“They drew a circle,
which shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win,
We drew a circle that took them in.”
Something to Consider
For a variety of reasons, a discussion continues among Christians who are concerned about whether formal membership in a local church is a biblical practice, or a modern way to protect a religious social gathering. The following steps are commonly taken in evangelical circles in order to become a member.
First, a candidate goes to the leadership, and asks to become a member of the local church.
Second, the leadership examines the candidate to determine suitability. The candidate might be asked a series of questions.
“Do you believe Jesus is the Son of God, and the Saviour of the world?”
“Have you repented of your sins?”
“Have you personally called upon the name of the Lord in order to be saved?”
“Will you confess Christ before others?”
If there is a positive response to the questions, the candidate is given the Constitution and By-laws of the assembly, and then asked to sign, and date a legal agreement that includes financial support.
Technically, the “Constitution” is the title most commonly associated with the governing document of an unincorporated association, whereas “By-laws” govern a corporation. One of the main reasons churches have both documents is tradition: “It has always been that way.”
The Constitution and By-laws are usually contained in a small booklet, which is easy to read and understand. Some documents can be several hundred pages, and complex.
The primary design of the Constitution and By-laws is to legally protect the congregation from a variety of real, and imaginary situations, that could be harmful to the assembly.
Another purpose of the Constitution and By-laws is to ensure conformity of belief and practice. Dissent is discouraged in the local church. Censorship is a viable option. Excommunication is also possible.
If the Constitution and By-laws are affirmed without mental reservations, on a Sunday morning, the candidate is presented to the congregation and voted on.
Rarely is there any objection to a person being accepted as a church member, because, it is generally assumed by those voting on the candidate, the distinct doctrines of the assembly are supported, and all requirements of the Constitution and By-laws have been, or will be, met.
One example of a requirement being met for church membership is baptism. Some congregations demand only those who embrace believer’s baptism can be received into the fellowship. Other assemblies recognize paedo-baptism.
In some local assemblies the Constitution and By-laws forbid taking communion, unless a person is a member of that church. In other assemblies, the communion table is “fenced off,” and the leadership of the assembly decides who is worthy to take communion.
Something to Notice
The practical problem of voting on someone who is willing to submit to an extra biblical document is that none of this will protect the organization. No uninspired vote, or document, has ever prevented a church division, stopped a non-biblical idea from being introduced, or solved a discipline problem. In short, formal church membership does not work well.
Ironically, an argument can be made that Constitutions, By-laws, and Robert’s Rules of Order have created more difficulties than envisioned, because, when a situation arises in the congregation, instead of going to the Bible to discover the principles and practices God would have His people be guided by, individuals turn to the extra biblical legal documents. The Word of God is neglected.
What a formal church Constitution and By-laws tends to do is encourage people to divide in the name of unity, which is contrary to the known desire of Jesus who would have His people be of one mind.
Longing for His disciples to establish an essential unity, Jesus prayed to the Father asking, “That they all may be one; as thou, Father art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (John 17:21).
Despite the prayer of Jesus, what is the situation?
The Baptist who embraces believer’s baptism, will not allow a paedo-baptist into the membership of the local church.
The Fundamentalist congregation which embraces the Rapture theory, will not allow a non-dispensationalist into the membership of the local church.
The Presbyterian who embraces paedo-baptism, will not allow a credo Baptist to be formally welcomed as a member.
Because of this, some Christians wonder if there is another way to deal with the issue of church membership. Perhaps there is. There are Christians who do not organize themselves formally or vote on one another in order to have spiritual fellowship, worship, and Bible study. Home churches are a viable option.
A Biblical Imagery
For the moment, let us return to the year c. AD 33, fifty days after the death of Jesus. The Lord has converted three thousand souls in one day which led the people to praise God. Then, the Bible says, “the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:47).
Because the church, the ecclesia, the called out, is an organism, the Biblical image is that of a body, with many members. Each member is added to the church, by God.
Christ is declared to be the head.
“And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence” (Col. 1:18).
As a living organism, the body of Christ is well organized by divine design. A definite form of the body of Christ takes place as each member of the body functions according to the place it is given.
“For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: 5 So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one member one of another” (Rom. 12:4-5).
Each member of the body is significant, and no member is to be disallowed from functioning properly.
A Simple Question
Since it is the Lord who adds to the church body those who should be saved, since the Lord is pleased to energize His body by the Holy Spirit, and guide His bride by His Word, is this not enough?
Should it be that, when individuals who have come under the sound of the gospel want to unite, and meet on a regulate basis, they be a people of one Book, the Bible?
There is not a situation in life that is not addressed by Scripture.
Would the people of God have a Constitution like other social organizations? Let it be the Bible.
Would the people of God have By-laws? Let the By-law be Scripture, chapter, and verse. For those who need the boundaries of rules and regulations, there are no less than eight hundred and fifty commandments in the New Testament.
When any concern arises among those who have agreed to meet for worship, fellowship, and study of the apostle’s doctrine, let no other document be consulted except the Bible.
Is there a question about church membership? There is only one requirement for church membership recognized by the Bible, and that is to believe Jesus is the Christ the Son of God, and call upon Him, by faith, for salvation.
“But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach; 9 That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. 10 For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Romans 10:8-10).
To such a person let God’s people say, “Welcome! You are a church member with us, by divine appointment, not by a human vote. Now, let us grow together in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour.”
Is there a question about authority within the fellowship? The Bible addresses that question.
Is there is a question about who should be received as a brother or sister in Christ because they are a church member, having been born of God and added to the fellowship? The Biblical by-laws will provide the answer. In the Bible, there is no voting on a person to “join” a local church, as it is practiced today. God’s people are to recognize one another. The sign of recognition will be love. “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35).
Is there a question about a moral issue? The Biblical by-laws give a clear and authoritative answer on what is to be said and done.
Is there a question about a dress code? The Biblical by-laws provides principles to answer any questions a Christian might have.
Is there a question about music? The Biblical by-laws will have something to say on the subject.
Is there a dispute over doctrine? The Biblical by-laws are to be consulted and submitted to. Discussion is to continue until there is unity. This is the will of the Lord.
Is there a need for discipline? The Biblical by-laws provide specific steps to be taken.
Do those who want to meet on a regular basis for worship according to gospel terms need to create extra biblical documents to guide the congregation? To ask the question is to answer it. What human document setting forth the Church’s Constitution and By-laws can be better there be our God breathed book, the Bible?
When every issue is brought under the light of Scripture, those who are not really members of the true church of Christ will leave. ““They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us” (1 John 2:19).
Much controversy could be resolved if individuals returned to the simplicity of Scripture.
Constitutions and By-laws have been tried and are found wanting. Christians have a surer word of prophesy which can address any question in life. We have the Bible.