More Clarifications on the Baptism and Membership Issue

How Important is Church Membership?

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Founder & Teacher,

To help you keep thinking and praying about your vote on December 18 at the Annual All-Church Strategy Meeting concerning the Elder proposal on Baptism and Church Membership, here are a few more clarifying thoughts. Recall that the proposal is that some rare exceptions be made to allow some truly regenerate persons to be members of the church who are not baptized by immersion (see the entire proposal PDF).

One of the key convictions behind the elder proposal is that excluding from membership a truly regenerate person who gives credible evidence of his saving faith is a more serious mistake than viewing the time and mode of baptism as essential to the qualifications for membership. But that assumes church membership is really important, so that excluding a person from it is very serious. So one of the arguments against the elder proposal is that membership in a local church like Bethlehem does not matter very much because a non-member can worship and take the Lord’s Supper and go to Sunday School and be a part of a small group and be visited by a pastor in the hospital, etc.

So if membership is not that important, then excluding someone from membership will not seem a serious problem. That would mean that the elders are trying to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist. This is one of the most crucial issues you will need to settle in your own mind: How serious is it to say to a regenerate person: “You may not be a member of this church”?

The force of the elders’ concern and the weight of their arguments will not be felt by those who do not see the crucial importance of local church membership in the New Testament. So consider some of the biblical support. I will point to four strands of evidence. Each of these reveals something in the New Testament which would be minimized or denied if there were no definable local church membership.

1) Governing powers of the church (voting). Consider the implication of Matthew 18:15-17 where “the church” (ekklësia) appears to be the final court of appeal in matters of church authority as it relates to membership.

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

If there is no church membership, how can you define the group that will take up this sensitive and weighty matter of exhorting the unrepentant person, and finally rendering a judgment about his standing in the community? It is hard to believe that just anyone who showed up claiming to be a Christian could be a part of that gathering. Surely “the church” must be a definable group to handle such a weighty matter.

2) Being excluded from the church (excommunication). There is another implication from Matthew 18:15-17, namely, that the unrepentant person is accountable to a group of people. This is an amazing event: formally excluding a person from “the church” so that he becomes to you “as a Gentile and a tax collector”—that is an unbeliever. The same kind of exclusion is found in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5. How is this possible if the person is not considered a member of something from which he can be excluded? So both the person’s liability to excommunication and the involvement of “the church” in the process imply that the one being charged is a member and the group settling the matter are members.

3) A commitment to be held accountable by a Council of Elders to believe a basic affirmation and to live a basic covenant. The point here is that without membership, who is it that the New Testament says must submit to leaders? Some kind of expressed willingness or covenant or agreement or commitment must precede submission. Consider the way the New Testament talks about the relationship of the church to her leaders.

Hebrews 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.

1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you (proistamenous humön) in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work

1 Timothy 5:17 Let the elders who rule well (Hoi kalös proestötes presbuteroi)be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.

How is this leadership and this submission to function where there is no membership defining who has made the commitment to be led and who has been chosen as leaders? If we downplay the importance of membership, it is difficult to see how we could take these commands seriously and practically.

4) The privilege of being cared for with the primacy and special benefit of a local covenant family of believers. When the pastors and elders extend their care beyond the membership, it does not mean that there is no primacy to members. Consider Acts 20:28 where Paul tells the elders how to care for their flock.

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.

This verse does not say elders cannot visit unbelievers or those who are not yet members. But it does make clear that their first responsibility is to a particular flock. Does it not make sense that this flock would have definition and limits? Who are we as elders and pastors responsible for? For whom will we give an account to God?

This last point especially, but all four points together, have raised the crucial importance of membership in our minds. We believe it is a biblical implication that there be such a thing as a definable membership in a local church. It is not a matter of indifference, therefore, when a person chooses to attend a church’s functions but not to make the commitment to become a covenant member. It is a serious shortcoming. One of the effects of the proposal of the elders is to raise the crucial importance of membership and therefore to heighten the seriousness of turning away from membership truly regenerate people who give good evidence of saving faith.

Thanks for praying and thinking with us toward the mind of Christ,

Pastor John