On Church Membership and Discipline

These are the two major missing ingredients in most churches today. Sadly the commitment-less, non-judgmental and PC-heavy mindset which characterises the world also characterises much of the church. For too many believers church is a place of entertainment, therapy and self-esteem boosting.

When it fails to amuse, or meet their perceived needs, they simply move on and check out the next church. This complete lack of commitment means there is no accountability, no responsibility, and no real body life. And all this can be compounded in the mega-churches.

How many believers slip in and slip out of the big churches each week, totally unknown, unnoticed and unattached? Sure, the leaders of these big churches will say that they need to plug into a small group. But I suspect most Christians in these larger churches are not part of a small accountability group.

Thus the majority are just slipping through the cracks. And that means there may well be many who attend our churches every week who are not even saved. This lack of accountability and transparency means that many are just fooling themselves.

Pastor Mark Dever from Washington DC has done much to correct these dangerous trends. To set the stage for what he is doing, let me cite some words he gave to 8000 ministers at a recent conference. The evangelical pastor warned: “My fellow pastors, could it be that many of our hearers each week aren’t saved, even many of our members?”

And he emphasised five key truths which are seldom taught, contributing to this problem: God’s judgment is coming, we should be judged by God, our only hope is in Christ, we don’t see the fullness of our salvation in this life, and we can deceive ourselves and others about our relationship with God. By not teaching these truths clearly, churches become filled with those who do not “evidence the fruit of the Spirit” or who aren’t truly born-again.

He has done a lot to turn this around. In addition to speaking at conferences and modelling things in his own church, he has penned a number of important volumes here. His Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Crossway, 1997, 2004) and What Is a Healthy Church? (Crossway, 2005, 2007), lay out some of the key features of a living, thriving church.

A whole series of related initiatives have come out under the rubric of 9Marks. A number of books and products have already come out of this, and a series of books examining each of these nine marks in more detail is also under way. Thus Jonathan Leeman has already penned two volumes: Church Membership and Church Discipline (both Crossway, 2012).

Related volumes include Greg Gilbert’s What is the Gospel? (Crossway, 2010), and Mike McKinley’s Am I Really a Christian? (Crossway, 2011). My review of the latter volume can be found here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/03/18/a-review-of-am-i-really-a-christian-by-mike-mckinley/

Church membership and church discipline are two of the nine marks Dever speaks to. The two of course are intimately connected. As to the former, he reminds us that while the New Testament sometimes speaks of the church universal, mostly it is referring to the local congregation. And it is a body of believers with definite insiders and outsiders. Some were included and some were excluded – there were clear boundary lines drawn.

As Dever writes, “If you read the story of the early churches recorded in the book of Acts, there is no evidence that any of them meant to have anyone other than believers as members. When you read the letters of Paul it seems clear that Paul too wrote as if the churches were composed entirely of believers; thus he addressed them as saints – those whom God has specially chosen. The church is the body of Christ, the local collection of Christians committed to Christ and to each other.”

Of course joining a local church will not save you, but it will “help you in making certain you are saved”. Indeed, joining a church “will help counter our wrong individualism and will help us to realize the corporate nature of Christianity”.

And again, “Church membership is our opportunity to grasp hold of each other in responsibility and love”. As Leeman defines it, “church membership is a formal relationship between a church and a Christian characterized by the church’s affirmation and oversight of a Christian’s discipleship and the Christian’s submission to living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church.”

Or less formally, it is “all about a church taking specific responsibility for you, and you for a church.” It is about accountability, responsibility and commitment in other words – often missing ingredients in many Christians’ lives today.

Closely connected with church membership is church discipline. We expect parents to discipline us, and we expect God to discipline us – in both cases because they love us and they want the best for us. But God has also ordained that the local church becomes this place of discipline for Christians.

And it is not just a negative thing. Says Dever, “notice that much of discipline is positive discipline, or as it is traditionally called, ‘formative discipline.’ It is the stake that helps the tree grow in the right direction, the braces on the teeth, the extra set of wheels on the bicycle.”

