Majority of Churchgoers Unaware of Church Membership

The Story: A new study finds that fewer than half of Americans who attend church are aware that their place of worship offers any sort of official membership.

The Background: Grey Matter Research surveyed American adults who attend a local church or place of worship once a month or more. The study asked people whether their place of worship offers “any kind of official membership in the organization, or not.” Among all worship-goers, 48% say such official membership is offered, 33% believe it is not, and 19% are not sure.

According to the study, while some denominations and individual congregations have no official form of membership, most of the largest religious bodies do. All of the ten largest denominations in the U.S.—as measured by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies—measure some form of official membership: Roman Catholic Church, Southern Baptist Convention, United Methodist Church, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Assemblies of God, Presbyterian Church U.S.A., Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, Episcopal Church, and National Baptist Convention USA.

The Takeaways: Some of the more interesting findings from the study include:

• Among those in a Protestant church, 56% say their church offers official membership. Only a third of Catholics believe this about their church.

• Among people who attend one of the top ten largest denominations, just 44% say their church offers official membership, while 39% believe it does not, and 17% are unsure.

• The perception that their place of worship offers membership is much more common among older Americans (59%, compared to 45% among people under age 65).

• Evangelicals are also particularly likely to believe their church offers official membership (72%, compared to 44% among all other worship-goers).

• Among people who say official membership is available to them, 78% claim to be members, while 21% attend, but have never become members, and 1% are unsure of their own status.

• 37% of all regular worship-goers in the U.S. believe they are official members of the place of worship they attend, 10% believe they attend but are not members, 1% are unsure.

  • Wesley

    This is crazy to me – surely these churches where their congregants are unsure if membership is even offered are being delinquent in some form, either in communication or stressing its importance. If you are not a member there are a variety of problems that arise from demonstrated commitment to the life of the church as well as demonstrated commitment to submission to the elders in cases of polity and church discipline. I believe it is absolutely the pattern of the NT that those converted by the gospel of Christ became committed, numerable members in their local congregations. This should be no different today.

    • John Carpenter

      I agree with you completely. You put it well. And let’s add that following the Lord Jesus’ instruction to the church in Matthew 18:15ff is practically impossible without membership as is responsibly administering the Lord’s Supper.

    • RDRussell

      Could you be more specific on “the pattern of the NT” regarding church membership? I’m not being cheeky- this is a question I’ve done no small bit of wrestling with. There are more questions to ask, e.g.: Does one really understand what they’re signing on for with church membership? It seems to vary within denominations and churches. What happens when one’s views on certain requisite doctrines change? Is membership rescinded, or does the doctrine become less important? What happens to membership when the denomination steps away from their part of the covenant and embraces unbiblical practice?
      Because the answer to those questions is quite ambiguous, it seems that more emphasis on Christian growth within the Christian community would supersede a check-the-box membership requirement. God knows whose are His, and where they are.
      But I might change my stance if a coffee club card and refillable mug were included with the membership.

      • Wesley

        Two NT themes, particularly in Acts, that stand out are reading that the early church “devoted themselves” to the apostles teaching, breaking of bread, etc. This “devoting” of oneself is certainly more than just showing up and partaking (though that is certainly included) but the committing of oneself to a local body of believers and putting themselves under the authority of the elders in the church – certainly impossible to do without something like our modern-day membership.
        The other is the references in Acts to “adding to their number”. Now we can take this on its own as a descriptive alone, but surely the Luke (and the Holy Spirit) had more in mind than just ‘notches’ in the pew. These were recognizable numbers of people who were a part of the local church in that area.
        Two resources (beyond the bible) i’d point you to are:
        1. Joshua Harris’ excellent book “Stop dating the church”
        2. This article from Matt Chandler at the 9Marks site:

        • Christopher Heward

          Why’s it impossible without formal membership? Surely it’s about committing to each other and loving one another, not about committing to some abstract concept of a local ‘Church’. It’s about a body of believers, which doesn’t need a name, that is only an ‘ekklesia’ when the people love one another.

