Church membership

Membership requires both discipleship and love (cf. John 13:8). Church membership affiliates an individual believer with a specific local congregation. It is often a formalized public declaration of commitment to the church (e.g. baptism, profession of faith, personal testimony, church rolls), in a manner that varies depending on the customs of the congregation. Many modern, independent churches reject the idea of membership, believing it to be an unnecessary and human addition to belonging to Christ and to the "invisible church".

Church membership viewed biblically is an obligation of discipleship and love that derives from being united with Christ by grace through faith, and from the discipline that the Lord Jesus Christ has committed to the church, to preserve its orderliness, purity and peace.

Membership, in this sense, is assumed throughout the New Testament, and taught explicitly. For example, Paul teaches that Christians are members of one another as well of Christ, and that this unity is visible and practical in the church. He likens the visible church to a physical body of which Christ is the head, to which believers are joined and held together by love.

... we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. - (Romans 12:5)' ... speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. - (Ephesians 4:15, 16) For the purpose of caring for and strengthening this body, and for the cooperative action of all of its members, the grace of Christ provides leaders:

... he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. - (Ephesians 4:11) This discipline is not optional to the Christian life, but is enjoined by the command of the word of God: Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls. (Hebrews 13:17)

The apostle likens those outside of this government to children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Ephesians 4:14)

These duties and privileges of love in the visible church, which constitute the orderliness and ministry of the church that is incumbent upon every member of Christ, might be represented in modern churches by customary conventions such as membership rolls, public profession, baptismal records, membership vows, congregational meetings, the privilege of voting, church courts, judicial procedures, and the like. It is easy to be misled by such human, mundane institutional and courtroom language, about the divine character and spiritual nature of church membership.


The history of church membership in Evangelical churches begins with the Catholic Church, which implements its discipline over all the baptized, through a traditional sacramental system, governing the progressions of life from cradle to grave. Essentially, in this way the church presses the insistence upon every baptized child that he is "in" unless he insisted on being "out", and the sacramental system was designed to strengthen his piety through which he might hope for salvation.

For a beginning contrast, the Reformers only acknowledged two sacraments: Baptism and the Lord's table, and placed a much stronger emphasis on faith as the only instrument by which the grace of God is effectual for salvation. Furthermore, the Radical Reformation, and the Baptist movement later, asserted that baptism is only valid if voluntary ("believer's baptism"). These two departures from Catholic practice immediately produced a variety of approaches to membership in Protestant churches. National churches adopted some version of a parish system. In these cases geography was significant of jurisdiction, as in the Roman Catholic Church, so that it was not exceptional for members of the parish, though baptized, never to profess Christian faith. Furthermore, it is under these assumptions of geographical jurisdiction that dissenting groups were subject to church censures and civil persecution. But the core principles of the Reformation naturally gave weight to conversion, to conscience, and thus to voluntarism which is most radically expressed by the Anabaptists and the Baptists (in which the discipline of membership can only be entered into pursuant to the expressed will of those who profess faith, and can be dissolved in the same way).

Between these two opposite directions, the Independents of England (the Congregationalists) were a middle ground. They adopted a view similar to the Anabaptists, that the covenantal relation between the church and its members is literally a contract between two consenting parties. However, unlike the Anabaptists, Congregationalists practice infant baptism, which is not voluntary. The basic dilemma which faces Congregationalism's contractual view of the church is, how to regard the status of those who have been baptized but have not made a credible profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. And what was to be done with those who, like Roger Williams), thought the church was in error and demanded separation?

Especially in America, this became a delicate issue, because the Independent Puritans had tied civil privileges to church membership, much as did the national churches that resulted from the Reformation. And, because the history of the Presbyterian church is identical to that of the Congregationalists in the early history of the colonies in America, these churches inherited some of the political reasoning, as well as some of the problems, of the Congregationalists' contractual conception of the church. Some of these issues are encountered by all Evangelical churches in a Free church tradition or situation (not a national church), as in the United States.

The Puritan dilemma can be illustrated by the early history of the Congregationalists/Presbyterians in America. The Half-Way Covenant, adopted by the synods of 1657 and 1662, had made baptism alone the condition to the civil privileges of church membership, but not of participation in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. Solomon Stoddard, had been even more liberal, holding that the Supper was a converting ordinance and that baptism was a sufficient title to all the privileges of the church.^[1]^ Jonathan Edwards had argued that admittance to the Lord's Supper required an identifiable personal crisis of conversion.

Added to this problem and its unique history in the Presbyterian church, there is also the enormous cultural influence of the Baptists, which strongly emphasizes the individual and the voluntary aspects of membership in a church. Children in Baptist churches are members of Christian families, but not members of the Church until they profess faith and are baptized. The Baptist view of the church easily adapted to, and instigated the perfection of, complete separation of church membership from civic privilege and obligation.