But many believers today think that any type of discipline, correction or reproof is just judging, and they will appeal to texts like Matthew 7:1. But as Dever replies, “Whatever Jesus meant by not judging in Matthew 7, He didn’t mean to rule out the kind of judging He mandated in Matthew 18… If you think about it, it is not really surprising that we as a church should be instructed to judge. After all, if we cannot say how a Christian should not live, how can we say how a Christian should live?”

Says Leeman, “Broadly speaking, discipline is necessary whenever a disciple departs from the way of Christ by sinning. It’s necessary whenever a gap opens up between a Christian’s profession and life, and the so-called representative of Jesus fails to represent Jesus. Most often, discipline occurs informally and privately. . . . Occasionally, the process occurs formally and publicly.”

Also, “All sin is wrong. All sin misrepresents Jesus. But some sins or sin patterns will cause a whole assembly of people to lose trust in a person’s profession of faith. . . . So the church removes its public affirmation by barring the member from the Lord’s Table. It takes away his passport and announces that it can no longer formally affirm the individual’s citizenship in Christ’s kingdom.”

Of course all this is just basic New Testament Christianity. But the reason it sounds so strange and alien today is because so much of the church has moved away from New Testament Christianity. Neither membership nor discipline is talked about much, and even less practiced, in today’s churches.

As Martyn Lloyd-Jones said a half century ago: “It is almost true to say that such a thing as discipline in the Christian Church is non-existent today. When did you last hear of a person being excommunicated, or of a person being kept back from the Communion Table? Go back to the history of Protestantism and you will find that the Protestant definition of the Church is, that ‘the Church is a place in which the Word is preached, the Sacraments are administered, and discipline is exercised’. Discipline, to the Protestant Fathers, was as much a mark of the Church as the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments. But we know very little about discipline. It is the result of this flabby, sentimental notion that you must not judge, and which asks, ‘Who are you to express judgment?’ But the Scripture exhorts us to do so.”

Or as Albert Mohler put it more recently: “The decline of church discipline is perhaps the most visible failure of the contemporary church. No longer concerned with maintaining purity of confession or lifestyle, the contemporary church sees itself as a voluntary association of autonomous members, with minimal moral accountability to God, much less to each other.”

Dever offers these summary remarks about these two areas: “Membership draws a boundary line around the church, marking the church off from the world. Discipline helps the church that lives inside of that boundary line stay true to the very things that are cause for drawing the line in the first place”

Both these topics deserve much more comment of course. Hopefully in future articles I can do just that. But consider this as an introductory write up, and an admonition to seek to get back to biblical discipleship and church life. This is a major need of the day, and we all can do our bit to make it happen.

Note: Just moments ago an important new volume arrived in the mail: John Hammett and Benjamin Merkle, eds., Those Who Must Give an Account: A Study of Church Membership and Church Discipline (B&H, 2012). It is too late to incorporate this here; but that volume will be worth an entire review in itself, so stay tuned.


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14 Replies to “On Church Membership and Discipline”

