Church Membership in a World Without NASCAR
In our previous two articles on the topic of church membership (here and here), we saw the biblical support for the modern practice of local church membership. In this article, we will look at how some of our spiritual fathers thought about church membership.
Now, admittedly, the historical practice of the church is not binding on us. And that’s a good thing, because even a cursory glance at church history demonstrates that Christians have done and believed some stupid things over the years. So we could make a historical argument for all kinds of things, like purchasing indulgences or burning witches. Hopefully, we won’t repeat those mistakes again.
Even with the Christian church’s spotty record, however, we ignore the past at our own peril. Ken Myers has rightly said that “our carelessness about history is a form of amnesia, a pathological condition that produces disorientation and aimlessness… [by it] we are encouraged to live in rebellion against memory which results in our acting on unrestrained instincts and sensation rather than reasoned reflection.”
Certainly, Myers’ indictment falls on the contemporary church in America and its approach to church membership. As people in the surrounding culture have become increasingly individualistic and reluctant to obligate themselves to anything, many congregations have simply jettisoned church membership without any reflection on why it was practiced in the first place. But history can help us, affording us an opportunity to reflect on why we do and don’t do certain things.
Rather than attempt to survey the practice of the church in every time and in every place, I’d like to focus our attention more closely on the practice of the Puritans in their churches. Puritanism began as a renewal movement in the Church of England in the sixteenth century and spread to America before dying out in the eighteenth century. And they serve as a particularly fruitful study for us because their pastors and theologians devoted so much time to thinking about the local church and how it related to individual believers. They lived, after all, in a world with no NFL, NASCAR, and “Lost, Season 1: the Platinum Edition DVD Boxed Set.” So they spent their time writing books about the church. It was the closest thing they had to a national pastime.
Though there was certainly a diversity of opinion and practice among the Puritans, let’s examine three oft-expressed reasons why these Christians in the past practiced church membership and then ask how it can inform our practice as well.
FOR ESTABLISHING THE CONGREGATION
For many Puritans, membership was essential to the existence of the church. The church was not simply a bunch of Christians who lived in a particular region or even those who gathered on Sunday. Instead, they sought to establish a formal connection between individuals in order to form a true church. That formal connection was church membership.
The Cambridge Platform, a summary of ecclesiology put together by seventeenth century ministers in Massachusetts, points out that:
Saints by calling, must have a visible political union amongst themselves, or else they are not yet a particular church… as a body, a building, or house, hands, eyes, feet, and other members must be united, or else, remaining separate are not a body. Stones, timber, though squared, hewn, and polished, are not a house, until they are compacted and united.
That is to say, there must be a formal, conscious connection between believers in order for a church to truly exist. Otherwise, all you have is a group of disassociated people.
Whenever a believer joined a Puritan church, he or she had to pledge a covenant with the other members of the church. The covenant usually contained a commitment to follow God carefully, to look out for the welfare of the other members, to avoid conflict, and to do nothing to bring disrepute onto the church.
Without such a commitment, there could be no church. The church could have no authority over someone who had not made any kind of commitment to the congregation. Instead, church members willingly obligated themselves to a specific set of commitments, and thus they could be held accountable for keeping those obligations. Church membership—as formalized by a church covenant—served as the mortar that bound together the disparate timbers and stones of the church.
FOR PROTECTING THE FLOCK
The Puritans also believed that practicing meaningful church membership helped to protect the flock from wolves in sheep’s clothing. They took pains to closely examine anyone who sought membership in the church to ensure that the individual was a true believer. Otherwise, they feared that a little leaven would affect the whole lump. The Cambridge divines found it preferable “to square rough and unhewn stones, before they be laid into the building, rather than to hammer and hew them, when they lie unevenly in the building.”
They were not stupid or prideful enough to think they could tell beyond a shadow of a doubt whether someone was a true Christian. Yet they recognized their call to practice due diligence in distinguishing the true believers from the false. Prospective members, therefore, were subjected to a rigorous screening process. Each candidate would be asked to provide a public testimony, oftentimes before the whole church. Often, candidates would be examined by a board of church leaders to discover one’s grasp of doctrine, one’s conversion experience, and one’s Christian conduct. If a candidate satisfied the board, the congregation would then have an extended period of time to register concerns about the person’s character, and only after all such concerns were addressed would a vote be taken.
