Hebrews tells us that we are to “Obey those who are over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you” (Hebrews 13:17). We live in an age where church membership is looked upon as unnecessary, or worse, unhelpful. That is a grave danger indeed. When we refuse to submit to a group of local elders we put ourselves beyond the reach of the gracious blessing of church discipline. We are all capable of falling into grave sin, and so need other sinners to whom we are willing be submissive.
Why Have New Member Classes?
One of the great blessings of new members classes is they can provide an opportunity to explain exactly this. Given the common understanding of the church as a mere social club it is all too easy for being to “join” without understanding what they have signed up for. New members classes also provide opportunity to explain doctrinal commitments of the local church, as well as expectations for members, with respect to giving and serving. They provide opportunity to communicate helpful, important information.
That said, I’m not so sure, on balance, that they are a good idea. I understand the good motives that have given rise to them. I see, as I listed above, some of the benefits that can come with them. But I am not persuaded that they are overall the best choice, especially if one is not free to join a particular church until such a class has been completed.
What is Church Membership?
What, after all, is church membership? I would argue that it is a covenant grounded in the affirmations of both the church through the elders, and the member. That is, the member publicly affirms both his dependence on the finished work of Christ alone, his affirmation of the faith once delivered, and his willingness to submit to the church. The church, on the other hand, affirms its conviction, through the elders of the credibility of the profession of faith of the member, and vows to serve and protect the member through the means of grace, including faithful church discipline. To put it more simply, the undershepherds affirm the sheepness of the member, the member the undershepherdness of the elders. I frankly feel rather uncomfortable saying to someone, “I am not willing to consider you a sheep, and under our authority until you sit through our six weeks of classes.” Though it is not exactly the same thing, I can’t imagine Philip saying to the Ethiopian eunuch when he asked, “What hinders me from being baptized?”, “Well, we have this program see. And after you successfully complete it, then I we’ll know for sure. So just hang in there.”
I am not, please understand, arguing that such classes are sinful. I am, however, concerned about what they communicate, or can devolve into. Church is not a social club that you have to be vetted for to get in, nor one that you can walk away from at will. It is a body of sinners, saved by grace. Jesus, not our program, is the door.
This post first appeared on rcsprouljr.com.