Why does membership come up in Bible-preaching, real, churches? Is it because of doctrinal conformity? Is it because of submission to leadership? Yes, yes, and more. I think it is also critical for protection of the flock. Elders have responsibility for their flock. They have a priority to shepherd the faithful for which they have oversight. Membership guarantees entry-level security for believers in a church. The discipline doctrine within that church comes next, fleshing out a thorough means for the elders to keep out false doctrine, bad examples and troublesome issues.
Here are some examples of the benefits of membership: My kids are not being taught by an un-evaluated Sunday School teacher; they are in class with someone who has aligned with the Scriptural beliefs of the Church. If I am seeking counsel within the church, I am assured that the resource is compliant with the Scriptures because they have been evaluated by the church on their beliefs.
Some might call that legalistic and big-brother-ish. Not so, if I have the correct view of the world and I understand that Satan is devoted to disrupting Christian lives and communities in any way he can. The modern church is no exception. I’ll posit this: Any church which does not have a biblical membership system in place is already at dire risk for false teaching and disruption in every level of its operation. No controls = no control.
Along with this membership issue, I have a personal impression, recently developed. I think there is a huge misconception about churches today regarding “feel” or hospitality. We arrive at a new church hoping it will be warm and inviting and comfy. We expect to feel like we’re home, with family, coffee and donuts, intimacy and special treats when we visit. To some extent, hospitality is important and there should be some atmosphere of fellowship and acceptance that includes newcomers.
But look at it from the Pastor’s perspective (keeping in mind that this is a Biblical church, not a seeker-sensitive, growth-oriented or huggy-God church). A new arrival walks in the first time. What baggage is he bringing? What theological background is lurking in this well-behaved newcomer. Is he going to bring disruption to this local body of Christ? I need to know how to maneuver in order to protect my flock from his influence if he’s in error, Scripturally speaking.
The average newcomer is a potential threat to the fellowship in my church and though Christ calls us to love the brethren (new guy included), some sense of reserve has to be in place. The visitor may take this as a sort of cold reserve, lacking in love, but that’s how it is. The full warmth and intimacy really is reserved: for those who have openly, clearly made their commitment to the body through membership. I think that a mark of a mature congregation is going to be a distinct difference in how members and non-members are treated.
This isn’t to say there is a clique sort of environment where only the “chosen” have any interaction or friendship. That is the other end of the spectrum, saved for legalistic or severely cultish groups who insulate their operations from any outside interference. There is a difference between a healthy carefulness about “open arms” and paranoid exclusion.
Say I got a new neighbor this week. Would I immediately hand him the keys to my house or open my doors for free coffee and donuts at 7am Saturday morning, every Saturday, from the first day on? Would I trust him with my kids, maybe for babysitting next week? Absolutely not.
There has to be careful evaluation intent on learning what this new arrival is about, what he is like, whether he is acceptable in character before I even think about letting him into a full fellowship with my family. I might loan him a hammer or some food without much trouble, but compromise the safety of the household? The same security a man maintains for his family should be present in a church.
For references in Scripture, I simply point to each of the epistles and the writers’ exhortation to be alert, on the lookout for false teachers, pastoral protection and care for the congregation. Christ’s dealings with the Pharisees theological error and the general exclusivity of the Christian faith point to being prepared for defending believers from the threat of disruption, false teaching and whatever else the World wants to insert into our churches.