remove hypocrites who blaspheme God’s holy name (Matthew 18:15–18). All of these qualities are pleasing to God, and only regenerate members will be devoted to them.
2. Regenerate membership protects doctrine.
Unregenerate members will endeavor to lower the dimmer switch on doctrinal clarity to keep the light of conviction from exposing their evil. Or, on the other side, some unregenerate members may emphasize tertiary doctrines in quarrelsome, divisive ways. Regenerate members, however, have the Spirit of God, who empowers godly conviction, doctrinal clarity, and the resolve to remain faithful to Jesus. They will aim to uphold sound teaching with wisdom, charity, humility, and courage.
3. Regenerate membership promotes the gospel.
Unregenerate people have disregarded the call of the gospel. Though they may affirm it with their mouths, they deny it with their lives (2 Timothy 3:5; Titus 1:16). Those who resist the gospel will certainly not be committed to relaying the gospel. They will keep silent — and perhaps try to redirect the mission of the church solely toward social projects. Regenerate members, however, love the gospel that set them free and ensure that the church’s time, talents, and treasures remain devoted to obeying Jesus’s Great Commission (Matthew 28:18–20).
4. Regenerate membership produces joy.
Sorrow accompanies those who abide in sin. Unbelieving church members will be forced to find happiness in the fleeting experiences of friendship, accomplishments, sentimentality, or other empty wells. But believing members draw from a well of joy that never runs dry. A holy congregation will be a happy congregation. The Spirit who indwells her will produce joy (Galatians 5:22) that empowers joy-giving obedience (John 15:11), enlivens heavenly celebration in conversion (Luke 15:7, 10), and longs for the day when her joy will be complete in glory (Matthew 25:21).
How Can We Pursue Regenerate Membership?
Well-intentioned churches that minimize requirements for membership work against the very aim they seek to accomplish. Desiring to show Christ’s love, they often end up distorting it by affirming unbelievers in their rebellion. Healthy churches creatively cultivate an evangelistic culture that invites unbelievers to observe the love of Christ while taking care not to blur the lines about who is and is not right with God.
“Church membership is not for perfect people, but it is for repentant people.”
So how might we wisely pursue regenerate church membership? Consider seven ways to create clear distinctions that magnify the love of Christ, lead unbelievers to salvation, and grow believers into spiritual maturity.
1. Receive members carefully.
Develop a process that welcomes all people to engage with the gospel, yet carefully guards entrance into membership. Membership classes provide opportunities to instruct potential members in what the church believes (doctrine) and how it intends to live together (community). Classes that highlight the gospel, biblical expectations for the Christian life, accountability, and discipline will point unbelievers to Christ while encouraging believers to join your church.
2. Require clear testimonies.
Meeting with a pastor is the next crucial step. This meeting provides pastors an opportunity to discuss any questions about the church’s beliefs, hear the applicant’s testimony, and ensure he or she can articulate the gospel clearly, thus helping the pastor discern whether this person is indeed a believer who affirms biblical doctrine and is eager to submit to the accountability of the church body.
3. Require holy living.
Church membership is not for perfect people, but it is for repentant people. If someone professes to know Christ yet does not display contrition over sin, continual repentance, peaceful departures from former churches, charitable representations of other Christians, and growing delight in Jesus, questions may be raised about his or her conversion. Careful membership processes will be slow enough to ensure someone is walking in holiness. True biblical love takes time to see if professing Christians are honoring Jesus with their lives.
4. Baptize true believers.
Christians publicly profess faith in Christ through baptism. This ordinance is one of the first and most basic acts of obedience to Jesus (Matthew 28:19–20). Historically, many Christians have also treated baptism as the entrance into the life of the local church. Churches ought to be eager to baptize believers, but prudent churches will baptize only those with a credible profession of Christian faith.
5. Honor the Lord’s Supper.
Jesus is clear that not everyone will partake in the marriage supper of the Lamb. Neither should everyone be invited to partake in the Lord’s Supper. Over the years, our church has had several people come to Christ because of our instruction that unbelievers and unrepentant professors refrain from partaking with us. The warning can feel inhospitable, but then we remember that this is the Lord’s Supper, not ours. He supplies the guest list. Those who are unbelieving and unrepentant are excluded, though he desires them to repent and dine with him (Isaiah 25:6–9).
6. Practice church discipline.
At times, even the most careful churches will admit into membership professing believers who prove to be unbelievers in the long haul. This typically becomes evident when those people live in unrepentant sin. Few things grieve God like religious hypocrisy, so faithful churches follow Jesus’s instructions to remove unrepentant sinners from the church’s fellowship if they refuse to be reconciled to God and fellow believers (Matthew 18:15–18). This process requires much wisdom and courage. If we are unwilling to remove hypocrites, Jesus threatens to remove himself from the church (Revelation 2:5).
7. Keep honest membership lists.
As a church matures in its thinking about regenerate church membership, its pastors will labor to keep an honest list of members. Our church’s membership roll used to include hundreds of people who had moved away, walked away from the faith, or died. The numbers were impressive, but they blurred the truth about our truly regenerate members.
Meaningful membership is more than a mere administrative task. It is an act of love that calls sinners to be born again and the church to protect its witness to a lost and dying world so that all peoples can experience the everlasting joy of delighting in God.