In 1997 I was completely opposed to the idea of church membership. I grew up in a church that did not have official membership. I saw no great value to membership. It seemed like all responsibility and only one privilege—voting—a privilege more likely than not to lead to church problems.
During the summer of 1997, Bob Jones University hired me to write the last in a series of Sunday School quarterlies for their college SS classes. Developing Biblical Interpersonal Relationships was the topic assigned. While researching for the chapter on how to deal with relationships broken by sin, I ran across a true story that ran much like the following.
A church in Colorado had an open-membership policy like I grew up with: if you come regularly and tithe, you’re a member. A young woman, who was a part of the college & career group, decided to move in with her boyfriend. From her perspective, her moral behavior was none of the church’s business.
That wasn’t how the church saw it. Since she had been a regular “member,” the church initiated the steps Jesus laid out in Matthew 18:15-17 for dealing with a brother or sister who sins. First, her friends went to her, but she wouldn’t listen. Then the church leadership went to her, explaining what the Bible says about fornication and Christians, but she wouldn’t listen.
At this point, she decided that since she was being harassed by a bunch of legalists, she would just quit attending that church and go somewhere else. However, the church didn’t look at it quite that way. From the church’s perspective, she was backsliding, and they had to exercise the discipline Christ prescribed in order to bring her back into right relationship with God. So, they took the third step: they brought her case before the church, formally censured her in absentia, and declared her no longer a member of the church.
She sued the church for libel and defamation, and the court awarded her $250,000. The rationale: because she had never made any formal commitment to membership and had told the church leaders that she no longer considered herself a member of their church, the church did not have a legal right to discipline her.
My study of the Scriptural principles for church discipline had lead me to the conclusion that God designed it to function as the immune system for the Body of Christ. A church without church discipline is like a body without an immune system: it will fall prey to every and any disease that comes along. As I pondered the Colorado church’s story, I completely reversed my opinion. Not only am I no longer opposed to church membership, but I see it as absolutely essential for the spiritual vitality of the Church.
The biblical mandate of church discipline and the legal impossibility of exercising it without church membership is one of the primary reasons I am advocating a rethinking of church polity, and especially the way we conceive and practice church membership.