Does church membership matter?

First Baptist Church, Charleston, South Carolina—the first Baptist church in the southern states and the venue for the 2014 Founders Conference

One of the most frequent questions that I get from professing Christians is, “Why do I have to be a member of a church?” Over the course of the years the character of that question has increasingly shifted from honest inquiry to incredulous accusation. In fact I am no longer surprised when believers get angry at me for insisting that sincere discipleship requires church membership. Low and erroneous views of the church are so rampant even among conservative, Bible believing Christians that any congregation that does not exercise extreme care in receiving members is sure to find itself a large percentage of mere “paper members” whose names appear on the roll but whose bodies are largely absent from most gatherings and fellowship and ministry initiatives.

Baptists in former days saw the issue quite differently. Membership mattered to the early Baptist churches in England and America in the 17th and 18th centuries. In fact, it would have been inconceivable for those early Baptists to regard membership in a local congregation as optional or incidental.

Imagine if the following convictions about the church were commonplace today among professing Christians:

In exercising the authority entrusted to him, the Lord Jesus, through the ministry of his Word, by his Spirit, calls to himself out of the world those who are given to him by his Father. They are called so that they will live before him in all the ways of obedience that he prescribes for them in his Word. Those who are called he commands to live together in local societies, or churches, for their mutual edification and the fitting conduct of public worship that he requires of them while they are in the world.

The members of these churches are saints by calling, visibly displaying and demonstrating in and by their profession and life their obedience to the call of Christ. They willingly agree to live together according to Christ’s instructions, giving themselves to the Lord and to one another by the will of God, with the stated purpose of following the ordinances of the Gospel.

Mod1689_14What would a congregation be like if all the members believed this and all the leaders helped the membership live according to these convictions? It would be a beautiful thing. It would be a community of believers whose lives together demonstrate the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Their living would commend their preaching.

That was at the heart of the original vision of church life among early Baptists. The paragraphs quoted above come from chapter 26 of a modern version of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. Because it summarizes biblical teachings on key issues a good confession of faith is an excellent teaching tool for a church. Prospective members can be asked to read it, or at least to read key sections of it, so that they will understand how the church they want to join view issues like polity, membership, worship, evangelism, marriage, scriptural authority, etc. Those who do join a church that has a confession of faith can refer back to it to be encouraged to think biblically about such issues as questions arise.

I am convinced that church life would be significantly upgraded in spiritual vitality if confessions of faith were once again properly regarded and widely used to commend and proclaim basic commitments to biblical teachings. That is one reason that I am excited about the prospect of the upcoming Founders Conference in Charleston, South Carolina, where the theme of “Confessional Power and Gospel Advance” will be explored.

Please join us at the 2014 National Founders Conference!
For more information and to register, please go to:

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877-768-2784 ext. 106



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4 Responses to “Does church membership matter?”

  1. I find it amussing that your arguments are from pragmatic approaches and quotes from 1600 years after scripture was written. What happened to Sola Scriptura? Maybe because there aren’t any passages in Gods holy word mandating church “membership”, yet you go and mandate it as if God himself commanded it to be so………weird.

    BTW, I am part of a fellowship that doesn’t have “members” and we practice loving churn discipline much better than about any church I’ve been at (as a member) or know of.

    Repent and stop putting people under a manmade yoke of bondage.

    • Tom Ascol

      Thanks for your comment. I left off the Scripture citations from the confession in the interest of brevity and on the assumption (naive, I now realize) that readers would recognize the biblical texts and principles that the statements summarize. You can, however, find those scripture citations by consulting the text of the 1689, which is readily available online. What do you mean that you are a “part” of a fellowship? Do you belong to it along with other “parts?” Or do you just somewhat identify with it according to your own (or someone else’s) determination? I am glad to hear about any church that practices loving disciple but I wonder how that is carried out biblically if there is no clear definition of who does and who does not constitute the church, since biblical discipline requires the ability to define a “majority” (2 Corinthians 2:6). You cannot have a majority with an undefined number that constitutes the whole.

      Before accusing me and other confessional believers of “putting people under a manmade yoke of bondage,” perhaps you should start reading your Bible more carefully.


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