A long standing puzzle
For many years I have loathed formal church membership and have wondered why. As I preach through Galatians, I can see more clearly just why it is one of my pet hates.
Initially, the hatred was born of experience. I remember church meetings at a Baptist Church which were no different from political hustings: members with the least knowledge, experience and godliness made the most noise. They were there to whinge and moan. My next experience of church membership was worse: church decisions were made around a patriarch's dining room table and then smuggled into the church meeting as 'the mind of Christ'. In between these two dreadful experiences was a pleasant church experience with no formal membership. If you were committed to the fellowship then you could come, pray, hear and contribute to the decision-making in the life of the church. My present experience of formal membership is positive.
Experience is a guide
Theologians will say "you can't shape your beliefs by experience". On the one hand, no, Scripture must shape our beliefs, but on the other hand bad experiences get you asking 'What is wrong?'
So what is wrong with formal church membership?
There are some positives. If it is used as a means of communication and wider counsel this is good. If it is used to gain consensus over major decisions in the church this too is good and helpful: we find examples of the wider church being involved in decision making in both Acts 6 and Acts 15.
Many negatives flow from a wrong focus of unity and from law
There are however, many negatives to formal church membership, primarily flowing from two facts:
(a) formal church membership introduces a non-Gospel basis for unity. The moment you announce a meeting to which not every believer is invited, you introduce a focus of unity that is not found in the New Testament and consequently you divide the church. The only basis of our unity is faith in Christ, not formal membership. Everyone who has faith is in, full stop.
(b) formal church membership introduces man-made law. Man-made rules surround membership expectations and more man-made rules control church meetings. It becomes then very easy for members to judge one another as to whether or not they are fulfilling those rules. "He isn't a very good member because he doesn't come to the prayer meetings", "She is a half-hearted member because she doesn't join in with the fellowship groups" and so on.
Add to this, the fact that formal membership is no sign of spiritual vitality. It is possible, therefore, to have the least spiritually minded people, the least prayerful, making the big decisions and the most spiritually minded on the sidelines. Add to this the feeling that if you have been a member longer than someone else you have more rights, power and influence!
All of these are the natural consequences of the church introducing man-made ways of organisation into church life.
Of course someone could argue that if church membership was better policed then it would be more effective. What, introduce another layer of heavy-handed law into the church!!!?
A better method
A better method than formal church membership is the Biblical way, where elders lead the church - with consultation from the flock. Rather than placing the burden of leadership on the flock, they take it on their own shoulders. How might this work? Suppose they wanted to recognise a new elder or deacon. They could hold a meeting of believers who are committed to the church and put forward the names they consider meet the New Testament requirements and ask for comments in public or in private over the next month. If no adverse comments return, the elders would then appoint the persons concerned.
Perhaps in a western culture so shaped by the idol of democracy (and false god if ever there was one, for it counts votes rather than weighing opinion: it is more concerned with the will of man than the will of Christ; democracy was why the children of Israel didn't enter the promised land - 10 unbelieving votes against 2 believing ones) such a better form of government may be impossible.
Perhaps a very loose form of formal church membership, to paraphrase Churchill when talking about parliamentary democracy, though the worst form of government, is better than all the others!!