Kevin DeYoung wrote the following letter to a colleague who was thinking of establishing two sets of memberships in his church, one for believers and another for unbelievers.
While Scripture tells us that external membership to the church is validated by public profession of faith in Christ, pressure to rake up the numbers has prompted many to accept as bona fide members those who do not even show the slightest hint that they have been acted upon by the Spirit through a faith that expresses itself in confession (Rom. 10:9), thereby deconstructing beyond recognition what it means to be a part of God's covenant people.
This letter is really addressed to many who are contemplating the leap to liberalism, in an attempt to dissuade them from the path of unfaithfulness to their calling:
Dear Pastor Van Doren,
I read with great interest your article on church membership in the latest issue of The Church Herald (May 2009, 7-8). As a pastor, I know the tension between wanting people to join your church, but not wanting to sell-out to make everyone happy. I understand, as you mention, that small churches could really use the financial support that new members might bring. I can sense too that you are aware of the danger of secularization in the church. In other words, I feel the tug you feel.
But, brother, I urge you to scrap the plan for two sets of membership vows, one set for Christians who confess Christ and one set for unconverted non-Christians who don't believe the gospel but are still interested in the church. You state, 'There’s no wrong reason to belong to a church.' But surely there are lots of plenty of wrong reasons. Joining the church to be seen is wrong. Joining the church to make business connections is wrong. Joining the church to please your parents is wrong. Joining the church because you think Christianity is a plan for moral self-improvement is damnably wrong. You point out yourself that many people join the church because it is politically expedient, or they want good ethical instruction for their kids, or because they want to be a part of benevolent organization, but they do not believe in the in the uniqueness, Lordship, or divinity of Christ. There’s no nice way to put this: people who do not believe in the unique divinity of Christ and will not call him Lord are not Christians (1 John 5:10-13; John 8:24). To make such a judgment is not uncharitable, it’s simply Christianity. A Christian believes certain things and lives a certain way. Welcome non-Christians in the door, and invite them to stay, but we should not call them members of the church, for the simple reason that they are not members of the body of Christ.
You argue that we are 'commanded by our Lord to treat saint and sinner alike, to banish all manners of exclusivity' but this is not the teaching of Scripture. Instead, the Bible commands us to judge those inside the church (1 Cor. 5:12). Contrary to popular opinion, God does not love everyone in the same way. If he did, what would be the point of the cross, justification, reconciliation, and adoption. We can be kind and generous to everyone, but in the end God only dwells with his people, while the rest will face the second death (Rev. 21:3-8). If Jesus told his would-be-followers to carry the cross, count the cost, and let dead bury their own dead, surely it is not too much that we expect church members to articulate the gospel and profess Jesus as Lord (and mean it).
Moreover, our confessional standards tell us that hypocrites and the unrepentant are not to come to the Lord’s table (H.C. Q/A 81) and that we are given the keys of the kingdom–gospel preaching and discipline–to 'open the kingdom of heaven to believers and close it to unbelievers' (H.C. Q/A 83). The officers of the church, according to our doctrinal standards, ought to 'exclude from the Christian fellowship' those who 'profess unchristian teachings or live unchristian lives' (H.C. Q/A 85).
I admit that I don’t know the pressures you are facing or how dire things may look for the future of your church without some half-way covenant of church membership. But better to be on God’s side with a small church, than against him in a bigger one. You’re right that many people might 'leave our churches if we required them to defend their faith publicly, through a written credo or in-depth interview before the board of elders' but let God deal with that. It’s not unheard of to have meaty membership classes, basic doctrinal requirements, and elder interviews. Many churches still do all three. Trust God to honor those who honor him. The Lord’s mercies are new every morning and he will reward you for doing the right thing. As you even note, 'it is a statistical fact that the fastest growing churches make greater spiritual demands on their members, not relaxed ones.'
Most of all, as under-shepherds we need to think of our grave responsibility before God. 'Obey your leaders and submit to them,' Hebrews 13:7 says, 'for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.' The church, like Old Testament Israel, is meant to reflect the character of God. That’s why the unclean in Israel had to be washed or put outside the camp. God is holy and we must be holy as he is holy. Which is why the members in our churches must be cleansed by the blood of Christ through faith and repentance or face expulsion outside the church.
Membership standards, like church discipline, are not puritanical inventions, but necessary guardrails motivated by a passion for the glory of God and love for our flock. When we purposefully allow unregenerate persons into the membership of the church we do three very bad things: we tarnish the holy character of Christ, we allow unchecked sin and unbelief to act like leaven in the congregation, and we deceive our people.
Please, brother Van Doren, rethink your acquiescence to the secularized spirit of the age. It’s not an exaggeration to say heaven and hell are at stake. We must not say 'peace, peace' to our people where there is no peace (even if they do tithe). Obviously we can’t manipulate God’s ways, but my strong hunch is that if you required more of your members you would find in 2-3 years that you would have more of them and the ones you had would be more fruitful.
It takes love to welcome non-Christians in our midst. But I dare say that in our hyper-tolerant world, it takes even greater love to call them to faith and repentance and share with them the good news that through Jesus Christ, and him alone, can they be forgiven and live forever with God. Church membership is for those who get this. And if we get it, we’ll make sure they’ve gotten it before making them members of the church.
Another cracked clay pot,