          Otherwise you end up with legalism and white-washed sepulchre ‘Churches’ which are only a ‘Church’ because someone’s given it a name, someone’s been designated a leader, and it’s a registered charity that can have its tithes tax-free.

          Just as a marriage is something between the man, the woman and God, and not anything to do with a written bit of paper from the state or whatever, so the Church is a living organism which is made up of people who love God and love others.

          Sorry if this seems controversial or confrontational, I just think it needs to be said that our view of Church is a pale shadow of what Jesus envisaged from what I see in the New Testament. The NT word is ‘ekklesia’ and the word for Church in Greek is ‘kuriakon’ I believe, which means the Lord’s house, so our theology has been skewed by a mistranslation which continues in the majority of Bible translations to this day, except for the extremely literal ones that aren’t afraid to be controversial. :)

          Must be said that I probably agree with your general point though, that if you truly follow Jesus, then you’ll commit to a fellowship of believers and journey with them.

          • John Carpenter

            The Lord Jesus gave only one specific instruction, by name, to the local “church” (ekklesia). In it, He tells us to hold one another accountable and, if necessary, put someone out of the assembly. If there is no one “in”, then there can be no one put out.

            The life of the church described in the NT cannot be lived without commitment.

            • Christopher Heward

              I suppose I’m making a point that though small is important, as I think we largely agree. My point is that whilst we should be committed to a local ekklesia, that’s not something that we can turn into a form of membership. I think it’s wrong to create names for these ekklesia, and to focus on man’s interpretations of the scripture. Where people are clearly going against scripture we should put them out of the assembly, but the defining point of the ekklesia should be Jesus, not a long list of doctrine, even though of course doctrine is important as a framework to help us in our relationship with god and with others.

              I certainly believe in local church/ekklesia, but I mean that – local. In a place like the UK there’s no need to go more than a mile to meet with Christians, and yet we do, because we see our interpretation of scripture, style of worship, and man’s traditions as more important than fellowship with Christ and with his people. And I think the modern idea of membership often flows out of that – defining particular gatherings of Christians not by Jesus, or where God’s placed us, or the passions he’s given us, but by made-made/influenced such as tradition, theology and styles of worship.

              Essentially I agree with your thrust of your arguemnt, that we need to be committed to a group of Christian and be accountable, but I suppose I’m just concerned that we often to take what is divine (God’s Church) and turn it into man’s shape, with Church names, Church rules, Church styles, Church interpretations, etc. Hope I’m articulating this vaguely clearly, sorry if not, as I’m conscious that it might sound like I’m saying what we believe about God/Jesus isn’t important, when I believe quite the contrary. Thanks :)

  • Scott

    You can be a committed, numerable member of your local congregation without a piece of paper…can’t you?

    • John Carpenter

      That’s called “cohabitation theory”. When applied to the marital relationship, it leads to living together without official marriage. And it is just as immoral when applied to the Bride of Christ.

      • RDRussell

        Well that’s a bit harsh, and I think unfounded. The Bride of Christ is the church, i.e. all believers everywhere from all ages. One is either part of that number, or they are not, and it matters not a whit what their denominational moniker is. Don’t get me wrong- participation in a local body with ministry presence in one’s community is integral, but leave the “membership” requirement to the Rotary Club. If you’re attending, you’re under the leadership of that body, as well as the larger Body of Christ. As brothers/sisters in Christ, we have responsibility to one another to rebuke, exhort, encourage, correct, regardless if our denominational ties are different, don’t you think?

        • mel

          Of course it’s harsh unless the church only lets members volunteer. I haven’t seen too many churches do that though. Lots of people volunteer and teach without being on the list.

          I took the classes to show my commitment. Sometimes it is something as simple as not having your schedule line up with when the classes are offered. I don’t know how we can accuse them of cohabitation. Maybe God hasn’t called them to make commitment to that church for a reason. Membership isn’t a requirement of salvation.

