Submit to Jesus, Submit to His Bride

Church membership can feel boring, secondary, extrabiblical, and unimportant. Aren’t there plenty of more pressing things to talk about? Not really, suggests Jonathan Leeman in Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus (Crossway, 2012). In just 132 pages, Leeman unfolds a clear and compelling case for submitting our lives to King Jesus by submitting to his earthly bride.

I corresponded with Leeman, editorial director for 9Marks and editor of its Journal, about the surprisingly pressing significance of local church membership.

Why is it significant to understand that Christians don’t really “join” churches so much as submit to them?

“Join” is a club word. You join a club, whether it’s a country club or a wholesale shopping club. You pay your dues. You receive the benefits. You come and go as you please. Nothing about your identity changes. No real demands are placed on you that you cannot extricate yourself from.

“Submit” is a kingdom and citizenship word. It recognizes the presence of an authority established by King Jesus. It speaks to a changed (new) identity. It suggests that you now belong to a new nation, a new people, a new family. And it suggests that all the new benefits you receive as a member of this nation and family also come with a set of obligations that are not so easily dispensed of.

What difference should church membership make in a Christian’s life?

Your question is sort of like asking “what difference should righteousness make in a Christian’s life?” It should make all the difference. A Christian is declared righteous in Christ, and then he or she “puts on” that righteousness in everyday decisions. By the same token, a Christian is declared a member of Christ’s body through the gospel (e.g., see Eph. 2:14), and then he or she “puts on” that membership in a geographically specific local body.

Don’t tell me you’re united to and committed to the Church—capital C—unless you are united to and committed to a local church: “for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).

Less abstractly, our membership in a local church is where our discipleship to Christ takes shape. It’s where we learn to love our enemies, where we learn to turn the other cheek, where we learn to forbear in love, where we learn to go the extra mile, where we learn to employ our spiritual gifts, where we learn to speak to one another in love, and so forth. Certainly, these lessons apply beyond our fellowship in a local church, but the lessons begin here. And they begin here precisely because it’s the local church that has the authority of the keys to bind and loose—to formally affirm our profession of faith or deny it.

“Kingdom” is a very popular concept among Christians today. How does the kingdom relate to the local church?

The local church is the place on earth where the citizens of heaven can, at this moment, find official recognition and asylum. Churches represent Christ’s rule now. They affirm and protect his citizens now. They proclaim his laws now. They bow before him as King now and call all peoples to do the same. You might say that a local church is a real-life embassy set in the present that represents Christ’s future kingdom and his coming universal church.

The embassy-like authority of the local church gives individuals who mouth the words “I’m with Jesus” the opportunity to demonstrate that those words mean something. The local church guards the reputation of Christ by sorting out the true professors from the false. The local church enables the world to look upon the canvas of God’s people and see an authentic painting of Christ’s love and holiness. And the local church lays down a pathway with guardrails and resting stations for the long journey of the Christian life.

How should two Christians who belong to the same church relate to each other differently than two Christians who belong to different churches?

That’s a great question that helps us get to the heart of the matter. Picture me and two other Christians, one who is a member of my church and one who is not. You could say that all three of us belong to “the body of Christ” and “the people of God” and the universal church. Furthermore, you could say that Scripture calls all three of us to love each other, to pray for each other, to encourage each other, to rebuke sin, and even to care for one another financially as occasion requires. But what’s the difference?

Here’s a hint: there is the possibility of church discipline with my fellow member but not with the other brother or sister. Jesus has given me and my local church a formal judicial role to play in my fellow member’s life that he has not given me in the life of every Christian on earth.

And it is this final, adjudicatory authority the local church bears that plays a large role in a Christian’s discipleship. Discipleship occurs best in context of godly and loving authority.

What would you say to people who attend churches that don’t have formal membership? What about to pastors of churches that don’t have formal membership?

Ah, well, that depends on a host of factors. If you’re attending that church, maybe it’s the only gospel-preaching church in your area, and so you don’t have much choice. Or, if you’re the pastor of that church, maybe you’ve inherited the congregation and pushing toward something more formal in the short term will prove divisive. So, it depends.

That said, whether a pastor or non-pastor, you want to help your church move toward something like formalized membership for three simple reasons: (1) every Christian needs to know which other Christians he or she is specifically responsible for; (2) every Christian needs to know which church leaders he or she needs to submit to (Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:5); (3) every church leader needs to know which Christians he will give an account for (Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:2). When you show up at your weekly gathering, and when you disperse throughout the week, who is the “we” of Christ’s body for whom you are responsible? Don’t just say you’re responsible for all the kids in your neighborhood. What kids has God made you responsible for?

  • Tom Cabral

    If a church knowingly won’t subscribe to CM because key members won’t adher to it, and it may cause others to leave, what would you recommend people do?

    • Jonathan Leeman

      I hate to say this, but, it depends. If it’s the only gospel-preaching church in the area, I might stay. If it’s a smaller church, and everyone effectively knows who is a part of the church and who is, and if my life is built into theirs, again, I might stay. Now, the lack of formal membership even in that smaller church will mean that that church’s ministry will always have a limp. And it’s going to make church discipline difficult if not impossible, which means the church is going to gradually veer toward worldliness. Who is the “we” of the church? So even with this latter example, I’m saying that “I might stay” very tentatively. In general, I think we want to do what we can to encourage healthy practices of membership. So you look for avenues to do that.

  • Arthur Sido

    “Church membership can feel boring, secondary, extrabiblical, and unimportant.”

    Maybe it feels that way because it is? Church membership is not only extrabiblical, it fosters a completely unbiblical, dare I say anti-Biblical, division in the church and a sense of competition between local churches for “members”. Trying to force our traditional system of competing local churches into the Biblical references to the Bride of Christ is silly and damaging. 1 John 4:20 is referring in some way to formal church membership? Come on, that is just ridiculous. If you think you need to be a “member” of a local church so you know who your brother is in order to love him, I would say you don’t really understand what it means to be brothers and sisters in Christ in the first place.

    That is why we find ourselves in a culture where Christian neighbors can be “members” of competing local churches instead of united in a meaningful sense in Christ and working together in a meaningful sense on His mission. Everyone is so worried about attracting and retaining “members” that we miss the mission of the church to take the Gospel to the world.

    • Jerry Schmidt

      Hi Arthur,

      If a church is not supposed to have “members”, then who was Paul writing to in his letters? I doubt he was writing to a building in hopes that someone may or may not be there. No, Paul and the Apostles established local churches with the intention of Christ followers coming together as a local body to spread the Gospel.

      Agreed that there are churches out there that focus on the numbers and the retention for possibly the wrong reasons. However, that does not mean God does not intend for there to be local church bodies with regular and committed attendees.

