Rethinking Church, Part Five: Formal Church Membership

"Bring up church membership and watch people squirm." -Ed Stetzer

Isn't that the truth? I squirmed a little just typing that and you probably did too as you read it. Formal church membership can be an explosive subject because people either see no need for it or they have a deep-seated emotional investment with it. I don't think I've met anyone who is truly neutral to the idea of formal church membership. We seem to either run from it as an unnecessary burden that can in some instances be abusive, or we run to it with such robust conviction that we've convinced ourselves those who aren't a formal member in an institutional church are either in sin or fringe Christians who don't really get it. 

In this post, I want to talk to you about formal church membership. It's a subject that keeps presenting itself to me on this journey God has me on, so I want to address it. My views on formal church membership haven't changed much in the 50 years of my journey with Jesus but more recently, I'm seeing a trend in many institutional churches that is alarming. Allow me to say at the outset that I've pastored churches that have formal church membership and I've pastored churches that don't. I've been on the inside of both systems and I've seen the positives and the negatives of each. I'll talk more about that in a minute. First, let's review where we've been in this series. 

Review and Rewind 

This is the last of a five-part series I’ve called Rethinking Church. If you haven’t read parts one thru four yet, you can use the links below to do so. In this post, we’re going to continue

building on what I introduced in parts one thru four as we tackle the subject of formal church membership. What is formal church membership? Is formal church membership required of me? Is formal church membership a mandate found in scripture that I am compelled to obey? To refresh your memory, I’m presenting this five-part series in the following order:

I urge you to read these in the order they were written, as each builds on the previous. In parts one thru four we’ve been interacting with something Ignatius of Antioch penned around 110 AD that has since become the norm in most institutional church settings to varying degrees. I keep pointing out what he said because I want us to understand that a large part of our modern practices originate in tradition, not in the New Testament. And a large part of our traditions flow out of what Ignatius suggested: 

"Shun divisions as the beginning of evil. Follow your bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and follow your presbyters as the apostles; and respect your deacons as you would respect God’s commandment. Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop. Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes. Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the church." (Emphasis mine.) 

I’ve previously noted that this directive by Ignatius was firmly in place in most local assemblies by the middle of the 3rd century (250 AD). By that time, it was considered the norm that “Follow your bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father… Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop… Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes.” was an imperative found in scripture. But it is not. Tradition alone has given us this model. It is nowhere in the New Testament. We’ve already shown that this top-down authority structure, present in most modern institutional churches is a product of tradition that started as early as Ignatius. The one pastor authority model that we unquestionably accept as a mandate from God, is actually something that has been handed to us by church history and the traditions of men and we accept it without question. Not only do we accept it without question, but we’ve also complicated it by adding layer after layer of hierarchical organizational strata where pastors are over pastors, and those pastors are over other pastors, and the higher the structure rises, the more sophisticated and complicated the honorific titles become. Our church authority structures more closely resemble the corporate America CEO model than anything in the New Testament. We’ve taught tradition as the commands of God for so long, it doesn’t dawn on us to look past the traditions, open our New Testaments, and ask hard questions, questions that threaten 2,000+ years of those same entrenched traditions. 

But with so many leaving the institutional church, not because they’ve left Jesus, but because they feel the church has, it’s time to ask why. Will Ignatius’ words, “Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop. Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes” stand in the light of scripture, or should we jettison it as tradition that has proven harmful to the church, its elders, and the priesthood of all believers? How does this top-down authority structure that is present in so many institutional churches impact our understanding of church membership? Let’s take a closer look. 

What is the Church? 

I guess a better question to ask before talking about church membership is "What is the church?" Google the word "church" and you'll get a glimpse of how off message we are because most of what that search will yield is images of buildings or directions to buildings in competition with one another to draw you in, including web site addresses, phone numbers, and contact info. What you'll see is one organization after another, vying for your attention and support. It's been so ingrained in our thinking for so long that church is a building, location, or event, that we accept it without question. Most formal church membership contracts assume the only valid expression of the body of Christ is the traditional, institutional model. But what does the New Testament say about the church and membership in it? 

You've probably heard this a thousand times or more and so have I, but in order to let you know I've done my homework, let me remind you of what you may already know. In the New Testament, the word we translate as church (ἐκκλησία) is a word that refers to people, not buildings. It is a hybrid word of sorts that means a called out people. We find the ἐκκλησία in many different contexts in the New Testament including private gatherings (Acts 14:27), public gatherings (Acts 2:1-13), meeting together in homes (Romans 16:5, Col. 4:15), experiencing persecution (Acts 8:3), and experiencing peace (Acts 9:31). The ἐκκλησία also refers to an assembly or congregation of people in a geographic location (Acts 11:22, Acts 13:1, Romans 16:1, 1 Cor. 16:9). In each occurrence, the ἐκκλησία is a reference to people Jesus purchased with his own blood (Acts 20:28) and never to a building, a location, or an event to attend. 

