Membership in the Local Church: A Biblical Perspective
It's been on your elder's meeting agenda before. "So and So requests we send their papers to such and such a church." Or, "I move we accept the papers of Mr. and Mrs. Whatshisname. Seconded. All in favor say 'Aye'."
Do we really send and receive "papers"? To be sure, we have forms that we use to "transfer" members, and those forms are printed on paper. But those forms do not apply in all cases. In the denomination in which the church I serve holds membership, the transfer forms apply only to certain church fellowships. (We used to call them "sister churches." Now we're fancy and call them "churches in ecclesiastical fellowship." Same difference.)
If membership is a matter of "holding papers," what are we to do with those stubborn members who demand to have their papers "sent to my home"? I know one fellow so angry that a church bought NIV pew Bibles instead of the KJV that he demanded to "have his papers sent to him at home." He didn't want to be affiliated with such a church. So he removed affiliation from all churches!
If you haven't had problems with these things yet, hang on. You will. Such is the nature of our age, as the baby boomers — the independentistic, what's-in-it-for-me generation — rises to leadership. This age doesn't "join" things. It "grazes" from one pasture to another, enjoying the benefits of all, without commitment to any. (If you wish to study this phenomenon further, I suggest you consult any one of a number of works by the Barna Research Group, or study Habits of the Heart, the extraordinary sociological study of "Individualism and Commitment in American Society," by Robert Bellah.) We in Dallas know this phenomenon well: fully 30% of our active and participatory "members" are not members! We are working with them, toward the goal of committed membership. At the same time, we do not make formal membership a prerequisite for involvement.
Allow me to suggest a couple of very basic and foundational principles about church membership to guide you in your local church discussion and practice on these matters. I do this without denominational prejudice: I know that Reformed readers from a wide diversity of fellowships read these pages. My concern is that we be Biblical, and that we develop the ability to articulate very clearly our understanding of the importance of membership to the rising generation of people who do not accept traditional practices without explanation.
Biblical Principles of Membership
Principle #1: The Scriptural idea of membership is that the individual/family expresses willing submission to the spiritual authority of the local eldership (Hebrews 13:7, 17; cf. Acts 20:28ff).
Please look up those passages. Not only does the Acts 20:28ff passage tell you a great deal about what elders are to be for the church, but the Hebrews 13 verses tell you a great deal about what and how the members are to think about their elders. The point is simple: when someone becomes a member, he acknowledges that Christ's authority over him is real, that it encompasses both the content of his faith (doctrine) and the living of his life (practice), and that the authority of Christ is visible and is entrusted to the men we call the elders of the local church. To belong is to surrender to the Head of the church, Jesus Christ, represented by the elders who shepherd/pastor the people of God. It is these men who will hold each member accountable in faith and life; and God will in turn hold each of them accountable for that responsibility (Hebrews 13:17). This is the Biblical way!
Principle #2: Membership is in the local church, not a denomination.
Sounds simplistic to some; sounds like heresy to others. Let me explain. No matter where I belong, if I leave to attend another church, even if it is within the same denominational federation, I must "request a transfer" to that church. It may be perfunctory, but it is necessary. Its importance is understood in light of the above. As you read this, you are not under the care of the elders in Dallas. If you choose to move here (Please do! We need more gifted and committed folks to accomplish our Biblically driven goals!), you will not automatically be a member of this church, even if you have been a member of another CRC. Let me say it simply: members belong to local churches; local churches can, and often do, belong to denominations.
Principle #3: Transferring membership means requesting release from the care of the elders of one church, and willingly placing oneself under the care of the eldership of another church.
It is not "papers" that transfer; it is people. It is not a secretarial matter; it is a pastoral one. It is not superficial and unnecessary; it is profoundly significant for both church and individual to recognize the way in which Christ cares for and governs His people. Churches must take seriously the commitment they make when they receive members. They must also take seriously the duty to "release" people wisely, pastorally, and in such a way that the new body of elders understands the unique requirements there may be for pastoral care of the individuals.
Principle #4: Membership involves doctrinal commitment.
If I choose to submit myself to the care of the elders of a Baptist church, I ought to expect to be pastored according to their confession and practice, and challenged and rebuked if I chafe under their teaching. Likewise, if I place myself under the care of a body of Reformed elders, I must expect them to pastor me in accordance with their understanding of Scripture and their commitments to their creeds.
Principle #5: Membership is a visible testimony of commitment.
By that I mean, in light of Ephesians 4:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 12 (among other passages) each believer is called to commit his/her gifts and talents to the service of the Lord. Membership in the local church is the visible pledge to use your gifts, to pray for, encourage, rebuke, forgive ... and all the other "one another" commands of the Bible, and to do all this among this specific community of believers! I am part of this body of Jesus Christ, and pledge to function within it.
Having suggested the above, I have one task yet, and that is to explain what all this means for you in your churches. I've already hinted at it in several points. Take membership very seriously. Do not relegate transfers to that point in your agenda known as "correspondence," to be handled with all the passion of "received for information." Make all membership decisions pastoral ones.
Ask each person who requests membership (no matter where they have come from!) to meet with your elders for conversation about their faith and life, their gifts and commitments, your church and its methods of pastoral care and its goals and vision. Make sure you know them, and they know you. The pastoring required of you in 1 Peter 5:1-4 and Acts 20:28ff demands no less.
When you release someone from your care, do so with integrity. Write a letter, informing the next body of elders of gifts available for ministry, of special pastoral needs, of a history of discipline. Church hopping has become for many the American way of avoiding spiritual accountability. We must not be part of that problem.