How strict should a church be about its membership? Should everyone who applies be admitted? Should members who quit attending be removed from the membership? Does membership really matter?
These are not easy questions. Admittedly, they are rarely asked in our day. It has been said that there’s nothing easier to join than a Baptist church and nothing harder than removing a name from the roll. Churches regularly have on their rolls names of persons who have not attended in years.
Frankly, the way “church” has been done during most of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century among American Baptists has, for the most part, been a gross departure from our Baptist heritage and the Scriptures themselves. Seventeenth-century British Baptists suffered persecution in the form of lost civil rights, loss of employment, and imprisonment because they dared insist that the local church be comprised of regenerate believers. Only those who gave evidence of having been truly converted were allowed into the church’s membership. They recognized that, as members of the church, they were expected to live according to standards of godliness. Leading godly lives was not an effort to satisfy God; such an effort would have been legalism. Rather, the reputation of the church and of God himself was at stake. If church members lived according to the standards of the world around them, then the church would be not different than the world and God no longer would be seen as holy.
The most basic reason for the existence of the local church is to glorify God. The apostle Paul wrote, “To him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever” (Ephesians 3:21). Consequently, the question which must be asked is this: How does the church glorify God? Obviously, it is only possible to glorify God if we obey his Word. It is impossible to live in disobedience while claiming to love the Lord. Did not Jesus himself ask, “But why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46).
Obviously, no church sets out to be disobedient to God. Disobedience, however, becomes evident when scriptural commands are neglected. For instance, the Bible could not be more clear about the necessity of church discipline. Both Jesus, in Matthew 18, and Paul, in 1 Corinthians 5 and Titus 3, make clear that discipline is necessary for a faithful church. Yet church discipline has gone the way of the horse and buggy. As a matter of fact, you may as likely see a horse and buggy being used for transportation than find a Southern Baptist church exercising church discipline.
What about meaningful church membership? Why is it that most Baptists act as though church membership is an inherent human right, regardless of how one conducts one’s life or even whether one regularly attends the worship services of the church? Such a notion was completely foreign to Baptist history prior to late 1800’s. For instance, Dr. Greg Wills, Professor of Church History at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, illustrates: “Baptists gained such a reputation for spiritual exclusivism that even religious southerners hesitated to join. Many attended regularly without seeking membership. In 1791, John Asplund, a Baptist pastor who traveled up and down the eastern seaboard gathering statistics on American Baptists, estimated that the ‘congregations,’ those who attended church but were not members, totaled several times the number on the membership rolls. ‘There is in reality more Baptists than on this list, when we consider those who have not joined any church, excommunicated, &c. and a large number attend the meetings, at least three times as many as have joined the church.’ A generation earlier, the clerk of the Philadelphia Baptist Association reported ‘partly from their [the churches] letters to the Association, and partly from private information,’ that the churches of the association had 4,018 members and 5,970 ‘hearers.’ The total number of people who participated in Baptist congregations was thus some ten thousand, two and a half times the number of church members. Jesse Mercer, longtime president of the Georgia Baptist Convention and editor of the weekly Christian Index, estimated in 1835 that Baptists in the United States numbered 400,000, with ‘certainly not less than twice that number of persons attached to our congregations, who are not church members,’ making the total number of adherents 1.2 million, three times the number of church members” (Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South, 1785-1900, [New York: Oxford University Press, 1977], 14).
As Wills points out, the number of those attending worship in Baptist churches was much larger than the actual membership. Because churches expected membership to be meaningful and members had responsibilities, many attenders were reticent to join. How different is our day, when members don’t even have to attend to continue as members in good standing. We need to continue the difficult process of attempting to restore the concept of meaningful membership. Anything less than that is foreign not only to Baptist history but, more importantly, to the Bible itself (for instance, read Hebrews 10:24-25 and 1 John 2:19).