Our English word for church comes to us from an old English word that has its origins around 500 AD. That old English word had the meaning of "a lord's possession" or something belonging to a lord. The Greek equivalent of this old English word - kuriokos (κυριακός) only appears two times in the New Testament. Once in 1 Corinthians 11:20 where Paul is talking about the Lord's supper, and again in Revelation 1:10 where John is talking about being in the Spirit on the Lord's Day. Those are the only two occurrences of the New Testament Greek equivalent to the old English word church in the New Testament. Everywhere else that we see the word church in our English Bibles it's actually the Greek word ἐκκλησία (congregation) not κυριακός (a lord's possession). The latter came to be associated with organized, top-down religion while the former refers to a people unencumbered by burdensome religious hierarchy. Recognizing this important distinction and refusing to use the word church in his translation of the Greek New Testament into English is, in part, what led the organized church of William Tyndale's day to murder him. I recorded 5 episodes on that topic that you can listen to on my podcast, The UnSunday Show, if it interests you. In the remainder of this post I'll be using the word church and ekklesia interchangeably to refer to the body of Christ.

How does one become a part of this church? The short answer (and in my opinion, the only correct answer) is that membership in Christ's church is a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit that places us in the church, the body of Christ. At conversion, we are made members of his body, the church. This is his work, not ours. There are no rogue Christians out there who are not members of the church, the body of Christ. None. If one is a Christian, he or she is by definition, a member of the ekklesia, the church, the body of Christ: 

  • we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. (Romans 12:5)
  • But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. (1 Cor. 12:18) 

The New Testament refers to the church as a mystery. In the New Testament, a "mystery" can refer to something previously hidden under the Old Covenant, but now revealed with the death of Jesus in the New Covenant. This is the Apostle Paul's meaning when he is talking about the church being made up of both Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews). That the people of God could consist of both Jews and Gentiles is a New Covenant phenomenon. To the church at Ephesus he writes: 

"When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel." (Ephesians 3:4-6) 

Earlier in the same letter he said, 

"But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off [Gentiles] have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both [Jew and Gentile] one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man [the church] in place of the two [Jew and Gentile], so making peace, and might reconcile us both [Jew and Gentile] to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility [between Jew and Gentile that kept Gentiles out]." (Ephesians 2:13-16, brackets mine) 

The mystery kept hidden prior to the New Covenant was that both Jew and non-Jew would one day make up the people of God, the ekklesia. There is no class, gender, or racial separation in the church (Gal. 3:28). Paul sums it up this way: 

"And he came and preached peace to you who were far off [Gentiles] and peace to those who were near [Jews]. For through him we both [Jews and Gentiles] have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you [Gentiles] are no longer strangers and aliens, but you [Gentiles] are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:17-22, brackets mine) 

The body of Christ is a beautiful, living illustration of the grace of God redeeming sinners, making them instantly holy, and placing them in community with the Father and with other former sinners. The church consists of those outside the Father's family being brought into his family by a work of the Spirit so that we now "have access in one Spirit to the Father" resulting in our being made "members of the household of God." This supernatural work of God takes the imagery of the Old Covenant Temple (a physical building) and shows us the New Covenant fulfillment where the physical Temple gives way to a spiritual temple (1 Cor. 3:16) and the people of God, not bricks and mortar, are the "holy temple in the Lord" and "a dwelling place for God by the Spirit." In the church, unlike ancient Israel, everyone in it functions as a priest with direct access to the Father, not just a select few. There is only one Mediator, and he is none of us. 

"But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy." (1 Peter 2:9-10) 

But our day-to-day casual conversations reveal a basic misunderstanding of what the body of Christ (the ekklesia) actually is and our acceptance of what tradition has told us it is (church). Statements like "Where do you go to church?" "It's time to go to church" and "We go to John's church" all point to our allegiance of the accepted norm; church is a building, a destination, or an event built around a pastor or a group of pastors. I use the same phrases. It's hard not to. It's a little awkward to say "where do you go to building?" or "it's time to go to building." But it's more of an accurate description because since the church is people and those people sometimes gather in buildings, maybe we should think of our gatherings as the church going to a building, not the building being the church. I'm being a little sarcastic to make a point. Tradition has handed us this way of thinking, not the New Testament. 