      Also agreed (and obvious) that denominations cause division – but that’s been happening since the establishment of the Church (as is evident in the Epistles), so this is nothing new and not a phenomenon brought about by contemporary views.

      Just some thoughts. God bless you Brother.

      • Arthur Sido

        Jerry he was writing to The Church in each location. Not First Baptist Church of Corinth or Grace Presbyterian Church of Ephesus. I think you are missing the distinction between people being part of the church and people dividing themselves and creating barriers between one another. Just because something has been happening for a long time doesn’t mean we should just shrug our shoulders and dismiss it with “that is just the way it is”

        • John Carpenter

          There was only one “church” (assembly) in every area. And the local assemblies knew exactly who was a part and who wasn’t, so much so they could know how many members made up a “majority” (2 Cor. 2:6). In most areas today, it’s not practically feasible for all believers to meet together. But that doesn’t mean you drift from church to church, claiming you’re spiritually a member of them all.

          Just because you’re committed to one specific church doesn’t mean you’re dividing from others, except only that as a limited person you can only be with one assembly as a time. Your logic is equivalent to saying that you don’t want to marry a particular woman because that’s the same as rejecting all the other women.

    • John Carpenter

      Church membership is to the Christian life what weddings and vows are to marital life. Membership/wedding is the formal structure we make to define and contain the relationship. What we have today, both with marriage and the church, is much preference for cohabitation, “shacking up”.

      • Arthur Sido

        Ironically John church membership, weddings and marriage vows all have no Biblical support. If you need a wedding and some “vows” to know who your wife is you are missing the point of marriage. I am all in favor of ditching church membership and religious “wedding ceremonies” alike.

        • John Carpenter

          Ok, at least you’re honest. You believe in cohabitation, i.e. “shacking up”.

        • John Carpenter

          By the way, a wedding isn’t just a ceremony but the solemnization and formalization of a marriage commitment. In the same way, formal church membership is the same to the kind of love from the brothers (and sisters) that Christians are called to have. A man who refuses to enter into a formal commitment to a woman (i.e. have a wedding) is probably doing so because he’s not really willing to commit. And a person who is unwilling to commit to a specific church, is probably doing so for the same reason.

  • Joshua

    Seems a bit of a stretch to tie 1 John 4:20 to being a member of a local church.

    • Jonathan Leeman

      Joshua et al,
      I see this Scripture reference is causing some confusion. I didn’t mean to tie it to formal church membership, per se. I simply meant to make the point that we need to concretely “put on” our love for our brothers and sisters in Christ and not just talk about it. One way we do this, I think, is by joining a church. No, 1 John 4:20 is not explicitly about membership. Thanks for raising the question.

      • Arthur Sido

        Jonathan, thanks for clarifying that. You can see how it can easily seem as if you are linking the two.

      • John Carpenter

        And how, exactly, do you “love your brother whom you have seen” if you’re unwilling to make any kind of binding commitment to him? Just floating around from assembly to assembly, or not even going at all, lets you imagine that you’re loving to the people you’re nice and polite to — but don’t bother to really get to know — but how do you ever have to really show it in a sacrificial way? But how are you putting yourself in a position to sacrifice for them, to contribute to evangelism or charitable programs or causes that take many people working together in organization to sustain?

        The principle of 1 John is that it is easy to talk about love for people and God. But you have to really show it. I don’t know how a Christian can show love for the Body without being a committed part of it.

  • Neil

    //”Don’t tell me you’re united to and committed to the Church—capital C—unless you are united to and committed to a local church: “for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).”//

    What if the “local” church is teaching heresies and is preaching a different Gospel? The Church is the body of Christ, and it never requires commitment to an organization that resembles a secular corporation. The whole system is flawed because wherever two or three are gathered in His name is the church. No Christian is bound to a contract with an organization that practices polity resembling the Roman government. (Matthew 20:20-28) Reformed churches are no different then the Roman Catholic Church when it comes to demanding how the local church should conduct business. Priests and pastors may be different in doctrine, but they model each other in believing they have lordship over the average layperson, (Nicolaitans were famous for this) they require a tithe to pay for their vocation, (The tithe is pre-Christ. Paul never requested a salary 1 Cor 9:15-18) and they bare titles not approved by the Lord. (Matthew 23:8-12)

    //“That said, whether a pastor or non-pastor, you want to help your church move toward something like formalized membership for three simple reasons: (1) every Christian needs to know which other Christians he or she is specifically responsible for; (2) every Christian needs to know which church leaders he or she needs to submit to (Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:5); (3) every church leader needs to know which Christians he will give an account for (Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:2). When you show up at your weekly gathering, and when you disperse throughout the week, who is the “we” of Christ’s body for whom you are responsible? Don’t just say you’re responsible for all the kids in your neighborhood. What kids has God made you responsible for?”//

    Are we all not responsible for each other? (Eph 4:11-16) The elders of the local churches are to lead by example because they are under the clear doctrine from 1 Tim 2 and Titus which lays the foundation of church polity. Submission is imitating the elders who are leading by example because they care for the flock. These elders are placed in position by the body because they are men (not women) who are above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. They manage their own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? They must not be a recent convert, or they may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, they must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.
    It is interesting that the modern one pastor system gravitates to Heb 13:17 as their mega verse to obtain the power behind their vocation. Jonathan, please use the other scripture of Heb 13 that says: Heb 13:7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.
    You also neglected verse 3 in 1 Peter 5:3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. Submit to Jesus because He is the Bridegroom and we are the bride.

    • Riley

      Neil, if the local church is teaching heresies, then that church needs to be approached and admonished by other churches. If they persist in their heresy, then they can be considered to be not a true Church of Jesus Christ, so Christians should not unite with them.

      Yes, we are all called to support one another, but there is a special relationship with those with whom you have made vows of submission and support. It’s the same kind of idea that you have a certain obligation to members of your extended family, but you first obligation is to you immediate family.

    • John Carpenter

      I think Riley made a good reply.

      Mr. Leeman’s article is not directly about submission but those who find that so offensive need to search their hearts as to why. Yes, submission to a human being is never absolute; when there is a conflict, we serve God and not men. But there are complimentary relationships in the church, an idea that we ask our “sisters” in Christ to accept all the time. That is, some are called to serve by leading and others are called to serve in other ways. And, yes, there should normally be multiple elders in a church so that the “submission” isn’t to a new “pope”. But, in the end, if you’re not willing to submit to the leaders the Lord Jesus called, then likely you’re not submitting to Jesus either.

      As a note: Neil misused 1 Cor. 9 to suggest that Paul doesn’t ask for churches to financially support their pastors. In fact, he clearly says they are to do so, “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” (v. 14.)

      The impulse to denigrate (and impoverish) the leadership in the church is likely rooted in the same individualism and consumerism that recoils at the idea of meaningful church membership.

