Church membership matters but is not always practical, & disciplining non-members

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In one of the many churches I’ve discerningly visited here in the Bible Belt, the pastor told me that Christians who refuse to apply for membership are intentionally “avoiding church discipline.” I suspect he was referring to me because, at that time, I had visited that church for three months (though no longer there).  

But his comment couldn’t be further from the truth.

Albeit no one verse commands “thou must have church membership,” and the Scriptures do not forbid membership. Membership is hermeneutically implied, seen, and gleamed from the Scriptures. Therefore becoming a member of a church is Biblical, and membership does foster many privileges that a non-member does not have. The non-member can still be disciplined, including ex-communication.

The following are two of many examples of excommunicating non-members.

Many years ago, while preaching at a church, a long-term visitor heckled the preaching as I preached my sermon. I expect that in the streets or on a pier, but not in a sanctuary.

Sanctuary. In Protestant churches the location of regular Christian corporate worship. It is sanctus, set apart for holy purposes… The special status of the sanctuary is particularly applicable during the worship service itself since the sanctuary is the location where God meets the people, the meeting place of heaven and earth.

Brett Scott Provance, Pocket Dictionary of Liturgy & Worship, The IVP Pocket Reference Series (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 116.

For years this unrepented man came to church drunk. But the senior pastor pleaded with me to “be patient” and exhibit “grace” to that drunkard. 

But my patience ran out, so one night from the pulpit, I told him to leave the congregation. He refused while yelling the F word. Consequently, the Sheepdog in me came out. I then approached him as he sat in his pew, again ordering him to get up and leave. But he continued to refuse and curse. 

My Christian love is for Christ’s sheep. Not the world, and it’s goats and wolves. I then placed the drunkard in a pain compliance control hold, causing him to scream in pain, as he stood up on his feet. I then forcefully escorted the drunkard and pushed him out the front door. To prevent him from vandalizing our cars, I asked one congregant if he would keep an eye on him while I finished my sermon.

It felt like a scene from the TV show Gunsmoke, as Marshall Dillon would toss a drunk out of Miss Kitty’s bar. But this wasn’t a bar, it was the Lord’s church sanctuary.

In a more recent incident, one of the sisters in our most previous church in California approached me advising that a visiting couple bragged about living together (fornicating) while inserting a heretical comment to our children. Not that I didn’t believe the sister, but I approached and asked the couple if they had said those things, to which they admitted “yes,” as they again blasphemed our Lord Jesus. 

Without a prayer, and without setting up a meeting, I immediately escorted both out the doors of the church, while warning them with the words of Jesus in Mark 9:42, and telling them not to return unless they repent.

Back to the pastor’s comment at the church I visited many months ago.

Nowhere in the Scriptures are non-members exempt from church discipline, and a church that does not discipline is neither Biblical nor healthy.

Church membership goes both ways. As I stated in a tweet,

“When a Christian applies for membership at a local church. It becomes a solemn duty of that church to investigate the candidate before extending their right hand of fellowship to him or her. It is equally the responsibility of that Christian to investigate all matters of that church, before asserting himself as a candidate. The responsibility is two-fold.”

Therefore, if you belong to a church that offers membership and you mutually agree with doctrine, ecclesiology & practice, then become a member. But don’t look down on a brother or sister who does not submit to a formal membership process. They might have Biblical convictions, discernment, or knowledge you are not aware of. Moreover, signing a church covenant stating that you agree when you do not, could be a sin in itself.

For an additional article on church membership, I recommend Is Church Membership Biblical? By Conley Owens. For a resourceful library of links, Monergism has dozens of articles here.

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