          • John Carpenter

            Membership in “the Church” is a result of salvation. And that result will show itself in membership in the visible, specific, local church.

        • John Carpenter

          It’s typical of our day to consider moral standards “harsh.” Asking people to make and keep conscious commitments isn’t “harsh” for a romantic relationship or for one’s commitment to “the Bride of Christ.” While the church is universal, commitment to it is expressed in commitment to a specific congregation. Saying “I love the church” but being willing to commit to it is the same kind of “cohabitation theory” creating so many unmarried couples living together today.

          Whenever I hear some modern Christian scold the idea of a commitment to a specific church as “legalism”, I’m aghast that the salt has lost it’s savor; that, just as the Lord Jesus said, when the love of many has grown cold, lawlessness increases (Mt. 24:12).

          • Neil

            What I noticed with your posts is that you are very quick to defend the traditions of men. You assume that because we have “done church” a certain way for the last 1700 years, you believe this is how God ordained it to be. You have a rebuttal any time a brother or sister mentions the traditions of the church that quench the body of Christ. There are brothers and sisters with discernment who recognize that the institutionalized church quenches the Holy Spirit. Legalism is rampant in the institutionalized church. Church membership is a great example of legalism because it requires something beyond a person’s personal commitment to salvation in Christ. The reason you or other “leaders” do not see this is that you are part of a system that created this misnomer of the word church. . God’s word says we become children of God at the moment of salvation. Man says we need to commit to the by-laws of the congregational system in order to present ourselves as “Christians” within a local body.
            You said, “Membership in “the Church” is a result of salvation.” You need to back this up with scripture because the result of salvation is not membership IN a “Church” it is a new creation, a born again, regenerated sinner who is reconciled to the Father through the Lord Jesus Christ. Since they BECOME the church because they are disciples of Christ, they should never have to sign up to join one.

            • John Carpenter

              When one is a new creation, one commits to a local church. Submitting to the Lordship of Jesus, doing the “works” (of James), etc., includes first obeying what Jesus said about His “assembly” (Mt. 18:15ff), contributing to the Body (1 Cor. 12), submitting to the leadership (Heb. 13:17) and many other “one another” passages. One cannot fully obey these passages without commitment and real commitment is not afraid of formal commitment. If one becomes a part of the church at salvation, the result will be them wanting to officially join one.

              Your dichotomy between “becoming” the church (which an individual, by himself, can’t do) and official membership is a false one. It’s the same justification that couples “shaking up” use and it is just as morally shabby.

      • Scott

        That is a poor analogy in my opinion. The way we become a member of the Church is through repentance and faith in Christ not a piece of paper.

        • John Carpenter

          If you’ve really repented and had faith in the Lord, then you will obey Him, including His command to commit to His Body. If you’re doing that, it will result in your being willing to formally commit, including signing a piece of paper. If you’re not willing to do that, then I think you’re just fooling yourself about your “commitment” and likely about your “repentance and faith”.

  • Christopher Heward

    There’s being a disciple of Jesus, then there’s regularly meeting with fellow believers, and the there’s formal membership. The first two are God’s idea the last is, really, man’s idea. It strikes me that it’s much easier to monitor people’s ‘membership’, tithing and attendance, rather than to befriend them, journey with them, and support them in their walk with Jesus. There’s a danger it becomes about fear rather than faith.

    What I didn’t understand was why the headline implied that the majority (in reality only 52%), did know about their Church congregation’s membership, when in reality some of them might nave KNOWN that their Church congregation didn’t have formal membership.

    • John Carpenter

      To suggest that making a commitment to a specific congregation with specific leadership is “man’s idea” is unBiblical. You can’t obey the Lord Jesus’ instructions to the church in Matthew 18:15ff or the inspired instructions of Hebrews 13:17, without commitment. One cannot be a true disciple of the Lord Jesus without a covenantal commitment to His Body. And the call of our participation in the church is far, far more than simply attending meetings.

