This is a question that deserves as much time as you have to give it. But you are reading a blog, so it is likely you don’t want a lengthy dissertation. Allow me to point to a few passages of Scripture, and in this way provide you with an introductory answer to the question.
Matthew 18:15-20. In this passage, the church/assembly is defined by:
- “brother” (a designation often referring to “brother in faith”) in close relationship with “brother” (v15)
- accountability regarding sin and striving towards holiness (v16)
- the requirement of ongoing repentance in the lives of sinners (v15)
- communal care and concern for consistent living (v16-17)
- a weighty responsibility to make serious judgments about who is in and who is out of the fellowship (v18)
- Christ’s presence and authority (v20)
Colossians 3:1-17. This passage is found in the midst of a letter from the Apostle Paul to the “saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae” (1:2). While Paul does not explicitly call the Colossian Christians a “church,” the designation is implied by the way he closes the letter (4:15-16). In chapter 3, Paul defines their relationship as one in which:
- all worldly designations are obliterated (v11)
- all worldly living is to be renounced and resisted (v5-8)
- the Christians are to be patient and bear with one another in love (v13-14)
- the Christians are also responsible to actively teach and admonish (i.e. correct or rebuke) one another according to the Scripture (v16)
Hebrews 13:17. This passage is one of the most terrifying in all of Scripture to me as a pastor. Church membership is more defined in this passage by answering the questions that anyone should ask when they read it.
- Which leaders should I obey?
- Whose souls are those leaders keeping watch over?
- Which leaders will Christ call to account, and for whom will those leaders give an account?
Much more could be said about each of these passages, and many more passages should be able to weigh in on our understanding of church membership. My hope is that anyone who reads this will at least recognize that the Bible does, in fact, say quite a bit about church membership. Furthermore, I pray that God will help local churches become healthier as they seek to be more faithful to the words of Christ.
“I’d like to move my letter.”
This phrase and others like it are probably unfamiliar to you unless you are a Baptist who has spent some significant time on the membership roster of a church in the American south. This phrase is referencing the transfer of one’s church membership from one local church to another. However, it seems to me that such a phrase exposes a common but unbiblical understanding of church membership.
Let me outline 7 reasons I think you should stop trying to “move your letter” or anyone else’s.
- It’s not your letter. Your membership in a local church family was never privately owned. It has always been an agreement between you and the local church you call family (or at least used to call family). When you choose to join a local church, you are making a public agreement with a number of other Christians, and this excludes the possibility of you ever being able to make any decision about your membership without their participation (Jn. 13:34-35; Rom. 12:10; 1 Cor. 12:25).
- You can’t move your letter; it doesn’t exist. The letter we are referring to here is a letter of commendation. It is not a mere certificate of membership. It is not an administrative document of your past attendance, however frequent or sporadic it may have been. It is not a simple statement that you were on the membership roster of a local church. Therefore, you can’t move your letter; for it does not exist yet. The letter you are requesting is something that the congregation you are leaving must create in response (1 Cor. 12:25; Col. 3:9, 16).
- You can’t move your letter; it may not ever exist. The common assumption is that the mere request of a “letter transfer” will necessarily be followed by the action of “moving the letter of membership.” But, this may not be so. As mentioned above, the letter you are requesting does not exist yet. Your request must be heard and answered by the congregation with whom you are currently enjoined. They are responsible to examine your life and beliefs in order to decide whether or not they are willing to commend you to the membership of another congregation. Simply put, your current church family is responsible to inform any other of who you truly are based on their experience with you (James 5:16; Col. 3:16).
- Your desire to move from membership in one local church to another should be expressed by a humble and personal request. The “movement of your letter” requires your current church family to communally endorse you as a Christian of good quality to another church family. This is no small matter, and your request is very personal to those of whom you are making such a thing. If your request is requiring such a personal investment from a whole congregation of fellow Christians, shouldn’t your appeal require more than an impersonal and distant statement from you (Phil. 2:3; Eph. 5:21)?
- Your movement from one church to another is too important to be done quietly. Do you remember the feeling of joy you had when your current church family accepted you into their membership? Wasn’t it a wonderful occasion to celebrate God’s work in your life and His work in the life of that local church? Why would you think that your entrance into another local church family would be less significant? Your current church family cares deeply about your spiritual growth and health, even if you don’t think they have expressed that care very well up to this point. You respected and cared about what your current church family thought when they took you in; you can respect and care what they think (at least a little) as you make your way out (1 Cor. 12:25; 1 Jn. 4:7-21).
- Your church family and pastors will give an account to Christ for every member they take in and every member they commend. Taking members in and putting members out is one of the major functions of every local church. This is, in fact, the primary way that a church family exercises loving discipline in the life of the congregation. Christ, who is ruler and king over all, is the head of every local church. Everything that any local church does in the name of Christ will be to His glory or to their own shame (Matt. 18:15-20; Heb. 13:17).
- Your church family is responsible to help you know where you truly stand before God. Only those people who are giving themselves over to belief in and submission to Christ are welcome in a particular church family, joining with that particular group of Christians to communally follow Christ. And, if a person has been in close relationship with a church family for any length of time, that church family is in a great position to either affirm or critique that person’s profession of faith. While everyone loves affirmation, a loving critique is better than flattery any day (Gal. 6:1; Col. 3:16; Heb. 10:24; James 5:16).
The local church is so much more important than we often think, and the individual Christian benefits most when he or she greatly appreciates the value of their local church.
For more information about church membership, joining a local church, and leaving a local church, see the following:
Article: “Pastors, Don’t let you people resign into thin air”
Podcast: “On how to receive and dismiss members”
Podcast: “How to leave your church well”