I alluded earlier to the fact that more often than not, our view of church has more to do with Old Covenant imagery than with New Covenant reality. Under the Old Covenant, the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, were the center of Israel's worship. It was there that God met his people, mediated by a priest. It was there that God dwelt, hidden from the people behind a curtain in the Most Holy Place of the Tabernacle and later, the Temple. The tent, and later the building, were the physical holy destination where holy events took place and there were requirements for being there. But under the New Covenant, all of that imagery gives way to a better reality. The physical imagery of the Old gives way to the spiritual reality of the New. What was once a physical destination with required holy events, gives way to something far better, a spiritual temple comprised of redeemed people and everyone in it is a functioning priest, not just a select few (Eph 2:19-21, 1 Peter 2:9-10). Membership in this church is supernatural and immediate at conversion. There are no extra layers needed or hoops to jump through. 

What is Formal Church Membership? 

 Here's where the train starts to go off the rails. This is the spot in this blog post where some of you are going to get really mad at me, if you haven't already. In our top-down authority-based church systems, the beautiful work of the Spirit described in the verses above, simply isn't enough. We will probably all agree with them in principle because they're all over the New Testament, but in our top-down authority models, they alone cannot be trusted to compel you to do enough to support the system or structure that is in place. To accomplish that, we've created an accountability contract called formal church membership. Formal church membership acknowledges the Holy Spirit's work in making one a member of the body of Christ (the church), but it is specifically designed to compel you to further action in support of the local institution. It is a document that you will be required to sign, usually after taking some sort of membership class, that contains obligatory statements in support of the local institution that you will be required to adhere to after signing. The obligations within the document will vary depending on the local setting, but I've found that they generally revolve around three or four key topics. These topics are there on purpose to secure the success and ongoing viability and success of the institution. Remove these key elements and the institution crumbles. These key elements are normally: 

  • Money and Personal Resources
  • Power, Authority, and Accountability
  • Excommunication 

Money and Personal Resources

Giving of yourself and your money to the institution is paramount in perpetuating the institution. After all, there's mortgage, utilities, insurance, and salaries to pay. I don't think there is anything wrong with mortgages and salaries in and of themselves but don't be fooled. The institution comes first and giving outside of the institutionally-sanctioned programs is discouraged for the most part. I'm speaking from personal experience. This obligation to give must of course be "sacrificial" "cheerful" and "voluntary." 

" steward the resources God has given me, including time, talents, spiritual gifts and finances. This includes regular financial giving, service and participation in community that is sacrificial, cheerful and voluntary" -The Village Church (emphasis mine) 

Let's be real. The fact that I am being compelled to give by signing an accountability contract, makes my giving neither sacrificial, cheerful, nor voluntary.

"Will you consistently contribute, as a good steward of God’s blessings, such time, talent, and resources, in the measure that God prospers you, so that our local and worldwide ministry of spreading the gospel may continue?" -Grace Community Church (emphasis mine) 

 Of first importance in the institutional setting is the keeping alive of the institution. This is our ministry and it is in competition with other ministries and the institution down the street that competes for your money and time. By signing this, we own you. 

Power, Authority, and Accountability

In order to keep the money flowing and the structure viable, you must obligate yourself to submit to the top-down authority structure of the institution so they can keep you accountable to the signed membership contract. 

" submit to the elders and other appointed leaders of the church and diligently strive for unity and peace within the church" -The Village Church (emphasis mine) 


Repeated failure to live up to the commitment you've made to the local institution may result in excommunication. Formal membership is required because we can't kick you out unless you're in. Most institutional churches call this membership document a covenant. But be wise as serpents and harmless as doves in understanding the true nature of this "covenant." It is an accountability contract, masquerading as a commitment to community, obliging its members to jump through unnecessary hoops in order to keep the institution viable and its top-down authority structure in place and operating. I've mentioned in previous posts in the series that accountability is a poor substitute for genuine community. For more on community and accountability, please read part four of this series

"Members of this church and all other professing Christians who regularly attend or fellowship with this church who err in doctrine, or who engage in conduct that violates Scripture as determined by the Board of Elders, shall be subject to church discipline, including dismissal according to Matthew 18:15–18." -Grace Community Church 

 To further illustrate my point, I want to interact with an online article that appeared a few years ago in Christianity Today. NOTE: Unfortunately, the article I interact with below has since been removed and is no longer available. As we work our way through it, you will see a common theme of money, authority and power, and the threat of excommunication. This is merely one example of what must be millions. But please don't take my word for it. Go to almost any church website that adheres to formal church membership and take a look at their membership contract (assuming it's been made public), or Google formal church membership and take a look at the results. You will see some form of these three elements in most membership contracts, if not all. 