  1. Hi Bill Thanks for the comment. I believe the issues you raise are important, if not ‘thorny’ to say the least!
    Leaving aside the issue of ‘discipline’ for a moment which I believe is a given , and to be exercised when and where necessary, the question of ‘membership’ of a church is a different one.
    Firstly would you not agree that the NT makes no mention of formal membership of a church at all, although of course it encourages as a duty the “assembling of ourselves together”, suggesting regularity and above all committment.
    Paul takes a whole chapter (1 Cor. 12) to describe all Christians as “members” of the body of Christ and to be recognised as such. No mention of a membership roll comes into play, simply the fact that each believer is already de facto a member of Christ, and is to be received a such. Thus he exhorts (Rom.15:7) “Receive one another AS Christ also received us to the glory of God.
    Therefore whoever God accepts, we cannot refuse can we? Our acceptance of others does not make them members, we accept them because they are members of the same body of Christ. This is another way of expressing the fundamental truth of justification by faith alone plus nothing is it not?
    The church membership tradition has within it several inherent problems, and I believe Mark Dever’s comment bears careful scrutiny when he says:
    “Membership draws a boundary line around the church, marking the church off from the world.”
    I suggest it is not a concept of membership which draws that boundary, but rather the preaching/teaching of the Gospel itself and the accompanying confession of Christ by believers in that Gospel in any fellowship which marks that boundary.
    If the church collectively confesses, and lives by the Gospel, then the demarcation line has already been drawn, and no formal ‘membership’ roll can substitute for that.
    One other serious drawback of the membership idea is that if a believer wishes to regularly associate with a Christian fellowship, he may be told that it is dependent on submission to the church’s ‘statement of faith,’ or other historic confession. That statement of faith may contain doctrines to which he cannot subscribe (as for example Infant Baptism, or a particular view of ‘prophecy’ & etc). Is he therefore to be excluded because he may hold different views in these areas?
    Once we begin to erect barriers to fellowship such as these, then we begin to sow the seeds of division, if not actual sectarianism.
    As Frank Viola has put it well: “Wittingly or unwittingly some have undercut the biblical basis for fellowship which is the body of Christ ALONE. If a group demands anything beyond a person’s acceptance of Christ before admitting that person into fellowship, then that church is not a Church in the biblical sense of the word, but a sect”.

    I know your comment was directed critically towards the superficial and casual approach by many Christians to ‘Church’, but perhaps instead of the word ‘membership’, we should instead use the concept of committment, and ask why so few appear to be committed to their churches – a separate question and equally important – too big to enter on here!
    Thanks for raising this for I believe the subject needs to be discussed and opened in some depth, even though it may raise much bigger issues such as the nature of the church and her ministry – not least the justification for the tangled web of ‘denominations’ which we have all inherited.

    Graham Wood

  2. Thanks Graham

    As I said, this was only a very bare and brief introductory piece. Much more needs to be said. Indeed, whole libraries have been written on all this, so I could scarcely begin to cover everything properly in just one measly article!

    Any criticisms of other authors I cited of course should be tempered by realising that these came out of whole books. So to judge a person by just one or two sentences I took from their books would be unfair to those authors. So I would recommend reading their stuff in its entirety, since I may have misrepresented their position by selective and very brief quotes.

    As to membership, we might speak instead of some kind of formal commitment – the term is not so important but the concept is. And there is no question that in the NT churches people were either in or out – and that was based both on right beliefs and right practices. So we cannot be too minimalist here.

    Viola’s remark is clearly minimalist and patently unbiblical: “If a group demands anything beyond a person’s acceptance of Christ before admitting that person into fellowship, then that church is not a Church in the biblical sense of the word, but a sect”. “Acceptance of Christ”? That’s it? That is of course absurd. So the new member can deny the Trinity and still be in? He can say that Jesus was one of many saviours, and still be in? He can be a practicing Muslim who “accepts Christ” and still be in? He can be living in a blatant adulterous relationship and still be in? He can be a practicing homosexual and still be in? He can be a regular bank robber and still be in?

    Obviously his remark is patently wrong. There are plenty of NT tests for what constitutes a real follower of Christ: there are numerous doctrinal tests and there are numerous behaviour tests. Why do you think Paul and others were constantly having to discipline and even expel church members? They all may have “accepted Christ” but obviously that is only the beginning. There are a whole set of core beliefs which a Christian must affirm to call himself a Christian. And there are all kinds of lifestyle markers of a true follower of Christ. I can’t believe anyone actually reading the NT could in fact make as reckless and as just plain wrong statement as Viola has. By his silly reasoning all of the NT writers were involved in sects.

    As to not liking a particular church’s statement of faith, that is exactly why they are there: to set some boundaries and to let people know where they stand. Your objection is far too easily dealt with – if a believer does not like a church’s view on baptism or eschatology, then he can go to a church which does adhere to his way of thinking. That is exactly the value of statements of faith. And by even listing these two issues, you are demonstrating that various beliefs do indeed matter to believers – and well they should.

