John 17: 21a May they all be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I am in You. (HCSB)
Church Membership - Part 2
In my previous post I talked about church membership from a biblical perspective. There just doesn't seem to be any biblical support for a concept of church membership distinct from the list of Christians who assemble together at a regular time and place.
But there is another side to the story about church membership. This article from 2005 on Christianity Today
advocates a definitive approach to church membership for the legal protection of the church. In the course of practicing its religious convictions, a church may have to take action that leads to a civil lawsuit. The biblical practice of church discipline
is a clear example of a Christian doctrine that might lead to a lawsuit.
A person who is disciplined by the church might claim he or she did not consent to the practice as a part of being a member. By clearly defining who is a member, and clearly teaching the doctrine of the church on the matter of church discipline, a church can protect itself in the eyes of the secular courts. They can show that the disciplined member knew, or should have known, the teaching of the church regarding discipline. Since the disciplined member continued to be a member anyway, he or she assumed the responsibility for the consequences of that decision. So the church would have a strong position in the event of a lawsuit.
If the church has not taken adequate measures to define membership and to teach about church discipline, the threat of lawsuits might deter them from carrying out biblical discipline. That may in turn lead to harm coming to members of the church by the one who should have been disciplined -- and even more risk of lawsuits.
The approach advocated in the Christianity Today article is to have a "membership covenant" signed by each member, stating among other things their awareness of church discipline policy. With such a signed statement on file, a disciplined member would have little recourse in the secular courts. That approach probably sounds good to a lawyer, but it sounds pretty heavy-handed and insensitive to me. I don't know of any church that carries matters that far, in an effort to protect against the remote possibility of a future discipline case leading to a lawsuit.
I'm just not comfortable with placing requirements on church membership that come from an indisputably secular source. I think it should be enough to keep a membership list, to have a process for welcoming new members, and a regular practice of teaching the scriptures, including the subject of discipline. Then, if discipline is necessary, the church should document each step in the process as a person is warned about what will happen if they do not repent. In all such cases, the church should seek the advice of a good Christian lawyer to guide them through the process.
The day a Christian first arrives in our midst is not the time to talk about the prospect of expelling them from the church. Christians should be welcomed into the church with open arms and made to feel like a beloved part of the family. That is what they are!
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, so take my advice on this with a grain of salt!