      • Arthur Sido

        John, reading 1 Cor 9 in context tells us a number of things. First that Paul’s point was that he did NOT get paid because getting paid to preach the Gospel was its own reward. Second that Paul is not speaking of local church pastors who deliver a monologue sermon each week, he was talking about men like himself who were itinerant preachers declaring Christ to the lost. Third being financially supported while traveling the world, something that Paul eschewed, is not the same thing as a paid professional who the rest of the church subcontracts the work of ministry to. People wave those verses around like a talisman to defend salaried professional clergy when the idea of a full-time elder getting paid to serve in the local church is completely absent from Scripture.

        • John Carpenter

          Hi Arthur,

          You’re wrong. 1. He said that he wasn’t asking for money from the Corinthians to teach them a lesson, not cause them to stumble. He specifically says he (and others) have a right to get paid.
          2. You’ve narrowed the referent of the “minister of the gospel” in 1 Cor. 9:14 in a way the text does not. He simply says that the one who teaches the Word should get paid. You want to narrow that to some category of person that allows you to ignore the passage.
          3.First, Paul did not eschew getting financially supported while travelling. Only from the Corinthians. In 2 Corinthians he specifically says that he took money from the Macedonians. As for the rest, you are simply wrong. In 1 Timothy 5, speaking of local church pastors, he says the same, that they deserve pay.
          I’d recommend that you find a Biblical church and commit to it. See the 9 Marks list for some possibly in your area.

      • Neil

        “”As a note: Neil misused 1 Cor. 9 to suggest that Paul doesn’t ask for churches to financially support their pastors. In fact, he clearly says they are to do so, “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” (v. 14.)””

        John, I think you better read Arthur Sido’s response. Where does it say that preaching the Gospel is a reason to be paid? Are you serious? If that is the case, every Christian that preaches the Gospel should be entitled to a salary, pension, healthcare, etc. etc. I am grateful to preach the Gospel because it has given me eternal life. Paul felt the same way. I wonder what he would have to say to the pastors of today? John, I suggest you read Matthew 10:5-16 and compare this to what Paul says in 1 Cor 9:15-18. In addition, please do not jump to conclusions that everyone who is against the current unbiblical one-pastor system is an individualist or a consumerist.

        • John Carpenter

          Hi Neil,
          1 Corinthians 9:14. Plain as day.
          Every Christian is NOT called to preach the gospel. James 3:1 says that — also, plain as day.

          • Neil

            “Every Christian is NOT called to preach the gospel.”

            This is interesting. You mean to tell me that the average “layperson” should not preach the Gospel. If I am a believer, should I not read God’s word and apply it to my life? Is Paul talking to everyone or just Timothy when he says:
            I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.(2 Timothy 4:1-5)

            Please do not tell me that I am unable to understand scripture because I have not taken one course in biblical theology.Any God-fearing believer WILL preach the Gospel because IT is the power to save. We need to define “preach” as someone who declares that Jesus Christ is Lord because apart from His death, burial, and resurrection, we cannot be reconciled to the Father and we are still dead in our sins. If you want to define “preach” by today’s standards, you will see that it derives from rhetoric Greek philosophers who used flowery words to enthrall the masses. This is no different today. The charismatic preacher of today can easily snare people with unbiblical truths and then they blindly follow this blind guide.

            You have to take 1 Cor 9:14 in context and that Paul traveled from town to town to preach the Gospel. This verse is cross referencing to Matthew 10 for those who move from city to city to preach the Gospel and that Christians should feed them and care for them in their travels. However, when you read further in Cor 9 you see that Paul wanted none of this because it would cause him to boast of the Gospel. (1 Cor 9: 15-18)
            In verse 18 he says: What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.

            How many preachers today will use 1 Cor 9:18 in their sermons?

            Today, most of these self-proclaimed preachers do not even preach the Gospel. They claim to be teachers who say that God demands tithes and compensation to their livelihood. Well guess what, these self-proclaimed teachers will be judged with greater strictness. Many have been warned that their unbiblical roles are more of a hindrance and a detriment to the body of Christ. They ignore these warnings because they are ignorant to God’s word. These instead have devoted themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons and their own consciences are seared through the insincerity of their lies. These ravenous wolves are going to say, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

            Please John, you have to see that there are many, many, things wrong with the one-pastor system today. There are many voices calling for revival and a turning away from the unbiblical system many of us have bought into. Do you think the devil is going to attack a secular world that is already devoid of a love for God? No, he will attack the children of God within the concrete congregations by using lusts of the flesh, lusts of the eyes, and systems and devices of the world. There are spiritual battles waged within the very walls of our churches and we have not even considered that the current church polity is the problem. However, if we do examine this system and realize it is the problem; those whose livelihood depends upon this system would need to find another job. That is where the rubber meets the road.Who is willing to step up and consider the cost?

            • John Carpenter

              Hi Neil,

              As above, James 3:1 is not difficult to understand. Also, Ephesians 4:11 tells us that the Lord Jesus gave some people as gifts to the church, including “pastors-teachers” (one office.) The 2 Timothy 4:1-5 is relevant to such people: those called to be teaching elders. I don’t know if you’re “unable” to understand scripture. But it appears that you don’t yet. Perhaps you’ve not become a member of a good Bible-teaching church yet.

              I have interpreted 1 Corinthians 9 “in context”. You’re inserting assumptions that are not present. The principle is stated in 1 Cor. 9:14 and it is not difficult to understand. There is no reason in the context to assume he really means to narrow the “preacher of the gospel” to only itinerant people like himself. Further, 1 Timothy 5 applies the same principle to teaching elders in a church. Finally, in 2 Corinthians, he makes it clear that he took financial support from the Macedonian church at the same time he wasn’t taking it from the Corinthians and the reason he wasn’t taking it from the Corinthians was because of their immaturity.

              I believe scripture teaches that local churches should have multiple elders. For material on Biblical church polity, I’d highly recommend 9 Marks ministry. But please approach their material with a humble, teachable spirit, in recognition that, frankly, you don’t really know what the Bible teaches yet.

            • Bret

              Got salt? If so, please season accordingly.

  • Riley

    “there is the possibility of church discipline with my fellow member but not with the other brother or sister”

    While it’s difficult to initiate something that would lead to church discipline of a brother or sister from another church, it’s not impossible. It’s just that any discipline would have to start with an approach to the leadership at the church where the other brother or sister is a member, approached either by an individual from another church or by the leadership of his church.

    • John Carpenter

      You’re incorrect. In church discipline, one brings the unresolved matter to the “assembly” (Mt. 18:15ff). If someone is not a member of that “assembly” — that is, they don’t assemble with it — then the assembly lacks the knowledge, opportunity, and authority to exercise meaningful church discipline. This is why Christians must be committed to particular assemblies. Without it, the only instruction that the Lord Jesus explicitly gave to a particular “church” (i.e. assembly) is impossible to implement. If we’re eager to put the Lord Jesus’ instructions into practice, meaningful church membership is absolutely necessary.

