Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus, by Jonathan Leeman


Jonathan Leeman is back (well, not back, exactly--Church Discipline and this book were published on the same day), and this time he's making the case for formal church membership. Of course, he's on shakier ground here; discipline is commanded in a way that membership simply ... isn't. And Leeman admits as much. Instead, he uses Scripture to define the church and then uses that definition to support his claim that formal membership is a functional requirement. Not that membership looks the same everywhere; Leeman freely acknowledges that in some places (most notably where the church is actively persecuted), written membership rolls may be unwise, even dangerous. But membership still exists and is, according to Leeman, still necessary.

The writing here is better than it was in Church Discipline, and I found myself in agreement with many of Leeman's subpoints. He does a great job extolling the unique ability of the church to represent Christ in the world, and his practical advice is quite sound. The chapter on church discipline will no doubt come in handy for those who haven't read, well, Church Discipline. 

But when it comes to his main point, I just wasn't convinced. Or, maybe I was. It depends on what the main point was. The book is a defense of church membership, but I'm honestly not sure whether he's merely trying to convince people that church membership is a good idea (which it totally is), or if he's outright saying that it's required, such that churches who don't practice it are sinning or aren't churches at all (a tougher sell).

I agree that membership makes a lot of sense, and is, in all likelihood, the most effective way for a church to function. I also agree that most of our reasons for resisting membership are rooted in sin. And finally, I agree that those who would abandon formal membership must find some way to obey the Bible's explicit commands regarding submission, brotherly love, and discipline. But saying they have to reach an end is not the same as dictating the means to that end; just because I can't think of another means to that end (i.e., a way to effectively practice church discipline apart from formal membership) doesn't mean there isn't one, and doesn't mean I can condemn any and all as-yet-unknown (to me, anyway) means. If another church can figure it out such a solution, more power to them. There's a world of difference between promoting what you believe to be the best practice and imposing that practice on others as an unequivocal divine command.

Instead of baldly declaring membership to be a requirement, I think a more helpful response would be to ask churches/members why they are resistant to membership. Are they unwilling to place themselves under the authority of the local church? Why? Pride? Independence? Are they unwilling to commit to others? Why? Selfishness? Are they disdainful of other Christians, dismissing 'the church' as a bunch of hypocrites? If so, how do they reconcile their attitude with their own sin, and the grace God has extended to them, to say nothing of despising the precious bride of Christ?

It's also helpful to look to the biblically mandated ends. Are they gathering with other Christians regularly? Are they sufficiently involved with their local body of believers such that they can be described as a family, a body? Are they loving other Christians in the way described in the New Testament?  Are they contributing to the needs of others and supporting those who regularly preach the Word to them? Have they obeyed Christ's command to be baptized? Is anyone in a position of spiritual authority over them? If not, how do they square that with the New Testament's focus on submission? If they get caught in a pattern of unrepentant sin, who will discipline them? (Or, if you're dealing with a church, how will they respond to unrepentant sin in their congregation?) If they can answer these questions satisfactorily without formal membership, great! But if (as is far more likely) they cannot, then their means don't actually get them to the required ends, and something needs to change. At which point you can offer up the solution of church membership.

My guess is that you won't find many folks who can honestly say they're living in a manner consistent with the New Testament apart from membership in the local church. Because practically, that is the way we do these things. But I think we should stick to the commands that are actually commands, instead of adding to them.

Granted, I'm no expert on church polity. Maybe formal membership is the only way. But I don't think Leeman establishes that here. A good way, yes, probably even the best way. But I'm reluctant to simply decree it as the absolute, only way to do things--that it's a matter of obedience to a biblical command. And to his credit, Leeman does not explicitly make this claim. So I guess to the extent that he's arguing for the wisdom of formal membership, I wholeheartedly agree.


Peter said...

The argument that not wanting to become a member comes from sin is a bit like saying, "If you don't forward this email, then you're ashamed of Jesus." Could Jesus be honored by sincere fowarders? Yes. Could forwarding the email lead to conversations about him and the gospel? Sure. But what's left out is that for most of us there is no meaningful connection between our devotion to Jesus and our forwarding of the email.

That's my problem with the hard sell on membership. The problem is that the generations before ours were joiners. Their identities were shaped and their commitments sealed by joining organizations. Not so for younger generations, who have a suspicion (sometimes healthy, sometimes not) of conflating commitment to Jesus and his people versus commitment to a pastor's pet project or ministry. For me, there's no meaningful connection or commitment that is created or deepened by getting my name on an list with a bunch of other people, many of whom have died or left the church long ago. Membership rolls at many churches are probably worse than voter registration rolls.

So I agree with you that we extend the benefit of the doubt to churches on the how they do what the church is commanded to do.

Does he deal in the book with the problem of what would have been defined as a "local church" in NT times? I'm not sure it would have made any sense to ask a first century Christian whether they were a member of their local church. If anything, baptism was the membership process, and membership was "in Christ."

Alexis Neal said...


Thanks for your comments! Leeman does talk a fair bit about the local church in NT times, but he comes to the conclusion that there had to have been some kind formal membership, since the church was to discipline--and in some cases exclude--the member caught in ongoing, unrepentant sin. If you could be kicked out, then he reasons you must have been 'in' at some point. And I do think that those who oppose membership have to deal with the very real challenge of providing for meaningful discipline (which IS commanded, even if membership is not). Leeman also addresses some of your concerns about the NT understanding of both baptism and the local church. If you end up reading the book, I'd be interested to know if he addresses them to your satisfaction.

On a side note: I think we have to be careful not to use the fact that many churches do membership poorly (i.e., inaccurate and out-of-date membership rolls) as a justification for abandoning it entirely. After all, we know from the depressingly high divorce rates that plenty of people are terrible at marriage, but that doesn't mean we abandon marriage entirely. The fact that people do it badly doesn't mean it's not worth doing.

Actually, marriage could be a useful analogy. The bible does not command Christians to marry. Marriage is a good institution, but Paul is clear that the single life is a theologically valid choice. As a Christian, I am thus free to choose to pursue marriage or to remain single. However, it is possible to choose singleness not out of a desire to serve and glorify God but for sinful reasons--say, because I am selfish and do not want to have to be responsible for or serve a spouse, etc. If I am driven by sinful motives, then I am sinning, even though remaining single is not, in itself, a sinful choice. In the same way, regardless of whether it is biblically permissible to avoid membership, if that avoidance is motivated by sinful desires, then it is sinful. That's the point I was trying to make in the review--that we should all do a heart check, because if our motivations are sinful, then the abstract issue of membership is moot.

Thanks again for the comment!