Thursday, January 24, 2008

Membership and Discipline

I recently received two very good questions. (1) What are your thoughts on (church) membership and how important should it be? (2) When you do "exclude" church members, how would you go about this process?

These questions arose because someone surfed to my history web site ( and found some Q&A I did while at First Christian Church in Canton, OH. Over several years I received numerous biblical and doctrinal questions I answered on the FCC web site. Today it isn't "politically correct" to emphasize doctrine so the Q&A was taken down shortly after I left leaving it in my purview to post it on my own site. One question asked if there were any reasons to exclude (excommunicate) people from a church. My response was that the Bible teaches three reasons for putting people out of the congregation: (1) The denial of Jesus; (2) Sexual sin; and (3) Creating factions or division. Both questions above can be tied to this discussion.

Question 1 In my opinion, the continuing emphasis to grow large congregations contributes to a declining interest in church membership. I'm sure there are many other dynamics contributing to it as well, but in a culture that avoids commitment it is easier to gather large numbers than call for membership commitment. Southern Baptist preacher Rick Warren teaches that membership relates to commitment and identifying with a specific congregation is a statement that the member is committed to Christ and the work of the local church.

I think there is a biblical issue at the heart of the matter. The Bible teaches that when a person is immersed into Christ they become part of the body of Christ. Immersion, according to Scripture, is the time when a person of faith transitions from the kingdom of Satan to the kingdom of God. Granted, there is no guarantee that a person's heart is right or that he/she truly believes Jesus is God's Son and trusts him alone for salvation, but baptism into Christ remains an external indication of that commitment. Therefore, membership in a local church provides a means by which the leaders can identify those who have (at least) made that step of commitment.

There is a practical issue, too. Identifying with a local congregation means (or should mean) that the individual is willing to submit to the elders' of a particular assembly. God placed the elders as "superintendents" of God's flock. They are responsible for assuring the teaching of sound doctrine and to maintain a congregation's commitment to God, Christ, and Scripture. This means, among other things, that it is the elders who are responsible for maintaining a congregation's good character and reputation and that implies they are responsible for loving discipline when necessary. They are to serve the church not "lord it over" the members. They lead by example.

In the Restoration Movement the concern has not been simply adding "members" as one would recruit members for a service club or fraternal order. The concern is for evangelism and bringing individuals into relationship with Christ and his church.

Question 2 The answer to this question is partially answered in the response to the first. Church discipline falls into the responsibility of the elders. Biblically, however, the whole congregation must also be involved. The primary method is to follow Christ's directive in Matthew 18:15 and following. Discipline starts with an individual who is wronged or concerned. Galatians 6:1 indicates that an erring brother must be confronted with loving care. The example in 1 Corinthians 5 indicates that Paul insisted the church in Corinth discipline a brother who was overtaken with a serious fault. He recommended "delivering the erring one to Satan" (putting him out of the assembly) until he repented. Contemporary Christians, perhaps afraid of legal ramifications, ignore these biblical instructions and examples. The result is Barna's studies revealing that Christian morality is hardly distinguishable from that of the secular world. Today's church simply does not take sin seriously. To talk about sin is politically incorrect.

In the not so distant past, a church member needed a "letter" to transfer membership from one assembly to another. This letter indicated they were a member in good standing and not subject to any church discipline. By the 1960s, few churches required letters opting instead to write the individual's previous congregation to inform them of a transfer. This provided an opportunity to communicate any problems that existed. In the 1970s and 80s, there was little or no communication between the current and previous congregations other than a note that the previous congregation "should change their records." Today there is no communication at all in most cases. I have known of situations where individuals were members of two or more different congregations at the same time.

A plurality of denominations and an unwillingness to "check out" new members leads to the fear that any discipline simply leads to "going down the road." So, in effect, we are back to the numbers game.

Discipline need not be unkind or unloving. In fact, the biblical picture of church discipline is just the opposite. The recalcitrant were removed and "treated as a gentile." That doesn't mean hatred; that means lovingly communicating the gospel and calling the individual to repentance. No church discipline should ever be practiced "without tears." But…we live in a culture where parents are afraid to discipline their children; it is no wonder church leaders are afraid to discipline the children of God.

Practicing church discipline is not denying the "grace standard." It is, in fact, applying it! Even when such discipline requires exclusion in extreme situations, it must be accomplished with unconditional love for the disciplined. This may seem paradoxical, but much of Christianity is! We save our life by losing it; we gain status by becoming humble and so on. It is entirely possible to discipline, not from anger or vengeance, but from love.

May we seek a restoration of biblical membership and discipline!


TaiYuan1 said...

Thanks for writing about this subject! I believe membership is something that the Church of Christ has to start placing more value.

Several of your thoughts (on membership) are also found in a wonderful book called “The Deliberate Church” by Mark Dever. Chapters 4 and 5 are about church membership and discipline.

They continue to have:
A Mandatory New Member’s Class
The Church Covenant, “Requiring people to sign a church covenant lets them know that they will be expected not only to believe the statement of faith, but to live it out.”
The Membership Interview – This interview asks those involved:
1. Ask them to explain the Gospel.
2. Ask what their previous church was why they left. This goes into the getting a letter from the church you left (if it is within 30min).
3. Have they ever been disciplined by a church?
4. Ask for their Personal Testimony.

Mark explains that there is margin of error when it comes to becoming a member and some might think what they do is a little over the top. But he says, “Perhaps it sounds unloving to question people’s salvation whey they ask to become members of our churches. But if membership is a local churches external affirmation of a person’s spiritual conversion, then the most unloving thing we can do is mislead condemned people into thinking they are saved by conferring membership upon them too hastily.”

His chapter on church discipline outlines much of what you have talked about and how to go about this in a way that honors God and not man.

jim said...

Michael, I think I have tried contacting you before but did not have luck. I hope this time God intervenes and hooks us up. I saw this past thanksgiving your blog back when you described the changes at Oak Hills Church at mentioned Pantego Bible Church. What's funny and you may already know this is that Randy Frazee is now a main pulpit speaker at Oak Hills and all of this really comes about because of Bill Hybels.
Willow Creek took the Pantego survey and has run with it. Contact me because I believe that blog of your back in 2004 had some really neat future ability to it. God Bless, Jim Cooke -

Brent said...

Mr. Hines, I am new to your blog. I will return, as I appreciate your info!

When it comes to church membership, in my experience, that the church is concerned about my devotion to the church and to Christ, rightfully so.

But what questions should be asked to the leaders of the church? There are many denominations available, and many churches within those denominations.

Should I be concerned with the finances? The Leadership? If the Church Board supports the Pastor? If the Pastor and the Church Board even get along?

Why would I want to hang my hat in a church full of strife? And the only way I would know, is if I asked the questions! I am going to a church membership meeting in the morning. And I have questions. Just as the church wants to check me out before they accept my membership, I want to check them out, and make sure my hat fits their hat stand!