      • Riley

        I think you misunderstood me. If there is a need for church discipline, one must bring the matter to the attention of the assembly where the alleged offender is a member, via the leadership there. In some cases you might be able to petition your leaders to bring the matter to the attention of the leaders of the alleged offender’s assembly, for them to deal with it. This should work. The only obstacle is the deplorable lack of cooperation between churches. I absolutely agree with you that local church membership is necessary. Forgive me if I was unclear. I was discussing what to do about an offender who belongs to a different assembly than you do. It’s not as if nothing can ever be done in such cases.

        • John Carpenter

          HI Riley, I think, then, that you’re right. I agree with your statement completely and apologize for being too rash.

  • John Carpenter

    This is an excellent article and recovers an important idea for the church which used to be understood but has been eroding with the rise of individualism, consumerism, “cohabitation theory.”

    It’s excellent theory. But as long as Mr. Leeman thinks that a covenanted member of a church can walk away from his membership for any reason without any guilt, then he doesn’t really believe his own theory — or, at best, he’s inconsistent and inconsistent at the crucial point of application that takes this theory from the realm of nebulous ideas to actually directing life.

    • Matt Smethurst

      Thanks for weighing in, brother, but I’m confused by your comment. Jonathan doesn’t think that “a covenanted member of a church can walk away from his membership for any reason without any guilt.”

      • John Carpenter

        Yes he does. I loved his book “The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love” when it dealt with theology, exegesis, and cultural analysis. But when it comes to application, all his insistence (as above) that the church has authority, membership should be a meaningful commitment, our culture is full of attitudes of consumerism and individualism that need to be corrected, etc., is ignored and a member who signed a meaningful church covenant can go to another church for any reason, no matter how foolish, and the church must accept it, etc. It is, I believe, a total capitulation to all the worldliness he wrote against and a surrender of all the Biblical principles he so well described. We can debate about how wise it is for a church to sometimes tell a departing member that their departure is wrong, but to state that the church can’t even say that, makes all the fine theory empty rhetoric.

        • Matt Smethurst

          “[A] member who signed a meaningful church covenant can go to another church for any reason, no matter how foolish, and the church must accept it.”

          Have you read this?

          • John Carpenter

            That has to do with a member resigning to avoid church discipline. I believe Mr Leeman is right there and consistent with his Biblical principles. What he says elsewhere is that a member can transfer membership for any reason and the church must accept it, that it has to send the letter of transfer. And so, you’ll have members who transfer because there are better dating opportunities at the other church, etc. And, of course, if that’s the case, most sinning members, when they see that a church discipline process is about to begin, will transfer (and according to Leeman, we’ll have to accept it.) Or maybe they’ll transfer before their secret sin gets found out and go to a church they know won’t really practice church discipline. (Easy to find!) There may indeed be times when it is appropriate for a member to transfer to a neighboring church (e.g. when marrying a member there) but Leeman, for all his talk about the authority of the church and its leaders, doesn’t even allow the elders any input into the process. The individual member is sovereign and can float from church to church like customers patronizing favorite restaurants.

            • Riley

              For a member in good standing, granting a letter of transfer should occur only with concurrence of the elders at the church from which he is transferring. They will have to approve of his transfer to the other church and express their approval by granting a letter of transfer. If they do not approve of a transfer, I think it is only fair for them to give him a letter of standing, simply stating that he is a member in good standing. Of course, pastoral admonitions are always permissible, just like they would be at any other time in the church. If they don’t think he’s leaving for a good reason or have doubts about the church he’s going to, they should tell him that pastorally, even as they give the letter of standing. If someone is already under discipline, even in the beginning processes, no letter would be granted. In that case he is not in good standing, so he does not get a letter of good standing. If he resigns, that is the equivalent of self-excommunication and ought to be viewed as such. Simple resignation is a form of discipline equivalent to excommuncation. It does not require the same process because one is ones own accuser. So the person is simply erased, and everyone should have already been taught that this is the equivalent of excommunication without process.

            • John Carpenter

              Hi Riley,

              I agree with you. But many today do not see a problem with resigning, or that they are “self-excommunicating”. They think they are free to do whatever they please, like R. Delaney below. In their view, meaningful accountability is “cultic”.

              To be fair, Mr. Leeman does not believe it is proper for a member to simply resign; he believes, as I understand him, that they have to have another church they are transferring to. But since he says that the original church is obligated to accept a request for a transfer for any reason, I’m not sure how he would handle a simple resignation.

            • R. Delaney

              I would simply recommend to any believer, that if he finds himself in a church that will not let him leave without jumping through several hoops and without justifying himself to the “elders” that he has biblical reason to leave, that he get out as soon as possible.

              Subjecting yourself to Riley’s catalog of church transfer letters, or John Carpenter’s “no exit” policy is utterly unbiblical. So far, they’ve provided nothing from Scripture to support it.

            • John Carpenter

              R. Delaney, First, to characterize it as a “no exit” policy is inaccurate and unfair. Second, all the scriptures listed above support it. You could try Hebrews 13:17 and see if that fits into your radically individualistic, consumeristic religion.

        • R. Delaney

          I agree with Arthur Sido, completely.

          A Christian may leave any church to attend another for any reason that Christian considers sufficient, unless there is clear sin involved.

          It is cultish spiritual abuse for a church or pastor to say otherwise.

          You have no biblical case to assert this theologizing, although you are certainly entitled to your opinion.

          • John Carpenter

            We have everything Mr. Leeman writes about here and in more detail in his books. Your opinion makes obeying the Lord Jesus’ words on the church, in Matthew 18:15ff and numerous other scriptures on the life of discipleship, impossible. It is only an expression of modern individualism and consumerism and is therefore thoroughly anti-Christian.

            • Arthur Sido

              John, if you need the artificial “fellowship” to know who is part of the church, that is your issue. Just repeating “individualism and consumerism” over and over in your comments is not a substitute for substantive discussion or exegesis.

              Here is the issue at its core, something that even ardent supporters of formal church membership have to admit: there is no example or command for a system of church membership as practiced and advocated in the church. Like many of our other rituals and traditions and practices it is a modified notion inherited from Roman Catholicism, something that is especially puzzling given that we get such vociferous defense of it from those allegedly committed to reform.

            • R. Delaney

              Only if you read modern churchianity back into Scripture can you come up with that one. Nothing I’ve said prevents discipleship or discipline. The criticism of modernism and consumerism is way over blown. It’s a perfect example of the pendulum swaying too far to the opposite side to combat these current “evils”.