      By the way, 54% is a majority.

      • Christopher Heward

        Ha yeah I think I was just meaning about the majority that it was marginal (you could easily say ‘about half’, which would probably be fair, given a margin for error).

        Obviously I’ve replied higher up the page so won’t write a long response, but just to say that I actually think the idea of a paper commitment to an ekklesia or a marriage can WEAKEN that relationship, because rather than love being the foundation of that relationship, it is contract. When the going gets tough, we should say “I’m going to stay, because I’m committed, because I love her/this assembly of people”, not “I’m going to stay, because I’m committed, because I sign this piece of paper to show how serious I was and I’m not backing out”.

        In that approach, with regards to marriage, the reason you don’t split up with your wife is because of the inconvenience of divorce, or the financial cost of it, or the shame of it (although unfortunately now, in the UK, even amongst the Church, divorce is rife (I think around 25%, and that probably includes a lot of 30-50+ year marriages making the figures look better)). As a consequence, it’s kind of a begrudging reluctance that you stay because you have to.

        Now of course, there are certain things that can sometimes help us. For example someone might force themselves to not use the internet for a week because of excessive usage or looking at dodgy things, and whilst ideally they wouldn’t need to place any constraint on themselves, it might be useful to temporarily restrain themselves (a form of fasting in a sense I guess). I suppose in a sense we could try to apply this to the idea of membership and to paper marriage. But perhaps it doesn’t even need to be that. Perhaps it could be a steely resolve that says “even though I feel rubbish today, and people have annoyed me, I’m going to go and meet with the others because Jesus is good, they love me and we can worship together”. Or with a wife I can say “I’m really frustrated at her at the moment, but I know I love her, and that she loves me, and that we made this commitment to stick together for life, so I’m going to persevere and love her through this”.

        Again I hope I am being reasonably clear in this, and don’t make it sound like I don’t want there to be commitment; commitment is so key, and at the end of the day, that the sole thing Jesus wants from us, to commit to following Him.

        Thanks for your considered comments John (and sorry that this ended up being a long comment in the end anyway! :D)

        • John Carpenter

          If someone is really committed, they won’t be afraid of making that commitment formal. Your dichotomy between a true, loving commitment and a formal (“paper”) one is not only false but the opposite is true: Those who are afraid of making their commitments formal are that way because they aren’t really committed. Lacking that commitment, they won’t be able to follow what the NT says about the life of the church.

        • John Carpenter

          The idea that a formal commitment actually weakens a relationship — getting married weakens a marriage — is bizarre and immoral. It’s the modern, individualistic assumption that love equals lawlessness.

  • Paul ST Jean

    I insisted on a being officially received by the Bishop into the Anglican communion, from the Roman Catholic Church, even when the secretary told me it was not necessary. And I received a written statement to the fact that I have been received. The Anglican Church recognizes baptized Christians from The Roman Catholic Church. I am part of a communion that goes back to the beginning of the Christianity. St. Marys near London was built in 968 AD. And is still standing and in use.

    • John Carpenter

      Good. But please understand that the validity of a church is in no way related to how far back it can supposedly trace its lineage but about it’s current faithfulness to the Word of God. The Lord Jesus criticized those who kept traditions that had been passed down for generations but violated the Word of God (Matthew 15:6).

  • Rick Owen

    Interesting article and comments.

    Alan Knox has a thought-provoking post entitled “Why Is One Covenant Not Enough?” at his blog “The Assembling of the Church.” Something to consider related to formal church membership or membership covenants.

    I’m not against membership covenants. Every church I’ve been part of has had them. Local churches are certainly free to make use of them as one way to account for and serve their congregations. But I believe rigid dogmatism about this as an ‘essential’ for being a ‘biblical church’ exceeds Scripture.

