The Fallacy of Church Membership

The Fallacy of Church Membership

Segregating Attendees into Members and Nonmembers Divides Jesus’s Church

In our look at things the church must change, we’ve already considered our buildings and facility, our paid clergy and staff, and our tithes and offerings, that is our charitable giving. Now we’ll turn our attention to some secondary issues, starting with church membership. Membership is something that most everyone in church accepts without question. But we should question it.

Church membership is not biblical. Nowhere does Jesus tell us to go out and find members, make members, or sign up members. Increasing membership is simply not a biblical mandate. Jesus doesn’t command this, and biblical writers don’t order it. In fact, the word membership doesn’t even occur in the Bible. It’s something well-meaning religious leaders made up. It may seem like a wise idea, but it’s not.

Membership establishes two levels within Jesus’s church. We must repent of making this distinction. Membership causes division among Jesus’s followers, segregating attendees into two classes of people, the insiders who are members from those on the periphery, the nonmembers.

Alternatives to Church Membership?

Some churches, attempting to correct the fallacy of membership, have come up with new labels. I’ve heard them use the term missionaries, and I’ve also heard of partners. I’m sure there are more.

But these perspectives, though well intended, are merely different names for the same membership problem. The result is that church membership still creates two classes of people in Jesus’s church: insiders and outsiders.

At some churches, baptism makes this membership distinction, as in a baptized member. Once a person undergoes the rite, or sacrament, of baptism—often by emersion—they automatically become a member. Though if they are underage at the time, they might not become a voting member until they reach adulthood. This makes a third class of attendees, a third division in Jesus’s church: nonvoting members.

Instead of encouraging church membership, we should promote Christian unity. Click To Tweet

Instead, Jesus welcomes all (Romans 15:7, Galatians 3:28, and James 2:1–4). We should do the same, ditching membership as an ill-conceived, manmade tradition that has no scriptural basis.

We must resist the human tendency toward membership, which segregates people, and instead embrace God’s perspective of inclusion. Instead of encouraging church membership, we should promote Christian unity.

Check out the next post in this series addressing the Kingdom of God.

[Read more about this in Peter’s upcoming book, Jesus’s Broken Church.]

Peter DeHaan writes about biblical spirituality, often with a postmodern slant. He seeks a fresh approach to faith and following God through the lens of scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices. Read more in his books, blog, and weekly email updates.

4 Comments

  • Tim Bishop Posted October 12, 2020 1:17 pm

    I agree with most of what you write here. In fact, I’ve backburnered membership personally since becoming an adult, though I’ve been involved for the past forty years as a spiritual leader, a hands-on assistant to administrators, and a regular attendee of a handful of churches over that span. However, like it or not, churches are legal institutions, a requirement because they own assets, employ people, utilize a tax-exempt status afforded them by the government, and are subject to other rules of the land. Therefore, they need a governance structure at the local level. I’m not sure that’s accomplished without a charter and membership. If it can be, I’m all ears because, philosophically, I’m with you.

    • Peter DeHaan Posted October 12, 2020 2:08 pm

      Tim, thanks for stopping by and commenting. It’s good to hear from you!

      What if we rethink the idea of what church is? If a new kind of church didn’t own assets, hire staff, or take offerrings, could they avoid the hassle and expense of legally organizing? Instead of a formal church structure, I’d like to see an informal community of spiritual friends.

      • Tim Bishop Posted October 12, 2020 2:26 pm

        Conceptually I like it, but traditional churches are still a beacon of support in times of crisis even to those who are not connected to them. Are we prepared to send those people to secular support services in lieu of faith-based ones? Professional training for ministry does have value, and without paid staff at churches, it can’t be funded.

        Another thought: How do total strangers in a society that is “social distancing” in more ways than one get plugged in to a community of believers? Home churches run the risk of becoming too inwardly focused, which brings us back to the same hazard we’re out to prevent: insiders vs. outsiders.

        Okay, it’s time for me to get back to work! We’re almost through your 52 Churches book and have enjoyed sampling churches with you and Candy. More to come. I appreciate the thoughtfulness you bring to matters of faith.

        • Peter DeHaan Posted October 12, 2020 4:42 pm

          Tim, you ask great questions! I’m still pondering your last batch.

          You make a great point about people seeking out an organized church during a time of crisis.

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