Formal Versus Informal Membership

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fvimthumbIn a previous Pastors’ Pen article I introduced the subject of what constitutes church membership. In this article I wish to return to that theme and discuss the issues of formal versus informal membership, while in a future article I will address the question of active versus inactive members.

As we begin, we need to be aware that these two approaches to membership are grounded in radically different philosophies regarding the church. In my opinion, a church must make a decision between which approach it will exercise when it comes to membership. Both cannot exist in the same church at the same time; one of these will eventually cannibalise the other.

When I speak of “formal” membership, I am referring to the requirement that the prospective member must sign on the dotted line in order to join a church. That is, in formal membership it is expected that there will be a formal commitment of the believer to plant his banner in said local church. This will usually include a confession of adherence to the church’s statement of faith, a formal commitment to embrace its membership covenant, and some public recognition of becoming a member.

There are many who argue against such hoops through which prospective members must jump. Many argue that the New Testament knows nothing of formal membership and that we should just be happy to accept all and sundry who wish to claim a particular local church as theirs. The accusation is made that formal membership adds to Scripture. In fact, some argue that to require formal membership opens the door to the possibility of causing a believer to stumble.

Now, these are valid concerns, but they can easily be answered from Scripture.

First, the New Testament clearly indicates that the church of that day did practice some type of formal membership. Consider the fact that church discipline (which is biblically mandated, e.g. Matthew 18; 1 Corinthians 5, etc.) necessitates that there must be a recognised membership. Jesus said, “Tell it to the church” (Matthew 18:17). If there was no recognised membership, how would we know whom to “tell”? The same holds true when Paul (speaking of the discipline of a believer) wrote to the Corinthian church, “When you gathered together” (1 Corinthians 5:4). If there was no formal membership, how would the Corinthian believers know when the church was gathered? Clearly the New Testament church practised some type of formal or committed membership. Consider, further, the biblical mandate that the church is to submit to its elders. Again, if there is no recognised (formal) membership, then just who is responsible to submit to whom? How would the church ever be able to carry this out? It is pretty clear that the Bible does endorse the concept of formal membership. And even those who disagree would admit that often those who refuse to become members of churches (because they do not believe that it is necessary) will be the first to recoil against being held accountable because, after all, they are not “members”!

Recently, I was asked by a pastor what is meant by the term “adherent.” He said that this is a new concept in his experience. In the church in which he is ministering he frequently hears people speaking of church members and “adherents.” I explained that, as I see it, in most cases an adherent is someone who wants the benefits of a church but not the responsibility. Now, I am well aware that sometimes one is merely an “adherent” because they are undergoing the process of becoming a member, or they are searching for a church they can join. I am not speaking about such situations. The fact remains that there are many in churches who choose the noncommittal status conferred upon them by the concept of “adherent.” We don’t practice this at BBC. One is either a visitor (non-member) or a member. “Adherent” is an attempt to legitimise the concept of “informal member,” and this can only, in the long run, be spiritually counterproductive. Thus, at BBC, we practice formal membership.

As explained in the previous article, children under the age of 16 (an arbitrary age chosen simply for reasons of prudence) are indeed formally welcomed as members (upon a credible profession of faith, substantiated by baptism), but their membership is to be formally affirmed between the ages of 16 and 18. At no point are they deemed “adherents.”

In light of this discussion, let me take this opportunity to encourage those are not yet members (and yet are believers) to take the necessary steps to rectify this situation. Church membership is not optional for the disciple of Jesus Christ. It is precisely for this very reason that we do not compromise this biblical principle by practicing “informal membership.” If you love the Lord, please join the visible demonstration of the body of Christ for God’s honour, for your good, and for the welfare of the church.

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