Friends: I’ve been asked by the leadership of Cedarcroft Bible Chapel in New Jersey to help them think through a more defined understanding of church membership. Among the so-called Plymouth Brethren assemblies (such as Cedarcroft), church “membership” has been more implicit than explicit. Those who attend regularly are considered members, but often no formal declaration of their “joining” the local church is made. Only occasionally will a church membership class be offered. It seems to be more an issue of faithful attendance than any specified or organized process that is followed.
There are some good reasons why the Brethren assemblies have resisted more formal church membership. Some would say that it is difficult (if not impossible) to find verses that support the traditional view of church membership. Second, as a whole the Brethren have typically resisted some of the practices of the so-called “denominations.” A third reason would be what some would see as the abuse of church membership (that is, some think it is salvation-bringing). It has also not gone unnoticed that few churches purge their membership roles due to non-attendance or unrepented-of-sin.
But, properly defined, biblical church membership offers some genuine advantages to less formal ways of looking at one’s involvement in a local church. Let me suggest four advantages to a more formal — and more biblical — way of looking at one’s connection to the people of God.
First, a membership document (“covenant”) provides the spiritual leadership with the opportunity for spelling out expectations of church involvement (the need for church offices, such as elders and deacons; respect for leadership; concern regarding spiritual gifts; commitment to service; process of necessary church discipline; etc.). There is a great advantage to the congregation’s publicly reading aloud this church covenant every time new members are received.
Second, a membership covenant explains possible situations in which the congregation of members is asked to vote for or against certain proposals. Being on a formal membership “role” helps identify those who have the right to vote in the congregation.
Third, a membership covenant spells out the process of discipline the spiritual leaders will follow in serious situations. Therefore, the “members” are aware of the process (perhaps lessening the likelihood of lawsuits in cases of unrepentant members). Further, it is difficult to “discipline” someone who is merely an “attender” at the local church’s services. Membership means something and loss of membership ought to be a serious consideration in the Christian’s life!
Fourth, it could be argued that the absence of details about formal church membership in the New Testament is simply due to the fact that the uninvolved, non-serving believer is not considered a viable option in the Word! (“God has no sons who are not servants!”). (to be continued)