Many Churches practice 'membership' wherein they wish for local congregants to bind themselves to the congregation and agree to adhere to certain doctrinal statements and to be under the authority of the leadership. In many Churches a little ceremony or ritual has also been created to go along with this process.
Whether it is admitted or not, everyone and every congregation adheres to some sort of creed. We all believe something and even in loosely affiliated groups there are boundaries. In creedless bodies, the problem is, the boundaries are often not well thought out, and many individuals have given little thought to what they believe.
I've shared the story before but once I walked into a local 'church' and the service had just ended. A woman was up front singing 'Going to the Rapture and I'm going to get married' to the tune of 'Going to the Chapel'. It was blasting over the sound system and I could see from the speakers and the instruments up front it was probably a pretty vivacious (if you want to call it that) meeting. Jesus wallpaper (that was a new one for me) covered the room. I asked the sound-man for a copy of their doctrinal statement and smirking he handed me his Bible. They believed (thankfully they folded) that they followed 'just the Bible', of course from my standpoint what they were doing had almost nothing to do with the Bible. They had a definite creed and I'm sure they went looking for it whenever they read the Scriptures.
That said, there's also a real danger in constructing and binding people to very theologically complicated and developed creeds. They can become divisive. Instead of guiding, they can function like restraints or chains that actually prevent any kind of corrective.
Requirements of 'Membership'
Dutch Reformed Churches require all their congregants to adhere to the Three Forms of Unity: the Canons of Dordt, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession. I contend most congregants when signing their name to these documents do not understand what they're doing. Besides even if I can agree with 85% of what they say, should I be excluded from fellowship because I won't sign on to an obscure theological point?
Presbyterians rightly decry this as being too demanding and that we need to be more inclusive in terms of whom we allow into the Church.
So they don't require Confessional subscription for the average member or layperson, just an understanding of the Gospel. But the officers are required to subscribe to the Westminster Confession and of course they will use it to govern the Church...the people who have signed on and taken vows are to be judged by a standard they did not agree to be judged by....or else wouldn't they subscribe to it as well?
The Extra-Scriptural Standards by which you are held to account
Little does the congregant realize that though they're not required to sign the Westminster Confession, they will indeed by judged by it and held to account by it...or rather how the local body of elders and regional Presbytery interpret it. That's a wholly different matter and beyond the scope of this discussion.
In addition the Presbyterian Church has another book called the Book of Church Order. This outlines all their procedures for dealing with various issues, wrestling with questions, committees and so forth. This book functions very much as a Presbyterian equivalent to Canon Law, because it is treated in this way. It is binding on both the congregation and the consciences of these Elders. They chafe when I call it this, but it functions exactly like Roman Catholic Canon Law. It's binding and authoritative...and therefore functionally canonical. They grow very frustrated when they appeal to this book and I refuse to submit to it. Personally I would destroy every copy I could get my hands on.
While I find it to be somewhat duplicitous and deceptive to bring people in without them fully understanding what authority structure they will be under, for Presbyterians it's not a problem. For them again the real structure of the Church, its essence and well-being lies at the level of the Regional Presbytery which is comprised of ordained men. They are the guardians and caretakers of the Church. While certainly I believe God has appointed officers to guard the flock, He did not appoint a regional body of clerics to function as the glue which binds many congregations together. This smacks of Apostolic Succession and I've heard some Presbyterians admit this but without shame.
The power rests in the regional 'Presbytery'
You see the local congregant and thus congregation doesn't matter so much because they have no authority. The authority rests in the body of elders...not the local body...they have to answer to the regional grouping. The local body's authority is granted by the regional and answers to it. Robert's rules of order, keeping minutes and the rest help in this regard. Elders who are trying to avoid trouble on the presbyterial or regional level will at times engage in somewhat shady behaviour. In some cases if only one elder is present, no minutes or notes are taken. This elder can say things, even outrageous things to people and doesn't have to report it....plausible denial. But if he visits with another elder, a report has to be made. I realize this is a pretty serious thing to say...suggesting some of these men operate in a less than up-front and honest fashion. Am I suggesting some of these men abuse their power and manipulate the rules in order to wield it? Absolutely. I want to be clear. That's exactly what I'm saying.
Sufficiency- The honest and not so honest
Now, if we wanted to say the Bible doesn't provide for us enough information to form a Church government that would be one thing. Episcopalians argue along these lines. The Bible gives us a rough outline and it's up to us to develop the particulars. We can take culture and geography into account, and history has given us the Episcopal and hierarchical form of Church government. They're not trying to argue it's Scriptural. All they're saying is...it's historical and it works. When you say, where can I find in the Bible that it says we're to create Archbishops? They'll say...'it's not in the Bible.' At least they're candid. I can respect the position even though I don't agree with it.
Presbyterianism has a much bigger problem. They claim to adhere to Sola Scriptura and they claim the Scripture is Sufficient for all things in terms of the Church and the Christian Life. How then can they justify what they've done? It's as if the Scripture is a hook to hang your hat on, but instead of hanging a mere hat, they've suspended a Volkswagen. Its connection to the text of the New Testament is comprised of mere threads. They've constructed a colossus on top of a rather simple foundation. They believe the Scriptures provide the rough outline and they're merely filling in the gaps via logical induction and pragmatic requirement.
