The problem of having no defined membership

I have made the case for meaningful church membership before. It is my view that membership is biblical, making best sense of what we see written about the church, and vital for the life of the church. But many remain convinced that membership is neither biblical nor necessary. Here, I don’t want to defend membership biblically (I’ve done that elsewhere), instead I want to look at the problems that ensue if we don’t have meaningful membership.

Killed on accountability

If you don’t have any identifiable membership, one of the passages of scripture that already terrifies me to death as a pastor becomes utterly horrific. Here is what Hebrews 13:17 says:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I find that terrifying. The Lord will ask for an account from me, not just for my soul, nor how I led my family, but how I led my entire church. And it’s worse than that because it’s not just a generic account of my “leadership” but a very specific account for how I have cared for the souls of those in our church. The state of your soul, if you are a member of my church, is on my head! That is terrifying to me.

But if you have no membership, that verse is an absolutely killer because who are the people for whom you will give an account? If you are a church leader, who are you actually leading? If it’s not your members, minimally it’s every person who ever turns up at your church, even those who aren’t believers and those who bob in every now and then, only to get off just as quickly. Otherwise, it’s every person in your geographic area, or every believer in the world. But however you cut it, suddenly the means of knowing for whom you will give account becomes very difficult and – should you be held accountable – you have almost no way to fulfil this command without serious consequences.

Impossible discipline

That question of accountability has other knock-on problems. How, exactly, do you discipline people who have never actually submitted to your leadership? If you offer the Lord’s Supper to everyone who says they’re the Lord’s, on what ground can you take it away from them? Who are you to say they aren’t a believer when they say they are? It is, ultimately, a matter between them and the Lord on this ground – a conscious issue that can’t have anything to do with the church because they never joined it to begin with (indeed, they couldn’t, because there was nothing to join!)

But questions of communion aside, how do we put people ‘out’ of a church to which there was no ‘in’ to begin with? You can’t send people out of a door that doesn’t exist. If there is a problem with another believer, and we speak to them privately and – in the absence of repentance – you take witnesses with us, should they still not repent, who is the church we are meant to bring the matter to now? If we don’t have a defined membership, are we supposed to bring it before everyone who turns up on a Sunday? How do we square this with Paul’s censure about going before unbelievers in courts of law if we are, in effect, allowing unbelievers to adjudicate on issues within the church alongside us?

Unless there is a formal ‘in’ there cannot be a formal ‘out’. And unless there is a defined group who are ‘in’ there is no way of working out who we should tell the matter to so as to put the person ‘out’. In fact, we have to ask who has the authority to put anybody out at all, given nobody ever submitted to their authority to do so? Ill-defined or non-existent membership makes church discipline nigh on impossible.

Confused covenants

I appreciate different churches are going to see this one a bit differently. So, without looking to upset anyone else and recognising differences on this matter, let me say this one is specific to Baptists. But if you have no membership, how exactly do you differentiate believers from unbelievers in the church? How do you distinguish those who belong to the covenant from those who don’t and, therefore, those for whom you have to give an account, those welcome to the table, able to serve or any other thing that is for believers?

One answer might be to do as the exclusive brethren do and basically make your meetings and service exclusive to only believers. In other words, don’t let unbelievers in your building. Most of us wouldn’t do that (for obvious reasons) and it does, ironically, create a membership of a sort anyway. It just does it, literally, at the front door.

But assuming you don’t want to do that, how do you distinguish believers from unbelievers? Perhaps you would say, at the table. But what ground have you got for saying no? If somebody insists they’re a believer, but you doubt it, do you just pull out the ‘I’m the pastor’ card and refuse them? What if others disagree? Unless you run an Anglican style service from the altar, how are you stopping that? And if your position is the genuine belief that the individual is a believer, who are you to say they’re not when everyone else simply self-identifies as a believer? We will have handed the keys of the kingdom to every individual for their own personal use.

But who will the church point at as the believers? If there is a membership, it is those the church has affirmed as believers through baptism and whom it continues to affirm through communion. But without an identifiable membership, who do we say ‘the church’ actually is? And who do we point unbelievers to and say, that’s what a Christian looks like? And given our propensity to get get these things wrong from time to time, what is our check and balance and stop an individual simply signing folks off with no reference to anybody else?

Comforting the unconverted

Perhaps the biggest issue is that we can inadvertently give false comfort to those who are not believers. The Bible is full of warnings not to delude ourselves into thinking we’re believers when we evidently are no such thing. And it is not at all uncommon for people to think they’re believers because they come to church every week, sing the songs, take communion and assume they are doing all the right things.

If you have a defined membership, it is quite easy to tell people that – outside of membership – we are not affirming them as believers. It doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t; it just means the church cannot (or has not) affirmed it. There remains such question marks over their understanding of the gospel or testimony that we are in no position to affirm them as believers.

Without a defined membership, especially in churches where communion is simply a matter between you and the Lord, there is nothing that might cause somebody to question their standing before the Lord. And we have no mechanism to effect anything to that end. Everyone can come, everybody can partake of the table, anyone can serve. Any attempt to differentiate makes it hard to avoid accusations of little more than favouritism – why can’t I when everyone else can? I thought it was between me and the Lord?

If we have a properly defined membership – a clear sense of who does and doesn’t belong to the church based on our understanding of who does and doesn’t belong to Christ – we avoid many of these issues. Regardless, it would be my view that church membership is fully biblical and – apart from whether it works or not – should not be set aside because, despite the word ‘membership’ not being in the Bible (though, it bears saying, the word ‘member’ definitely is), it is the only way to make sense of much biblical data about the local church.