“And the so-and-so family would like to formally join our church!” The final announcement was much cheerier than the list of illnesses and other prayer requests in the church, so it was met with unusually gregarious applause – perhaps because the family was quite well liked. As expected, that service ended with the family standing beside the church door, shaking hands with the rest of the church on their way out.
Given the recent study about declining numbers in church attendance, many churches have reviewed their membership policy. For decades, it’s been ‘too easy’ to join, to be apart of, and to leave a church behind. So some churches have upped the stakes – asking prospective members to agree to things like a minimum mandatory tithe, small group attendance, and to be called upon to assist the church with things like cleaning or teaching. The idea is that if people are challenged, they will rise to the occasion and be intentional believers.
The real problems surface when membership covenants delve into areas of discipline, disagreement, and discord … when it comes down to both sides being put to the test and the agreement is used handle such matters. What might seem like an innocent formality in joining a church, might prove to be a contract that makes it difficult to leave a church which causes a ‘Hotel California’ sort of problem: “You can check-out anytime you like, but you can never leave.” Some of these covenants protect the church from potential lawsuits, they do not protect the believers from the church.
Much of the issue is from the line that says “I submit to the church leaders”, sure – it is backed up by Bible verses. So is the verse “I hate divorce” if your problem does not have a Biblical precedent for it’s resolution – say, domestic violence, for example – then there’s really no guideline for them to deal with it biblically. Do you really want the elders of your church telling you that you’re not allowed to divorce someone that that you’re well within your rights to legally divorce? Do you want the elders of the church telling your church that you’re an unrepentant sinner whom they are not to assist? Do you want the elders of your church cutting you off from your support groups of friends and family members in a time when you need them most? That could very well be what you agree to when you sign a membership covenant.
I know that as a regular attender, I won’t get a vote on most issues that might be brought up during a meeting. That’s not really a problem – there’s no guarantee that as a member my vote would count or my concerns would be listened to anyway. So it’s not a loss to not be a member of such a church. It’s also why I choose to not be a member of a church. I don’t see what’s so wrong with being a regular attender, what keeps me going to church is not a piece of paper with my signature. What keeps me well-behaved is not a piece of paper with my signature. What keeps me a serious believer is not a piece of paper with my signature.
You’re free to ask me if I’d like to become a member, but for future reference, the answer is: “No, I’ll never join your church.”