Disclaimer: I don't see any realistic solution to this problem and I don't claim to have any of the answers. I am simply sharing the following to inform those who may be unaware of the problems that some lay people face when desiring to join a local church.
For the average lay person, membership in a local body is usually not a huge and perplexing decision. They attend a local church, they feel the teaching is biblically sound and the worship is to their liking. They fill out an application, the church leaders interview them, and their application is usually accepted and they are introduced as new members of the church (of course each church has their own set of steps). They do not know that the statement of faith that they agreed to, as part of the membership requirements, includes doctrines that they may have never even heard of let alone know whether they agree with those doctrinal positions or not.
To take it even further, most lay persons who are members of Baptist churches do not even know that their church does not hold to the doctrines of grace. To them Baptist is Baptist. They know nothing about Particular vs General or Calvinistic vs. Arminian. They hold no personal convictions on anything accept they know they don't want to be a member of a church that uses contemporary music during worship and where the pastor doesn't wear a suit and tie--that much they are quite sure about.
Case in point: My grandfather attended a baptist church for 25 years, loves the Lord, went to mid week bible studies faithfully, was appointed as a Deacon and never knew the difference between calvinistic baptists and arminian baptist. By conversations, it was clear he was calvinistic, even though the only tulip he was familiar with was the one that grows in the garden. And yet he was a member of, and a Deacon at, an arminian baptist church. On a rather humorous side: I will never forget his response to me when I used the term "hermeneutics". He said, "Now honey, I know your young and a relatively new Christian, but I must warn you to watch out for that new finagled stuff". At first I thought he was being funny and I almost laughed, but I quickly realized that he truly did not know what that word meant. My natural reaction would have been to take that opportunity to educate my Grandpa; but there were others present and so I decided the wise and kind thing would be to let it go. I did tell him the next time I visited, and we had some private time alone, what the term "hermeneutics" means.
So, why am I saying all this? I suppose because I find myself in a rather difficult situation. For the average lay person who doesn't spend their free time studying church history, denominational differences, and theology, church membership presents no real problem for them and they present no real problem for the local church. They don't ask questions, they just sign the dotted line. On the other hand, finding a church where I can (in good conscience) sign a membership agreement is next to impossible because most have added secondary doctrines to their church membership requirements, i.e., dispensational vs. covenantal theology, and pre-trib vs post-trib eschatology just to name a few.
In addition to that, many would exclude men like Martyn LLoyd-Jones; and most of the Reformers and the Puritans from membership (if they were alive today) because they are paedobaptistic. Oh, they would allow them to preach from their pulpit when in town, and they would read their treatises and sermons and commentaries and even quote them often, but they would not allow them to be members of the church and some would not even let them share in the Lord's Supper.
That presents a problem for me. I cannot in good conscience become a member of a church who holds to those convictions about membership. I am not alone in my concern and confusion regarding this. Some of the most learned and godly men of our times are struggling with this very issue. Here is an excerpt from "Together for The Gospel" written by Ligon Duncan:
"The long and the short of it is that honored friends and colleagues have asked "How can you be ‘together for the Gospel,’ but not together at the Lord’s Table or in church membership?’" Their point being that Mark Dever, in holding to a classic baptist position on communion and church membership, would not allow someone who had not received believer’s baptism to be a member at his church or to share in the Lord’s Supper, and thus, subsequently, they wonder how he can think of being ‘Together for the Gospel’ with a paedobaptist like me who couldn’t me a church member at CHBC.
First, let me say, that I fully appreciate the force of this question, and the deep, biblical passion behind it. When John Piper says: "when a person looks a true and precious brother in the eye and says, ‘You may not join this church,’ he is doing one of two things: Seriously diminishing our spiritual union in Christ, or seriously minimizing the importance of church membership." John has my full attention! When Sam Storms says: "the claim to be ‘Together for the Gospel’ rings a bit hollow to me when some would decline to fellowship with others around the Lord’s Table because of their disagreement on the proper recipients of baptism." I take the concern expressed seriously."