In this environment, a strong current of voluntarism swept through churches of all traditions, especially in the 19th century (the "Second Great Awakening"). This broad cultural movement even more completely frustrated any view of church membership and discipline beyond the local congregation, and in practice the individual's decision to join or to depart from the church is completely determinative of his standing in the church - the very idea of "status of membership" became descriptive only of whether the believer chooses to associate himself, or not.

This does not necessarily result in a lax view of membership, however, in the context of the local congregation. Membership in the local congregation, whether viewed as a mystical bond (as in Shepherding churches), or as essentially a legal contract between the individual and the body (the Congregationalist theory) is sometimes taken with extreme seriousness. However, the actions of one congregation do not bind another, except at the discretion of the other congregation. Regardless of the polity of the denomination, this presumption of the radical prerogatives of the individual prevails in American churches by sheer force of cultural momentum.

In reaction to the general collapse of the idea of church membership, some churches associated with the Reformed movement have attempted to implement a very restrictive version of the contractual conception of the church. Gary North succinctly described this legal view of membership, when he wrote, "There are only three lawful ways out of a local congregation: by death, by letter of transfer, and by excommunication." This has produced a controversy in some circles, especially where congregations move from a position in which membership is seen as essentially voluntary to a belief that church membership is a contract that cannot be voluntarily dissolved. Particularly, where infant baptism is practiced, the result has been a re-discovery in a fresh context of the Puritan dilemma, of centuries ago. This is especially problematic where the submission of the members is not balanced by a leadership that is itself subject to discipline. With the proliferation of paedocommunion in some quarters, a new element is added to that dilemma. ^[2]^ This debate over the status of membership underscores a more meaningful debate about the connection between formal Church membership and conversion.^[3]^

Reformed church membership

The typical Free church view of membership is seen in the Reformed denominations, in the United States. Conversion experiences of various stages and kinds are expected, but these are not the pre-requisite of membership. A public profession of faith is required however, before taking communion or participating in the government of the church. Membership normally includes voluntary submission to leadership, usually attested by vows. However, these vows are not usually interpreted in a strictly legal sense, and therefore these churches sometimes explicitly provide an expedient for dealing with cases in which the member is no longer willing to be subject to the discipline of the church. Some procedures mention "renunciation of jurisdiction", which means that the member rejects the authority of this particular church at this point in time. In any case the grant or revocation of membership is an act of the church, and is not a strictly voluntary matter.


In the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, membership can only be granted or terminated by the decision of the session, which will take into account but not be determined by the individual's desires. In their view good order assumes the voluntary submission of the member to the government of the church, through faith in Christ (as indicated by their vows); but if this is lacking the session has the "option of discretion", and may dissolve membership if the session believes that it is in the spiritual interest of the member. This may be done as an alternative to other forms of discipline over a member who has indicated a desire to renounce membership in a disorderly way, in which case the OPC sees erasure as a form of discipline, "tantamount to excommunication" ^ [4]^. This allows the session to terminate other forms of discipline even in cases where a judicial form of discipline has already been initiated. ^[5]^ The right of appeal is provided for every final judicial action, which includes erasure. ^[6]^

Typical of Reformed churches, members are received one of 4 ways^[7]^:

  1. Through transfer (from a church of like faith and practice approved by the session, including OPC churches)
  2. Through reaffirmation of faith (previously confessed his faith and united with a church other than a church of like faith and practice)
  3. Confession of faith (not previously been a communicant member of the church)
  4. By baptism:
    • Noncommunicant unbaptized children whose parent(s) are members of the church shall be received by baptism.
    • Noncommunicant baptized members may be received with their parent(s).

Membership can only be terminated by the session, in cases of:^[8]^

  1. Transfer out (II.B.3.a,b)
  2. Erasure:

    1. Leaving without permission of the session (variety of circumstances: II.B.3.d.1,3,5)
    2. A desire to no longer be in fellowship with the session (II.B.3.d.2)
    3. After being missing for 2 years
  3. By ordination as a teaching elder

  4. Excommunication

  5. Death


In the Presbyterian Church in America, all baptized persons (including non-communicant members) are entitled to the watchful care, instruction and government of the church, even though they are adults and have made no profession of their faith in Christ. (6-3) Thus All baptized persons, being members of the Church are subject to its discipline and entitled to the benefits thereof (27-2) Communing members are those who have made a profession of faith in Christ, have been baptized, and have been admitted by the Session to the Lord's Table.^ [9]^

A member has a positive obligation to transfer his membership upon moving geographically outside the bounds of the congregation. (46-1)

  1. A member may transfer out (38-3a)
  2. Affiliating with another church which is failing to maintain the Word and Sacraments in their fundamental integrity then they are erased (38-3b)
  3. Being absent for one year (38-4), (46-2)


The Presbyterian Church (USA) recognizes an obligation on the part of the congregation to allow persons to join in membership ^[10]^

Any persons may enter into active church membership in the following ways: by profession of faith, reaffirmation of faith in Jesus Christ, or transfer of certificate from some other church. They divide their membership into 4 classes Baptized (baptized but no profession of faith), Active (made a profession of faith), Inactive (member that does not participate), Affiliate (an active member of another church attending). Members, church officers, elders and ministers have the right to renounce jurisdiction at any time.


