Church Membership in the PCA
The Importance, Rights, Privileges, and Responsibilities of Church Membership
Note: These are the lecture notes for the fifth class of an 8-week series that I am teaching at Harvest Community Church, called “What Does it Mean to be Presbyterian?” Links to the other class lecture notes may be found at the end of this post.
While the word “Presbyterian” refers to the elder-ruled (see 1 Tim. 5:17) nature of our church government, the congregation plays an important part in the overall function of the church. Indeed, one of the central principles of Presbyterian church government is that the power Christ has given to his church is vested in the church as a whole, and that the elders exercise that power on behalf of the congregation—just as the eyes exercise the function of sight on behalf of the rest of the body. Sight belongs to the whole body (not just the eyes), and spiritual church power belongs to the whole church (not just the elders).
This class will consider the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of the congregation as a whole within the Presbyterian system.
Why is Church Membership Important?
Church membership is important.1 The Bible never suggests in the least that believers are independent from one another. Rather, again and again the Bible teaches that each of God’s people are individually members of one another, just as our bodies are made up of various limbs and organs: “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Rom. 12:4–5).
There is a sense in which the Bible speaks of the “church” in its universal, invisible sense that it stretches across time and through every tribe, language, people, and nation (e.g., Eph. 1:22; Col. 1:18; Rev. 5:9–10). But there it is also the sense of the word “church” that refers to individual, local, visible congregations—many of which were so local that they met in single houses (e.g., Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Cor. 1:1; Col. 4:15; Phile. 2).
These congregations have a clear sense of who is a member, and who is not. This aspect of church membership is painfully clear in the passages that talk about excommunicating unrepentant sinners from membership in the church (Matt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 5:1–13; 1 John 2:19), and in the passages about welcoming repentant sinners back into the membership of the church (e.g., 2 Cor. 2:4–10). It is impossible to remove someone from membership if that person has never been a member, and restoration to membership is meaningless apart from a formal membership process. Moreover, several Biblical commands are impossible apart from local church membership (e.g., Gal. 6:10; Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:5).
The Bible never at any point suggests that a Christian may be a member of the universal, invisible church without also being a member of a local, visible church. Some have observed that the Bible never explicitly instructs us how we should become members of local, visible churches; however, the Bible also never explicitly instructs us how a man and a woman get married. Of course, the Bible clearly understands that there is a difference between the married and unmarried. The same thing is true for members and non-members of a church.
In sum, church membership is essential so that (1) the church can be blessed with the gifts that Jesus has entrusted to each individual in our midst, and (2) each individual can receive the shepherding that Jesus commands for his sheep. For as long as you are here, we hope that you will be blessed by, and a blessing to, the other members of your local congregation.
Types of Membership
There are two primary kinds of membership in the PCA: non-communing and communing membership. Non-communing members are the covenant children born to believing parents, while communing members are those who “commune”—that is, who partake of the sealing ordinance of communion.
Non-Communing Members: Covenant Children
Flowing out of our covenant theology, we recognize that the children of professing believers have special standing in the church, as distinct from the children of unbelievers:
The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. (WCF 25.2)
So, on the Day of Pentecost, Peter proclaims that the promises of the gospel (and, thus, baptism) are not only for “you,” but also “for your children” (Acts 2:38–39). Then, the Apostle Paul urges believers to remain married to unbelievers for the sake of preserving the holy status of the children: “For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy” (1 Cor. 7:14).
These are even stronger covenant promises than the children believers enjoyed under the old covenant. Previously, the children of mixed marriages were excluded from membership in Israel on the basis of the unbelieving spouse (Deut. 23:2–8; Mal. 2:11–12). In the new covenant, children are counted as holy on the basis of the believing spouse.
Accordingly, the Book of Church Order insists that:
The children of believers are, through the covenant and by right of birth, non-communing members of the church. Hence they are entitled to Baptism, and to the pastoral oversight, instruction and government of the church, with a view to their embracing Christ and thus possessing personally all benefits of the covenant. (BCO 6-1)
The “nurture, instruction and training of the children of the Church are committed by God primarily to their parents” (BCO 28-1).