              The apostle Paul wrote to believers who gathered in a local place (Galatia, for example). He didn’t only write to those who were included in a “church directory”. Your position makes an unbiblical formal/nonformal divide between the people of God. That, my friend, is anti-Christian.

              You need to make your case on exegetical grounds. Theologizing isn’t going to make it for you.

            • John Carpenter


              Again, you believe in “cohabitation”, which is as morally objectionable when it comes to our relationship to Christ (and His church) as it is to a spouse. Second, it’s absurd to suggest that the idea of church membership derives from Catholicism.

              R. Delaney, 9 Marks has a lot of good material on church membership, if you’re interested. You can’t practice discipline if there is no formal membership, just as you can’t have a divorce if you never get married in the first place. In the NT all believers belonged to the church; they had such a clear understanding as to who their members were they could know specifically how many members constituted a “majority” (2 Cor. 2:6). There are plenty of exegetical grounds in Mr. Leeman’s articles and books and the material of 9 Marks. There is also the simply statement of Mt. 18:15ff, the only place where the Lord Jesus specifically tells a local “church” what to do and it is impossible to carry out without a formal, conscious church membership.

            • R. Delaney


              You continue to tie things together that Scripture doesn’t. You make a life long commitment in marriage (which, by the way, doesn’t require a wedding ceremony in the modern sense. The Puritans didn’t have them, guess you have a problem with them?). You make marital vows. Church membership is not like a marital vow, in fact, it’s not a vow at all. Every believer is a member of the universal church, and every believer gathers somewhere in a local assembly. The people who gather in that local assembly are the church, in which discipleship and discipline occur. It is simply not true that there has to be a church directory of formal members before someone can “tell it to the church” if a professing brother does not repent of some scandalous sin.

              You have built a doctrinal house on an unbiblical foundation. You have to read your position back into Scripture as it isn’t there exegetically. Unless you tie marital vow with church membership “vow” your position crumbles like a sand castle. The Bible doesn’t tie them together.

              Hebrews 13:17 commands to submit to your leaders, and your leaders are those who oversee the church you attend. How does that prove your position? You can also change your leaders by leaving a particular church and attending another. However, if you choose to stay at a particular church you should submit to them to the degree that they have duly warranted biblical authority. You certainly shouldn’t stir up division and strife, what would you expect the Bible to say?

              I was a member of a Reformed Baptist church for almost 20 years. What became clear over that time is that this cultish view of church membership is divisive and spiritually damaging. There are many reasons why Christians leave churches and each believer has only to answer to Christ, not some mand-made rules that pastors have put in place by which they can *force* people to stay at their church for fear of discipline and a bad name. A pastor may have the best of motives, but this is a bad system. And certainly, pastors also being sinners, the occasion for gross abuse are numerous.

              However, you being a pastor in a Reformed Baptist church, I’m not surprised that you’re towing the company line.

            • John Carpenter

              Hi R. Delaney,

              Commitments are commitments. There aren’t serious commitments and then empty ones we can walk away from at a whim. This is part of what the Lord Jesus was getting at when He told us to not to swear, etc. It is purely arbitrary to say one commitment (marriage) is serious and to be honored while another (to a church) is nonbinding.

              The Puritans did have weddings, just not church ones because they believed the the wedding should be a civil institution. They also strongly believed in the importance of church covenants. Even pastors could not leave their church without permission of the members.

              Discipleship and discipline will only happen in an atmosphere of commitment, which the Puritans understood and thus they insisted on church covenants and real accountability.

              As for church membership, I’d recommend you read the article above, the theoretical parts of Mr. Leeman’s books, and material from 9 Marks. You are wrong and sound like a modern individualistic consumer of religion, reducing the church to a restaurant. Likely, you consider the Biblical teaching on the church as “cultish”. That’s such a trite response; it’s typical of the individualist who can’t stand to have his radical autonomy in any way imposed on.

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  • Joshua

    Hopefully this discussion has made clear the fact that the Bible is not a manual for ecclesiology – if you want that, you’ll have to go to the writings of the Holy Fathers. Scripture simply doesn’t have much to say on the subject beyond the very basics (elder, deacon, those kinds of basic issues). You simply have to go to tradition of you want to get any kind of solid ecclesiology – otherwise you end up basically making up the rules.

    • Jonathan Leeman

      Joshua, Arthur, and R. D.:
      Actually, Scripture has much to say. You might try reading the book, and then offering a verdict! ;-) Grateful for your discussion!

  • Eric Carpenter

    I’m thrilled to be a part of Jesus Christ’s church. Any divisions beyond that are simply man-made traditions.

    • John Carpenter

      There have to be local “assemblies” (the literal meaning of the word translated “Church”). If you’re not in one, then that raises questions as to whether you’re really in Jesus’ church.

      • Eric Carpenter


        Great last name brother. I am in a local body: the church in Savannah, GA.

        • John Carpenter

          Yes, it’s a great last name! :)

          There’s only one church in all of Savannah? The word “church” means assembly. We, as limited people, can only be a part of one “assembly”. So I hope you are a committed member and submissive part of a specific assembly.


    This is an awesome article. I agree 100%!!

  • Ted

    if you’re going to be critical of lackluster attendance, you should probably invite reasons for such. Thanks for asking, here’s mine:

    1)Protestant churches either explicitly teach or imply by rare use that Communion is symbolic, not the real body\presence of Jesus Christ. But if it is just a nostalgic remembrance of Jesus’ last supper, why does 1 Corinthian 11:29 say that someone who “eats unworthily eats damnation on themself”?
    2)The Tithe is Old Testament theology. The bible isn’t a cafeteria and treating it that way opens the door to questions like “Why is the tithe still valid but Leviticus isn’t?”
    3)In Acts 15:29 the apostles stood united in declaration that eating meat with blood in it was major league sin. How is this law not maintained today, but laws that aren’t even in the New Testament (like tithing) are?
    4)The clearest description of what church meetings should be like is in 1 Corinthians 14:26. The modern church has traded such biblical, participatory meetings for showy songs and speeches that while far more entertaining, encourage a lethargic, consumerist mentality bereft of the accountability required for discipleship. Modern church programs like “small groups” and “accountability partners” are attempts to remedy this, but it highlights a disturbing separation between what constitutes a biblical church meeting and what most people consider church – the Sunday show.
    5)The previous four points and many more preclude any hope of achieving 1 Corinthians 12: 1-31 and offers a poor witness to the unsaved.

    • John Carpenter

      The Plymouth Brethren went down that road. It was a dead end. I think 9 Marks can help fill in some of the missing elements.

  • Riley

    When you make vows of membership, vowing to submit in the Lord to the elders of a church, you should take those vows seriously. Leaving on a whim or without first seeking out their pastoral advice, and listening carefully to what they have to say would be to break your vows. But for some reason many struggle with this.

