There is a fairly widespread approach that wants to welcome people into church life before the have actually committed in membership to the church. Some see serving before belonging as a good way to draw more people in. Personally, I think this approach is a big mistake for a number of reasons.
Cannot distinguish the believing church from unbelieving non-members
One of the biggest problems with serving before belonging is that it confuses the church with the world. Everybody who serves within the church is serving on behalf of the church. Paul’s body imagery regarding church membership speak to the fact that we all need each other. When a hand does something, the body has done it. When the toe hurts, the body is hurting. But when those who do not belong to the body start serving on behalf of the body, they – whether we like it or not – are representing the body. If those people are unbelievers, we are allowing the world to represent the church. If those people are not believers, or are in some open unrepentant sin, allowing people to serve before belonging means they are representing our church in that state, suggesting that the church is okay with these things.
We have no credible grounds for service
If we do not make our baptised membership the grounds for service, we lose any credible grounds for service altogether. If we are happy for people to serve before belonging, we are forced into one of three unhelpful positions. Either, we allow people to serve ultimately because we like them, which carries the rather unfortunate consequences of stopping others from serving because we don’t like them or don’t trust them. Alternatively, in order to be consistent, we have to allow everyone to serve with no grounds to stop them ever serving. We can’t make unrepentant sin the grounds consistently because we’re happy to allow people to serve who haven’t yet obeyed Jesus through baptism and joining the church and, no doubt, in some cases may not even be believers at all yet. Allowing that unrepentant sin to be overlooked but others cause us to say ‘no, you cannot serve’ means we are inconsistent. Or, we have to accept that we are willing to operate inconsistently on the matter, which opens us up to charges of partiality. However, if we make membership the grounds for service, we have a clear line that is not partial and does not accommodate unrepentant sin.
We have no means of discipline if things go wrong
Church discipline exists for church members. Church members submit to the discipline of the church when they join because they want the church to hold them accountable to their profession of faith in Christ. But if somebody has never submitted to the authority of the church, there is no church discipline you can undertake. Usually, in matters of discipline – if someone doesn’t listen to you first – you might take the matter to the elders. But if the person has never submitted to the elders, there is no reason for them to listen. You might consider removing the Lord’s Supper from people, but if you have an open table at which they were already welcome, you have no authority to remove it from them – what are the grounds when you have already made the matter one of conscience and their isn’t bothering them? You might eventually want to remove somebody from the church, but how can you put somebody out of what they never joined to begin with? If you have people serving on behalf of the church, how can you get them to stop when they never joined the church in the first place? You have allowed them to do whatever they want with no recourse.
We give false assurance to people
Allowing people to serve when they don’t yet belong to the church can, disastrously, give them false assurance. We can’t be that surprised if people merrily serving in the church believe that they are a part of the church when they are not. If there is nothing to distinguish someone who isn’t in membership from somebody who is, we can’t be that surprised when people we haven’t admitted to membership begin to believe that they do, in fact, belong to Christ nonetheless. Even worse than having unbelievers representing the church to the world, is to comfort those unbelievers in their unbelief. Serving before belonging is deeply dangerous.