Beyond this, the church has a special role in bringing up covenant children to know and love the Lord:
The Church should maintain constant and sympathetic relations with the children. It also should encourage them, on coming to years of discretion, to make confession of the Lord Jesus Christ and to enter upon all privileges of full church membership. If they are wayward they should be cherished by the church and every means used to reclaim them. (BCO 28-3)
Therefore, when a child is baptized, the parents make three vows for raising their children “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord,” but the congregation also takes a vow:
Do you as a congregation undertake the responsibility of assisting the parents in the Christian nurture of this child? (BCO 56-5)
We do not raise children with the presumption that they are regenerate, but neither do we presume that they are unregenerate until “converted.” Our children are covenant members by birthright, and we raise them to be faithful covenant members by trusting in Jesus for their salvation. Therefore, we raise covenant children to never remember a day when they didn’t love Jesus.
In accordance with Christ’s Great Commission, we baptize them as disciples, and we teach them to obey everything that Jesus commanded them (Matt. 28:16–20). Throughout, we pray with and for our children for the Holy Spirit to lead them into an ever-deeper love and faith in Christ.
Communing members are those who have been baptized and who have also been examined and approved by the Session as having made a credible profession of faith. This does not quite mean the same thing that Baptists do when they speak about a “regenerate church membership.” We do not demand proof that someone is regenerate before admitting them into membership.
Instead, we look for credible evidence that someone has repented from his/her sins and is looking to Christ for salvation. We recognize that, sadly, there are some who will be with us for a time, but who then go out from us, thereby demonstrating that they were never really of us (1 John 2:18–19). Or, in the parable of Jesus, the initial growth from those whose hearts are like soil filled with rocks and weeds may look very similar to those whose hearts are like good soil (Matt. 13:18–23). So, we look for a credible profession of faith; however, we also recognize that Christ has commanded discipline in the church to cast out those who ultimately live in a manner unworthy of the gospel.
Of course, this does not mean casting out anyone who still sins, for then no one would remain in the church. Instead, we recognize the ongoing necessity of discipline to call believers back to repentance and faith in Christ, and to cast out only those who do not respond to such calls. Even in the cases where we do excommunicate someone, our prayer is always that such a person would repent eventually. Thus, we “deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5).
The primary benefit to communing membership is permission to commune—to receive the sealing ordinance of the Lord’s Supper. The sacraments ratify our claim to the covenant promises. Just as the Israelites had to be circumcised before they could lay claim to the covenantally promised land of Canaan (Josh. 5:1–9), so our claim to the covenant promises of Christ are ratified initially in baptism, and then ongoingly in communion. So, church discipline that suspends someone from the sacraments, or that excommunicates someone from the church is a powerful statement that cancels such a claim, declaring that such a person (by virtue of ongoing, unrepentant sin) has no legitimate claim to the promises of Christ.
We will delineate the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of communing members in greater detail below.
Additionally, the Book of Church Order (BCO) makes provision for associate members:
Associate members are those believers temporarily residing in a location other than their permanent homes. Such believers may become associate members of a particular church without ceasing to be communicant members of their home churches. An associate member shall have all the rights and privileges of that church, with the exception of voting in a congregational or corporation meeting, and holding an office in that church. (BCO 46-4)
It is good and right and healthy to be a member of the church where we are worshiping. In those cases where someone’s stay in an area is lengthy, but temporary, associate membership allows those individuals to belong formally to a church, and for that church to belong formally to them.
The Rights, Privileges, and Responsibilities of Church Membership
Tragically, American Christians increasingly view churches consumeristically, seeking out teaching and “worship experiences” (especially musically) that meet their own tastes and preferences. The internet—and especially the proliferation of livestreamed services during Covid—have only exacerbated this problem, since people can consume whatever they want from a church (a sermon here, a class there, a worship music set at still another place) without any meaningful connection to any particular congregation.
The church is not, however, a “dispenser of religious goods and services.” Rather, the church is the kingdom of Jesus Christ, establishing the rule of King Jesus’ reign by ministry mediated through the officers of the church. This requires members to submit to the government of the church, and it requires officers to shepherd the flock of God in their midst faithfully.
In this section, we need to discuss the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of church membership.
The Shepherding Care of the Church
The most important rights and privileges of church membership is the shepherding care of the church:
All baptized persons are entitled to the watchful care, instruction and government of the church, even though they are adults and have made no profession of their faith in Christ. (BCO 6-3)
All members—communing and non-communing alike—have a right to the shepherding care of the government of the church. The significance of this point cannot be overstated. As Stuart Robinson writes, “the Church is an indispensable means of accomplishing the great purpose of his love to his chosen people, as an institute for the calling, training, and edifying the elect.”2 The Church is an essential blessing of the gospel, the essential vehicle for the spreading the gospel, and the essential context for building people up in the gospel. The shepherding care of the church is vital.