    Of course we must distinguish between primary and secondary teachings. The two you mention I would tend to put in the secondary category. The primary beliefs of course would include the deity of Christ, the Trinity, and saving and exclusive work of Christ at Calvary, and so on. I want to know that a church I am involved in adheres to those core doctrines. So again, a statement of faith is perfectly reasonable and perfectly biblical. I am surprised that any Christian would find them objectionable.

    Indeed, what do we have in something like 1 Cor. 15:1-8 but an early and clear statement of faith? Here was a brief list of essential doctrines which distinguished all true believers from non-believers or false believers.

    So on some of these things I simply disagree with you on. But some of these other things, as I said, need more articles to more fully fill out the details at what this article was getting at. But thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. HI Bill,
    Yes, thank you for another soul-searching article. I sympathise with much of Graham Woods’ comments. To avoid the problems of a “Statement of Faith” if it is there at all it would have to be in terms of the most basic tenants of the Christian Faith. I think it should also be noted that after 2000 years of Christianity our churches are inevitably different from the early Church.
    A note of caution may be in place regarding expelling or ex-communication. A church could get into deep trouble unless it states clearly on what conditions fellowship is based and if need be restricted. Some years ago a church in the USA had to pay heavy fines for excommunicating a lady who lived an open immoral life. The lady formally complained of discrimination in the Courts and won her case because the church had not stated to her the conditions of membership.
    Joost Gemeren

  4. Thanks Joost

    Yes no question we are far removed from the early church and how they operated – that is partly why I wrote this article! To get us closer back to what the early church was all about.

    And your valid word of caution is of course nicely dealt with by what I have written here: a clearly delineated statement of faith, and a clearly stated set of expectations for anyone desiring membership would of course solve that problem altogether. So that further strengthens the need for such things in today’s churches.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  5. Church membership must surely be like being a member of a family. Visitors can come and go, but family members are accountable to one another. They also have different roles and responsibilities. Visitors can come and go without any duties being imposed on them. Family members have important decisions to make which will affect the future running of the household but visitors would not have to hang around to see the consequences of their voting on important decisions. Sounds to me like those who waft and wamble in and out of churches are like polyamorists.

    David Skinner, UK

  6. Dear Bill, thank you for your article ‘You’re too negative’. I needed it.

    Regarding Church discipline, the Catholic Church makes certain minimum requirements of its members – and I think ‘members’ is the right term, as it reflects the reality of the Body of Christ. Chief among those requirements is attendance at the Sunday eucharistic assembly (the mass). To knowingly and deliberately absent oneself from Sunday mass without sufficient reason (e.g. sickness, distance) is a serious sin and results in the loss of sanctifying grace, which is the indwelling of God within oneself. In the old parlance, it was called ‘mortal sin’. A person may not receive the Lord in Holy Communion when the in state of mortal sin, under pain of further, most serious sin. A person in the state of mortal sin must confess that sin to a priest and receive absolution before he or she can approach the altar to receive Holy Communion.
    Is this a lot of legalistic rubbish? I don’t think so. It is a doctrinal expression of the reality of our membership in Christ and our responsibility to physically participate in the worship of the Church of which we are members. It is both externally expressed and at the same time focusses on our internal state. ‘Sanctifying grace’ is not an easy concept. I’ve had a lot of trouble getting my head and heart around it over the years. But it makes eminent sense.

    John Wynter

  7. Maybe we should be wary of statements of faith that go beyond the boundaries of defined primary beliefs, so there is room for people to grow in their understanding of the whole council of God without having to change churches every time they have had a deeper understanding of a secondary belief.
    As to discipline, doesn’t the book of Hebrews tell us not to despise the discipline of the Lord because he disciplines those who are His children? Knowing then we are children of God and rejoicing in that status should we not gladly submit ourselves to godly discipline, knowing it makes us stronger, more able to withstand temptation and the attack of the evil one and brings us closer to conformity to the image of Christ.
    The boundaries of godly discipline also need to be defined or else you end up with the church becoming an authority in its own right disconnected from the Lordship of Christ, its head and without reference to the Word of God, as we still have in some churches.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  8. Coming under the authority of church elders, should not lead to tyranny. Every single person in the body of a church from the pastor and elders, down to the newest member must be open to the refining process of the word of God:

    “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” Heb 4: 12

    We also refine one another for the word also says, “as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Prov. 27:17

    As for core leaders (a most revealing title) lording over others and forming powerful inner circles, I found this article useful.