Biblical polity far more simple
I believe the New Testament is sufficient for the construction of a Church polity or government. The Biblical model is real simple. Baptism brings us into the Universal Church...and we assemble locally. The Lord's Supper is akin to the Covenant renewal meals of the Old Testament. It binds us to both our God and to each other. It shows the sign of our continuing, abiding faith. It shows not just that we've become Christians but that we continue to be. Our faith is alive. I believe God does use forms and that these forms or symbols are the means by which we know in time and space who is part of the body. They are limited of course, but in terms of the normal or normative operation of the Church, they are essential.
I believe the New Testament presupposes we will be part of a local congregation. It presupposes we will assemble with a congregation and when we participate in its life we come under its authority. The Elders need to do their job and when people visit, they need to talk with them and get to know them. They need to explain what the congregation believes. A broad creedal statement might be helpful. Part of this would be an explanation regarding what I just said above.
This idea of just coming and going, popping in every once in awhile and so forth is not really compatible with fellowship, teaching and authority. This doesn't mean we have to adopt some kind of rigid system of attendance. If people aren't attending regularly, then it's not a matter of rule breaking, it's a matter of something being wrong. The elders need to address this, not as Lords, but as Shepherds.
Church discipline does not require bureaucratic forms
When someone is engaged in sin and they refuse to repent then we're instructed by Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 to put them out of the congregation. Here the Presbyterian argues, they'll just go down the street to the next congregation. That's a real possibility. But Presbyterians seem to miss the fact that though they've erected this massive form structure, this denominational apparatus, the same thing still happens. So then they have to create new forms to determine which other mid-level bodies or denominations they will 'join' with and recognize. So then they create more extra-scriptural bureaucracy and form to govern the extra-scriptural form they've created.
They're unwilling to say their denomination and the others they've joined with in fraternal relations are the only 'true church' but they might as well. It's very strange in their zeal to protect the church and erect forms that will guard against schism, they're actually promoting it.
Schism and Communion
When someone like me attends the local congregation, because I'm not a 'member' of the Presbyterian Church I and my family are barred from Communion. Sometimes they'll say if you're a 'member' of a Church that preaches the Gospel, then you may partake. Well, if someone is part of a church that doesn't...will they know? The PCUSA doesn't preach the Gospel but would a PCUSA member attending a PCA know that?
Is bureaucratic membership more important than an understanding of the Gospel? It seems so.
Communion is the sign and symbol of the Church's unity. It's Covenantal in nature. Excluding someone from this sign is tantamount to saying...you're not a Christian, we reject you.
So when I'm barred from participation, but not under some form of discipline, then they are guilty of schism and promoting disharmony in the Universal Body. I would say they fall under the condemnation of the Apostle when in 1 Corinthians 3 he rejects the creation of factional parties. They would say these were personality cults not factions being created to maintain orthodoxy. I'm all for protecting the Bible, but you don't have the right to erect structures which prevent other Christians from partaking in the life of the Church....UNLESS they agree to a whole body of ideas completely foreign to Scripture. Paul doesn't provide an occasion to form a proper faction, nor does he elaborate on the issue. He condemns the idea of forming up into groups and identifying with the group instead of Christ...and in that sense his critique is very applicable to all proponents of denominationalism.
Lording instead of Shepherding
Trying to bind the consciences of people to extra-Scriptural doctrines and the procedures created as a result is not only legalistic and schismatic, it is claiming a level of authority not granted by Scripture. It is the 'lording it over' the flock Peter warns again. We are to submit to the elders, the Scriptures are clear. If I'm in sin, then when approached I need to submit and repent. But this authority is not unlimited. The Scriptures themselves are the guide. All I'm asking for is Scriptural justification for practice. When it cannot be produced, I'm not bound to follow, in fact I could argue I'm bound NOT to follow.
Faction Membership versus Biblical Membership
The whole concept of Membership falls under this. It's superfluous. Baptism visibly provides a symbol demonstrating our Unity with Christ and our membership in the Church. This is the Biblical concept of Church Membership. I'm not denying the concept, but what it is commonly called Church Membership is something else. It's an extra-Scriptural form binding the individual to either a faction or a Creedal statement.
We're already bound to pray for the Church, to support the members, to submit to the elders and so forth. These things are not optional. When we're baptized, we are bound. When someone refuses to do this, they need to be confronted. Just because the doctrines of Scripture have been abused and millions of people have been baptized who shouldn't have been doesn't mean we need to create a new form...a kind of Baptism without water to bring people into the Church.
Aside from detracting from the real meaning of Baptism it also creates a host of new problems.
Local membership is symbolized by the Lord's Supper. The Church needs to warn and exhort regarding the Supper but it also needs to be careful regarding who it turns away. I would rather have someone partake for a week or two wrongly then to just turn someone away when they visit. Again, the elders need to be active and do their job. Resting in a form...we have a 'membership' list...is an unacceptable abdication of responsibility and takes away from the profound ongoing meaning of participation in the Lord's Supper.
The system creates more innovations and problems
Membership vows are superfluous. Making it into a ceremony, though they often refuse to call it that, is an innovation in the realm of worship. It's no different than lighting candles or something else. They can't demonstrate it from Scripture. In frustration they usually say...you should do it in submission to the elders. At this point I ask them, "If the Elders want me to dance down the aisle chanting and swinging a pom-pom should I do it?"
I've had a few say 'yes.' But most realize the problem of trying to ask me to do something that's outside of Scripture. What's next? What if they ask me to pray with beads? Make the sign of the cross? Kiss an icon? What's the difference?
For men claiming to hold to the Reformed Regulative Principle of Worship which their own Confession explicitly teaches...they have a dilemma.