    What I like about Alan’s article is how it reminds us of our responsibility to the body of Christ at large and the benefit of our edifying interaction with believers outside of our local assembly. I suppose this blog would be one example of wider fellowship within Christ’s body. God has joined all believers to His Son as His Bride by His Spirit. We do not create this divine union via a church membership contract; nor do we break it in the absence of such a man-made covenant. “But by HIS doing you are in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:30).

    Regarding the need for a membership covenant for practicing church discipline (per Matt. 18:17), I think this line of thought misses Jesus’ focus. Jesus did not say, “Let him be to the church…” He says, “Let him be to YOU” (Greek, SOI – second person SINGULAR, speaking of the individual, not a group), “as a Gentile and a tax collector.” In other words, regard the one you were trying to reconcile with (as a brother) as a non-brother. Treat him as an unbeliever who needs to be evangelized. There are no further instructions here about prosecuting or excommunicating anyone. Other passages in the NT address church discipline, but not necessarily this one. This entire chapter has a very personal and individual theme (brother-to-brother) related to what it means to be great in the kingdom of God (beginning with verse 1).

    As a side note, I believe the “assembly” (Greek, EKKLESIA) Jesus had in mind in Matt. 18:17 (even though this is often translated “church”) was most likely the local synagogue, given the “Gentile and tax-gatherer” nomenclature and the timeframe for practicing this prior to the birth of the New Covenant church. However, the principles articulated throughout Matthew 18, regarding what it means to be great in the kingdom of God, certainly apply to today too. Humbling oneself as a child, taking one’s sin seriously, seeking the straying sheep, pursuing reconciliation with brethren who are estranged (and enlisting the help of others when needed), and repeatedly forgiving others are all included in this chapter and should be the norm for living as God’s children in His kingdom.

    • John Carpenter


      Please stop coming to blogs committed to serious Christian discipleship and Biblical interpretation and promoting your material committed to individualism and modern consumerism. We’ve seen from your refusal to accept what scripture says about leadership and the support of the ministry, that you’re not submitting to the Word of God. You’re mangling of Mt. 18:155 here is another example of that. You completely overlook the FACT that the Lord Jesus says “if he refuses to listen to the church (ekklesia)” and reduce it to just an individualistic relationship. Your suggestion that this passage is not about church discipline is frankly absurd and demonstrates again the length you will go to to distort the Word of God to support your individualistic, consumeristic reinvention of it. You’re a theologically uneducated, individualistic man with a compulsion to spread your idiosyncratic ideas. If you want to do that on your own blog, you’re free to do so. Please don’t do it here.

      Please don’t respond.

      • Christopher Heward

        Have you two had discussion previously or am I missing something?

        Regardless of what Rick says, he has as many scripture quotes in his post as yours and more than anybody else’s on this page including the article. Clicking on his name leads to a website with lots of scripture mentioned. His website is entitled ‘The Fellowship of The Lamb – Family Discipleship Through Christ-Centred Hospitality’, which doesn’t sound like consumerism or individualism, and sounds Christ-centred and about how we can find a meaningful version of what it means to journey with God together.

        Nothing in Rick’s post comes across as being unnecessarily quarrelsome, he appeals to the original Greek (which when this is a website that believe in their inerrancy of scripture, surely it’s best if we translate the words correctly rather than making them up?), and seems to want to make people think further and seek Jesus, which is surely the point of this website and Christian discipleship in general?

        Like I say I may have missed previous discussions, but to describe someone as individualistic without evidence in the post seems harsh, so too does to call someone uneducated (never mind a bit snobbish), and, surely, you an’t ban people from wanting just because you disagree with what they say? Surely you’ve got to trust that people can discern what is right and wrong based on scripture; if they can’t do that then it’s useless preaching at people from the front because how will they know what you’re saying is true, and how will help them to get to know Jesus better?

