Membership in the Church

The teaching of the Church of God regarding church membership is not new to historical Christendom, but rather unique in terms of modern American Christendom. The Church of God teaches that membership in the universal church, or being a Christian, is by scriptural standards essential to membership in the local church. The door through which membership into the church opens is not through catechism, baptism, or congregational vote. The door for membership is only through Jesus Christ.[1]

Becoming a member in the spiritual body of Christ is obviously a spiritual experience. Congregations may admit members to a formal church membership, but the Spirit of God alone can make them members of Christ. Since this is a work of the Spirit, it is evident that none but the saved can possibly find entrance into the spiritual body of Christ.[2] Many mainline denominational churches teach a distinct separation between the invisible and visible church. Membership into each is unique and distinct. They teach that membership into the invisible church is a spiritual act, while membership into the visible church is an act of human will and decision. “To agree to this we must agree to the confusing division between the visible and the invisible church; and finally we must agree that there are really two churches, the church of Christ and the church of Christians.”[3]

Alfred Gray adds insight to this discussion in Christian Theology, Volumes 1 and 2: “Except in numbers, the membership of the local church is the same as that of the general church. He who is a member of the church anywhere is a member everywhere, for church membership is a spiritual experience accompanying salvation. Church membership may be likened to citizenship. He who is a citizen of the United States, whether by birth or naturalization, is a citizen regardless of where he may be. Even in a foreign land he retains his American citizenship. If he should move from one American city to another, or to another state, he does not need to apply again for citizenship. Certain conditions must be met, such as a period of residence, in order for him to exercise the full rights of a citizen in his new location. So it is in the local church; conditions of residence and cooperation may be required for the exercise of certain business rights, but no member of the church may properly be denied his spiritual rights or their free exercise anywhere.

In associating with a local congregation a church member assumes duties of cooperation. In voluntarily assuming such duties he becomes entitled to certain privileges such as a voice in the temporal affairs and discipline of the church.”[4]

This stance of church membership finds its root in the apostolic church. The apostolic church had no formal membership, other than, superior to, or different from a spiritual relationship to the body of Christ brought about by the experience of regeneration. “That the church did not require organization to make it a church; it was formed into a church by the life-giving power of the Spirit of God.”[5]

Church of God congregations have historically barred any attempts to require formal membership into the church. The biblical principle of salvation through Jesus Christ as the one and only requirement for membership has been lifted in pride to other groups that require formal institutional membership. The slogan “where salvation makes you a member” can be seen adorning stationery or church marquees throughout the Church of God.

In an effort to maintain purity of biblical principles and trueness to historical roots, the Church of God faces a major dilemma: congregations are filled with “members” who never commit to the mission and ministries of the local congregation; members who desire the privilege of membership without the responsibility of duties that accompany such membership. The ecclesiastical theology of membership within the Church of God, while biblically sound, has left many congregations weakened because of the lack of expectations for membership other than a person’s confession of faith in Jesus Christ. Membership has become a rite of passage rather than a responsibility of purpose. Church of God congregations have many attenders in the church who call themselves “members” because of their salvation through Jesus Christ, but who will never commit to the mission and ministry of the local church.

Many within the Church of God have bought into the American evangelicalism view of church membership, suggesting that membership is subjective and individualistic. Confessing sin and loving Jesus becomes sufficient criteria for church membership. For some, commitment in a local body is secondary, or limited importance. Certainly it is not seen as essential to living the Christian life in terms of individual ethical decision-making in personal lifestyles. The result is that independence emerges. Church members become “free spirits” not readily accountable to anyone but their own consciences and the Holy Spirit. By attitude and by act many deny that they are their “brother’s keeper,” or that their fellow believer should even evidence concern for them.

A Christian, not intimately connected to the Body of Christ, the church, is an oxymoron. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Valley Community Church, says, “the difference between being an attender and being a member can be summed up in one word – commitment. The difference between being an attender at a church and being a member is like the difference between living together and getting married. If you’re just living together there’s no commitment; you can walk out at any moment. Marriage means you’re committed for the duration.”[6]

[1] See John 10:7-9; Revelation 3:8.

[2] Frederick G. Smith, What the Bible Teaches (Anderson: Gospel Trumpet Company, 1920), 209.

[3] Charles E. Brown, The Church Beyond Division (Anderson: Gospel Trumpet Company, 1939), 106.

[4] Alfred F. Gray, Christian Theology, Volumes 1 and 2 (Anderson: Warner Press, 1946), 316-317.

[5] Charles E. Brown, The Apostolic Church: A Study in Historical Theology (Anderson: Warner Press, 1947), 109.

[6] Rick Warren, “Discovering Church Membership: C.L.A.S.S. 101,” Church Life and Service Seminars Leaders Transcript.