This may sound extreme to us. Sometimes, it sounded extreme to them. So Thomas Shepard, a Puritan pastor, had to warn his flock to “take heed of thinking elders or churches are strict.” If they appeared over-zealous in examining prospective members, it was because they were convinced that “rigorous insistence upon evidence of conversion seemed… the only way to secure the purity of the church.” For the Puritans, taking church membership seriously was an important way of protecting the other members of the church.
FOR EVANGELISM’S SAKE
Finally, the Puritans understood their church membership practices to be an effective way to evangelize non-members. This was particularly true in a culture where everyone attended church regularly, whether or not they were converted. In such a society, it was helpful for an unconverted person to be aware of a distinction between himself and a member of the church. The hope was that the non-member would “see no hope of enjoying church-fellowship, or participation in the sacraments” and be led to repent. By being excluded from a congregation’s communion, the non-member was regularly reminded of his or her unconverted condition. Church membership helped make an evangelistic distinction between the true and the nominal believer.
In addition, as was mentioned above, the requisite conversion narratives were given publicly. This served to give a wide audience to an individual’s personal and powerful experience of God’s grace. That was certainly a useful way to help non-believers desire and experience that grace for themselves. In fact, there were occasions where the examination process would show the actual person seeking membership that he or she was not converted. In those circumstances, the leaders of the church would work “by love and patience to heal them and ripen them.”
Given the Bible’s warnings against self-deception (2 Cor. 13:5), church membership served as a means of assurance for the Puritan believer. If an individual was not a member, then he or she had no reason to be confident that he or she was a true believer. A person whose profession of faith had not been verified by the congregation would have little grounds for assurance. That person would hopefully be driven to self-examination and pursuing the means of grace until faith was found. On the flip side, church members enjoyed the external verification that membership provided. They had a vote of confidence from the congregation to help bind up their weak faith or their need for assurance.
Some readers may find the Puritans’ practice of church membership interesting in and of itself (or not), but our larger hope is to use the Puritan’s experience and wisdom to help guide our practices today. While many historical circumstances have changed, the principles that drove the Puritans remain useful.
The matter boils down to the fact that the Puritans took church membership very seriously, whereas we generally don’t. For the Puritans, the church’s ability to control its membership was a vital part of its life and witness. A church could encourage a tender believer by admitting them into membership, and it could challenge a non-believer by denying him membership.
When our churches today do not practice meaningful membership, we forfeit those rights and powers. Nowadays, church membership means very little in most churches. If a church even maintains the practice of keeping lists of members, many times the admissions process shows little reflection upon the gravity of the task. On the one hand, we take people into membership with little concern for whether they are leaven that will ruin the loaf. On the other hand, we rob true believers of the assurance that should be theirs by making their church membership meaningless.
With all of these things at stake, rightly does the Cambridge Platform opine, “All believers ought, as God giveth them opportunity thereunto, to endeavour to join themselves unto a particular church.” We do well to implement their suggestion and follow their example.
1. Mars Hill Audio Journal, volume 75. July/August 2005.
2. Let’s face it, you don’t have the time to read such an article, and I would have to read a bunch of books in Latin. That’s a lose-lose situation. If you are interested in an introduction to the early church, you may want to look at Henry Chadwick’s The Early Church or Ivor Davidson’s “The Birth of the Church.”
3. Some people refer to C.H. Spurgeon as “the last Puritan”, which would place the end of the movement in the 19th century. I, however, never see pictures of Spurgeon in a funny Puritan-style hat, so he doesn’t make the cut in my book.
4. Cambridge Platform VI,1. You can find a copy of the Cambridge Platform in Iain H. Murray’s The Reformation of the Church (Banner of Truth) or on any number of websites.
5. Cambridge Platform, Preface.
6. Charles Lloyd Cohen, God’s Caress: The Psychology of Puritan Religious Experience, page 141.
7. Cohen, 149.
8. Horton Davies, The Worship of the American Puritans, page 40.
9. Cambridge Platform, Preface.
10. Cohen, 141-142.
11. Cambridge Platform V, 6.