Why are we making changes to membership requirements and do they inappropriately add to the requirements for membership in the local body of Christ in a way that is unfaithful to Scripture?

Scott Wakefield   -  

*Note, from Scott: I had a good conversation with a longtime FCCer who, like me, has a long history in the Independent Christian Churches (see link below) and who was concerned. So I thought we’d address the question here.

*Note, not from Scott: Today’s “Great Question Answered” (fccgreene.org/gqa) has been vetted through our Elders and is intended to serve as their answer to this question. So, henceforth, “we” means the Elders, (and not just Scott).

First, some important background… In our nondenominational tradition, often called the “Independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ” (or the “Restoration Movement”) all authority and responsibility to govern is held at the local level of the congregation. That means we have no governing body beyond us to whom we report, are responsible, send money, etc., and we are guided by Elders who are confirmed by congregational election to lead in accordance with Scriptural guidance and Godly wisdom.

This nondenominational spirit is clearly in view in our bylaws, in a couple ways that pertain to this question of membership. (Please note that “the Board” is the Elders.)

  • Preamble: “The bylaws presuppose that the Holy Bible constitutes the only and all sufficient role of faith and practice for this Church. Therefore, in all things pertaining to system and order, the New Testament, that part of God’s Word which describes and defines the Christian Church and its functioning, shall be the Church’s guide when its teaching is clearly apparent.”
  • Article 4 – Membership: “The process and requirements for becoming a member of First Christian Church shall be determined by the Board. At a minimum, membership is restricted to those persons who believe Christ to be the divine Son of God, who have repented of their sins, who have publicly confessed their faith in Christ, and have been baptized by immersion. The church roll shall consist of active and inactive members. The Board shall determine the criteria for identifying active and inactive membership, and for removing members from membership, if necessary. The roll shall be revised and brought up to date at least once a year just prior to the selection of Elders during the Annual Vote (Article 18).”

So what this means is that the Elders are charged with using the Bible as our guide “when its teaching is clearly apparent”, in this case, as it pertains to “the process and requirements for becoming a member of First Christian Church.” We’ve tried to do this recently, as communicated in a letter sent in early August 2019, by making some changes to our definition of “active member” (see “Membership Requirements” for more) in the following ways:

  • Requiring Completion of Next Steps for being an active member. (This does not hold for those who are already active members before Sunday, September 22, 2019.)
  • Requiring Annual Renewal of active membership at the Annual Congregational Vote on the 4th Sunday in September. This is a simple Yes/No question, “I wish/do not wish to remain an active member…”
  • The Annual Spiritual Health Survey, which is found on the same form as the Annual Renewal and Congregational Vote (fccgreene.org/membershipupdate2019), is not required. The Elders are simply asking everyone, whether active member, inactive member, or attender, to fill out a brief Annual Spiritual Health Survey to help us measure the health of our people and how well our vision of the 7 Habits are being implemented in the lives of those who call FCC their church home.

This background matters because, given the ‘Restoration impulse’ in our history that our best understanding of New Testament church patterns should be normative, it has been our tradition to not add any formal membership requirements to the aforementioned minimum requirements of repentance from sin, public confession of faith, and baptism by immersion. This is why, for some of us who grew up in the Independent Christian Churches/Restoration Movement, these recent membership changes may feel like an unfaithful and divergent direction. We most certainly sympathize with those who might struggle with these recent changes and would like to clearly communicate that our heart in these changes is to be more faithful to the responsibility we have, as Elders, to ensure our people understand their responsibility, as members of the body of Christ.

So, with regard to the question–Do recent membership changes at First Christian Church inappropriately add to the requirements for membership in the local body of Christ in a way that is unfaithful to Scripture?–we think these changes do not inappropriately add to the minimum requirements for membership in the local body nor are they unfaithful to Scripture. They may not be a traditional definition of Christian Church minimalism, but we think they will, in fact, help us all more appropriately flesh out, in practical terms, with greater accountability to Scripture, and in a way that more faithfully restores the missional unity of the New Testament church, what is meant by the minimum requirements we see in Scripture, because of the following factors.

