Suppose you have five people like this in your church’s new members class:

Bill grew up in a conservative church. He is a nice guy, upstanding and well-respected. He believes the Bible and professes Jesus to be his Lord and Savior. He affirms the Trinity, heaven and hell, and the local church. But during your membership interview, when you ask him to explain the gospel, he tells you it is about trying your best to be a good person. When you press him for clarity, he digs in further, insisting that being a Christian means going to church, making a difference in the community, and raising a good family.

Larry is a thirtysomething successful business person in the area. He grew up in a liberal church and turned away from Christ in his 20s. During that time he lived a very licentious life, including active participation in the gay lifestyle. He feels shame for that part of his life and has sought the Lord’s forgiveness and the Lord’s power to change. He understands the gospel and is growing in his knowledge of the word. Larry still struggles with same gender attraction and a couple of times has gone online to view things he shouldn’t, but with an accountability partner, a good church community, and the hope of the gospel he is trusting the Lord to make him holy.

Jim and Susan are a young couple with no church background. They started coming to your services nine months ago after some struggles in their relationship. At first they were tentative, but now they can’t get enough of church. They jumped into a small group and have started greeting at the front door. They love the sermons and the music. They know that Jesus came to save sinners like them and they love to meditate on God’s grace. During the membership class it comes out that they are living together. When you inquire further you learn that they regularly have sex and don’t think twice about it.

Irene is a 65-year old widow and a lifelong churchgoer. When her husband died two years ago she decided to move to a different part of town and get into a different house. That’s when she started coming to your church. Since her husband died Irene has not felt quite right. It’s been hard for her to read the word and pray because that’s what she did with her husband. She is discouraged by her lack of faithfulness in these spiritual disciplines. And she’s not been as involved in church as she used to be. Sometimes Irene wonders if she’s depressed. She wants Jesus to help her is hoping a change of scenery will do some good.

So, how many people from this membership class will you welcome to join the church? I’d vote for Larry and Irene, but not for Bill, Jim, and Susan.

Why’s That?

Let’s go back through the list and I’ll try to explain my thought process.

Bill doesn’t understand the gospel. It’s a simple as that. He is religious, well versed in some Christian theology, and has a good reputation. But he is not trusting in Christ alone for salvation. He may not be a meanie like the Pharisees, but he rests in his own righteousness like they often did. Obviously, I’d want to keep working with Bill. Maybe it’s head confusion more than heart pride. But until he understand how he is right with God and what the good news is all about I can’t affirm that he is born again. He may be, but I need more evidence.

Larry is simul iustus et peccator. He struggles with sin and old patterns. But he also fights. He confesses sin and repents of it. In fact, he hates the sin in his life and is taking advantage of every means of grace to push back temptation. Hopefully over time his spiritual triumphs will increase and his defeats decrease. Larry may fall again, but he doesn’t want to and he is working hard not to. He’s demonstrated a sincere trust in Jesus for his sins and a desire to let Jesus conquer his sins. Welcome to the church.

Jim and Susan may be the toughest case. We may be tempted to let them join, figuring we can disciple them later and get them to move out. But this approach lacks integrity. When we (the church or the elders depending on your polity) welcome someone into membership we are giving our verdict that this person, as best as we can tell, is a child of God and is walking with God. There is no problem in admitting sinners to church membership (what church would be left without sinners!). The problem is admitting those who do not acknowledge their sin. Church membership, de facto, is an invitation to the Table. But would we not discipline (I hope) a couple committing sexual sin?

Again, we should work with people like Jim and Susan. They are probably ignorant of God’s commands. But hiding the commands from them does not help them in the long run. If Jesus told the crowds to count the cost before being his disciple, we should be open and honest with prospective members (and everyone really) about what it means to follow Jesus. If they balk at God’s standards for sexual purity, then they are not serious about making Jesus Lord of their lives. While we can be thankful for the progress in people like Jim and Susan, unless they are willing to turn from their sin they are not ready be a part of God’s holy bride.

Irene is a struggling Christian. There is nothing in her life to suggest she’s given up on Christ. In fact, she really misses the walk she used to enjoy. She’s not living in defiance of God’s commands. She understands and believes the gospel. She’s not feeling like the stalwart she was a few years ago, but this is an opportunity for her new church to comfort, encourage, and come alongside.

Conclusion

The issue, despite the title of this post, is not really maturity. Some people join our churches ready to be elders and others are quite the work in progress. Church membership is not just for those who seem to be on top of their spiritual game. Church membership is for those who trust in Christ alone for salvation and turn from their sin. That’s not all I would teach on church membership. I’d also want to talk about spiritual authority, commitment, covenant, doctrinal distinctives, and the like. But the starting point in the discussion is trusting in Christ and turning from sin. The question is not how much sanctification must be present prior to church membership. The issue is faith and repentance. Both mark out conversion. Both mark out the Christian. And both marks must be present in new members.