        This comes from his website (my capitals added for emphasis). It doesn’t sound particularly consumeristic/individualistic to me to be honest :
        We are called to trust and obey Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God in the following ways:
        – to HUMBLY receive Him and rest in His perfect sacrifice as the only way of salvation from sin and new life unto God
        – to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and imitate His meek and lowly example of loving God AND OUR NEIGHBOR every day
        – to MEET REGULARLY WITH HIS FOLLOWERS to share, learn, rejoice and grow together in Him as our Passover Lamb and Shepherd-King
        – to spread the message of cleansing and forgiveness through His blood TO ALL PEOPLE EVERYWHERE.

        • John Carpenter

          Hi Christopher,

          Yes, I’ve had a lot of interaction with him before. What he says here is simply false and I’ve concluded it is a waste of time to try to teach him why. He wants to misled people into thinking the church is about a dinner club with no real commitment. He has no theological education and when confronted with clear scriptures that teach contrary to his views, twists them or obfuscates.

          Note, if Jesus had in mind “synagogue” in Mt. 18:15, He would have used the word “synagogue”. He used “ekklesia”, i.e. assembly. The church has existed from when first God calls His people together.

        • John Carpenter

          As with your comments above, what is missing is commitment. And real commitment isn’t afraid of being formalized.

          The couple living together claim they have “love” and “commitment”. But, of course, when things get difficult, they’ll go their own way. It’s not real. So individualists in the church talk about “fellowship”, etc., but when they feel like drifting off elsewhere, they will because there is no commitment holding them together.

          As for Mr. Owen, his misinterpretation of Mt. 18:15 above is grievous. He utterly rejects 1 Cor. 9:14 (and similar passages), arbitrarily narrowing it’s focus so he doesn’t have to obey it. Etc. He is uneducated and yet at the same time compelled to spread his ideas.

          • Christopher Heward

            But John can’t people go their own way even if they’ve got a bit of paper? Divorce is easy nowadays. The only thing that stops it is social norms, time, and money. OK, it’s easier than dating, but even if you’re cohabiting, with a shared bank account, then it’s a lot of upheaval to sell a house (particularly if it has a mortgage). I don’t believe that in those instances it is the paper that keeps them together. If it is then there’s something wrong with the marriage. Everyone knows, realistically, that marriage isn’t a bed of roses, and that hard times will come, that’s they’ll be tempted to fall out, etc. etc. When they stick it out it’s because they love each other, they love God, because God gives them perseverance to endure when it’s difficult.

            • John Carpenter

              Yes, they can. But the former marriage certificate or broken church covenant testifies that they’ve broken their commitments and thus lacked love. The reason people don’t want the formal agreement these days — either in marriage or church — is because they want the “freedom” to break the commitment when it is convenient without the convicting testimony that they’ve done so. It’s what in the Bible is called “lawlessness”, in theological terms: “antinomianism”.

      • Rick Owen

        O dear . . . John Carpenter,

        As much as you say you want to promote commitment to the church, you seem to turn right around and contradict this by tearing people down. Discouraging God’s people is not a spiritual gift, brother; and it does not edify the body of Christ.

        We are to accept and love one another, just as Christ sacrificially loved and accepted us to the glory of God (John 13:34; Rom. 15:7). “If we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12). Don’t you want God’s love to be perfected in your life and your church? It begins with you, brother. Learn to love rather than lash out at Christ’s brethren.

        I am a fellow member of the Gospel Coalition and, more importantly, of the body of Christ (by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone — like every other true believer — not through signing a piece of paper). Our fellowship affirms and recommends the Gospel Coalition on our website. This accounts for my legitimate participation in this blog.

        Our fellowship also encourages believers to study the Scriptures carefully, become theologically discerning and wise, and sincerely practice Christ’s commands. This includes challenging church leaders and fellow believers to pursue a very high level of commitment to the body of Christ when it gathers for “the apostles’ teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42-46; 20:7ff), serving one another with a variety of gifts provided by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 12:3ff; 1 Pet. 4:10), for the building up of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 14:26; Eph. 4:12-16).