  • Nothing we are requiring is unbiblical in nature nor precluded by anything in Scripture. We are aware that this is a principle that must be applied carefully and wisely. The idea that something is allowed, not unbiblical, nor precluded by Scripture can be used to go off the rails in any direction, as legalists or libertines. We have added these changes after much discussion and prayer, and insofar as Christ leads us Elders, in as wise and biblical a direction as possible.
  • New Testament conversion exhibits a deeply rooted understanding of discipleship and training that is radically different than today. When someone came to Christ in the New Testament and proclaimed Jesus as Lord, in contradistinction to Caesar and the wider culture, they knew they were dying to an old way of life in a way people today simply do not understand well.
  • The “minimum requirements” of repentance from sin, confession of faith, and baptism by immersion are so poorly understood that we are being negligent if we do not require at least a basic understanding of those.
  • In our history as a church, we believe it has been too easy for too long for anyone, (even if we didn’t even know their name!), to come forward for baptism and membership with little to no understanding of the gospel and how meaningful participation in the local body works to help them grow. In other words, a slavish adherence to the “minimum requirements” for saving faith has the backlash of an easy-believism that can deceive someone into believing themselves to be saved when they may not have any understanding of the gospel whatsoever.
  • What as recently as 2-3 years ago was a membership process almost exclusively maintained by 1-2 Pastors can no longer be effectively maintained without a clearer system that replicates over multiple campuses and that is led by laypeople. We think this actually helps us push disciplemaking “down” from the ‘professional pastor’ level to where it most biblically belongs, where we are all priests responsible for helping people come to faith in Christ, for example, though not exclusively, in the local church, week after week, as people connect. (Interested? Become part of the Care Team.)
  • Accurately tracking the flock as a multisite church requires finding effective and replicable systems.
  • The overwhelming majority (over 75% of new active members) are already completing Next Steps before becoming members.
  • We now have many people coming to us from many different faith traditions, denominations, and theological backgrounds, and it is important to help ensure they understand clearly understand the gospel, the minimum requirements for coming to Christ, and how we strategize for ministry.
  • Many well-known Christian Churches require similar steps for membership and/or baptism. (See Southeast CC, Traders Point CC, Southland CC, for just a few examples of many from our tradition who require some version of classes for baptism and/or membership.)
  • For a number of good reasons, legal and Scriptural, formalizing a membership process that more clearly delineates the requirements beyond traditional Restoration Movement assumptions, which we largely unstated, protects the local body better.
  • Given that we, as Elders, are charged with ensuring that those under our care understand well what is meant by wholehearted and saving faith in Christ alone such that one’s response of repentance from sin, confession of faith, and baptism by immersion are genuine outward signs of inward grace, we would be derelict in stewarding God’s flock well to allow manmade traditions to keep that from happening. In effect, to allow a poorly defined church tradition of minimum requirements of saving faith to remain runs a greater risk that we are allowing people to be deceived in multiple ways.

We believe that requiring Next Steps and an Annual Renewal incorporates the aforementioned factors in ways that make us stronger moving forward. If you haven’t yet done Next Steps, we highly encourage you to do so in order to see how it actually helps us ensure that the minimum requirements of faith in Christ and meaningful participation in the body are happening in greater measure.

Now, some answers to practical questions arising from these changes:

  • Why have all active members reenlist every year?Three reasons: (1) We believe that placing the responsibility on our people to reenlist annually is a healthy reset that prompts a helpful reconsideration of their commitment to us. We believe this will result in greater personal growth and involvement. (2) We have to find ways to effectively track people over two campuses and four services, to fulfill the requirements of our bylaws. (3) It helps us avoid a list filled with people who call themselves “active members” and who consider us their church home but who participate very little, if at all. This not only produces an environment where there are unrealistic expectations and little accountability for personal growth, it also creates the truly unfortunate circumstance where people think they are meaningfully participating in God’s Kingdom advance through the local church, perhaps even calling themselves “saved” because they were once part of us, when they are, in fact, not part of us and haven’t been for a long time. This isn’t about being mean. It’s about being healthy, calling people to genuine gospel-centered growth, and managing our flock as well as we can.
  • Does the membership list go down to zero every year? – Yes, it does. As part of what we believe will become a healthy yearly recommitment to The 7 Habits that shape us all into disciplemakers who are Helping people find and follow Jesus, Annual Renewal helps us maintain a healthier culture of gospel-centered growth for those God’s placed under our care (see #3 above).
  • Do I need to reenlist as an active member even if I just became a member? – Sorry, but… yes, you do. We decided to keep things cleanest by requiring everyone to do so, this first year, as we implement these new processes. Plus, we would like everyone to fill out the Spiritual Health Survey anyway, so reupping on that same form will take approximately 3-5 seconds. We think everyone can manage the weight of this responsibility. ;o)
  • If I am immersed, but I do not wish to do Next Steps, can I still become an active member? – No. While you may be a repentant, faithful, and immersed believer in Christ, who is part of God’s universal church, you cannot vote, hold office, nor fulfill positions of leadership beyond the Team Member level (see fccgreene.org/lp). Only active members can do those things.
  • Is Next Steps a requirement for baptism? – No. Next Steps is a requirement, along with repentance from sin, baptism by immersion, and public profession of faith in Christ, to become an active member. See “Membership Requirements” for more specifics. For anyone not well acquainted with the basics of the gospel and the aforementioned process of coming to faith in Christ, the 4th session of Next Steps covers these things well. (We encourage anyone who hasn’t yet been through Next Steps to do so before deciding that it is an unbiblical or unhelpful requirement. In fact, we think it’s so important, given our modern context and the factors named above, that it’s essential!)
  • Can children become active members? – If they are immersed believers and have completed Next Steps, then yes! But, they cannot vote until they are 16 years old (see our bylaws, Article 18.4, “Quorum”).

Thank you for being part of First Christian Church! We love you all, are excited about what God is doing among us, and are hopeful these changes will help us take more seriously our call to train up disciplemakers who are Helping people find and follow Jesus! If you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to talk to one of us.

The Elders of First Christian Church

Chuck BowlinJohn HamiltonMark LiebertBill RichardsMike SchubertScott Wakefield