UPDATE: Thanks for the good response and discussion. If you would like to read an excellent defense of the Baptist view of church membership, John Piper has written an excellent article on Church Membership and Accountability. A very good survey of the basics.
This post begins several posts on the subject of the church and church membership. I have two interviews in the works, at least two related posts and we’ll see what else may appear on the docket.
My concern is simple: Is the concept of local church membership viable- even essential- today or should it be abandoned?
This is a critical question; one that many in the IM audience struggle with as they sojourn in the evangelical wilderness or look toward finding a church that is a Jesus shaped community.
This series will have particular reference to the discussion on church membership that is now going on in the Southern Baptist Convention, where a resolution (non-binding) on Integrity in Church Membership Reporting was a major item passed at this year’s national convention gathering.
Today, I’ll be interviewing someone who deals with the issue of church membership through academic study and through his part in one of the most influential para-church ministries in evangelicalism: 9 Marks.
My guest today is Jonathan Leeman, director of communications and web content editor/author for 9 Marks Ministries, wher he writes, teaches and maintains a very helpful blog. He has an M.Div from Southern, which makes him as smart as your Internet Monk, but he’s trumping me with a Ph.d in ecclesiology, i.e. the Biblical study of the Church. He has a wife and two daughters, and he happens to be writing a book on church membership and church discipline for Crossway.
Glad to have you on board Jonathan. Let’s talk about church membership.
1. The first time I heard a Baptist minister say that church membership wasn’t important, I thought I was dreaming. Now I am constantly dialoging with younger evangelicals who see no place for church membership in the churches they are trying to grow. How did we get in this situation?
Great question. Thank you for this opportunity to consider these matters with you. My sense is that a large number of factors are involved, both inside and outside the church. Here are a few inside the church:
- evangelical essentialism (the evangelical knack for discarding everything that is not perceived as immediately essential to the gospel, even if it is biblical);
- formalistic, over-institutionalized churches (which often yields nominal Christianity);
- little to no teaching on the topic;
- churches that have been fixated on best business practices, efficiency, and growth rates, hence, membership being practiced in a distorted way (with a “club benefits” mentality instead of a “family” mentality);
- a failure to practice corrective church discipline;
- a weaker understanding of the gospel and conversion
In Western culture broadly, there has been a growth of
- individualism, i.e. refusal to accept corporate accountability;
- geographic mobility;
- reluctance to commit (consider divorce rates, abortion rates, decline in civic participation, increased job mobility, etc.);
- suspicion toward all authority;
- consumeristic conceptions of love and faith
I could keep going.
2. When I was growing up, one of my most abiding memories was going to large evangelistic crusades and seeing people go forward at the invitations, but in actual fact, relatively few of them ever became church members. Can we give Christian assurance to those who choose to not become members of local congregations?
Let me answer that two ways. First, Jesus gave the local church the explicit authority to give such assurance through membership (Matt. 16:19; 18:18-19; John 20:23). No other individual or institution on earth has been given the authority to give assurance. Second, and more to your question, I would argue that the person who claims to be a member of the church (universal) without being a member of a church (local) is in an analogous position to the person who claims to be righteous in Christ (by position) but does not pursue a life of righteousness (in practice). In other words, let me propose that such a person is in a very dangerous position, and it raises real questions about the nature of their “faith.”
Now, I recognize these are challenging words. If you’re reading this, and what I just said offends you, let me plead with you to respond by asking more questions, not immediately jumping to judgment.
3. Does the story of the Ethiopian eunuch teach that baptism should be performed immediately and without any reference to local church membership?
Great question. This passage has provoked me to stop and think as well. Bottom line: I don’t think so. Two factors should be kept in mind. First, Philip was in Samaria, what was then an unreached people group. No local church existed! Someone has to be the first. The situation is analogous to, say, Adoniram Judson in 19th century Burma. Second, there was nothing like American cultural Christianity in that ancient near Eastern world. In fact, new converts were almost certain to encounter cultural opposition and persecution. As such, for that eunuch to have “walked the aisle” presumes a more careful counting-of-the-cost and deliberateness in his decision; the sort of thing for which a church might delay baptism.
