Monday, July 28, 2008

Are You Old Enough to Be a Church Member?

Upon completion of my M.Div. I went to another state and served as a full time pastor for the first time. While in the interview process I discovered something that I had never seen before in their constitution and by-laws. This particular church required that individuals must be 18 years old before they could join as church members. I thought it was odd, and I expressed my disagreement with such an idea, but I agreed to go along with it in hopes that it would change after I had taught what I believed the Bible says about church membership. In God's providence, I wasn't at the church long enough to lead that kind of change, and I really never thought of the issue again . . . until yesterday.

Yesterday I visited a baptismal service at one of the mega-churches in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The church was not a "Baptist" church, but it did hold to baptism of believers alone by immersion. As I looked over the bulletin, I noticed on the back it gave the church's requirements for membership. The statement included the same requirement for membership that I had seen before. A candidate for membership must be 18 years of age before being considered for membership.

Upon seeing this statement, my mind began racing to think of all the reasons why I disagree with such a position. I think that I will list these reasons in case anyone else that reads this runs into a similar situation. However, I must admit many of the reasons overlap and run together.

1. This just seems to be a business understanding of how to conduct church life, rather than a biblical one. Nowhere in the Bible does it give us any warrant to withhold church membership to someone because they are a "minor." I can understand that the motivation may be good. This policy may be in place in order to keep decision making in the hands of those who have the maturity to understand what is involved in many areas of the business of a local church. Or, it may be in place in order to prevent manipulation when it comes to church votes. However, at the root, it is an arbitrary age that depends more on business than the Bible.

2. Membership in a local church ought to be closely tied to baptism. If a church does not believe that individuals under 18 years old are competent to be church members, then they ought to withhold baptism as well. I'm not advocating withholding baptism, but rather, I'm just showing what should be the logical implications of a policy like this one.

3. If membership is reserved to those over 18 then there is no biblical recourse to follow when church discipline is needed for those who are younger. Matthew 18 and the Corinthian letters give us clear instructions on how and why to practice church discipline. But if we do not recognize baptized believing children as members, we have no biblical recourse to follow when a professed believing child falls into unrepentant sin. It may be that this is one of the reasons for such a policy. In our society it would be shocking to think of practicing church discipline on a child. However, in my mind, if someone is old enough to give credible evidence of conversion and to follow the Lord in baptism, then they ought to be held accountable just as any other church member.

4. The policy goes against a biblical view of what church membership is about. Church membership is the covenanting together of a body of believers to worship together, agreeing to hold one another accountable in the pursuit of following Christ. Such a policy excludes from membership many of those who need this accountability.


I must admit that there is a dual danger. On the one hand, we must be vigilant to make sure that those who we baptize are of an age that they are competent to understand and embrace the gospel. I do not want to advocate infant baptism by any stretch of the imagination. On the other hand, I see no biblical warrant to withhold the benefits of church membership from any baptized believing person--so long as they are not under discipline.

Off the top of my head that is about all of the reasons I can think of. Anyone reading is welcome to add reasons, or to challenge the reasons that I gave.

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