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Why Formal Church Membership

Jacob Hantla September 19, 2010

Yesterday we announced upcoming church membership classes. Today we give a little more information regarding why we believe formal church membership is important at Grace Bible Church.

We believe that the New Testament assumes that those who repented and put their trust in Jesus Christ for salvation automatically had an informal membership commitment to the local church they were a part of. Informal, by the way, does not necessarily convey shallowness of commitment. Believers for centuries were deeply committed to the gospel ministry of their local churches without ever going through some type of formal process that formally identified them as members of that church body. It is still possible today for churches to have an informal membership that expresses deep commitment to that church.

We also believe that the New Testament is silent when it comes to formal membership (no formalized process of identifying and expressing membership in a local body exists in the New Testament). The elders of GBC are not appealing to Scripture to justify a formal process that identifies the church’s membership. Rather, the elders simply believe a more formalized approach to church membership for this body is wise, allowing us to be faithful to New Testament principles regarding the church.

The church landscape today: Local churches are challenged significantly by transient, Christian attenders who have many church choices before them. It is not as easy today to identify a church’s membership as it was in Paul’s day. The elders o f GBC believe formal membership is a better tool to identify the membership of this church than an informal membership process.

Both approaches to membership (formal, informal) can be abused, run sloppily, or be implemented thoughtfully to the glory of God. It is simply our wisdom preference to have moved from an informal membership to a formal membership (in 2007). And the effectiveness of both approaches to membership is dependent on the character and wisdom of the elders wielding the membership tool in the body. Please pray for godliness and greater wisdom for the elders in this church as they seek to shepherd this body to the glory of God!

The elders of GBC view formal church membership this way:
“Formal church membership is a tool by which the elders intend to remove assumptions and reinforce unity on important biblical matters of church doctrine and life.”

The elders of GBC have the following convictions about formal church membership:

A more formalized membership process into membership in this church body (like these classes and elder interviews, etc.), can be an effective means for attenders to comprehensively learn about this church (and its commitment expectations) sooner than later.

A formal membership can prepare this smaller church for the possibility of a greater membership later. The smaller we are, commitment to Jesus Christ and one another is more readily seen and understood – perhaps it even occurs more naturally. But the larger a church body becomes, the less readily seen and understood is an individual’s commitment to Christ and others in the body. And, the larger a church becomes, the more work it takes to be unified on important biblical matters and ministry convictions. The elders of GBC believe that formal church membership, instituted now, can serve this body well to combat the challenges to unity it will face as it grows.

A formal membership can remove assumptions about and reinforce unity concerning the credibility of an individual’s profession of faith in Christ. Each member will have a greater degree of confidence that all the members of the church have had an open and honest discussion with the elder leadership concerning important biblical subjects like repentance toward, faith in, love for, and obedience to Jesus Christ, etc. as well as our biblical convictions and doctrinal statement. Without a formal process for membership, how do newer attenders come into unified agreement with the rest on these important subjects? A more formal process also helps assure members who have been at GBC longer that the doctrinal convictions are being preserved.

Formal members of a church can more readily be in agreement concerning how we deal with unrepentant sin in one of the members of the church. With an informal membership, members in this body might not have as great a degree of confidence that all its members have the same view of sin or view repentance in the same way, or that they are all in agreement with the elders view of sin and repentance. This church suffered greatly in its early years by not being in agreement concerning sin and repentance.

A formal membership can help protect the church body in matters of church discipline in our litigious society. The unfortunate reality today is this – the less formal a church’s membership is, the greater the church’s exposure to both financial loss and loss of reputation as it seeks to deal biblically with unrepentant sin.

Let’s summarize our discussion of formal church membership. The elders of GBC believe the church will benefit from this tool (formal membership) because it will help remove otherwise uninvestigated assumptions about one another’s views on important biblical matters. The elders believe a more formalized approach to membership will unify the expectations the church’s membership has with one another. The elders of GBC believe a formal approach to membership will help them more readily identify the membership of this body and thereby improve their protection of and shepherding of this body in sound doctrine.

Again, the “tool” for membership chosen is only as good as the character of the leadership wielding it. So please pray for each elder to supremely love Jesus and aggressively fight sin as they personally and corporately shepherd God’s people at Grace Bible Church.

“Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock,
among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers,
to shepherd the church of God
which He purchased with His own blood.”
Acts 20:28