        I trust this is your true desire also and that you will renew your commitment to practice these things with God’s help. I am praying now that God will strengthen and equip you to do His will.

        Grace and peace . . .

  • John Carpenter

    Meaningful membership has dissolved under the acids of individualism and consumerism. And yet, it really is important for being a disciple of Jesus. One cannot be part of what the Lord Jesus describes as “the assembly” without commitment. And real commitment is not afraid of formalizing in membership and covenants. Only “cohabitation theory” creates a dichotomy between commitment and formalization.

    • Christopher Heward

      Firstly John, with regards consumerism and individualism, I agree. It has infected the Church. But I see an expression of this in how we approach ‘Church’. People choose Churches according to what doctrines they believe in. It is like reading a list of ingredients on the back of an item in a food store. I commit to the one that meets my tastes. The consumer is always right! If I dissagree with them then they must be wrong, their theology must be out of whack, they must be the blasphemous. It puts an awful lot of trust in oneself to know what is right and wrong – the consumer, the individual is god. Little account is taken of other Christians, how perhaps I can help them. Could i yoke with other believers who are committed to Christ but whose theology seems a little dodgy, and as we build our relationship and love one another I can show them what I see in scripture and their journey will furthered. I might even learn something from them too. Furthermore, wihlst there’s a temptation to look down on those who only come to Church once a week, say, as being consumerist, isn’t it still consumerist if someone comes to a Bible study each week, and a prayer meeting, and pays their tithe, and everything else – that’s the package they want to get involved with? Of course, none of these things need to be consumerist, but that’s the point.

      Which comes to the second point… To be committed you don’t need a contract. It is about the heart. I can go to all the prayer meetings and Bible studies and be outwardly very committed, but if I don’t love the others in my fellowship, the other Christians that live in my community, that I work with, etc. etc., that aren’t I picking and choosing who to love and who to commit to based on a contract, based on consumeristic and individualistic principles of what kinds of Jesus followers I like the most.

      Finally John, it seems as though you are the one creating the false dichotomy (or rather A false dichotomy – I’m sure there’s some in mine and others’ arguments either here or elsewhere also). You seem to be saying that you’re either committed and have the signed formal bit of paper, or you’re not committed at all. That is a false dichotomy. You can be completely committed that you are SO committed that you don’t even need a piece of paper, because you’ never think of leaving. Not only is this a false dichotomy, but it can sometimes even be detrimental to have the paper contract because it diminishes the actual commitment from being a heart/covenant thing to being a paper/contract thing. Paper/contracts can easily be ripped up (legal divorce), heart things cannot be without massive consequences (God’s marriage).

      I don’t want this to be adversarial – I’m not just trying to prove a point (hopefully!), I just wanting to articulate where I’m coming from because I agree with you that consumerism and individualism is anti-Christ and needs to be out-rooted. Blessings John.

      • John Carpenter

        Yes, to be committed one doesn’t need a “contract”. (I note that you and Mr. Owen choose that term to down-grade it.) But real commitment isn’t afraid of formal commitments. The person who claims that he is so committed that he doesn’t need to sign something to show that commitment is, frankly, lying. He maybe lying to himself first, and thus be self-righteous, but he is lying nonetheless. Real commitments aren’t afraid of demonstrating themselves in formal expressions.

        In the Bible those expressions are called “covenants.” God Himself enters into a covenant with Abraham by going through what was in their day the formal expression of covenant making (Genesis 15). God is the model of a covenant maker and covenant keeper. And He expressed His covenant formally, expressing it not only on paper (in the Bible) but in the cultural expressions of binding covenants of their day.

        There’s a scene from the movie “Jerry McGuire” where the father of a great football prospect refuses to sign the contract with the agent, insisting that his “word is strong as oak”. Of course, as it turns out, the real reason he didn’t sign the contract is that he wanted to break his word when it was convenient and didn’t want a piece of paper testifying that he had once made a commitment. Your idea that some people have a commitment so strong that they don’t want to make it formal is, frankly, silly.

