Q+A: Why do we have formal church membership?
Formal church membership has become much less popular in the last decade or two. I am aware of two churches where the lack of members has become quite a serious issue when it comes to conducting business in the church. There were plenty of people attending the church, but not many people had bothered with membership. In fact, the leadership of those churches had made a conscious decision not to bother with formal membership for quite some time, which resulted in the situation they found themselves in. A very strange situation, particularly because these were congregational governed churches – which means that the ultimate authority in the church (under Jesus) was not the pastor, nor the elders, but the members.
It has become very popular in Baptist circles to down-play membership because it becomes too difficult to manage, because it takes too long to approve things, and because this isn’t the way that successful business or mega-churches are run. I’ve frequently heard things along the lines of ‘we need a more streamlined organisation where the appropriately qualified people make the decisions’, and that it doesn’t make sense to have formal church membership for any reason other than the fact that we happen to have this particular constitutional background.
The whole idea behind congregational government is that the whole body of Christ (as localised in a church congregation) can come together to determine how to follow Jesus faithfully. We see this in passages like Matthew 18:17, where the whole congregation (church) comes together to determine an issue. This doesn’t preclude the elders (or any other committee or group, such as a building committee) being involved before hand to investigate and recommend a course of action. But it indicates that the church is intimately and actively involved in things.
While the Bible doesn’t speak of formal church membership, but only of those gathering together, there are cultural and legal differences between our context in Australia today and the context of the early church, which I think it makes sense to expect that people will become church members. In an age when people seem to have a reduced commitment to many, if not most things, I think that there are several reasons why church membership should be actively encouraged:
- To formally recognise our willingness to submit ourselves to Godly discipline within the church
- To remind ourselves what is expected of being a Christian, as part of the Body of Christ – the Church
- To conform ourselves to a rigorous statement of faith (I am assuming that every church will have one) and not allow ourselves to pick and choose beliefs which do not match the historic or biblical faith of Christians
- In an age where most associations are fairly transient and temporary, it reminds us of the seriousness which comes with following Jesus, and being part of the Church
- Because we still struggle with sin and will do so until Jesus returns, it helps regulate our interactions when our sinfulness creates problems with other people in the church
No, there certainly isn’t a biblical command to be formal church members, but it is a legitimate and helpful way of expressing the biblical truth that we are united to other believers as one body through faith in Jesus (Romans 12:4-8).