    • John Carpenter

      Excellent comment again Riley. Thank you for it. Scripture is clear in several places about how seriously the Lord takes faithfulness to our commitments.

      I’m encouraged to see you standing up for the truth. God bless you and your church!

  • Lois Westerlund

    Thank you, Arthur Side, and Neil, for your comments here. You have made many of the points that I would have. I find I quibble with the title–I submit to my Lord, I AM his bride! I “submit to his bride” only in the sense that we are told to “submit to one another”–actually, we must go beyond that, preferring others before ourselves! But the title of the article seems to equate the true, universal church, which is the Bride of Christ as well as His body, with the organized church–a stance that is one of my quarrels with the Roman Catholic church.

    I will only add that, on the negative side, I have seen and experienced the abuse of church membership in way that can only grieve our Savior, who does not break the bruised reed or quench the smoking wick.(Read the Puritan Richard Sibbes.) On the other hand, the Plymouth Brethren do not believe there is Scriptural warrant for requiring formal membership, and for centuries, their local assemblies have exercised Biblical discipline where needed (I have observed this first hand)and cared lovingly for ALL those who worshiped with them, because we are all members of one body, the body of Christ.

    I don’t need a formal contract to daily pray for our church and its leadership, to care for those in the gathering whom God brings into my life, and to consider myself under the leadership of the church, because that is Biblical. One of the early Brethren, in the early 19th C. was invited to come and preach for a time at a local church. Some said he could not because he was not a member. He answered that if being a member of that church meant he could not be a member of another church, then he could not do that, because he was a member of the true church, WHEREVER it is locally gathered.

    Additionally, my life (retired from college teaching) is full of members of the body of Christ who are not local; I believe God has called me to pray for them, communicate with them (both of which are time-consuming) and exhort where led–thus the need for earnest prayer and seeking God. My husband and I also meet weekly with a grad student fellowship–we grow close to these students, pray for them, spend time with them–but they go to all different churches! I do not have boundless energy now, so must choose. I trust God is using me the ways He chooses, though much of it happens not to be centered in the church where we “belong”. The cure for whatever “individualism” is, is, a fervent love for God and growth in the knowledge of Him, which will bear the fruit of a life of sacrificial love. It is our hearts that are selfish and need the transforming power of God’s Word and God’s Spirit.

    I apologize for the length of this–thanks to all who have made it this far! You are my brothers and sisters in the Lord.

    • John Carpenter

      That’s “cohabitation theory”. If you applied the same logic to the marital relationship, then you’d be advocating living together without marriage. True love is not frightened by formal vows and commitments.

      • Lois Westerlund

        Thank you for your reply. I am familiar with the “marriage is just a matter of formality” argument, but I do not find the analogue a cogent argument. Marriage is Biblical; cohabitation without marriage is sexual immorality and as such is clearly condemned in Scripture. Marriage is ordained by God in Eden and upheld throughout the Scriptures. I do not find the same Biblical support for formal church membership. I don’t think that holding this position means I am “frightened by formal vows and commitments.”

      • John Carpenter

        Hi Lois,
        Please provide for me one scripture that tells us we have to formalize our marriages in weddings and vows. There isn’t any. The weddings and vows are the formalization of the relationship of marriage. Just so, scripture tells believers to live together in specific churches. (See the article above and all the scriptures listed in it.) Formal church membership is what we do to express those Biblical principles.

        The same argument you make against having meaningful church membership is made against having to have weddings. You believe in cohabiting when it comes to the local church but that is as problematic as believing in it when it comes to marriage. It also makes it impossible for you to obey the Lord Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18:15ff and many of the other NT commands on how to live together as Christians. It’s simply individualism and consumerism, treating the church like a restaurant rather than a family

        • jeremiah

          John, we as believers are wed to Christ and not to pastors or elders. So your cohabitation argument is flawed at the outset. Regarding 2 Cor 2:6, I am in awe that you can be so sure that Paul was using majority to mean greater than 50.0%, how do you not know that he was just speaking of the obvious, most of the church without having to do a head count of people who singed a document or made vows to other believers to do whatever is asked of them?

          Submission to God is different than submission to the body of Christ or other specific believers. We are to obey God no matter what, you can not say that concerning other believers or even Paul himself. Galatians 1:8 “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.”

          Do you wonder why in all of the relationships mentioned with people to people submission; children to parents, slaves to masters, wives to husbands, the general body to elders, that only the warning or negative aspects of the abuse of that relationship is spoken of by Christ, Paul and Peter?

          If the church was a corporation I would be applauding and saying amen, but it is not, it is a family and the head/husband is Christ, and we are to listen and be willing to obey our gifted older siblings. What you are endorsing is foreign to the NT scriptures.
          You are promoting the real cohabitation, by being married to both Christ and another man, a pastor.

          • John Carpenter

            Hi Jeremiah,

            You don’t understand the analogy with marriage.

            First, scripture tells us to be committed to “one another”, to practice what the Lord Jesus described in Matthew 18:15ff, to make disciples (not customers.)

            Likewise, scripture tells men to “love their wives”, to be committed, to not commit adultery, to sacrifice for them, etc. Both are commitments. For marriage, we’ve developed a tradition of wedding and vows. That is only a human construction, a tradition, as scripture never tells us to have a wedding or make wedding vows. It only tells us to get married. But the wedding and vows tradition is a good, healthy, useful formalization of the aspirations of Biblical marriage.

            Likewise, I admit that scripture doesn’t clearly, overtly out-line a formal church membership with a church covenant. But formal membership and church covenants are good, healthy, useful formalization of the aspirations of Biblical discipleship.

            Your sarcasm is uncalled for and suggests that your mis-reading of the marriage analogy is perhaps a problem of character. “Majority” means more than 50%. If you don’t admit that, then you simply lack integrity. If you aren’t going to carry on a discussion with integrity, then please don’t post at all.

            Hebrews 13:17 is inspired by the Holy Spirit.

            If the church is a “family”, then you shouldn’t be afraid of a genuine commitment to it. You’re final statement is nothing more than an insult.

            • jeremiah

              John, thanks for the feedback.
              Christians are called to be committed to the Lord, if they are married, committed to their spouse, and committed to one another in the body of Christ. These are just three kinds of commitments and they are not equal in what we are called to do or respond to each.

              I do recognize that formal membership can be good and healthy, but that doesn’t make it a requirement to be a legitimate fellowship of believers. That is much of the reaction to this post because it is like

              Majority does mean more than 50%, but if you are going to use that passage you should look up the Greek of that word, which means -many, much or great- no majority there. it is just many as opposed to a few. To have integrity we have to be willing to let the passage speak and say what it says, not what we want it to say.

              Please read the Greek in Heb 13:17 obey, peithō, does not mean blind obedience but to be persuaded.

