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Membership at Metropolitan Tabernacle

Church Polity with Charles Spurgeon

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Professor, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

ABSTRACT: Throughout Charles Spurgeon’s decades of ministry, more than 14,000 people sought to join the church he pastored. Rather than rushing them into membership, however, Spurgeon and the other pastors at the Metropolitan Tabernacle patiently shepherded applicants through a five-part process. Along the way, Spurgeon engaged not only a plurality of pastors but also the congregation as a whole, seeking to discern the genuineness of an applicant’s profession. The final decision lay in the hands of the congregation, who voted to welcome new members to the church’s ordinances and other corporate means of grace. Such a patient, extended process enabled Spurgeon and his fellow pastors to care well for the applicants, even before they joined the church.

Those familiar with nineteenth-century pastor Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892) associate his ministry with legendary preaching, fruitful writing, and courageous controversy. Few, however, are aware of Spurgeon’s strong commitment to regenerate church membership. As a Baptist, Spurgeon believed that church membership should be reserved for those who had a credible profession of faith. Commenting on the New York Revival of 1858, Spurgeon declared,

If God should send us a great revival of religion, it will be our duty not to relax the bonds of discipline. Some churches, when they increase very largely, are apt to take people into their number by wholesale, without due and proper examination. We ought to be just as strict in the paroxysms of a revival as in the cooler times of a gradual increase. . . . Take care, ye that are officers in the church, when ye see the people stirred up, that ye exercise still a holy caution, lest the church become lowered in its standard of piety by the admission of persons not truly saved.1

Spurgeon’s commitment to regenerate church membership would be tested throughout his ministry, as more than 14,000 people sought to join his church during his 38 years as a pastor. Throughout those decades, Spurgeon maintained a rigorous membership process that kept the church from lowering its standards by admitting the unsaved. He never deviated from this process, even when it required him to change the leadership structure and how the church conducted congregational meetings.

Given the differences in context, churches today probably should not try to replicate Spurgeon’s process exactly. Still, what can we learn from the membership process at the Metropolitan Tabernacle?

Step 1: Elder Interview

In the February 1869 edition of The Sword & the Trowel (1865–97), Spurgeon provided a description of the membership process at the Tabernacle, beginning with an elder interview:

All persons anxious to join our church are requested to apply personally upon any Wednesday evening, between six and nine o’clock, to the elders, two or more of whom attend in rotation every week for the purpose of seeing enquirers. When satisfied, the case is entered by the elder in one of a set of books provided for the purpose, and a card is given bearing a corresponding number to the page of the book in which particulars of the candidate’s experience are recorded.2

Records of these membership interviews can still be found in the Testimony Books in the Metropolitan Tabernacle Archives in London. In examining these records, it becomes clear that the elders were looking for two qualities in those they interviewed: a clear understanding of the gospel and evidence of spiritual change.

For example, in an interview with James Melbourn, the elder records, “He has frequently heard Mr. Spurgeon and prefers his preaching to any he ever heard. I don’t think he has the faintest idea of the Gospel.” Though Melbourn is “sober, honest, industrious, and willing to join a church,” the elder is “astonished how any man could sit under our pastor’s ministry one Lord’s Day and be so entirely ignorant of his own ignorance of the Gospel.”3 Despite his evident moral life, the elder is not convinced that Melbourn understands the gospel. So, rather than rushing him through the membership process, the elder refers him to a Bible class, where he can study the Scriptures further and come to a saving knowledge of Christ.

But more than simply an intellectual understanding, conversion produces a change of life. In hearing testimonies, the elders also looked for evidence of genuine repentance and faith. For Emma Wilcox, the elder records how she previously was “fond of the gaieties of the world,” including “theatres, concerts, and driving out on Sundays.” But after one particular sermon, “a decided change has taken place. No Sunday rides, no ballroom, no playhouse now, old things have passed away, all things have become new. Wishes to show her love to Jesus by meeting with his people and desires to be baptized.”4 Here was evidence of both a turning away from worldliness and a turning to Christ in faith. And so, the elder happily gave her a card for the next step.

Takeaway 1: Be clear on the gospel and on conversion.

When examining candidates for membership, what matters is not political affiliation, cultural background, work, or other external factors — nor church background, giving, involvement, or other religious factors. What matters is whether the candidate has a credible profession of faith. Does he give evidence of being born again? To examine someone’s profession, of course, we ourselves must have a biblical understanding of the gospel and conversion.

Step 2: Pastor Interview

The second step of the process was an interview with the lead pastor himself: “Once a month, or oftener when required, the pastor appoints a day to see the persons thus approved of by the elders.”5

For approximately the first fifteen years of his ministry, Spurgeon interviewed every candidate for membership. By 1869, Spurgeon’s brother, James, had been called to be his co-pastor, and he largely took over this task for the remaining years. Even so, Spurgeon didn’t entirely drop this responsibility. Writing in 1884, he declared,

Oh, brothers, on that day on which I lately saw forty persons one by one, and listened to their experience and proposed them to the church, I felt as weary as ever a man did in reaping the heaviest harvest. I did not merely give them a few words as enquirers, but examined them as candidates with my best judgment.6

As busy as he was, Spurgeon did not leave the membership process entirely in his elders’ hands, but he felt a sense of responsibility as the lead pastor to meet briefly with each candidate personally.

