Q307 : Problems with Church Membership

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Q307 : Problems with Church Membership

The church that I am currently attending has a church covenant. One has to read and verbally agree to this covenant before they can become a member of the church. There are some legalistic views in the covenant that I couldn't agree to. My question however is how biblical is a church covenant? Do you believe the Bible teaches that we need a separate covenant, in addition to our new covenant with Christ, to be a member of a church? Thank you in advance.

A307 : by Tony Garland

Churches are free to establish guidelines or procedures which are not found directly in the New Testament, but such guidelines or procedures must not contravene scriptural principles. (Churches have freedom in areas which are not proscribed by scripture).

Having said that, it has been my hard-won experience that churches frequently establish guidelines or procedures which interfere with or disregard important principles within scripture and this almost always leads to problems. The two most common problems one encounters are:

  1. Church membership divides the body of Christ.
  2. Church membership subverts pastoral authority.
The first problem occurs when believers are required to become members of a local church before they are allowed to serve or develop their God-given gifting. The local church membership is effectively used to divide the body of Christ, effectively creating two classes of believers: those who are “in” (members) and those who are “out” (non-members). Most often, members are allowed to teach, serve communion, etc. whereas the non-members are precluded from these roles. Even believers who have demonstrated active and reliable participation within the fellowship for an extended period of time may be prevented from fully participating in the local assembly unless they join as members or “covenanters.”

Where this occurs, I believe this to be a serious mistake. First, one is hard-pressed to find clear support within scripture for the notion of formal church membership. (Yes, I've read many articles and listened to numerous sermons to the contrary, but none have been persuasive.) Second, how is it valid for men to divide the body of Christ with man-made schemes? If a believer doesn’t see church membership to be a valid scriptural principle, how can it be legitimate to deny them a full role serving within the local expression of the body of Christ?

Our church has some experience with this. After a painful church split some years back, our church constitution was revised to dissolve local church membership in favor of recognizing God-established membership within the body of Christ. (Remarkably, the proposed change to the constitution, which dissolved membership, was voted on by the then-membership and passed unanimously.)

The second problem is related to the first. Often, local church membership is the means by which voting is controlled. Those who are members may vote whereas those who are not are excluded from voting. This issue of who can vote is especially important in churches where the congregation effectively has authority over the elders. The congregation can vote elders in and vote elders out. This leads to what I refer to as “authority inversion.” The elders, who should be in a position of ultimate authority, wind up subservient to the congregation. This is a very common situation in the United States where people assume the church should run like a secular democracy. I've written an article on this second problem: Authority Inversion: The Subversion of Pastoral Leadershipa.

Speaking for myself, I have avoided joining a church as a member—since I don’t find unambiguous support for local church membership in scripture and such membership often leads to problems. In the case of having to sign a formal covenant, I would be especially cautious. Many churches want to intrude far beyond their scriptural mandate into the home lives of their members in ways which are not recognized by the New Testament. Sometimes, this can be a tip-off that legalism is afoot.

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