Church Membership – Part 2

February 26, 2008

In my previous post I talked about church membership from a biblical perspective. There just doesn’t seem to be any biblical support for a concept of church membership distinct from the list of Christians who assemble together at a regular time and place.

But there is another side to the story about church membership. This article from 2005 on Christianity Today advocates a definitive approach to church membership for the legal protection of the church. In the course of practicing its religious convictions, a church may have to take action that leads to a civil lawsuit. The biblical practice of church discipline is a clear example of a Christian doctrine that might lead to a lawsuit.

A person who is disciplined by the church might claim he or she did not consent to the practice as a part of being a member. By clearly defining who is a member, and clearly teaching the doctrine of the church on the matter of church discipline, a church can protect itself in the eyes of the secular courts. They can show that the disciplined member knew, or should have known, the teaching of the church regarding discipline. Since the disciplined member continued to be a member anyway, he or she assumed the responsibility for the consequences of that decision. So the church would have a strong position in the event of a lawsuit.

If the church has not taken adequate measures to define membership and to teach about church discipline, the threat of lawsuits might deter them from carrying out biblical discipline. That may in turn lead to harm coming to members of the church by the one who should have been disciplined — and even more risk of lawsuits.

The approach advocated in the Christianity Today article is to have a “membership covenant” signed by each member, stating among other things their awareness of church discipline policy. With such a signed statement on file, a disciplined member would have little recourse in the secular courts. That approach probably sounds good to a lawyer, but it sounds pretty heavy-handed and insensitive to me. I don’t know of any church that carries matters that far, in an effort to protect against the remote possibility of a future discipline case leading to a lawsuit.

I’m just not comfortable with placing requirements on church membership that come from an indisputably secular source. I think it should be enough to keep a membership list, to have a process for welcoming new members, and a regular practice of teaching the scriptures, including the subject of discipline. Then, if discipline is necessary, the church should document each step in the process as a person is warned about what will happen if they do not repent. In all such cases, the church should seek the advice of a good Christian lawyer to guide them through the process.

The day a Christian first arrives in our midst is not the time to talk about the prospect of expelling them from the church. Christians should be welcomed into the church with open arms and made to feel like a beloved part of the family. That is what they are!

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, so take my advice on this with a grain of salt!


  1. Alan,We ask those who wish to become members to meet with the elders. Sometimes we find they need some instruction, such as not even understanding what it means to be a Christian.We ask them to commit to this congregation and its leaders. We ask them to volunteer for ministry. We encourage them to join a class and small group.We pray for them.I think this makes much better sense that the “going forward” approach adopted by many congregations. It helps the members know their elders and vice versa. And it makes certain that those who need elementary instruction receive it.

  2. Hi Jay,Thanks for the helpful comment. I agree that it is reasonable — even biblical — to confirm that a prospective new member is indeed a Christian and was in good standing in their former congregation, through a letter or other communication. I also agree it is important for the shepherd to get to know the sheep, for the sheep to get to know the shepherd, and to help the sheep become a functioning part of the flock. We do try to meet with new members but we are considering ways to formalize the process so that it is handled more consistently.We also ask these folks to become part of a “family group.” We’ve been at this “elder thing” for only about five years so we are learning as we go. I genuinely appreciate feedback from folks like you who have experience going back multiple generations.

  3. You know, I don’t think they worried much in the early church about who might sue them. They didn’t have million dollar budgets back then I suspect. And if they had I think they’d rather give it all up vs. have folks sign membership covenants outside the convenant of Christ.ttk

  4. Alan interesting post brother.Keep up the great blogging.I hope you have a blessed weekend. In Him,Kinney Mabry

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