Suppose you have five people like this in your church’s new members class:
Bill grew up in a conservative church. He is a nice guy, upstanding and well-respected. He believes the Bible and professes Jesus to be his Lord and Savior. He affirms the Trinity, heaven and hell, and the local church. But during your membership interview, when you ask him to explain the gospel, he tells you it is about trying your best to be a good person. When you press him for clarity, he digs in further, insisting that being a Christian means going to church, making a difference in the community, and raising a good family.
Larry is a thirtysomething successful business person in the area. He grew up in a liberal church and turned away from Christ in his 20s. During that time he lived a very licentious life, including active participation in the gay lifestyle. He feels shame for that part of his life and has sought the Lord’s forgiveness and the Lord’s power to change. He understands the gospel and is growing in his knowledge of the word. Larry still struggles with same gender attraction and a couple of times has gone online to view things he shouldn’t, but with an accountability partner, a good church community, and the hope of the gospel he is trusting the Lord to make him holy.
Jim and Susan are a young couple with no church background. They started coming to your services nine months ago after some struggles in their relationship. At first they were tentative, but now they can’t get enough of church. They jumped into a small group and have started greeting at the front door. They love the sermons and the music. They know that Jesus came to save sinners like them and they love to meditate on God’s grace. During the membership class it comes out that they are living together. When you inquire further you learn that they regularly have sex and don’t think twice about it.
Irene is a 65-year old widow and a lifelong churchgoer. When her husband died two years ago she decided to move to a different part of town and get into a different house. That’s when she started coming to your church. Since her husband died Irene has not felt quite right. It’s been hard for her to read the word and pray because that’s what she did with her husband. She is discouraged by her lack of faithfulness in these spiritual disciplines. And she’s not been as involved in church as she used to be. Sometimes Irene wonders if she’s depressed. She wants Jesus to help her is hoping a change of scenery will do some good.
So, how many people from this membership class will you welcome to join the church? I’d vote for Larry and Irene, but not for Bill, Jim, and Susan.
Let’s go back through the list and I’ll try to explain my thought process.
Bill doesn’t understand the gospel. It’s a simple as that. He is religious, well versed in some Christian theology, and has a good reputation. But he is not trusting in Christ alone for salvation. He may not be a meanie like the Pharisees, but he rests in his own righteousness like they often did. Obviously, I’d want to keep working with Bill. Maybe it’s head confusion more than heart pride. But until he understand how he is right with God and what the good news is all about I can’t affirm that he is born again. He may be, but I need more evidence.
Larry is simul iustus et peccator. He struggles with sin and old patterns. But he also fights. He confesses sin and repents of it. In fact, he hates the sin in his life and is taking advantage of every means of grace to push back temptation. Hopefully over time his spiritual triumphs will increase and his defeats decrease. Larry may fall again, but he doesn’t want to and he is working hard not to. He’s demonstrated a sincere trust in Jesus for his sins and a desire to let Jesus conquer his sins. Welcome to the church.
Jim and Susan may be the toughest case. We may be tempted to let them join, figuring we can disciple them later and get them to move out. But this approach lacks integrity. When we (the church or the elders depending on your polity) welcome someone into membership we are giving our verdict that this person, as best as we can tell, is a child of God and is walking with God. There is no problem in admitting sinners to church membership (what church would be left without sinners!). The problem is admitting those who do not acknowledge their sin. Church membership, de facto, is an invitation to the Table. But would we not discipline (I hope) a couple committing sexual sin?
Again, we should work with people like Jim and Susan. They are probably ignorant of God’s commands. But hiding the commands from them does not help them in the long run. If Jesus told the crowds to count the cost before being his disciple, we should be open and honest with prospective members (and everyone really) about what it means to follow Jesus. If they balk at God’s standards for sexual purity, then they are not serious about making Jesus Lord of their lives. While we can be thankful for the progress in people like Jim and Susan, unless they are willing to turn from their sin they are not ready be a part of God’s holy bride.
Irene is a struggling Christian. There is nothing in her life to suggest she’s given up on Christ. In fact, she really misses the walk she used to enjoy. She’s not living in defiance of God’s commands. She understands and believes the gospel. She’s not feeling like the stalwart she was a few years ago, but this is an opportunity for her new church to comfort, encourage, and come alongside.
The issue, despite the title of this post, is not really maturity. Some people join our churches ready to be elders and others are quite the work in progress. Church membership is not just for those who seem to be on top of their spiritual game. Church membership is for those who trust in Christ alone for salvation and turn from their sin. That’s not all I would teach on church membership. I’d also want to talk about spiritual authority, commitment, covenant, doctrinal distinctives, and the like. But the starting point in the discussion is trusting in Christ and turning from sin. The question is not how much sanctification must be present prior to church membership. The issue is faith and repentance. Both mark out conversion. Both mark out the Christian. And both marks must be present in new members.