Decisions Made by the Congregation
We must never forget that Presbyterian churches are elder-ruled. Presbyterian churches are not congregationalist, where it is the congregation who receives members, votes to impose sanctions in church discipline, defines doctrine, or approves budgets. Presbyterian churches follow the biblical example by ordaining elders to these roles.
Nevertheless, the congregation is not passive. The congregation has important responsibilities which they carry out in congregational meetings. This includes the following:
The congregation votes to affiliate/disaffiliate with a denomination (BCO 25-11).
While the deacons are charged with stewardship of the maintenance of the church property, “In matters of special importance affecting the property of the church, [deacons] cannot take final action without the approval of the Session and consent of the congregation” (BCO 9-2).
The congregation votes to elect a pulpit committee to recommend a pastoral candidate to the congregation (BCO 20-2).
The congregation votes to call a pastor (BCO 20-4), to set the terms of the pastor’s call (BCO 20-6), and to both evaluate a pastor’s resignation or, if necessary, to initiate the dissolution of a pastoral relationship (BCO 23-1). (These actions are all subject to the review and consent of Presbytery.)
The congregation nominates candidates for the office of ruling elder and deacon, and, after the Session has trained and examined the candidates, the congregation votes to approve those officers (BCO 24-1; Preliminary Principle #6).
As a responsibility, the congregation vows appropriate submission and support to the pastor (BCO 21-6), and elders and deacons (BCO 24-6).
Judicial Rights and Responsibilities
The judicial processes of the PCA are extensive and a thorough explanation of them would go beyond the scope of this class. In this final section, I intend to lay out a few simple principles for understanding the judicial rights and responsibilities of members of the congregation of a church.
First, you are “free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship” (WCF 20.2). This means that the officers of the church can never demand anything from you beyond what Christ has commanded in the word, for all church power is “only ministerial and declarative” (BCO Preliminary Principle #7).
Furthermore, this means that no judicial charge may be brought against you except what is demonstrated to be contrary to Scripture:
An offense, the proper object of judicial process, is anything in the doctrines or practice of a Church member professing faith in Christ which is contrary to the Word of God. The Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly, together with the formularies of government, discipline, and worship are accepted by the Presbyterian Church in America as standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture in relation to both faith and practice. Nothing, therefore, ought to be considered by any court as an offense, or admitted as a matter of accusation, which cannot be proved to be such from Scripture. (BCO 29-1)
Beyond this, the BCO lays out a number of rights you have to a fair trial, including the right to representation by another communing member of the same church (BCO 32-19), the right to limit process against you from beginning no later than one year after an offense was committed (BCO 32-20), the right for your spouse not to be compelled to bear testimony against you (BCO 35-2), the right to cross-examine any witnesses (BCO 35-5), the right to appeal the decision of your church’s Session against you to the next higher court (BCO 42), and more.
Second, the corresponding responsibility to this is that you must cooperate with church investigations. The refusal to cooperate with lawful judicial proceedings is called “contumacy” (BCO 32-6), and someone found contumacious “shall be immediately suspended from the sacraments…for his contumacy” (BCO 33-2). In fact, contumacy is one of the required criteria for excommunicating someone from the church, as opposed to the lesser censure of indefinite suspension:
Excommunication is the excision of an offender from the communion of the Church. This censure is to be inflicted only on account of gross crime or heresy and when the offender shows himself incorrigible and contumacious. The design of this censure is to operate on the offender as a means of reclaiming him, to deliver the church from the scandal of his offense, and to inspire all with fear by the example of his discipline. (BCO 30-4)
Third, you have the right to challenge the decisions of your Session through a written complaint:
A complaint is a written representation made against some act or decision of a court of the Church. It is the right of any communing member of the Church in good standing to make complaint against any action of a court to whose jurisdiction he is subject, except that no complaint is allowable in a judicial case in which an appeal is pending. (BCO 43-1)
This is an important right, since it empowers you to ask the Session to review any decision if you believe those decisions to be contrary to the Word of God, our Confession and Catechisms, or our Book of Church Order. If you do not like the response of the Session to your complaint, you are permitted to take your complaint to the next higher court (BCO 43-2).
This section is adapted from Jacob Gerber, “Why Become a Member of a Church?”, <https://harvestpca.org/why-become-a-member-of-a-church/>
Stuart Robinson, The Church of God as an Essential Element of the Gospel: And the Idea, Structure, and Functions Thereof. A Discourse in Four Parts (Philadelphia: Joseph M. Wilson, 1858), 42.