In July 2015, Christianity Today posted an article by Ed Stetzer entitled, Membership Matters: 3 Reasons for Church Membership. After giving several examples from 1 Corinthians of how Paul uses the word "body" to describe the church. Stetzer notes: 

"Why then do we have [formal] membership? Because regardless of how the culture sees it or Christians misunderstand it, [formal] membership is not simply an opportunity to say, I’m a part of a club, but rather a scriptural expression of covenant connectedness to a church."

Stetzer insists that formal church membership is a scriptural expression of covenant connectedness and yet he is strangely silent in providing any of those scripture texts that support such a bold claim. The only scriptures I can think of that express our covenant connectedness to Christ center around the New Covenant. I don't think that covenant needs our help in adding another layer to it to keep us accountable. But he continues, 

"There are three things that help us understand why church membership is biblical and important.... First, membership is a reflection of the organic community already existing in the body. Paul says we are a body. Can one part say to the other, “I’m not part of you”? No, it is already a part. But too often we live as if we are separated. As a matter of fact, too many churches or Christian gatherings look like piles of dismembered body parts, not a body knit together as God’s agent, his body, his kingdom, at work in the world. To reject the value of membership is to deny what God has already established in fact." (emphasis mine)

Did you catch that? In Stetzer's own words, we need formal church membership to reflect what already exists without it, organic community. But if organic community already exists without formal church membership, why do we need a formal church membership layer imposed on what's already there? Isn't organic community the stated goal and if it's already in place, why are we messing with it? Stetzer wants us to add additional layers to the already organic work of the Spirit. He is insisting we need formal church membership as a catalyst to maintain what the Holy Spirit has already given us apart from formal church membership, true organic community. Without formal church membership, we're being told the body of Christ looks like a pile of "dismembered body parts." For Stetzer, formal church membership is a required accountability layer. It's up to us to finish what the Holy Spirit only started. For Stetzer, to reject formal church membership is "to deny what God has already established in fact." In other words, we are denying what the Bible says about membership in Christ's body if we don't put on the additional layer of formal church membership. But again, any reference to scripture is missing. He continues, 

"We find in Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth that they were putting people out of the body. So Scripture teaches that we can be a part of the body, and we can be apart from the body. It is difficult to get around Scripture when it talks about being brought into the body and also being put out of it.... And yet for most churches there’s no way to put somebody out because they’re not even in."

There it is. Excommunication. How can we kick you out if we're not sure you're in? And you're not in unless you sign the contract. Once you sign you're in and we can kick you out if you don't comply. In part four of this series, Community and Accountability, I defined accountability using a definition I once heard that said accountability is the right to compel action with the enforcement of that right accomplished through rewards and punishments to conform behavior. Most formal membership contracts are a perfect example of this. We may call them covenants but what they really are is accountability contracts that compel action using rewards and punishments. In most instances, the ultimate punishment for failure to comply is the threat of excommunication. Stetzer's words, "there’s no way to put somebody out because they’re not even in" are a clear indication that formal church membership is built around an accountability model that may masquerade for a time as authentic community but at its core, it's an accountability contract that becomes a death knell for authentic community. Stetzer concludes, 

"God makes us a part of his larger family when we are born again. But then we should covenant in a local body and live in community with them, agreeing to live by certain established godly principles and standards." (emphasis mine)

Thus far in Stetzer's article, we've seen him play the accountability and excommunication cards and now we're seeing him play the power/authority card. "God makes us part of, ...but..." should send up all kinds of warning flags! Stetzer is concluding that formal church membership is an agreement "to live by certain established godly principles and standards." But what are those standards and who sets them? Who controls the controllers? Why isn't the Holy Spirit enough? Why is it that the Holy Spirit leading each of us into a change life is inadequate and not be trusted? In most formal church membership contracts, the "certain established godly principles and standards" are a reference to legalistic rule-keeping, giving to the institution, regular weekly and small group attendance, and submission to the authority of the elders and professional staff, even when you disagree or they are going down a harmful path that hurts others. These obligation-based rules are designed to perpetuate and prolong the life of the institution. But don't take my word for it. Direct your giving somewhere outside the institution and see how long it takes before being contacted. 

