Rethinking Church Polity: Membership, Leadership, and Discipleship
This is the first draft of my thoughts regarding church polity within the CHM. Feedback welcome.
This is not a proposal to reform currently existing denominational structures. Those most likely to benefit from these thoughts are pastors of independent churches who recognize that their membership, leadership, and discipleship structures are functioning poorly, if at all, and want direction for bringing them into greater harmony with the Scripture.
The churches within the Conservative Holiness Movement are currently in a crisis of church membership. On average less than 35% of the attendees are members. Non-members who want to be involved in church ministry cannot be involved, or churches are compromising their standards for church leadership in order to involve them.
Along with the absence of church membership is a devastating absence of restorative church discipline. Our leaders do not know the processes Jesus and the Apostles spelled out to deal with church discipline or the purposes God has for instituting these processes. For those who attempt to follow the biblical instructions without church membership, their church is in danger of being sued for libel or defamation.
We are all aware of approaches to membership that are inclusivistic and render membership basically meaningless. In our circles, membership is exclusivistic and viewed as dangerous: it’s almost all responsibility and the only privilege, voting, is liable to create dissension and disharmony.
The kernel of the idea proposed here is two-fold (1) to follow Scripture in distinguishing the criteria for church membership from the criteria for church leadership, and (2) to recreate in modern local church membership a situation somewhat analogous to the situation in which Methodist membership came into being.
When John Wesley began the Methodist societies and class meetings, he was a member of the Anglican Church as were most of those in his societies. The Methodist society was created for those who wanted to flee the wrath to come and who wanted to pursue holiness passionately and methodically.
When the Methodist Episcopal Church
The problem this created for the Conservative Holiness movement, which is the grandchild of the Methodist Episcopal Church, is that one must be a mature, theologically developed, and life-style compliant believer in order to be a member of the church. Since membership is currently the doorway to ministry involvement and leadership positions, in order to keep leadership “clean,” the bar for membership must be relatively high.
The solution to our current crisis is multi-faceted. It involves moving our church membership, leadership, and discipleship structures into closer alignment with Scripture.
The New Testament describes a church authority structure in which there are separate and distinct sets of criteria for membership and leadership. Membership in the body of Christ did not give one the right to assume a leadership role within the Body. Just the contrary, membership in the Body of Christ brought with it the privileges of being subordinate and accountable to God-ordained leadership, having spiritual authorities watch for one’s soul, and receiving and giving spiritual support and edification to fellow believers.
New Testament evidence for the existence of church membership within the 1st century church
1. The role of “the church” in disciplining an unrepentant brother (Matt 18:15-17). Jesus gives “the church” the role of final court of appeal in matters of church discipline of the unrepentant within the body. It is inconceivable that just anyone who showed up for the local service would have the right and responsibility to participate in disciplining a believer who has sinned. “The church” must have been a definable group to handle such a sensitive and serious matter.
2. The role of “the church” in excommunicating the unrepentant (Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5). If the believer who has sinned does not listen to “the church,” then “the church” has a responsibility to excommunicate them from their fellowship and regard them as a sinner. If there is no clearly defined membership of “the church” how is this command to be practiced? In order to exclude someone from a group there must be a clearly defined group from which they may be excluded.
1. The mutual accountability of believers and elders (Heb. 13:17; 1 Thess. 5:12-13; 1 Tim. 5:17).
Hebrews 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.
1 Thessalonians 5:12 But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, 13 and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another.
1 Timothy 5:17 The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.
Who are these passages requiring to submit to whom? Who are the leaders and who are the followers? These passages imply that there must be some kind of commitment that existed between those who were submitting and those who were leading so that they could identify one another.
1 Tim. 5:17’s language of “those who rule well” implies that those being ruled evaluate those doing the ruling. This is practically impossible unless there is a clearly defined group who recognize who is ruling them.
The responsibility of elders to watch for “the
flock” (Acts 20:28). The first responsibility of elders is to care for “the
flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the
All of the above data suggests that the New Testament church, although without technical, legal formalities, had a clearly established set of criteria by which one was defined as a member of “the church” or “the flock.” The NT suggests that the criteria would have included public believer’s baptism identifying with Christ, public profession of faith in Jesus as the Christ and Lord, and dedicated participation in the life of the local church (cf. Acts 2:42).
