In an interview printed in the February issue of Tabletalk, Russell Moore said, “Our vote for president of the United States is critically important, but our vote to receive members into our local churches is more important.” At first glance, that may seem a bit extreme, but Moore is absolutely right and is making a crucial point. Yes, our vote for president is “critically important,” and each and every one of us should (1) care who the president is, and (2) be sure to exercise our right to vote when it comes time to select a president. Who we allow to become members of our churches, though, will potentially impact lives for eternity. Everyone who has accepted Christ as Savior is a member of the Church–the body of Christ. Membership in a local church, however, is what Moore has in mind, and is what I am going to discuss here.
Churches are made up of believers. Strong churches are built on the foundation of Scripture, but the functioning of the church, the teaching that takes place in the church, the church itself, depends on and is the people who are its members. As important as it is for a church to welcome anyone who walks through its doors–unless and until there is reason not to welcome someone–it is exponentially more important that the church not allow just anyone who walks through its doors to become a member.
“Membership has its privileges” is an old advertising slogan from a credit card, I believe, but it is an idea that holds true for the church, as well. In a healthy church, only members can hold leadership positions, vote, teach Sunday school or VBS, etc. Anyone is welcome to attend, but not just anyone is welcome to assume positions of leadership and influence. That is because these roles are so incredibly important that we must make sure that they are filled by individuals who are equipped and qualified to fill them. I am the administrator of a K-12 school. No matter how much I may sometime be tempted to do so, someone’s willingness to teach a class will never be enough in and of itself for me to hire that person to teach.Willingness and ability are not the same thing, and while someone may have an abundance of the former, the latter is also necessary.
I can give you, from personal experience, two examples of ineffective (and dangerous) church membership/leadership models. the first is something that happened to me in 2001. I had recently moved to a new area to assume a new position in a Christian ministry. The ministry was allowing a local church to use its property/facilities for a Sunday school picnic. I was in attendance, primarily as a way to meet people in my new community. I met the pastor of the church at that picnic. When he learned who I was and why I was there, he asked me if I would like to teach Sunday school at his church. I understand that he was desperate for good teachers. However, this question was a huge red flag in my mind. If he would ask me, within minutes of meeting me, to teach Sunday school, there were likely some other major issues at the church. (There were, too!).
A few years later I was still in the same ministry position and had joined another area church. My wife and I had attended for a while, I had read the church’s constitution and statement of faith and I had discussed a few things with the pastor. It was, we were sure, the most solid church in the area. Yet, its membership procedures were terrible–and dangerous. When someone wanted to join the church, the person would go forward during the invitation time at the end of the service and express to the pastor the desire to join. Following the singing of the closing hymn, the pastor would then present the individual to the church and ask the congregation to vote, on the spot, on that individual’s desire to join. To make matters worse, the pastor would ask for a vote of “aye” from those in favor and then from those opposed. He would say, “All opposed, same sign. And of course, there are none.” Really? I suppose there may well have been times in the early goings when there were no votes in opposition, but eventually this became a self-fulfilling prediction. After all, who is going to vote no when the pastor regularly says “of course there are none”? I often abstained from these membership votes because I often felt I did not know the individual well enough to know whether or not membership was a good idea. Sometimes I did not know the individual at all! I am pleased to say that I eventually became an elder in that church and while I was in that position was part of the church’s decision to change the membership process to include a membership class and a meeting with elders before going to the church for a vote.
I am not advocating careful procedures for church membership because someone might somehow be unworthy of joining the church. None of us are worthy, expect through the blood of Christ. I am not concerned that someone might not be “good enough” to join, either. I believe it was Adrian Rogers who said, “There is no such thing as a perfect church, and if there was none of us could join.” My concern–and Russell’s I believe–is that those who become members of a church are those who shape, influence and drive the future of the church. They vote on budgets, determine how leadership positions will be filled and by whom, have a say in curriculum and programming decisions, and more. Most importantly, those members decide whether or not the church will stay true to God’s Word. As we will see in the next post, that is the most important concern of all, and protecting the church’s adherence to Scripture is why membership votes are so critically important.