There is a lot of fuzzy thinking found amongst Christians concerning sinners and the church. We so often hear things like: “Our church welcomes everyone” or “No one is excluded from our church” or “Jesus accepts everyone and so do we”.
As with so many Christian clichés, there is an element of truth found here, but also some real biblical and theological error. Thus we need to tease all this out in much more detail to get the biblical balance which is required here. Otherwise we can end up with some real serious problems.
The true bit about this way of thinking is this: of course anyone is – or should be – welcome to come to church and to hear the gospel being preached. The doors of the church should be wide open in this sense. We do not exclude anyone from hearing biblical truth and the claims of the gospel. The gospel, after all, is for sinners.
But this is not always what these folks have in mind. They want to take this further and say that unregenerate sinners can not only come and hear sermons in our churches, but can become fully involved in the life and fellowship of the church as well.
The reason they can think this way is because perhaps most churches today have long ago abandoned any notion of church membership – and along with it, church discipline. Thus the physical doors are just as wide open as are the theological doors.
One of the main hallmarks of a biblical church has been lost: a place where the redeemed gather to worship and glorify God. While churches have always done two seemingly conflicting things at once (proclaim the saving gospel to lost sinners as well as train and build up saved members), this distinction is now often lost in many churches.
As I say, the concept of church membership is largely disappearing in many churches today. People simply float in and out of churches without making any commitments and having any sense of obligation. We treat churches like we do so many other things: they exist to make us feel good, and if they don’t we simply shop around for another place to do that.
But the New Testament speaks much about committed membership of the redeemed who are in a covenant relationship with God and one another in a local fellowship. Thus not just anyone who rolls up to a particular church is a committed member of that church. Church membership has to do with those who are Christ’s by faith and repentance, and those who abide by the house rules.
Like any group, there are always boundaries which define the church group, and those who do not belong to Christ are not the stuff of church membership. Also, those who profess to be believers, but who show that they may not be by wrong conduct or wrong beliefs are also not the stuff of church membership – unless they repent and change.
So yes the church doors are always open for anyone to come in and learn about the Christian faith. There is nothing wrong with that. But when it comes to something like church membership, there are some clearly delineated parameters which need to be in place, which define what the church is all about, what it believes, and what it expects of its members.
In many respects this is just like membership in any other organisation. The organisation has a clear statement of purpose or beliefs, and it has clearly defined rules and regulations. Those who agree with the overall thrust of what it is all about, and are willing to abide by the rules are welcome to join and become active members.
But those who do not accept the club or organisation ethos, values and beliefs, and refuse to pay any attention to the rules will of course not be welcomed as members. The New Testament basically operates this way when it comes to close and active fellowship in local churches.
It too has membership requirements and rules. Those who are born again can join in and become a member, partake of the Lord’s Supper, and so on. And if and when they go astray, they are the subject of admonition and correction. And if that fails, they can be removed from church fellowship.
Church membership and church discipline are therefore two sides of the same coin. A real member of the body of Christ – and a local fellowship of believers – will seek to be accountable and committed. When obvious sin and rebellion is found in the camp, then it must be dealt with.
A very clear example of this is found in 1 Corinthians 5 where an immoral brother had to be expelled from the fellowship. A very obvious moral boundary marker had been crossed (in this case, incest), and this unrepentant brother had to be dealt with firmly and swiftly.
Paul is actually amazed that the Corinthians had taken so long to deal with him. Harsh measures had to be taken: he had to be barred from church fellowship. This is what we refer to as excommunication today. Serious measures are needed to deal with serious sin.
Of course church discipline always aims at the restoration of the wayward believer. Stern steps have to be taken to snap this sinning believer out of his delusion and back to his senses, if possible. And the idea of banning such a person until they repent from fellowship is found throughout the NT. Just a few verses can be mentioned here:
-Romans 16:17 I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them.
-1 Corinthians 5:11 But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.
-2 Thessalonians 3:6 In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us.
-2 Thessalonians 3:14-15 Take special note of anyone who does not obey our instruction in this letter. Do not associate with them, in order that they may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard them as an enemy, but warn them as you would a fellow believer.
-Titus 3:9-10 But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him.
-2 John 10-11 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them. Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work.
Another very decisive case of membership requirements or boundary markers concerns the Lord’s Supper. As Paul establishes in 1 Corinthians 11:27-32, this table is not for everyone, and needs to be properly fenced off. It is only for believers, and only those believers who are walking right with their Lord. Those who are not face serious consequences if they partake:
So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.
Again, all this is impossible to enforce and make happen if churches have abandoned the very notion of church rules and church membership. If their doors are wide open to everyone, and they allow full fellowship for everyone, regardless if they are even believers, or are steeped in known, persistent and unrepented of sin, then they cannot be properly dealt with as the Bible commands.
That is why church membership and discipline are so very important. It is for the health and vitality of the entire body, as well as for the wellbeing of the individual member. So it is of utmost importance that boundaries are in place, and clearly defined membership rules are made plain.
In sum, yes, anyone can and should be allowed to come into a church in the hopes of hearing the gospel, and coming to faith. But that is an altogether different matter from the vitally important issue of church membership. That is reserved for believers only, and when these lines are crossed, all sorts of trouble can and does arise.
For more on some of these matters see here: