Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Church Reform - Membership and Discipline

I am a Southern Baptist. Most statistics I have seen suggest that there are 16 million of us. Unfortunately, only about 50% or so bother to attend church on any given Sunday. I imagine that percentage is similar for many other denominations as well (at least in the USA). What does this mean? It indicates that in most cases church membership means little to nothing. Because of this, the church often ends up looking like the world.

In the early church, we see a community that looks very different from the world. A glance back at Acts 2 and 4 makes this very clear. That church was by no means perfect (see Ananias and Sapphira); however, in general the early church looked far different from the world in which it lived. Today, how can we get back to looking like the early church? Is there anything that can be done?

I believe a key in all this is the combination of meaningful church membership and church discipline. If these are put in place, then the church should look far different from the world. Let’s take a look.

In many Southern Baptist churches (I use SBC churches as an example because they are what I know best), all a person has to do to join the church is to “walk the aisle” and tell the pastor that he wants to join. The pastor announces this and the body gives a hearty “Amen.” That’s it.

In the above situation, the church body is inviting a person to join with no evidence that the person is even saved. This leads to unregenerate church membership, which in turn creates all sorts of problems. What could be better?

Why not have prospective members have to wait a while prior to joining? This would allow the body to watch their behavior. If true Christians bear fruit (see John 15), then it will be clear who is saved and who is not. During this time, these folks could also take a few classes offered at the church in basic doctrine, church history, ministry opportunities, etc.

Related to this, new members should have to agree to live by a church covenant, which of course would be based entirely on scripture. This covenant, which all the members would agree to live by, would state both what the church believes and how they are going to live. A key aspect in a covenant should be the “one anothers” of life in the church; members would be clearly told that they are to love one another, care for one another, etc.

Part of the covenant must state the standards by which the church body will live. If these are followed, then the community will look much different from the world. If these standards are broken, then church discipline comes into play.

Church discipline is a practice that used to be alive and well in American churches. However, it is rarely seen today. Within SBC churches, discipline is something that most members do no even know exists.

When enacting church discipline, churches must be careful to follow the biblical model. Discipline should only be applied to an unrepentant member. The goal of discipline should always be repentance and restoration.

When a member is in unrepentant sin, the process seen in Matthew 18 must be followed. This should be followed methodically, and the member should be given time to repent. Passages such as I Corinthians 5 and Galatians 6:1 should be consulted also. Again, the goal of church discipline must be the restoration of the member. Those enacting discipline should also beware of pride during this process.

To summarize, churches today do not look much different from the world. This can and must change. How is this to happen? Churches must switch to practicing meaningful membership and consistent discipline. In essence, this means that it becomes more difficult to become a member, and more of a responsibility once you become one.

The purpose of all this must be the glorification of God through the practices of a holy church.


Alan Knox said...


I understand your concerns about "meaningful church membership". However, in this point, I do not think "reform" will come about by enforcing membership requirement and church discipline based on covenants.

Instead, I think that "church membership" is actually working against the church. First, I think "church membership" causes division between different parts of the body of Christ. Second, I think "church members" causes some to think that they do not have responsibilities toward some brothers and sisters in Christ because they do not share "membership".

I think, instead, that "reform" will come about when we stress our God-given responsibilities as family members with all brothers and sisters that God brings into our lives. When we teach and model that we are members of one another, not because of a contract or covenant with a "local church", but because we are all part of God's family, brought into his family by His Spirit. Thus, our responsibilities toward one another - including the responsibility of discipline for the purpose of restoration - is not dependent upon our agreement with a group of believers. Instead, our responsibility is based upon our mutual relationship with one another due to our mutual relationship with God through the Son empowered and enabled by the Spirit.

"Regenerate church membership" is a very hot topic in SBC life right now. However, I am afraid that the way it is normally framed will end up working against the church instead of building up the church.


Lew A said...


It is great to see other brothers and sisters thinking through these issues. Especially in today's day and age when the church is going through so much change.

I think you may have made a jump in logic. You seem to be blaming the worldliness of the church (at least in part) on the meaningless membership guidelines they employ.

Then you point to the early church as an example of the opposite of worldliness. Yet, I really see no evidence to suggest that the early church employed any sort of formal membership guidelines.