Leaders and Accountability

Something we hear often in support of formal church membership is a citing of a couple of verses in Hebrews 13 and the references there of submission to leaders. The assumption that is made is that the leaders mentioned are the elders/pastors in our modern, top-down authority-structured institutions. The verses in question read: 

"Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith." (Hebrews 13:7) 


"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." (Hebrews 13:17) 

We read the word "leaders" in these verses and our minds immediately go to the top-down authority structures that we've put in place in so many of our institutions, assuming the leaders mentioned in these verses must be the pastors and professional staff of our institutions. One problem with that view is that the word elder doesn't appear anywhere in the the book of Hebrews. They're not talked about at all. The only Pastor or Shepherd mentioned in Hebrews is Jesus (Heb 13:20). Another problem with that view is that the passage itself tells us who they are, "those who spoke to you the word of God." I think it's important to remember the context of Hebrews in understanding who these leaders may have been. Keep in mind that the letter to the Hebrews was written to Jews who were being pressured to reject Jesus and return to, or remain in Judaism. They were suffering intense personal loss of family, friends, reputation, and livelihood. It is in that context of extreme loss and persecution that the writer of this letter reminds them of both the message of the gospel (the word of God) and those who brought that message to them - those who have led them to this point. He's reminding them, as he's already done numerous times (Heb 2:1-4, 3:12-13, 4:1-2, et al), of the liberating news of the gospel and their friends who have shared that good news with them, who have brought them the message of Christ and continue to stand by them in their trials, reminding them of that same good news. I believe these leaders could have been anybody in the local assembly gifted to lead in this way. In talking about spiritual gifts, Paul told the Romans, 

"Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (Romans 12:6-8, emphasis mine) 

It's unlikely that the writer of Hebrews would bring these beat up and persecuted people such a cold and impersonal exhortation as "line up under the top-down authority structure of a local institutional church and submit to it" as the solution to their struggle when the solution he has already given them is a gospel reminder to draw near to Jesus (Heb 4:14-16). And unless Paul is wrong, there is a leadership gift in the church, given to those whom the Holy Spirit chooses to give it to. The leaders in our two passages under question could have been anyone in the local assembly so gifted. Far from being a harsh command to line up under the authority structure of a local church (that system didn't exist yet!), this passage is a warm reminder to those being pressured to reject Jesus and return to Judaism that those in the assembly who have served them faithfully with the message of the gospel continue to stand with them and love them. Remember them. Do what they've counseled you to do. Believe. But we read passages like these and we impose the model of modern institutional church that we're familiar with, back into them. We read the word leaders here and we assume the writer must mean the pastors of local churches because that's all we know. That's what's all around us and since we accept it as the only legitimate expression of the body of Christ, we assume it's what the writer had in mind and we draw our conclusions accordingly. But the top-down authority structures in our modern church systems didn't exist when these words in Hebrews 13 were penned.

Excommunication and Matthew 18 

Any discussion about formal church membership eventually leads to Matthew 18 and church discipline, or excommunication. Being put out of the church - excommunication - is the ultimate form of punishment mentioned in most formal church membership contracts. It gets back to Ed Stetzer's comment that we can't put you out of the church if you're not in it to begin with. And the only way we know you're in is if you have signed the formal membership contract. I don't think Matthew 18 is about accountability and a way to kick people out if they fail to live up to a contrived contractual obligation. I think it's about love and restoration. At the end of the day our formal membership contracts betray our lack of faith in the Holy Spirit's ability to bring to completion that which he has started (Phil 1:6) apart from strong-arm tactics. I'm not convinced that what we call church discipline in Matthew 18 has any place in the New Covenant body of Christ. There's no mention of it after the cross and we don't see it followed as a procedure for getting rid of people in the New Covenant scriptures. Instead, we see Galatians 6:1-3 which reads,

"Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself."

Let's Wrap This Up

One church refers to formal church membership as a "weighty but wonderful commitment." I would agree with the first part of that. But why do we think weighty is so wonderful? Didn't Jesus die to remove what weighs us down? 

"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30) 

Formal church membership is an extra layer of institutional accountability designed to keep our institutions viable and operating. There is no mandate in scripture for it. It is a man-made layer of accountability that has been placed on God's people in order to secure conformity by means of fear, guilt, and intimidation via punishments and rewards. Formal church membership is an institutionally driven idea. Dissolve the institution and the need for formal membership vaporizes. I know. I've done it. It works. 

"Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil." (Matthew 5:37)

All five parts of this series can be found HERE.

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