    Let us forebear with one another, and stop treading one another into the ground for we are all on the way.

    David Skinner, UK

  9. What is missing in churches today? Bible based living and Bible disciplined living. Get back to the Bible. What does God’s word say?
    Judith Bond

  10. Sadly, my husband and I have noticed this very lack of commitment in many churches. There seems always to be some excuse for not ‘gathering together’ on a Sunday. Of course, if one is doing a duty that Sunday, one arrives! Otherwise, the holiday cottage or the visiting relatives provide a reason why one “cannot” come. Commitment should be the first requirement for an adherent to a local church. I believe in being an actual member – but have no objection to those who refuse to join but nevertheless turn up faithfully regularly. Aren’t they a bit like the son who says ‘I will not go and work in the field’ but does so nevertheless?
    As to discipline – I find it rather sad when someone IS denied the Lord’s table in one Church for a blatantly acknowledged sin – and trogs off to another, where he/she is welcomed and (apparently) receives no remonstration or discipline, but is actually given the opportunity to lead in some small way! Oh for the Spirit of revival where people fell in the streets weeping and confessing their sins as He convicted them.
    Judgement WILL begin with the House of God.
    Katharine Hornsby

  11. Great article Bill,
    ‘Gypsie’ Churchianity is rife in today’s Churches, there are many ‘rock star’ pastors that teach from a distance, but not many ‘Father’s in the faith’, that will disciple willing Christians biblically. Sadly many ministers have forsaken biblical necessities such as correction, rebuke, admonishment, discipleship, accountability, training and equipping (for the ministry not for money), because it’s not all that popular nor pleasing to the flesh. So rather than please God they please men fullfilling their own lust for numbers and finance.
    I asked someone recently that attends a ‘Church’, “when was the last time you heard Church discipline taught in your Church service or ‘small group’, or heard this following scripture or the likes taught”…..?
    1Co 5:9 I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators:
    1Co 5:10 Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world.
    1Co 5:11 But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.


    Heb 13:17 Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.

    The answer was not since the 1980’s…And she had been in her current large ‘Church’ for 8+ years.
    Any Church that does follow the Bible in these areas today are often accused of being controlling, ‘cultish’, or unloving.
    If your Church is not following the Bible and is compromised, humbly challenge your minister, and if there is no change, find a Church that will disciple you according to the Bible.
    We are a part of the universal body of Christ, but we must also be ‘members’ of one another in a local assembly also, where you can be kept accountable, taught, corrected, encouraged, rebuked and equipped etc. God does not need anymore lone ranger, gypsie Church goers. He needs ‘soldiers’ that will not break rank, under God given authority with Jesus as the chief commander.

    Daniel Hagen

  12. Compromised? Churches up my way are so feminised, I wonder if they`d consider a male`s opinion anyway ( even though the women love prophetic words such as “you are a Warrior” but then treat males like we need their guidance 100% of the time). I`d like to see less opinion, less fragrance, less girlyness, less romantic songs, less jungle drums, less emotional crying and love tongues and a sunday service at least opening a Bible. What is in there that so many modernists are afraid of, I know God hasn`t changed, although our perception of Him is trying to be. Please lets use the road map given, and ask ourselves why we cringe at so much of the new testament.
    John Archer

  13. Gary North makes a distinction between communicant members and voting members of a church.

    Communicant members are all who publicly confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, and who are baptised.

    On the other hand, voting membership is limited to only those family heads who pay a tithe. Voting is most often around issues of church assets. It is theft for non-tithe paying members to vote concerning the acquisition and disposal of assets that have been bought with money paid by the tithe-paying members.

    I like the distinction.

    God bless,

    Lance A Box

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