Full disclosure update: As of 2012, I no longer attend a Calvary Chapel. While I still feel that church membership is not mandated by Scripture, I am now convinced that membership is beneficial because the member makes a clear commitment to be accountable for the church and be in support of the church.
A friend of mine, @kksine, asked me to read and comment on an article by Matt Chandler entitled Is Church Membership Biblical? which was published on the 9marks.org web site.
The question is a valid one: should there be a formalized process for determining who is and who is not a member of the local fellowship?
I agree with almost all of what Matt Chandler writes, my response is intended to provide clarification rather than rebuttal. We share the same goals but choose slightly different paths to get there. This is a preference issue and we have freedom to have or not have a formalized membership process in the local body.
Clarification #1 – Formalized Membership Process
Scripture does not mandate, nor does it preclude a formalized membership process. The verses cited in the article identify what should be done, but do not specifically indicate that a formalized membership process is necessary for compliance.
In 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 and Romans 12:4-8, where Paul uses the analogy of the Church as the Body of Christ, it is not necessary to infer a formalized process to determine who is a member of the body. In a sense, any believer who attends a local fellowship is a member of it, in that he is a part (the most basic sense of the word member) of the body of Christ.
I attend a Calvary Chapel which does not have a membership process. In Calvary Chapel, we have elders who make decisions with regard to church polity, we have church discipline, we have submission to the ruling elders [Update: The largest reason we left Calvary Chapel was because it is not elder ruled. There is an elder board but they are there to support the pastor in his decisions. Calvary Chapel has an episcopal form of government with the pastor holding the power.] and we know who is associated with our body. We seek to be obedient to Jesus Christ as a body and we seek to follow the Apostle’s direction as to how the local congregation should function. All are done without a formalized membership process.
Those who attend our fellowship on a regular basis have a sense of belonging and understand that to continue belonging to our fellowship, a submission to Jesus Christ, Scripture and the elders is required.
Clarification #2 – The Goal of Membership
The goal of membership is not stated in the article. Is the goal to determine who can vote and who cannot?
I can find no direct support in Scripture for a congregational form of church government. What I do see in Scripture is that the elders are to rule and lead the church. Scripture gives no indication that church members should be allowed to vote on church policy, the calling of a pastor, electing elders, etc.
Congregational government requires formalized membership as a means of controlling who can vote. If you want congregational government, you have freedom to do so, but you cannot make a case that Scripture demands this form of government.
Clarification #3 – Accountability and Church Discipline
In the article Matt seems to assume that without membership, church discipline would be impossible. I’d like to assure him that this is not the case.
I would turn this around and ask what he would do with someone attending his church without being a member who gives evidence of living in sin. Would he confront the sin? Or, is it only those who go through the formal process who are confronted? Do you allow the “sinner” to continue attending and only confront the issue when he comes forward for membership?
We have found that church discipline works without membership. When an issue comes to our attention, it is confronted. Typically what we find is that the one confronted either repents and works toward change, or he stops attending or goes to another church.
Clarification #4 – Maturity and Membership
Matt assumes that membership is necessary for a believer to progress toward maturity.
I agree that associating and belonging to a local fellowship is an expectation that Scripture places upon us. I also agree that belonging to a local fellowship is necessary for optimum spiritual growth. I do not agree that a formalized process and the signing of a document are necessary to have this sense of belonging.
In our fellowship, we see people who sit under the teaching of Scripture, interact with other believers in small groups, serve in the body and progress toward maturity, all without a formalized membership process.
There is nothing wrong with having a formalized membership process. Scripture does not have anything negative to say about this that I can find. If your fellowship functions in this way, I am happy for you.
My point is that it is not mandatory to have this formalized process. Many local church bodies function according to Biblical priorities without this process.
This is a preference issue and if you prefer membership, I’m totally OK with that.