Spurgeon trusted his elders’ judgments, and I have yet to come across a case where he went against an elder’s recommendation. Yet he did not hesitate to express his concerns and cautions. For one candidate, Spurgeon writes in the margin, “This young man’s moral character must be seen into with care. He is but a young man & I fear has many temptations. . . . I have no reason to suspect, but only advise.” For another candidate, he writes, “Another difficult case, requiring a diligent investigation. I think delay would be advisable.” At times, Spurgeon’s comments deal with the care of the candidate, as here: “Ought to have the Confession of Faith. Messenger to get her one.”7

Spurgeon understood that the membership interview was an opportunity to begin pastoring these candidates, even before they joined the church. Whatever their spiritual maturity, Spurgeon sought to assure fearful applicants:

So far from wishing to repel you, if you really do love the Savior, we shall be glad enough to welcome you. If we cannot see in you the evidence of a great change, we shall kindly point out to you our fears, and shall be thrice happy to point you to the Savior; but be sure of this, if you have really believed in Jesus, you shall not find the church terrible to you.8

Takeaway 2: Engage a plurality of elders.

This second step guaranteed that a plurality of elders would be engaged in the membership interview process. This practice helped overcome any mistakes or missed insights so that the elders might better know and care for those joining the church. So, consider engaging multiple elders in your membership process. If that is not possible, then look to involve a deacon or a mature church member. Rather than having the decision hang on one man, we will find wisdom in many counselors.

Step 3: Congregational Appointment of a Visitor

The next step is, perhaps, the most surprising: “If the pastor is satisfied, he nominates an elder or church member as visitor, and at the next church meeting asks the church to send him to enquire as to the moral character and repute of the candidate.”9 This practice of appointing visitors was not uncommon among Congregationalists and Baptists, though it was fading away. Spurgeon, however, maintained it throughout his ministry.

“Spurgeon understood that the church membership interview was an opportunity to begin pastoring candidates.”

If an applicant passed the first two steps, an elder would briefly introduce the applicant’s testimony at the next members’ meeting and then nominate a member of the church to be a visitor or messenger. The congregation would then vote to commission the visitor to go on behalf of the church and “enquire as to the moral character and repute of the candidate.”

This inquiry would involve visiting the candidate’s workplace, home, or neighborhood, and asking questions about the candidate, such as the following:

  • Do you know this applicant?
  • Did you know he is a Christian?
  • Did you know he was looking to be baptized and join the Metropolitan Tabernacle?
  • What do you know about his character?
  • What is he like at work?
  • How does he treat his family?

Questions such as these help us understand what Spurgeon refers to when he mentions “diligent investigation” and having the applicant’s moral character “seen into with care.” On one occasion, Spurgeon commented on a particularly confused applicant:

This man is a muddle. . . . I do not think he will be any great credit to us and should not be sorry if the messenger declines to recommend him. . . . It may turn out that he is a simple, silly but genuine man, however I beg the messenger to make a very diligent enquiry, for I fear he is weak in the head and not very sound in the heart. I cannot judge, character must decide.10

Most applicants were more straightforward. For some, however, the elders recognized that judging one’s profession of faith based on two interviews could prove difficult. This step allowed the church to get a sense of the person’s ongoing reputation in his community, and get further evidence of a credible profession of faith. And it undoubtedly created evangelistic opportunities for the applicant, as neighbors heard about his profession.

Takeaway 3: Recognize the public nature of church membership.

Though we might not appoint visitors to make inquiries in our day, there is still wisdom in helping applicants see that joining the church is not a private affair. Applying for church membership can become an opportunity to be more public with their profession of faith. For a youth joining the church, elders may want to talk to the parents about how the young person behaves at home. For someone coming from another gospel-preaching church in town, elders may want to talk to the previous pastor to make sure the applicant is leaving the church well. And if the applicant is going to be baptized, it certainly would be appropriate to encourage him to invite non-Christian family and friends to the service.

Step 4: Congregational Vote

Provided that all went well with the inquiry, the applicant would then attend the next members’ meeting with the visitor for the fourth step:

If the visitor be satisfied he requests the candidate to attend with him at the following or next convenient church meeting, to come before the church and reply to such questions as may be put from the chair, mainly with a view to elicit expressions of his trust in the Lord Jesus, and hope of salvation through his blood, and any such facts of his spiritual history as may convince the church of the genuineness of the case. . . . After the statement before the church, the candidate withdraws, the visitor gives in his report, and the vote of the church is taken.11

During the meeting, the visitor would give a report on the inquiry. Then the meeting chair, usually Spurgeon, would interview the candidate briefly, usually asking for some kind of statement about his trust in Christ, as well as highlighting parts of the testimony. Often, Spurgeon would also ask members of the church to speak — for example, a Sunday school teacher or the member who shared the gospel with the applicant — to give their affirmation of the applicant’s conversion. On one occasion, in the age before women’s suffrage, a student asked Spurgeon if it was advisable for women to speak in a church meeting. Spurgeon answered,

