The Problem of Having No Defined Membership

If you don’t have any identifiable membership, one of the passages of scripture that already terrifies me to death as a pastor becomes utterly horrific.

The Lord will ask for an account from me, not just for my soul, nor how I led my family, but how I led my entire church. And it’s worse than that because it’s not just a generic account of my “leadership” but a very specific account for how I have cared for the souls of those in our church. The state of your soul, if you are a member of my church, is on my head! That is terrifying to me.

 

I have made the case for meaningful church membership before. It is my view that membership is biblical, making best sense of what we see written about the church, and vital for the life of the church. But many remain convinced that membership is neither biblical nor necessary. Here, I don’t want to defend membership biblically (I’ve done that elsewhere), instead I want to look at the problems that ensue if we don’t have meaningful membership.

Killed on Accountability

If you don’t have any identifiable membership, one of the passages of scripture that already terrifies me to death as a pastor becomes utterly horrific. Here is what Hebrews 13:17 says:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I find that terrifying. The Lord will ask for an account from me, not just for my soul, nor how I led my family, but how I led my entire church. And it’s worse than that because it’s not just a generic account of my “leadership” but a very specific account for how I have cared for the souls of those in our church. The state of your soul, if you are a member of my church, is on my head! That is terrifying to me.

But if you have no membership, that verse is an absolutely killer because who are the people for whom you will give an account? If you are a church leader, who are you actually leading? If it’s not your members, minimally it’s every person who ever turns up at your church, even those who aren’t believers and those who bob in every now and then, only to get off just as quickly. Otherwise, it’s every person in your geographic area, or every believer in the world. But however you cut it, suddenly the means of knowing for whom you will give account becomes very difficult and – should you be held accountable – you have almost no way to fulfil this command without serious consequences.

Impossible Discipline

That question of accountability has other knock-on problems. How, exactly, do you discipline people who have never actually submitted to your leadership? If you offer the Lord’s Supper to everyone who says they’re the Lord’s, on what ground can you take it away from them? Who are you to say they aren’t a believer when they say they are? It is, ultimately, a matter between them and the Lord on this ground – a conscious issue that can’t have anything to do with the church because they never joined it to begin with (indeed, they couldn’t, because there was nothing to join!)

But questions of communion aside, how do we put people ‘out’ of a church to which there was no ‘in’ to begin with? You can’t send people out of a door that doesn’t exist. If there is a problem with another believer, and we speak to them privately and – in the absence of repentance – you take witnesses with us, should they still not repent, who is the church we are meant to bring the matter to now? If we don’t have a defined membership, are we supposed to bring it before everyone who turns up on a Sunday? How do we square this with Paul’s censure about going before unbelievers in courts of law if we are, in effect, allowing unbelievers to adjudicate on issues within the church alongside us?

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