Why do People Object to the Concept of Membership in a Local Church?

In a blogpost earlier this week I identified ten things that we should all know about covenant membership in the local church. But there are still people who object to the idea and resist it at all costs? Why? There are several reasons, all of which share one thing in common. I wonder if you can identify what it is. What follows is the response I provided to those at Bridgeway Church here in OKC who were hesitant about our implementation of covenant membership.

(1) If we implement a formal membership in our church, people will leave. Sadly, this may be true, but nothing about covenant membership would require them to do so. We welcome everyone to Bridgeway here in OKC, regardless of whether or not they embrace covenant membership. At the same time, we cannot, we must not, make our decisions about what we will or will not do based on the fear of how it will affect attendance.

(2) I’ve had a bad experience in a church because of their practice of membership. Yes, and we are profoundly sympathetic towards those who have suffered unjustly and unfairly in this way. But if we were to refuse to obey the Scriptures because someone treated us badly or because someone abused the practice, we would end up with nothing left! We are determined at Bridgeway to do it well. We don’t claim to be perfect, but we are committed to avoiding those abuses that have caused people pain.

(3) I was offended by the infamous “membership drive.” It felt manipulative, contrived, and reflected an unhealthy obsession with numbers and growth. Good for you! I agree! That is why we will never implement anything remotely approaching a membership drive!

(4) Membership feels “exclusive.” It’s hard for me to understand this when our appeal is for all believers at Bridgeway to become covenant members. We don’t exclude anyone. A person can only exclude himself/herself. If by “exclusive” you mean it creates boundaries that identify who’s “inside” the church and who’s “outside,” then I suppose the word “exclusive” fits. But isn’t this precisely what Paul does in 1 Cor. 5:12-13?

(5) Membership has been used to prevent some non-members from serving in the church. The problem here is in defining what kind of “service” you have in mind. We would never require membership for someone who wants to attend a small group or serve in the café or in the bookstore or participate in our missional outreaches. At the same time, we are responsible to protect the sheep. Certain areas of ministry, such as leading a small group or leading worship or teaching a class call for some measure of qualification. Do we really want someone placed in a position of leadership and spiritual influence who isn’t committed to this church, who isn’t willing to be accountable and to uphold the values and beliefs that we embrace?

(6) Membership feels too formal and structured. I want a church that is relaxed and organic. Again, some degree of “form” and “structure” are necessary, lest you have chaos and confusion. Yes, I want a church that is “relaxed” and “organic”, but not one that is lazy, sloppy, and lacks unity. The issue is: where and in what areas of ministry does the Word call for structure and in what areas does it encourage informality? It would be unwise to embrace formality and structure and apply them across the board in church life, just as it would be unwise to do the same with a relaxed and organic approach.

(7) Membership feels authoritarian and hierarchical. But it doesn’t have to. As for the words themselves, there is such a thing as legitimate spiritual “authority,” as those many texts regarding the leadership of Elders would indicate. The word “hierarchical” is a bit negative and prejudices the discussion. We believe in the fundamental equality of all believers in Jesus. We are all priests before God. No one is more important than another. But let us not forget that members of a local church are exhorted to respect “those who are over you in the Lord” (1 Thess. 5:12-13).

(8) Membership feels excessively “denominational” and a reversion to older, so-called “fundamentalist” Christianity. Bridgeway is not part of a denomination, and I doubt we ever will be. And I hardly think we are in danger of being thought of as angry, isolated, separatistic fundamentalists!

(9) Someone close to me was hurt deeply by membership. Yes, I’m sure that is true in a number of cases. So commit yourself to not letting it happen in your local church.

(10) I’m fearful of being controlled. Good. I tell the people at Bridgeway that if you ever feel as if the Elders or Pastors are controlling you in an unhealthy or unbiblical way, they should let me know and I’ll deal with it. But our aim isn’t to control anyone. Our aim is with God’s help for all believers here to be known, loved, fed, led, and protected.

(11) I’m a “member” of the universal Church, so why do I have to be a “member” of a local church? Because the Bible says so. Sorry for being so blunt. I’m not trying to be insensitive. But what else can I say?

(12) Membership serves only to divide the body. But only when it is done badly and unbiblically. Its primary aim is to unify the body.

(13) I’ve been in this church for years without a formal membership and we’ve done fine so far. To pursue membership now suggests that we’ve done it all wrong before. I heard this objection frequently when we first took steps to implement membership at Bridgeway. But our move toward covenant membership was not an indictment or criticism of Bridgeway in past years. It was simply a recognition of what we see in the Bible and a desire to follow God’s pattern for NT church life.

(14) Membership simply isn’t in our spiritual DNA. It’s not “who we are”. But the important question isn’t whether or not covenant membership is or has been in our spiritual DNA, but whether or not it should be. And it is going to be part of our DNA from this point on. It is now and henceforth “who we are.”

(15) Membership will make broken and wounded people feel unsafe and unwelcome. Nothing could be farther from the truth! Covenant membership, properly and compassionately and biblically implemented, will make them feel safe and loved and protected and cared for.

(16) Membership will restrict my freedom to come and go as I please. Well, yes and no. Covenant membership does run counter to the unfettered exercise of personal autonomy that says, ‘If I don’t like what’s here I’ll go to one of the two dozen other churches down the road.’ On the other hand, no one is forcing you against your will to partner with us at Bridgeway. But ask yourself this question: “What do I value more: autonomy or community?”

(17) I don’t like boundaries. Are you sure? All boundaries? What about biblical boundaries? We want nothing to do with artificial, man-made barriers, but we do want to acknowledge and honor the spiritual and moral boundaries called for in Scripture.

What links all these reasons for resisting membership is that not one of them is biblical! I’m not saying that negative things such as listed above have not or cannot occur when membership is implemented in an unbiblical, unloving, and un-Christlike way. I’m simply saying that none of these reasons is ever found in the Scriptures as a reason why a church should not embrace some expression of formal membership. Virtually all of the above are grounded or based in an individual’s negative personal experience. As bad as that experience may have been, it is not a sufficient reason to reject what appears to be present throughout the NT.

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About Sam Storms

Sam Storms is the Lead Pastor for Preaching and Vision at Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Sam is on the Board of Directors of both Desiring God and Bethlehem College & Seminary, and also serves as a member of the Council of The Gospel Coalition. Sam is President of the Evangelical Theological Society. Visit http://www.samstorms.com