Perhaps then the meaningless membership is not really the problem. Maybe our understanding of the church and "membership" is the problem. For instance, can you "join" the church formally? Aren't you already a member of the church when you are saved? Perhaps we need to stop trying to formally recognize people who are part of the church, just build relationships with them. Then we will know if they are truly members of Christ's body.

Regarding covenants, I wonder if it might not be less of a burden if we just expected people to live according to scripture - rather than a predefined "scriptural" covenant.

God's Glory,

Eric said...


Thanks for your input on this post.

I agree with you that we, as Christians, have responsibility toward all of our brothers and sisters in Christ. I wish all followers of Christ would share in the unity we have as children of God.

However, I also believe there is a place for membership in a local church. Instead of membership excluding folks, I am suggesting reform that aims at members actually taking responsibility for one another. This would be a starting point of for Christians realizing that they have a greater responsibility to the broader body of Christ.

As for the covenant, I am not suggesting a movement beyond scriptural boundaries. I am suggesting that we put in writing how we expect Christians to live their lives. It would be similar to a confession of faith, which the church has had for many hundreds of years.

Rhea said...

I see what you're saying about church membership classes, but what I don't get is how a local church/congregation could make requirements of someone to join that Jesus does not make on us to join the church as a whole (universal church). To me it doesn't seem fair/right...though perhaps I'm missing something.

To me, the issue isn't so much "church membership" as it is people realizing what responsibilities they have to each other as Christians. Does that make sense (I'm not sure that I'm wording things very well).

Eric said...


Thanks for commenting on this post.

When I read about the early church, I see a group of people who lived differently than the world does. They clearly stood out from their environment.

When I look at the church today, I see much sin and worldliness. The church and society don't look that different.

If a body of believers is to look like the early church, they must know one another, be invested in one another, and hold one another accountable for their beliefs and actions. Meaningful membership can assist in this.

As to any covenant, it should be based on scripture. It would be simple in nature, and clearly state what the bible says about how we should live in order to glorify God.

Thanks, Eric

Eric said...


I am in no way suggesting that a person is not part of the church of Christ when he gets saved.

However, Christ also made clear that his followers knew what the expectations were for their behavior. They were to bear fruit. Christ would know whether or not they are saved.

When a person asks to join a local body, how do the members of that body even know if the person is saved? I'm not suggesting that they have to wait years prior to joining the church, but rather that their behavior be observed for a relatively short period of time prior to membership.

This process will keep unregenerate people from quickly joining churches. Christ never intended for unsaved people to be part of the body of Christ.


Alan Knox said...


I understand what you are saying, and I understand that you are trying to protect the church. However, think about your last statement to Rhea: "Christ never intended for unsaved people to be part of the body of Christ." On the one hand, it is completely impossible for "unsaved people" to be part of the body of Christ. The only way to be part of Christ's body is to be baptized into his body by the Holy Spirit.

However, it is possible for "unsaved people" to be part of the organizations and institutions that we create - which we usually create using our membership covenants. But, then again, it is easy for an unbeliever to sign a covenant and even for an unbeliever to "act" saved - going to the right classes and saying the right things in front of people. However, these memberships and groups are not synonymous with either the church or the body of Christ. So, no matter how hard we try, we cannot be certain of someone's relationship with Christ. We must trust Christ to decide who is part of his body and who is not.

On the other hand, "unsaved people" ARE supposed to be part of the lives of those who are in the body of Christ. Paul made this very clear at the end of 1 Cor 5. We are supposed to spend time with those who are outside the body of Christ. Sometimes, other people may assume that we are "gluttons and drunkards" because we spend time with gluttons and drunkards and drug addicts and prostitutes and liars and thieves and even good-ole boys.

I don't think the key to "reform" is in enacting covenants. We already have Scripture and we already have the Spirit. What we need instead are genuine relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ, such that if ANYONE claims to be a believer, then we help them walk with Christ. When they sin - which all of us will do - we help restore them. When they refuse to repent of sin, then we refuse to fellowship (share our lives) with them until God restores them.

This type of life is not generated by a covenant that we create. It is generated by the Spirit, and modelled by more mature believers. This does not mean that covenants are bad... they are simply unnecessary and sometimes divisive and distracting.


Eric said...


I think we agree on where we wish the church was at this time. We would both like to see believers living as salt and life in the world, and doing this by relying upon one another and sharing life together with the body of Christ.

I think we disagree on the best way to get to that point. In my suggesting that a local church body have real membership requirements, I am not suggesting that this should be put in place for the main purpose of excluding anyone (I realize this does happen in some churches). My hope is that this would lead both to a purer church body and to the members realizing that they have responsibility to one another.

As to the covenant, why not make one that helps people understand what the bible has to say about how they are to live? This is not designed to make their lives more difficult, but rather to assist them.

As to the unsaved, I would certainly hope that the body of Christ would reach out to them and share Christ with them. I don't see how membership precludes the church from doing this.

Overall, I think we agree on an end goal, but differ philosophically over how to get there.

Thanks again for commenting.


Alan Knox said...


I agree that we are interested in the same results. I would suggest, however, that a covenant is a step that is unnecessary.

Consider, for example, that you get together with a group of believers. You all come up with a covenant that is exactly like you envision. Everyone agrees with the covenant. Now what? Unless the people learn how to relate to one another and to other believers as brothers and sisters in Christ, as prompted by the Spirit and as modelled by more mature believers, I do not think anything will change. Thus, the covenant did not add anything to the situation.

If the covenant is simply an explantion of what Scripture says, then you have everything in Scripture already. The covenant does not give us authority to enforce anything, our mutual relationship with God the Father gives us that responsibility.

Perhaps the covenant will explain all this, but the covenant itself will not make people obedient.


Aussie John said...


Are you sure you are not a reflection of me, say 30 years ago? Must be why I warm to you so much. I know where your heart is and mine aches for you.

How I have yearned to see and be amongst such a congregation that you dream of.

I can assure you that what you propose is exactly where I was at early in my ministry, covenants and all.

One of the greatest lessons I had to learn was that such idealism must be balanced with realism.

I hadn't learned what Paul declared in 2 Cor.12:10.

Rules (covenants), no matter how Biblical, will never cause people to be "good Christians", but when the Holy Spirit is at work, He causes them to realise they can only ever be "bad Christians" at best.

When that happens the self- assuredness, the certainty that we can somehow "do" things that will cause the institution to be more like Acts 1 and 2, will be replaced with the knowledge that unless "I" can be what I expect others to be, I have no right to expect it of others.

I haven't seen a covenant which, if I'm honest, that I can honor fully! Not even the one I had a major hand in formulating.

Have you seen a covenant which you can honor fully?

Covenants have the very real problem of causing the spiritually proud and self-righteous (including some "pastors") to become the self-appointed spiritual sheriff of the congregation. In my experience, they tend to shoot first and ask questions afterwards.

May the Lord bless your endeavors.

Eric said...


I agree very heartily that believers need to learn to relate to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.

When I suggest a covenant, it is not for the purpose of authority; rather it is simply to help the body more fully understand what their responsibilities are to one another. Clearly, the scriptures are the authority.

Maybe a better word for what I am suggesting would be a "statement of belief and practice." Again, this is not for authority, but rather to assist the body in understanding fully what their responsibilities are to one another (their brothers and sisters in Christ).

I also fully agree with you that no covenant or statement of faith will make or even motivate people to be obedient.

Eric said...


Thanks for commenting. I hope things are a little warmer where you are than they are here.

Thank you for your wisdom in this matter. I realize that I am being a bit idealistic in this post. My motivation is to see a purer church than the carnality we see today.

I agree that no covenant by itself will cause anyone to be a good Christian. Also, anyone can sign a covenant and have no intention of living according to it.

My hope is that churches will take a stand for the purity of the body and hold one another accountable. A covenant may help in this by clearly spelling out what the bible expects of people. It should at least keep members of the body from claiming ignorance as to how they should be living. Furthermore, having a covenant in place should assist if church discipline becomes necessary.

Again, I realize the limitations that membership, covenants, and church discipline can have. None of these will matter if the body is not composed of Spirit-filled believers who are striving to honor God by serving one another.

Thanks again,


Joe Blackmon said...

Hi all,
At the church I currently attend (Grace Baptist Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee), we had to go through a membership class and sign a covenant before we could join the church. I think that it made me more cognizant of my responsibilities to that local church and it's members. But I think that really had more to do with the elder teaching the new members class.
I think the membership covenant would be a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

Eric said...


You make a good point that the covenant is a means to an end instead of an end in itself. My hope is that a covenant will assist the members in realizing what their responsibilities are to one another and to fellow Christians.