So do I and it grieves me deeply. I do not take membership lightly. I do not willy-nilly or even in ignorance, sign a document committing myself to a local body that I do not fully understand and/or agree with. In addition, I would never feel right in becoming a member of a church that would forbid membership to some of the greatest men of the faith that God has given His church!
Perhaps, when it comes to the local church and membership, "ignorance is bliss". The only problem is that I don't want "bliss!" I want the local body to accurately represent and reflect Christ - I haven't found one yet that does not add nonessential doctrines and beliefs to their church membership requirements and I feel that shows a like of trust in God Himself to oversee the Church.
"Genuine Christian community arises from the power of God. Through the Holy Spirit we are united to Christ and participate in "every spiritual blessing" in the heavenly realms in Christ (Eph 1:3). Our union with Christ also unites us to Christian brothers and sisters, and makes us part of one family under God (1 Cor 12). Hence, at the heart of the church stands our union with Christ.
Jesus Christ is Lord over the church (Eph 5:24). The church is not a private club, with rules determined in whatever way the members wish, but a community ruled by Christ. Hence, membership in a visible Christian community ought to be determined not by an arbitrary set of rules and regulations, nor by the autonomous decision of Christian leaders, but by the authority of Christ. We are obliged to receive all whom Christ instructs us to receive. And conversely, we are obliged to exclude those whom Christ instructs us to exclude. We receive repentant sinners, even though they are imperfect, while we exclude upstanding, moral, self-sufficient "righteous" people who refuse to acknowledge Christ’s saving work.
Because union with Christ is at the heart of our salvation, some people have inferred that the church consists only of those who are regenerate, that is, only those savingly united to Christ. But only God knows perfectly who these people are. "The Lord knows those who are his" (2 Tim 2:19)—but we do not. In fact, the visible church includes wolves and hypocrites as well as the genuine sheep (that is, those who are regenerate). 1 John 2:19 indicates that some people "‘went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us." These people were not regenerate: "none of them belonged to us." But they were for a time members of the visible church: "they would have remained with us." Similarly, in Acts 20:29-30 Paul warns that "savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them."
Vern Sheridan Poythress
In Closing: In their desire to protect the flock - many local independent churches and many of the denominationally affiliated churches have (in many ways) become little Vatican's. This is something to pray about and to ponder.
"Here as elsewhere, we must avoid the twin errors of indifferentism and rigorism. First, there is indifferentism. If we do not require profession or credible evidence of repentance, we show indifference. We do not take seriously the fact that Christ rebukes sin.
Second, there is rigorism. We may try to admit only those who are regenerate. But we do not know infallibly who is regenerate. Do we then try to raise our standards to exclude as many hypocrites as possible? We may make the standards higher and higher, in order to exclude cases with the least possible doubt. But the result is that we require at the beginning maturity that Christ brings only along the way.
Rigorism simply misunderstands Christian growth and perseverance. It has a false conception of the purity of the church. It has too much confidence in the ability of leaders to discern people's hearts, and simultaneously too little confidence in the power of the Holy Spirit within the community to bring about growth and to bring about excommunication in cases of lack of repentance.
Rigorism is bad, but it is nevertheless fairly common in evangelical churches. Many, many evangelicals may sincerely want to avoid rigorism in their hearts and in their personal attitudes. But they nevertheless practice rigorism at those times when they formally admit people to church membership. People who become members must agree to a large number of doctrinal standards that the church holds. These standards constitute a rigoristic barrier."
Added on 06/23/2009 to prevent any misunderstanding: I am committed to and have been worshipping at the same church for almost 4 years and have rarely missed a day. I love my Pastor and I love the people who are part of this local body and I would submit to church discipline if it ever came to that. In addition, I have shared with my Pastor my reasons for being unable to apply for official membership. (I would actually have to lie in order to sign the membership agreement as it stands now). I respect my Pastor's convictions in regard to including the non-essential doctrines as part of the church's statement of faith and he respects my convictions for not being able to sign a membership agreement as long as those doctrines are part of the church's statement of faith. He also trusts that I would do nothing to cause discord or dissension by propagating by own personal convictions about eschatology (for example).