Published: 13 March 2023

Church Discipline Without Church Membership?

Church Membership

“We can’t practice church discipline if we don’t know who the church members are.” This is one of the most frequently voiced arguments made by those who are proponents of official, formal church membership. One website explains it this way:

“It is also clear that a person can be removed from being ‘in the church.’ Such a formal removal would not be possible if there were no such thing as a clear membership. In other words, Paul’s exhortation [1 Cor 5] would be impossible to obey unless there were a way of determining who is an accountable part of a local body and who is not. Simply put, formal exclusion presupposes formal inclusion. Michael McKinley provides this helpful illustration:

‘I cannot be removed from the Northern California Left Handed Golfer’s Association because I have never been a member of such an organization. Now according to their website, the NCLHGA will remove people from membership for several reasons (like right-handedness, perhaps?). But I am in no danger of being subject to such an action, because you can’t kick a person out who was never a member to begin with.’”1

What this quote clearly reveals is a mentality that equates church membership with membership in a club. The New Testament portrays local churches, not as an organization to join, but as a family to belong to. When we view the local church as a social organization instead of a spiritual family, we are out of step with the New Testament.

Church discipline the modern way

Anticipating our modern church membership practices, Paul might have written the following to the Corintihian church to instruct them about church discipline:

When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, if this man has joined your church and is officially listed on your church roll, you are to deliver him to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. 

But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who is an officially recognized, formal member of your church organization if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 

If you read the two passages above and didn’t discern anything amiss, you may have already drunk the social club Kool-Aid! 

Church discipline the New Testament way

This is not what Paul said. Here is how the passages actually read:

4 When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. (1 Cor. 5:4–5 ESV)

But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. (1 Cor. 5:11 ESV)

According to the New Testament, the subjects of church discipline are those who are unrepentant, backslidden Christians who are part of a local church family. There was no concept of disciplining only those who were officially listed on a church roster. The Bible doesn’t say “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight over those on the church roster.” No, what Peter commanded was that pastors are to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight” (1 Pet. 5:2 ESV). Those subject to church discipline are those who are in the shepherd’s midst, not those on his list. 

Effective church discipline only works with family

What part of Paul’s instructions regarding church discipline are impossible to carry out if the erring brother’s name isn’t in the church organization’s membership database? Nothing in the text of 1 Corinthians 5 suggests any type of church affiliation beyond that of a spiritual family. Paul is talking about disciplining a brother (1 Cor 5:11) who has strayed into sin and has refused to repent. 

What made him a brother? Was he a brother because he joined the Corinthian church by taking the new member’s class? Did he become a brother because the pastor vetted him and he agreed to the denomination’s creed book? Maybe he became a brother because he transferred his membership to Corinth from the church at Thessalonica? 

The New Testament’s definition of church membership

No, he became a brother when he became a Christian and was adopted by God into the family of believers. He was subject to discipline by the Corinthian church simply by virtue of the fact that he was a member of God’s family and assembled with the Christians in that city.

The intention of church discipline is twofold. One intent is to provide incentive to a wayward brother or sister to repent. The other is to remove them from the church family so that their evil influence doesn’t spread to others. For this to work there must be a familial connection! One will miss the company of family that he or she no longer has the privilege of being with. How much might a disciplined member miss the company of strangers or casual acquaintances who happen to belong to the same club?

Who is part of my church family?

Who is a member of my local church? Look around you. Anyone who is a faithful child of God and gathers with your local congregation regularly is your church family. Who made up the idea that a person can’t be the recipient of church discipline because their name isn’t on a piece of paper in the church office? The New Testament certainly doesn’t say that. 

By some people’s logic a person who officially joined their church a year ago is subject to church discipline if he or she falls into sin and refuses to repent. However, they can’t discipline the beloved “visitor” who has met with them every Sunday for the past thirty years. Does this make any sense whatsoever? 

Is church membership biblical?

Church membership is absolutely a biblical concept as long as we define membership the same way the New Testament does. Biblical church membership is about family and relationship. It was never about joining a social club, institution, or organization. When we join a church, biblically speaking, we are making a commitment to a family. Of course, there is no reason we can’t have a church roster, but let’s not become so bureaucratic in our church polity that we forget what we really are; a family.

Again, what part of biblical church discipline are we unable to carry out absent an institutional view of the church? The New Testament’s intent is that church discipline is exercised within a family. It is ineffective in any other setting. 

References

  1. https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/spiritual-life/where-did-the-idea-of-church-membership-originate.html