Suppose there is a candidate before the church, and I know that one of the female members can testify to his Christian character, I should not hesitate to say, “Our Sister Brown knows this young man; would she like to tell us anything about him?” I think it would be most seemly if she should reply, “Yes, dear friends, he is a very admirable young man; I am especially grateful to him for he has been the means of the conversion of my husband.” It would be a very great pity for anybody beside Mrs. Brown to give such a testimony as that.12

This step highlights the congregation’s involvement in church membership. An applicant’s joining the church involved not only the elders and the lead pastor but also the congregation, as they commissioned messengers, heard the applicant’s profession of faith, and then heard one another’s testimonies about the individual. This process would then culminate in a congregational vote to bring the person into membership, expressing not only the church’s approval but also their covenant commitment to the new member.

Takeaway 4: Commit to one another in church membership.

Joining the church is not merely about having names on a membership roll. Nor is it simply about who gets to vote in church meetings. Rather, church membership is a commitment by the congregation to live out God’s vision for the church in all the “one another” commands of the New Testament. When a church brings someone into membership, the members bear the stewardship and responsibility of walking with that individual until he joins another church or is taken into glory. Your church’s membership process should reflect that active commitment.

Step 5: Church Ordinances

In some ways, all the previous steps were preliminary, preparing for the final and most important step:

When the candidate has professed his faith by immersion, which is administered by the junior pastor after a week-day service, he is received by the pastor at the first monthly communion, when the right hand of fellowship is given to him in the name of the church, and his name is entered on the roll of members.13

“Amid all the practicalities and administration of a church-membership process, never lose the wonder of what it means.”

The ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper get to the heart of church membership, according to the New Testament. A church is composed of those who have been baptized upon their profession of faith and now give expression to an ongoing profession of faith through participation in the Lord’s Supper. In other words, membership in the church signifies the believer’s union with Christ and his people, as depicted in the ordinances of the church. By making baptism and the Lord’s Supper the final steps of the membership process, the church reminded these applicants that church membership is ultimately a theological matter.

Takeaway 5: Keep Christ and his body in view.

Amid all the practicalities and administration of a church-membership process, never lose the wonder of what it means: identification with the people of God and union with Christ, our Head. Make sure those going through the process understand this. And allow the joy of seeing people embrace Christ to motivate the church’s commitment to maintaining a disciplined membership process.

Shepherding from the Start

Spurgeon’s rigorous membership process reminds pastors of the importance of the membership interview. One of the most important pastoral functions we ever perform is discerning the genuineness of someone’s profession of faith as he seeks to join the church. For those who are repenting of their sins and trusting in Christ, we have the joy of affirming their profession and encouraging them to persevere. For the applicant who is confused about or living contrary to the gospel, we have the responsibility to warn and instruct him in the truth. To get this wrong could prove to be spiritually harmful to the individual and the church.

Of course, that’s not to say that any of us will ever perfectly discern everyone’s profession of faith. This is why Spurgeon’s example of engaging a plurality of elders and the congregation continues to be wise today. And this is why church discipline will always be relevant (an important topic for another essay!). Most of all, we depend on wisdom from God in prayer. In all of this, Spurgeon reminds us that the goal of the membership interview is shepherding. Before applicants ever join the church, we have an opportunity to pastor them and point them to the Savior.

  1. C.H. Spurgeon, The New Park Street Pulpit (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1859), 4:167. 

  2. C.H. Spurgeon, The Sword and the Trowel: A Record of Combat with Sin & Labour for the Lord (London: Passmore & Alabaster), 1869:53. 

  3. Hannah Wyncoll, ed., Wonders of Grace: Original Testimonies of Converts During Spurgeon’s Early Years (London: The Wakeman Trust, 2016), 70. 

  4. Wyncoll, Wonders of Grace, 86. 

  5. Spurgeon, The Sword and the Trowel, 1869:53. 

  6. C.H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 30 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1884), 310. He continued, “I thought that if I had many days of that sort I must die, but I also wished it might be my lot to die in that fashion. Having so many coming to confess Christ my mind was crushed beneath the weight of blessing, but I would gladly be overwhelmed again.” 

  7. Wyncoll, Wonders of Grace, 47. 

  8. C.H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 17 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1871), 198–99. 

  9. Spurgeon, The Sword and the Trowel, 1869:53. 

  10. Wyncoll, Wonders of Grace, 80–81. 

  11. Spurgeon, The Sword and the Trowel, 1869:53–54. 

  12. Spurgeon, The Sword and the Trowel, 1897:255. 

  13. Spurgeon, The Sword and the Trowel, 1869:54. 

serves as Assistant Professor of Historical Theology and the Curator of the Spurgeon Library at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as an elder at Wornall Road Baptist Church in Kansas City, MO. He is the author of Christ Our All: Poems for the Christian Pilgrim.