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58 thoughts on “How Mature Should New Members Be?”

  1. Justin F says:

    @ Dan, I’m talking about the cleanliness laws, such as touching people with skin diseases and bleeding disorders. This was grounds for exclusion while one purified oneself. Healing on the sabbath was considered a no-no according to how some interpretted the law. So Jesus did it anyway. In this case the Pharisees would claim Jesus sinned, Jesus by his act of compassion revealed their error.

    @ Laurette
    I’m not sure if you’ve misunderstood my post, or it wasn’t as clear as I thought. I was referring to Michael’s comments as being harmful and misguided towards the so called “sock puppets”. He’s certainly been unfair with name calling, and people have responded to him about that. My concern was purely with Doug’s response, which was lacking in compassion following Michael’s post about his brother’s death. Sorry for the confusion.

  2. Laurette says:

    @Justin F: Ah, I get it now. :) No problem, then.

  3. Doug Perry says:

    Justin, as I have already said, my comment to Michael about my former friends being in hell too if they remained apart from Christ when they died, was written before I read the comment about his brother. So, please let it go. Please. It had NOTHING to do with his brother.

  4. Doug Perry says:

    One other thing Justin — You wanted to “call me out” for not being nice enough to Micheal. However, I have a pretty big problem with some like you too, coming onto a blog like this one to defend an activist anti-Christian with a pro-homosexual agenda against real Christians who have left the gay lifestyle and who are walking as new creations in Christ — endeavoring to live a life worth of the Savior’s blood. When guys like you show a preference to defend activist gays from getting their “feelings hurt” over against blatant attacks on Jesus’s blood bought believers who are pretty much the lepers of our day, yes, I get pretty testy. And I’m going to defend a guy like Larry every time. And I’m going to warn him NOT to be led astray from a first rate blog like Kevin DeYoung’s to go read Brian MacLaren instead …
    No hard feelings — and I do hope it helps – kinda like a spoon full of medicine.

  5. Justin F says:

    @ Doug P,
    I understand you standing up for Larry and the others who have been sharing on this blog. I’m not against them either, and I appreciate their having the courage to share their stories. I find it interesting that we are both seeking to defend those we perceive as oppressed, and that sometimes this can bring believers into conflict. I commend you for this.

    Blogging as a medium makes it difficult to resolve conflict (being so impersonal) and misunderstandings abound, but I’m glad that we are able to move beyond this without hard feelings.

  6. Dan says:

    Justin, thanks for your additional words. Sounds like I made a leap I shouldn’t have. Glad I asked. I guess I have some study to do on ceremonial uncleanness vs. sinfulness.

    On the broader topic that was near the start of this whole discussion: what’s the value of local church membership? Granted, local church membership is by no means a guarantee or requirements of salvation. There is no explicit mandate given in Scripture for it. And, granted, saving faith is the only requirement for membership of the catholic Church (not Roman). However, official church membership grants us abilities and benefits that ARE Scriptural.

    It seems to me that the only requirement for joining a local church ought to be (as Kevin indicated), saving faith simply articulated. This testifies to others in the congregation and elsewhere within the Body that this individual has the rights and privileges that are to be extended to all believers, namely the participation in church polity, the submission to the discipline of the church, and the reception of the Sacraments (which must be appropriately fenced).

    While a confession of faith can be artfully false, it is still preferrable to no sort of investigation whatsoever. The Church has been given the authority and capacity in the Spirit to make these sorts of reasonable determinations for itself here on Earth.

  7. Doug Perry says:

    Thanks Justin! Blessings to you, brother, in Jesus Christ.

  8. Michael says:

    First, in defense of my sock-puppet comment: I’ve found that on the Internet, bigots will often assume the identity of the group they are trying to disparage. I remember on one forum several posters who claimed to be black said they wouldn’t mind be stopped by police for being black if it would reduce crime rates. In this case, the topic of homosexuality comes up, and 3 homosexuals start claiming how evil homosexuality is. I don’t think one can blame me for having my suspicions.

    Having said that, I totally understand that there exist homosexuals who have been convinced by religious fundamentalists that they are wicked. It’s completely plausible one of the people who claimed this was being truthful, and if that is the case, he truly has my sympathy. A coworker of mine remarked how sometimes battered women will return to their abusers as the abusers are experts in making their victims feel emotionally bad about themselves. In any event, I hope things get better for you.

    Lastly, Justin, I thank you for your kind comments. I hope that I didn’t say anything to suggest that I was against Christianity. I’m merely against fundamentalism, and understand that this kind of homophobia is generally not found in mainstream Christianity, and fewer pastors are taking such a hard-line approach. I certainly appreciate the wide diversity that is present in Christianity, and greatly appreciate the Christians who have taken a stand for equal rights rather than stand on the sidelines.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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