Is church membership exclusive?

It’s a question that gets thrown up from time to time, often less in the form of a question and more as an indignant statement: membership is exclusive. The not so subtle subtext is that the church should not be exclusive. In other words, we should welcome everybody and to have a formal membership is to exclude some.

It bears saying that the church should, indeed, welcome everybody. There shouldn’t be anyone who is unwelcome at church meetings. Nobody should be stopped from coming under the sound of the gospel. In the sense that everyone is welcome to hear the Bible taught and the gospel proclaimed, all are certainly welcome.

Nonetheless, as many have said before, just because we are all welcome to come as we are does not mean we are all welcome to stay as we are. The Lord Jesus did not come to call the righteous to repentance, after all. Those in need of a saviour are those who recognise they are not alright as they are. Those who accept they are sinners realise that they need to be forgiven for their sin. That necessarily means seeking to turn away from our sin (repenting of it) and turning toward Christ in faith which leads to obedience.

If all are welcome to come to church, does this mean that all are welcome into membership? Essentially, everyone is welcome into membership on the same terms. We welcome anybody into membership who proclaims Jesus Christ as Lord and who is (or will be) baptised in testimony to this truth and whose lives give no cause to doubt that claim. Those terms are the same for every single person who comes through our door. All have the opportunity to come to Christ and all, therefore, have the opportunity to become members of the church.

However, given that some do not turn in repentance and faith to Jesus Christ, we inevitably end up with churches that have some people in membership and others who may appear to have been excluded. But, it bears saying, it is not the church that has excluded them from membership. They have effectively excluded themselves. The offer of membership remains open to them as soon as they come to Christ. Upon a credible testimony, we will baptise them as a sign of entry to the church and will welcome them into membership. Those outside of church membership remain so because they remain outside of Christ by their own volition. The church holds the door open.

The issue arises when there are things that are permissible for members that are not allowed for non-members. For example, our church membership document states in respect to the question ‘what is the difference between members and non-members?’:

There are three things we deem inapprropriate for those who are not in membership of the church: The Lord’s Supper, input at members’ meetings and serving in the ministries of the church. The Lord’s Supper is not for non-members because it is an affirmation by the church and its members of commitment to one another in an ongoing covenant relationship ratified by membership itself. Members’ meetings are not appropriate for non-members because they are family meetings for those who have committed to the church and have a voice in its affairs. The ministries of the church are not appropriate for non-members because the church needs to be confident that those serving are true believers and it affirms this through church membership and the administration of the ordinances.

In one sense, that there is a formal group who are ‘in’ necessarily means there is a group who are ‘out’. That there are things permissible for the ‘in’ group that are not acceptable for the ‘out’ group may give the appearance of exclusivity. But all those who are ‘out’ could be ‘in’. The criteria for joining the church does not limit anybody beyond their settled choice to follow or reject Christ and identify with his people through the waters of baptism.

The aim of church membership is to reflect those we can affirm as true believers in Christ. It is intended to make the universal invisible church that God sees visible locally to the rest of us. Those who make a credible profession of faith, who backup that claim to belief by a willingness to identify with the Lord’s people through baptism and live a life that appears to be consistent with that claim may be welcomed into membership of the local church. Essentially, it is only those who deny the Lord openly or give strong cause to believe, through open disobedience to Christ, that they do not really recognise him as Lord who are not permitted into church membership. However, it should be noted that the door is always open to those same people the moment they come to true faith in Christ.

Inasmuch as church membership recognises some as members and others not, we may feel membership is exclusive. Inasmuch as membership is open to all, on the same terms to all and remains open even to those who currently cannot be members, it is not exclusive at all. Further, given the ongoing open door to those who believe in Christ, if it is exclusive at all, it is those who will not submit to Christ that exclude themselves.