Church membership is available to those who:
· have a clear testimony of saving faith in Christ alone for salvation
· have participated in water baptism in confession of their faith in Christ.
· have completed a 10-12 week membership class that introduces them to the basics of the Christian life and the substance of the privileges and responsibilities of local church members.
· fully commit to assume all the responsibilities and privileges of membership.
· recognize that failure to fulfill their membership responsibilities will bring them under the church’s restorative discipline to help them sustain their relationship with the Lord.
Local church membership should be a commitment to the following responsibilities and privileges:
· commitment to progressive discipleship designed to move all members into spiritual maturity and active ministries for which they are gifted.
· commitment to support the local ministry financially through tithing
· commitment to regular accountability to the church leadership
· commitment to the biblical processes of restorative church discipline.
· commitment to involvement in ministry within the local church
· regular spiritual oversight of their souls’ development in Christlikeness (Heb. 13:17).
· regular spiritual accountability to a pastoral shepherd (Heb. 13:17; Acts 20:28).
· the protection of a caring body of believers who watch for the spiritual well-being of one another (Eph. 4:16).
· regular participation in meaningful ministry that edifies the Body and contributes to the evangelism of the lost (Eph. 4:11-13).
· A confirming or denying voice in response to the leadership of the church leadership (Acts 6, 1 Cor. 12).
Church membership should not
· give a person a vote on the church board.
· give a person a right to nominate someone to be voted on for leadership positions.
· give a person the ability to control the direction or leadership of the church through an election process.
· require a person to be spiritually mature in order to become a member.
· give a person the right to fill spiritual leadership positions within the church.
· give a person the right to be on a committee that oversees the church’s development and direction.
The above model of church membership is rooted in the Great Commission. The mission of all believers and, therefore, of the Church is to make disciples of all nations. Disciple-making begins in conversion and baptism. There is no end to discipleship. The whole life of the believer should be an on-going process of being taught how to be a disciple of Jesus and eventually becoming a disciple-maker. Not all believers are gifted by God as teachers, but all believers are called to be involved in discipleship and disciple-making.
Most conceptions of church membership focus on participatory rights and privileges afforded to members. The church is conceived as a business entity and the membership makes decisions on how to run the business. Or the church is viewed as a club and membership is valued for its perks. The biblical focus of church membership is on the responsibility of the membership to submit to and honor those spiritual authority, to be trained to do the work of the ministry and edification of the body, and to be engaged in the disciple-making, a process that encompasses the totality of the Christian’s movement from babyhood to the full measure of the stature of Christ.
Within the context of local church membership, members are expected to move through a series of 8-12 discipleship classes that are designed to help them grow in spiritual maturity through understanding Scripture, theology, and gaining practical ministry skills in evangelism and discipleship.
In order to move into leadership positions within the local church, a person must have passed through the specified level of discipleship for the leadership level they are assuming. Application for membership would be approved by the elders who exercise spiritual oversight for the flock, and confirmed or denied by the local church members.
Beyond membership in the church is membership in a Society (or whatever name is more appropriate). Society membership is a prerequisite for functioning in leadership positions, being a deacon, or being an elder. Society members would be expected to meet the following requirements
· Moved successfully through the core discipleship classes.
· Be in harmony with essential Wesleyan-Arminian doctrine, including especially conditional election, universal intent of the atonement, the necessity of living above willful sin, and the vital importance of entire sanctification to living a holy life.
· Be in harmony with essential Wesleyan-Arminian practice, including a whole-hearted pursuit of loving God and loving others that actively seeks to choose that which is most beneficial, edifying, and encouraging for themselves and others, and most conducive to the winning of the lost, a cheerful willingness to lay aside any practice or pursuit that does not contribute positively to their pursuit of loving God and living holy.
· Be in harmony with the Society’s exegetical conclusions regarding life-style as well as whatever prudential [practical but not Scripturally mandated] guidelines are thought best for the promotion of unity and holiness within the Class. These would include the classic Methodist concerns for modesty, simplicity in adornment, gender-distinct clothing, honor of the church’s headship structure in worship by women having long hair and men not having long hair, etc.