4. I grew up in a church that still used terms like “extending the right hand of Christian fellowship,” “coming on the promise of a letter” and “comes today from a church of like faith and order.” We voted on those who made professions of faith, including asking for second and all opposed. Did Southern Baptists take church membership too seriously? Did all of this leave the impression that we thought the only Christians were the people in our denomination?
I’m not the historian, so you’re getting some conjecture here. My sense is that Southern Baptists did not take membership too seriously, but that many Southern Baptists often had a wrong version of what biblical church membership is (see again my answer to question 1 above). Many had a formalized, country-club conception of membership that looked bright and shiny on the outside, but had little to do with a rigorous, get-involved-in-people’s lives, call-them-to-repentance, love-them-at-cost-to-yourself gospel-centered Christianity. Membership is about submitting to Christ’s Lordship and Love as mediated through a marked-off, Bible-ruled, keep-one-another-accountable body of people. In Western contexts, that may involve letters and signatures. But those arenÃt the point. They are simply contextualized tools to serve the crystal clear biblical mandate of identifying who belongs to God’s people and who doesn’t- for love of the insider and the outsider. Book recommendation: see Greg Wills, Democratic Religion (Oxford).
5. Many of the readers of this web site have found it very difficult to be a member of a local church. They attend one or more churches, but membership has often turned into the predictable story of church politics, burn out, broken relationships and even manipulation and abuse by staff. What would you say to those who simply cannot see themselves ever joining another church again?
Well, first of all, I’m genuinely sorry things have been difficult. I share your grief and frustration, which is precisely why I’m dedicated to thinking and writing about this topic. But I’d then say two further things. First, aren’t you and I glad that Jesus hasn’t abandoned you and me amidst all the reasons we’ve given him to abandon us? Living the Christian life means living with people who are difficult to forgive and love. This is precisely what the local church is for: to give us the opportunity to forgive as we’ve been forgiven; to “put on” our profession to believe the gospel. Second, depending on what has gone wrong, I just might say, find another (healthier) church. We should forgive, but sometimes we need to wipe the dust of our feet and go.
6. Many years ago, I got in some serious hot water for questioning a state denominational leader who talked admiringly about churches that had received 4 and 5 year olds into membership. I’m sure Baptists take in thousands under the age of ten as full members. What is your response to those practice?
Okay, my answers have already been too long. And now you ask me this! Uh, I’d say it’s irresponsible and part of the reason membership means so little these days, leading many people to abandon it (add this to my answer to number 1 above). But not only is it why membership means so little, it’s why Christianity means so little, both to those individuals when they grow up and abandon the church, and to the watching world, who sees the church acting just like them. To give you an irresponsibly short justification to these comments, I’d say that God designed children to affirm what their parents tell them to affirm, therefore it’s very difficult for a parent, much less a pastor, to discern whether or not a five year old profession of faith is credible. I’m not questioning whether or not a five year old can be a Christian. Of course they can. I’m questioning the parent (and the church’s) ability to responsibly discern that fact.
7. The SBC finally has taken a public step asking for integrity in reporting church membership. Tom Ascol insisted that statement include specific language on repentance. Why was that idea of repentance important in this issue?
I don’t feel like I can comment on the ins and outs of this situation. In principle, I would say that repentance is warranted any time a local church’s (or a representative of the local church, like the SBC) practice of membership departs from the kind of membership we see practiced in the New Testament. So take a look at Matthew 18:15-20 or 1 Corinthians 5. Does your church exercise the same care for its holy witness? Does it care like Jesus and Paul do for how non-Christians perceive Christ and the people of Christ? Does it care for the weaker sheep among them, taking care not to see them led astray? If not, then a church should repent- change directions.
8. Thanks so much for your time, Jonathan. One last question. If you could draft a confessional statement on church membership, what would it say?
Can I cheat and simply point you both to my church constitution (see Article 3 on membership) as well as my church covenant? I think both of these are excellent statements. Thank you for your ministry, Michael!