              Vines is helpful-

              “to persuade,” in the Middle and Passive Voices signifies “to suffer oneself to be persuaded,” e.g., Luk 16:31; Hbr 13:18; it is sometimes translated “believe” in the RV, but not in Act 17:4, RV, “were persuaded,” and Act 27:11, “gave (more) heed;” in Act 28:24, “believed.”

              Believes should listen to those gifted to teach and preach the word of God and when they do to be willing to be persuaded by what they say. If the Apostle Paul can commend the Bareans for finding out if what he says lines up with scripture then why would any pastor today think that he is greater than Paul?

              My final statement was just as insulting as your insinuating that believers who don’t hold to your view of church membership are cohabitating. If your going to dish it out……

            • John Carpenter

              Hi Jeremiah,

              It’s good that you recognize that we are called to be “committed to one another in the body of Christ.” That commitment, like a marital commitment, should take concrete form, such as in covenants and formal membership.

              The Greek word in 2 Cor. 2:6, πλειόνων, means, according to Bauer, Arndt, & Gingrich, “the majority”, “most”, “the greater sum”, “the greater part” (p. 689.). “Majority” means, according to “the greater part or number; the number larger than half the total ( opposed to minority)”.

              Therefore, in 2 Cor. 2:6, Paul was saying that 50% or more had made a decision which shows they knew how many members they had and what constituted a majority of them.

              In Hebrews 13:17, there are two main verbs in the imperative in the first part: 1. Πείθεσθε, which, according to Bauer, Arndt, & Gingrich means in this form, “obey, follow”, specifically citing this verse as an example (p. 639b); 2. ὑπείκετε, submit. Therefore, your interpretation of this verse is incorrect.

              Certainly, we do not absolutely submit to any human authority, whether to governments, wives to husbands, or church authorities. We are to be “Bereans” (not “Bareans”) which includes looking up what scripture says about the church and it’s leaders rather than using Vines to twist the meaning.

              My statement is true. Yours was just an insult.

  • Eric Carpenter

    The church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

    -The Nicene Creed

  • George

    Do you have a ministry to other than church members? Do you in your personal ministry reach out and respond to the many people with needs who are open to the gospel?

    Are you abusive as some pastors are? I know a Biblically solid church where the members had to discharge the pastor. I know of another church where many have left and the church has become almost non-existent because of the insistant character of the pastor. You sound like you may lack compassion which I am sorry to see in a church with affiliations to the Gospel Colaition. This is disapointing.

    • John Carpenter

      Assuming you’re writing this to Mr. Leeman, his church, Capitol Hill Baptist Church, is a very friendly, warm, and I have every reason to believe “compassionate” church. And, no, I’m not a member. I think you’re just assuming that believing in real accountability and commitments is opposed to real love. But that’s a false assumption. The Lord Jesus said that when lawless will increase, the love of meany will grow cold. It’s actually the individualistic, consumeristic, antinomian who is the most unloving.

      • jeremiah

        If not having church membership was a sin and antinomian you would have a case. Call sin what the scriptures call sin, and give freedom in grey areas. This is called love.

  • Timm H

    I really like this article, but it seems like all of this is unnecessary. If Christians were engaged in community with each other, then they would already know who they are responsible for. Or, for example, if two Christians are close friends but attend separate churches, how are they not responsible for each other?

    • R. Delaney

      Good comments Timm, this nonsense of not “knowing who we’re responsible for” without formal church membership is silly.

      Hmmm, let’s see….Bob comes to church regularly but I see he’s not listed in our church directory. Oh well, guess I’m not “responsible” for him.

      I think a far better model is that found in Scripture, when Paul addresses the believers in Galatia, he calls them “Galatians”. That is, you who gather together to worship God in Galatia.

      The objector asks, “But how are we to know who is inside the church and those who are outside it?” Seems like Paul didn’t have any trouble with that. Are you a professing Christian who gathers with other believers in Galatia? Looks like you’re in. Not a believer, or you don’t gather with other believers in Galatia? Looks like you’re out.

      Not complicated.

      The objector further asks, “But how can we exercise church discipline?” Well, let’s see, if a professing brother refuses to repent of a scandalous sin after being confronted with it privately, you tell it to the believers gathered together in Galatia.

      Again, not complicated.

      Looks like all the “problems” of not having a formal church membership aren’t really problems at all.

      • John Carpenter

        Besides not really dealing with scripture, you’re living in a dream world when it comes to application.

        Example: “if a professing brother refuses to repent of a scandalous sin after being confronted with it privately, you tell it to the believers gathered together in Galatia.” Try that today. The result: the sinning brother will go to another “church” in the area with no problem. If you try to inform that other church of the “brother’s” sin, they’ll either ignore you or think something is wrong with you. You don’t think it is complicated because you’re not dealing with reality.

    • John Carpenter

      Same logic when applied to the marital relationship:
      “We love each other so we don’t really need the formality of a wedding and vows!” It’s called cohabitation and it’s as morally dubious when applied to the church as it is to the marriage.

      • R. Delaney

        Again John, you can’t seem to resist tying things together that Scripture doesn’t. You may think my above comments aren’t dealing with reality, but that’s your opinion. Besides, even in your own tightly wound cultish system there is not agreement among Reformed Baptist churches, so you haven’t resolved your own “reality” problem.

        You keep repeating yourself, but you have yet to realize your argument is not based on Scripture. It is built on your theologizing. You have no text of Scripture that compares marital vows (a life long relationship) with “formal membership” in a particular local church. Your main problem is interpreting verses about the universal church as if they were referring to the Reformed Baptist Church of John Carpenter. You need to look through the lens of Scripture and not your particular theological tradition.

        So, you can continue to throw out your false charges of Consumerism! Co-habitation! Individualistic Autonomy! But they will do nothing to establish your position from Scripture.

        I love the biblical doctrine of the church, just not your pastor-dominated, church cattle version of it, where “members” are only allowed to leave via death (the first reason listed in many RB church constitutions, laughable though it is), serious doctrinal error, or pastor approved church transfer (to another RB church, of course).

        You can keep that system, thanks

  • Lois Westerlund

    Thank you, Timm H, and R Delaney–your posts were encouraging to me.

    The argument has been made here that church membership and marriage have the same Biblical standing, that if vows are irrelevant in one case, they are equally so in the other. But marriage and formal church membership have different origins. I am not married because I took vows (in that John, you are correct), but because a minister of the Gospel pronounced us man and wife. In contrast, I am a member of the church of Jesus Christ by the supernatural working of God. Because of His Son, I am given life, and His Spirit to live in me. This Spirit of Love is changing my selfish heart, as I daily meet God in His Word, and take up the battle against sin. Love expresses itself in word and deed; because I love the Father, I love the brethren, both those geographically local and those now distant, though still close in heart.