I see the following values in recreating the original Methodist society within the local church. First, the creation and maintenance of a sub-group within the church membership from which leadership is drawn communicates the biblical message that leaders are held to a higher standard of accountability, and provides an incentive for those who aspire to leadership to engage in the spiritual disciplines and learning that are necessary prerequisites for godly leadership. Second, because of the sin nature, believers have a tendency to settle for the lowest common denominator of spirituality. Such a society provides a context in which its members receive the additional support, instruction, and accountability necessary to sustain a determined pursuit of loving God and living holy in every area of their lives.
· Category one applies to all believers regardless of their denominational affiliation. You are a member of the Body of Christ the moment you are united with Christ in salvation.
· Category two is the basis for acceptance into church membership within a Methodist theological and practical context. I.e. acceptance into local church membership within the CHM.
· Category three is the basis for acceptance into Class membership within the theological and practical context of the connection of churches or the local independent church to which one belongs.
· Category four excludes no one from participation in church membership or class membership though it may affect the flavor of church leadership from one local church to another.
The New Testament provides both in story form (Acts 6, 20) and by direct instruction (1 Tim. 3; Tit. 1; 1 Pet. 5) the qualifications for leadership within the context of the local church.
When confronted with a racial problem in the early church, the apostles required that those who were going to function in the roles of waiting on tables and overseeing the distribution of money and food to the need meet three qualifications: (1) of good reputation, (2) full of the Holy Spirit, and (3) full of wisdom (Acts 6:3). These men were not serving in leadership positions per se, but they were given oversight responsibility. This suggests that these three qualifications are relevant to choosing persons to fill oversight positions in the local church as well.
When addressing the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, Paul gave them the following responsibilities:
· Be on guard for yourselves and for the flock.
· Act as overseers of the flock under the Holy Spirit.
· Be on the alert for wolves arising from among the flock and from among the elders.
· Work hard in order to help the weak.
· Remember that it is more blessed to give that to receive.
Paul gives both Timothy (
Within the model proposed here, there is no automatic pathway between church membership and church leadership as either a deacon or an elder. A person must be a member of the local church to be a deacon or elder, but being a member does not automatically or necessarily open the door to leadership.
In order to function in the roles of elder and deacons, a person must meet the Acts, 1 Timothy, Titus, and 1 Peter moral, spiritual, and giftedness requirements.
The local church should be governed by a self-perpetuating body of elders that provides both spiritual and material oversight to the church membership. New elders would be nominated and examined by the current elders and then submitted to the church membership for approval or disapproval. No nominations to eldership may be made by the church membership, though recommendations may be brought to the attention of the elders. Elders would come up for self-review and Elder Board review annually to guard against elders serving who no longer meet the biblical requirements. Elders would also be evaluated by those they serve as to the quality of their service.
The concept of membership providing confirmation or denial of elder-initiated decisions finds its primary support in the Pauline Body metaphors (1 Cor. 12; Rom. 12) and the 2nd greatest commandment (Matt. 22:38-40; Rom. 13:1-8). The head and body cooperate in coordinated function. If the head and body are at odds the whole is dysfunctional. While the body submits to the head, the head does not dictate to the body, but works in harmony with it for its best interest. Since love always seeks the best for another, the elders who watch for the flock must make their decisions in light of the flock’s best interest. Since love does to others what it wants done to it, the elders should solicit input from the members, provide biblical instruction to inform their thinking about issues, and ultimately work in cooperation with them, though not in subjection to them.
The process for deacons appears in Scripture to be more democratically chosen than apostolically appointed. The apostles set the criteria for qualification, the members located and proposed those who met the criteria, and the apostles provided the approval or disapproval of the members’ choice. The nature of deacon’s service appears in Scripture to be primarily material in nature, and does not appear to involve spiritual oversight. (1 Tim. 3:8-13)
Increasing levels of leadership within a local church context would require increasing harmony on biblical interpretation and application.
What can a person do within the local church who is not a member?
They can attend, participate in congregational worship, participate in church fellowship. Church membership with its attendant accountability and discipleship structures, however, is necessary to be plugged into the ministry life of the church.
Ministry team members (helpers), including such positions as
· SS assistants
· Childrens ministry assistants
· Sound ministry personnel
· Cleaning ministry
Society Membership Required
· SS Superintendants
· SS teachers
· Song Leader
· Primary Musicians
· Childrens ministry leader, Youth ministry leader
· Church secretary
Elders (includes board members)
Discipleship is a process that continues through every stage of physical and spiritual life. Basic discipleship trains young believers in the essentials of kingdom living. The focus is primarily practical so that the key concepts and habits that are essential to sustain spiritual life are communicated and nurtured.
