Church Membership, Discipleship, and Church Discipline

In this episode of the Holy Joys Podcast, Dr. David Fry and Johnathan Arnold discuss the church membership crisis and why the church needs to retrieve a biblical understanding of membership for every baptized believer. The relationship between church membership, discipleship, and church discipline is discussed.

Quotes from David Fry:
  • Most growing churches are not growing by winning the unchurched, or by getting the unchurched to go to church. They are growing from people who are leaving what they perceive to be unhealthy churches, and are going to a church they presume is healthier because it’s big.
  • If we listen to the Willow Creek leadership, they would say, “Don’t equate big with health.”
  • “The body does not consist of one member, but many” (1 Cor. 12:14). This metaphor is telling us something about our relationship to Christ, not just our relationship with other believers. Contrary to the chorus we sing, “though none go with me, still I will follow,” if you’re walking alone, you’re not following Christ. Christ is followed by the church, and the church always consists of more than one.
  • To say to a fellow member of the true body of Christ, “Sorry, you’re outside, you’re not a part of this local body,” seems to me to actually be a sin.
  • One thing that can be done to reform and get back to a biblical notion of membership from 1 Corinthians 12 is this: Distinguish between the timeless, clear, biblical requirements for believers and those things which are more dynamic and local. A local body may need to create a life through some policies or rules that enforce harmony in that body, but that has to be dynamic—subject to change because you’re bringing in new members all the time.
  • What we’ve done is put everything in the basket of essentials. Everything doesn’t have to go in the basket of essentials, because everything is not essential. Keep the essentials what they are, but recognize that within our own congregation we may need to have some rules that help this local family know how to maintain harmony. We see examples of that throughout Church history, Augustine points to several of those in his letters, and I would say that it seems that Paul is aware of some of those dynamics as well.
  • Membership, particularly in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, has to be local. Everything Paul’s describing here is taking place between real individuals who are interacting with each other in a particular locale.
  • Until we understand membership within the context of a life of discipleship, it is going to be hard to make any sort of positive and real biblical change within any context.
  • Membership is a local manifestation of our connection with Christ.
  • This summarizes the flow and logic of Scripture about membership: (1) Believe; (2) Belong; (3) Become.
  • Discipleship and discipline go hand-in-hand. You can’t have discipleship without discipline, and you can’t have discipline without discipleship. You cannot enforce a disciplined life without any sort of social gathering, without loving a person, without experiencing the loving fellowship that takes place within a community of members. Discipleship and discipline are just two sides of the same coin. Don’t disconnect those.
  • Membership ought to be the context in which a person can grow as a disciple. It ought to be about growth—a body coming along and helping each of the members mature in faith. That is exactly the point Paul makes in Ephesians 4 when he body language.
  • It is a lived-out membership that visualizes the presence of the church, the body of Christ.
QuotJohnathan Arnold
  • You’re a member if you are connected to Christ, that’s true, but 1 Corinthians 12 immediately starts talking about your spiritual membership in terms of your participation in a visible body. 
  • To resolve the membership crisis, whether you’re a small church or a large church, the starting place must be getting back to the theological foundations for why churches even have formal membership at all—why it even developed in the history of the church and how far we’ve really strayed from that.
  • Membership is drawn from the biblical metaphor in 1 Corinthians 12:14. It’s about separating believers from unbelievers—recognizing their spiritual membership in a visible way. It’s about drawing a line around who’s really a part of the church and who’s not.
  • You can’t turn membership into a merely spiritual concept. That’s not how Paul treats it, he treats it as something embodied, something visible, something discernable. There’s insiders and outsiders. It becomes impossible to obey biblical commands—impossible to exercise church discipline.
  • Church membership is one area that is necessary to reform, or the church can’t be healthy.
  • The sacraments are the visible markers of the covenant community. 
  • Part of our accountability crisis is connected to our membership crisis. You can’t hold someone accountable unless they’ve been acknowledged visibly and publically as an insider. 
David Fry
Senior Pastor at the Frankfort Bible Holiness Church. PhD in Systematic Theology (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School). MDiv in New Testament Theology (Wesley Biblical Seminary).