The Evangelical Presbyterian Church recognizes:^[11]^

  • Confirmed Members: Those who have been baptized and who have made a public profession of their faith and been admitted to active membership by the Church Session
  • Baptized Members: Baptized children of members
  • Affiliate Members: Persons separated geographically from their home church
  • Inactive Members: These are members who have not attended within the last year yet have not yet gone another year and been erased.

They see membership as a right, The Church Session may not deny membership for any reason not related to profession of faith and obedience. (BOG9-2A) The EPC also provides a formal process which requires the session to accept any member's renunciation of jurisdiction, either in writing or verbal. ^[12]^


The CRCNA is restrictive in terms of allowing persons to consider themselves no longer a member ^[13]^

Rules for Lapsing of Nonattending and Nonsupporting Members Synod decided that with respect to a baptized or confessing member who, for a period of at least two years, has not moved but fails to attend and support the congregation that holds the person’s membership, the consistory may declare that person’s membership has lapsed. This may be done when all the following conditions are present:

a. The person claims to be still committed to the Christian faith. b. The person claims to be worshiping elsewhere. c. The consistory is not aware of any public sin requiring discipline. They believe that this provision has become necessary because of the increasing trend on the part of many churches and fellowships to ignore or reject the significance of membership in the visible church.... This will assist consistories, who at present face the alternative of taking no effective action with such a member or proceeding to erase or excommunicate such a member from the body of Christ, by providing a way of removing the person from the membership rolls without being required to pass judgment on that person’s relationship to the church universal.

NAPARC is not a denomination itself but rather a group of churches which have entered into fraternal relations. In attempting to reduce friction between member churches ^[14]^ they have created a set of 4 rules that in effect create involuntary church membership.

  1. Members have the right to transfer out of a congregation which grants them permission
  2. That churches may not receive members until the church they are leaving is satisfied.
  3. That the church a member is attempting to leave from may bring against the receiving church of the interchurch relations committees
  4. That similar rules are observed for congregations wishing to leave denominations

This agreement has been adopted by the 16th PCA [6] and by the OPC [7].

Catholic Church membership

The Catholic Church has always held that the bible gives for 3 criteria for membership.^[15]^

  1. Profess the true Faith, and have received the Sacrament of Baptism.
  2. Acknowledge the authority of the Church and of her appointed rulers.
  3. Not be excommunicated as a result of sin

Most Catholic literature about people who leave the faith assumes one is joining a heretical or schismatic church and thus the heresy or schism in itself constitutes an excommunication. However it is possible to leave the church voluntarily without specifically joining another (which would be the closest equivalent of erasure or "renouncement of jurisdiction"). The process here requires an assertion of understanding: that is they have required that a person must

  1. Perform an act to indicate they wish to separate (mere thought is not enough).
  2. The act must be persistent that is it must take place over a long period of time, in particular it can't be a single event.
  3. The person must be contumacious that is they must be firm in their conviction and not express hesitation.
  4. They must be aware that their acts can lead to excommunication. In particular they must be aware of what they are requesting.
  5. Finally they must actually be a member. The church cannot expel non members (the pope is exempted from this).

See also


w:Jonathan_Edwards#Later_years GFDL. Below is a list of references to the debate: The Christian Mafia Church Membership issues Doug Phillips (see August 10th entry) - William Hill's response: Part 1 Part 2

Doug Wilson The Church's Reality and Mission by Daniel Reuter presents the 2nd generation's struggles with this issue and the variety of opinions. Unbiblical Erasures Book of Discipline VII Book of Discipline II.B.2 [1] Book of Discipline II.B.3 [2] The statement is from BCO:6-2 [3], details of the profession are from BCO: 57 [4] G-5.0103 Inclusiveness The congregation shall welcome all persons who respond in trust and obedience to God's grace in Jesus Christ and desire to become part of the membership and ministry of his Church. No persons shall be denied membership because of race, ethnic origin, worldly condition, or any other reason not related to profession of faith. Each member must seek the grace of openness in extending the fellowship of Christ to all persons. (G-9.0104) Failure to do so constitutes a rejection of Christ himself and causes a scandal to the gospel. PC(USA) book of order online EPC book of order D3-5 Jurisdiction in judicial cases ends upon receipt of written notice of renunciation.... In the event an individual orally renounces jurisdiction, this fact shall be confirmed by letter from the court acknowledging that renunciation. The letter shall be delivered in person or by form of mail requiring a written receipt. If the court receives no written response within ten days, the acknowledgment of renunciation of jurisdiction shall be deemed final. ... A “Renunciation of Jurisdiction” shall have the effect of terminating membership in the church and shall immediately dissolve the relationship of Ruling Elder, Deacon, or Minister. CRCNA book of order Supplement 67 The introduction to the NAPARC agreement reads, Recognizing that the ... thus creating tension between the churches [5] Catholic Encyclopedia, The Church See "IX. Membership"