    In Jonathan Leeman’s book, he draws a picture of uncommitted, “consumeristic”, “individualistic”, people who claim to be Christians, but who are unwilling to submit to authority. It’s odd, but I have had seven decades of living among Christians in many places, and I don’t know any who fit that description. But assuming there are such, how will signing a formal agreement change their selfish, unrepentant hearts? That is the Spirit’s work! (Who, of course, in addition to the Word of God meditated on, uses the Word of God preached, and the exhortations and encouragements of my fellow Christians.)

    • R. Delaney

      Good comments. Every Christian is a member of the universal church. Moving from one local church to another is no sin, don’t let anyone tell you it is without Scripture to back it up (something we have yet to see). John, Riley, and others paint a caricature of Consumerism!, but no one (certainly not me) is suggesting that a brother or sister ought to leave their church on a whim. Of course, we’re not talking about leaving because the Pastor didn’t say “hello” to you when you came in last Sunday morning or because you don’t like the interior decorating of the church building. You should always resolve relational problems when and if they arise as well. However, if you are not being edified by the preaching, or do not feel accepted or at home with the people, or there is another church in which there would be more opportunity for you to serve, then by all means feel free in Christ to pursue that.

      Why would any pastor or church try to oppose you? If the leadership is made up of loving shepherds, they would bless you on your way and let you know you’re always welcome back.

      It’s the pastors/churches that want to force you to stay, blame you when you are not edified by their ministries (you’d be labeled “disgruntled” for that), and have meeting upon meeting with you when you just want to attend another church, that I worry about.

      Church membership at a local church does not involve vows, nor is it a life-long commitment. I marry my wife, I don’t marry my local church.

      When I left the Reformed Baptist church I was a member of for almost 20 years I jumped through their hoops, cited section and subsection of the church constitution, wrote my letters, had my meetings, and lawfully transferred my membership to another church. Other members who wanted to leave prior to my departure were not as fortunate. They got a kick in the pants on the way out, and a nice smearing by the pastor from the pulpit too. Now that’s loving leadership, right?

      And, of course, the pastor can resign and move away anytime he sees fit.

      It’s a control mechanism, flee from it.

      Best to you, Lois

  • Bret

    “Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus”

    And all along I thought the world would know we represent Christ in how we live our life and how we love one another (John 13:35) how we keep His commandments (1 Jon 2:3-11, Romans 13:8-10 SANS formal church membership), having qualities of spiritual maturity, i.e.: virtue, knowledge, faith, self control (2 Peter 1:9-10). I had no idea that the world would know we rep Christ by way of formal church membership.

    For those leaders having a hard time discerning who they will be held accountable for(Heb 13:17) I would ask this: are you responsible for the non-member who has had an intimate relationship with you and your local assembly? Are you responsible for the brother who is a memeber at another church but may regularly consult you on matters of the faith? I will gladly take the responsibility of “all the kids in the neighborhood” if they are in physical peril….shouldn’t we do the same for those in spiritual peril?

    I have no question as a Christian on who I am responsible for (reason one given for formal church membership), but if I follow the logic of this article, then the question becomes: am I not respsonible for other brothers and sisters who corporatley worship at other churches? Should I not fellowship with them, come along side them in times of need, provide mutual edification, just because we arent members of the same church? IF the answer is yes, you should do that, then the entire premise of your side of the debate is flawed. I, for the record, am not anti-membership nor pro-membership. Frankly, I have to wonder if we are not starting to worship the created rather the creator, when such a heavy defense of formal church membership is delivered.

    I doubt and hope many leaders truly lack the discernment to know to whom they will be accountable, if so, with no harshness I’d ask that they supplicate and pray on their choice of vocation; I use choice because I find it hard to believe you’ve truly been called if your confused on the matter. Hopefully its just a talking point in an attempt to win a debate. Those I have been blessed to lead and teach, I was responsible for, regardless of their formal membership status (the question never entered my mind, but maybe I am lacking discernment).

    Finally, please stop with the fallacies, specifically hasty generalizations, such as non members are church jumpers, they dont atttend regularly, they cant have an intimate relationship within the body of Christ,they cant submit, etc etc). IF thats the case, please examine membership rolls and tell us how many members fall into those same categories; I havent attended many churches,so I am ignorant on the staus of a lot churches, but I think we can all agree that membership does not equate to the biblical mandates of coming together as the body of Christ. Likewse, non-membership does not equate to church jumping and lackadaisical attendance.

    And please stop seperating sheep from sheep. Jonathon writes about asking a professed Christian to not take the Lords Supper because the person was not a formal church member (I would not want to be held accountable for that)- so much for the argument that non-members can not be disciplined. Pastor Carpenter insists we are like adulterers if we dont go through a formal membership process. Some, outside of this blog, have gone on to say youre not a Christian without membership (wont even go there but these are reformed pastors beleive ot or not). Does any of this, including my own rant, have anything to do with glorifying God?

    Peace and Grace.

    • Lois Westerlund

      Thank you for this, Bret! Amen, Amen! My thoughts, exactly. i am reading Leeman’s book–we were given a copy at the T4G conference in Louisville. So far, for me, the case he makes, his tone, his emphases, his exalted view of the local church as an institution of authority, is not having the effect the author intends. It is having the opposite effect. Not because I fit his caricature of a non-member. but because I treasure and rejoice in the precious Biblical doctrine of the Church, Christ’s body, brought to life because of our union with Him, by faith, by grace. We are called to maintain the unity of the Spirit.

      • Bret

        Grace to you Lois, prayerfully we will have discernment over such issues. Let us know what you think when youre finished, it would be helpful Im sure. A few years ago, I really wanted to be convinced formal membership was mandated biblically, and I am still seeking the viability of membership. But for some of the same reasons you mention, I am more leaning (getting pushed)the opposite way.

    • R. Delaney

      I couldn’t agree more. Local church membership has been elevated to an imbalanced level. This is typical of modern “Churchianity”.

      Formal church membership is not required to “represent Jesus”. It is important, but let’s keep everything in biblical perspective. Jesus said the world would know that you are his disciple by your love for one another, but everytime Jonathan or certain other commentors here read that it keeps translating: “The world will know that you are my disciple by your formal church membership”, because, of course, you can’t love other Christians without it.

      When Leeman was asked about what the difference would be between three Christians (two who attend the same church and the third a different one), the only thing he sited was that the two Christians going to the same church shared the “possibility of church discipline”. Wow, really? I’m especially bound to my fellow church member because, well, we could both be subjected to formal church discipline.

      It’s hard to take his line of argumentation seriously.

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  • LoisW

    Dropping in here, months after the discussion, to say that I reviewed Jonathan Leeman’s book on Church Membership, on Amazon. It is not hard to find, being the only critical review.

    • Bret

      Thanks Lois…good reveiw; great choice of quotes from the book.