Core discipleship should cover the essential areas of doctrine and practice which every Christian must know and do to develop into an increasingly mature relationship with Christ.
Specialized discipleship is necessary for special needs within the life of the church: dating and relationship discipleship, marriage discipleship, child-rearing discipleship at the various stages of children’s development, and so on.
Restorative discipleship may be necessary for groups of people whose past sins have sufficiently damaged their understanding of life and relationships that focused teaching and accountability are necessary.
The primary biblical metaphors for the Christian are:
· We are children of God’s Family.
· We are members of Christ’s Body and of one another.
We are citizens of the
The constant metaphor of New
Testament preaching was the
As new citizens of the
As members of God’s family we need to understand the privilege of communication with our Father, the ways in which he wants us to relate to our brothers and sisters, the way our Father relates to us
For more thoughts on the nature and process of discipleship, click here.
Fear 1: If we allow people to be members who are not in compliance with our current standards for membership, we will loose our identity and our church(es) will be sucked into the worldly mainstream of American evangelicalism.
Response: This would be a valid fear if church membership continued to be the doorway to leadership positions. However, if church membership does not make a person eligible for church leadership, this fear is ungrounded. Our churches are currently populated with a large percentage of attendees who are not in compliance with our current standards for membership. The model proposed here is essentially moving the current membership standards up so that they are the criteria for leadership positions, and not church membership.
Fear 2: The
Response: The biblical system of elders, deacons, and church members does not place unrestrained power in the hands of the few. Biblically, elders are accountable for their leadership to their fellow elders and to the congregation. 1 Tim. 5:19-20 holds the elders accountable to the entire church membership, not only to fellow elders, if they are sinning. Paul’s phrase “the elders who rule well” (1 Tim. 5:17) implies that those being “ruled” evaluate the performance of those ruling over them.
 Every believer has been gifted by God with one or more spiritual gifts for the benefit of the body of Christ. One of the core discipleship classes would be to teach believers what the Bible says about Spiritual gifts, have them evaluate their own spiritual gifts, and then give them opportunities to engage in ministries that exercise the gifts they have. Following a specified period of ministry involvement, they would have opportunity to reevaluate their own gifts and have those who oversee them in their ministry evaluate their giftedness as well. This permits the church to confirm and affirm in believers the gifts and graces that God has given them.
 There should be a basic set of accountability questions which all church members agree to submit to being asked by the elders of the church. Each member should have a set of the questions, and an elder should regularly (quarterly, if not monthly) meet with those members for whom he has spiritual responsibility and ask them these questions.
The following questions are potential candidates:
Are you walking in obedience to all that God has shown you from His word or asked you to do by His Spirit? (1 John 1:7)
Are you daily developing your
relationship with God through reading His word and seeking Him in prayer? (John
What has ministered to your heart from God's word within the last week? (Acts 2:42; Eph. 4:29)
Are there any areas of doubt
or uncertainty in your relationship with the Lord? (
Are you at peace with all men? (Heb. 12:14)
Is there anyone whom you know has something against you? (Matt. 5:23-24)
Do you have something against another person? (Matt. 18:15)
Questions from an accountability group
Haggai 1:14, Hebrews 10:25
I Peter 2:2
Psalm 27:11, Mark 1:35
II Corinthians 8:3
I John 1:16, I John 2:1
I John 3:7-8
II Corinthians 10:5
I Corinthians 6:19-20
I Thessalonians 5:13-14, Deuteronomy 6:5
 Paul knew, under inspiration, that 'wolves' would enter the flock both from among the members and from among the elders. Such persons who through their teaching or living undermine and hurt the flock rather than edify it have existed since the inauguration of the church. We are fools if we think we are immune to the emergence of wolves from among us. Since it appears inevitable that such wolves will appear, we must frame the accountability structures within the church so as to minimize the potential damage such persons will cause. This calls for rapid detection, dealing with the persons in love for their souls, but adherence to Paul directions to rebuke a schismatic one or twice and after that to reject them from the fold (Titus 3:10).