        • Christopher Heward

          I would argue that sexual intercourse is the formal expression of covenant making. Which I guess is why, in UK law anyway, a legal marriage can be nullified if the couple haven’t had sex (as far as I’m aware, and this is one of the legal hurdles to some people’s wishes to make same-sex marriage legal). Indeed I’ve never thought of this before, but the symbolic nature of God’s presence passing through probably has some parallels with sexual intercourse to a degree?

          I just don’t understand John how you can say that anybody who doesn’t need a contract is a liar, and anyone who trusts them is silly. You can’t just state things, which are basically insults, just because you disagree with the argument someone is trying to make, surely?

          I suppose thinking about it the crux of this matter is the word ‘formal’ that you keep using. What do you mean by this? Perhaps if you define this it’ll be easier to reach common ground. Is sex a way of formalising a marriage? Isn’t there a danger that we think something can only be formalised through contract? After all, Abram didn’t have a formal contract with God, and indeed he probably broke his side of the bargain many times, but God forgave him out of love, even though if there had been a contract Abram would have broken it and therefore God could have disowned him. In this sense God’s love makes a contract redundant I guess.

          • Rick Owen

            Hi Christopher Heward,

            As I mentioned in my first post above, Alan Knox has a thought-provoking post entitled “Why Is One Covenant Not Enough?” at his blog site “The Assembling of the Church.” Go to his site and read this. I think your mind will be stirred to search and reflect on the Scriptures related to this thread’s topic.

            The covenant which binds us to Christ is the New Covenant in His blood. Christ is the Guarantee or Surety of the New Covenant. This covenant can never be broken, praise God, because Christ is our Covenant Keeper.

            God includes His people in the New Covenant in two ways: by giving us His Spirit, who puts God’s laws in our hearts and writes them upon our minds (Heb. 10:16), and cleansing us through the blood of Christ, which brings us forgiveness of sins and every other spiritual blessing from God (Heb. 10:17-18: Rom. 8:32; Eph. 1:3ff).

            The New Covenant is God’s covenant for His people now. It is perfect and complete. Nothing can be added to it. Nothing should detract from it. That which binds us together as the body of Christ — both to one another and to Christ — is based upon God’s activity through the person and work of Christ by His Spirit.

            Union with Christ, which earthly marriage resembles and pictures (Eph. 5:32), but does not fully express and can never equal, is a divine work of God. It “transcends all the analogies of earthly relationships, in the intimacy of its communion, in the transforming power of its influence, and in the excellence of its consequences” (A. A. Hodge).

            In light of Hodge’s insight, I believe we need to be careful about drawing too many point-for-point analogies between human marriage and the union between Christ and His Bride. Paul’s focus in Eph. 5:25-33 was on husbands loving and caring for their wives like Christ sacrificially devoted (and continues to devote) himself to His Bride, the church.

            More directly related to the original article of this blog . . .

            Anyone who demonstrates new life and faith in Christ should be received as one of His brethren. If a local church wants to confess and affirm this spiritual union via a membership covenant or formal membership, that’s fine. I’ve done this in every church I have been part of which has used this. All I meant to say in my first reply above is that Scripture does not require the use of this man-made convention as ‘the mark of a Christian’ or a ‘biblical church.’

            True worshippers are distinguished by spirit and truth. New life and faithful living is a gift from God bestowed by His Spirit. This should be the focus of a church when it receives people into its fellowship and seeks to nurture them in the Lord.

            Formalities are like fine china which can be used with some pleasure and benefit when enjoying a meal. But they are not the meal. We can have a good meal without them. And they should definitely not become our focus or litmus test for authenticating or marginalizing Christ’s brethren. We don’t want to be like Pharisees straining at gnats and swallowing camels, or picking a speck out of a brother’s eye while walking around with a two-by-four protruding from our own eye.