Church membership has been variously determined at different times and places in the history of the church. At first, belonging to a local church was by free choice, but as the church and state became more integrated, church membership was often determined by one's geographical location.
The Reformation accomplished many things, but it did not fully restore free association membership. Both Luther and Calvin connected church and state, although Luther more than Calvin. This pattern of considering geographical location to determine church membership continued in varying degrees in Protestantism for centuries; for example, King Henry VIII, along with the invaluable help and support of Bishop Cranmer, consolidated church and state in Protestant England. The Puritan churches in New England acted similarly; for example, John Cotton, teacher and co-founder of the First Church of Boston, with whom Roger Williams interacted in his book, The Bloudy [Bloody] Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience. Others on American soil did likewise.
Baptist distinctives include several beliefs whose quotidianness in contemporary American Protestantism contribute to the evanescing of both their historical unusualness and costliness.
The Anabaptists, who I think are our spiritual ancestors, were insistent upon not mere reformation, but restitution. They referred at times to the Reformation as a “half-way reformation.” Others refer to them as “extreme” or “radical reformers.” Of course, they are most well-known for rejecting infant baptism; hence the name, Anabaptist—baptize again, terminology they rejected since they did not recognize the validity of the baptism of infants. They, along with other Baptist groups, with emphasis upon the sufficiency and authority of the New Testament, are the true restorers of the idea of free association churches: local congregations made up of people who freely choose to associate by membership with a particular congregation.
Although Anabaptists varied in some of their beliefs, the following are three essential marks of their concept of a New Testament church: first, regenerate church membership, which means that membership is exclusively limited to those who are born again followers of Christ; second, people who freely submit to believer's baptism by immersion, which also became the entrance into the local body of believers. It signified obedience to Christ and a person’s willing submission to the discipline of the church as outlined in the New Testament; third, which flows from the first and second, was the practice of church discipline.
Simply put, members were people who voluntarily received Jesus Christ and voluntarily submitted to believer’s baptism by immersion and freely joined themselves to a body of believers, submitting to the discipline of that body of believers as outlined in the New Testament. Maintaining such membership was also voluntary. If a person became undesirous of belonging, they could freely disassociate themselves. If their lives became characteristic of an unregenerate life, they would be removed by church discipline and would no longer be welcome at the Lord’s Table.
It is worth noting that the idea of the “wall of separation” used today to limit the influence of faith in the public square was not originally intended to do that. In addition, this same phrase also speaks to the issue of free association churches when properly understood. Baptists and Roger Williams insisted on “the voluntary principle in religion” which means “that for faith to be valid, it must be free.”
Now, the radical and extraordinary reintroduction of this apostolic principle for defining the New Testament church is now so commonplace that the immense cost for such normalcy is forgotten or unknown by most.
I would like to conclude this article by noting a few applications of the free association principle to our present congregational milieu.
First: belonging to a local body of believers is one of the grandest privileges afforded humans in this life and therefore should not be vulgarized by the behavior of a member or the local church herself.
Second: the manner in which one enters into membership is the same manner in which one should leave. To wit, one enters freely, graciously, with a love and respect for the fellowship and testimony of the church and her place in Christ’s program. Therefore, one should depart with the same respect rather than leaving dark waves of hurt, confusion, and turmoil in his exiting wake.
Third: non-resident membership should, if there is such a thing, be a brief transitional phase that permits members time to join a church in the city to which they have moved. Exceptions surely should be made for extraordinary circumstances like being homebound or deployed by the military, etc. To fulfill the role of shepherding and the host of body life Scriptures, membership needs to be otherwise restricted to those who actually attend the church.
We review our rolls every six months and seek to contact those who have not attended in the previous six months in order to ascertain their spiritual well-being and encourage them to come back or join a fellowship of believers where they are. Excluding exceptional circumstances, if they do not come back, they will be removed from membership. We maintain only a membership roll and clerical roll (the latter is for recordkeeping only), and the membership roll is comprised of people who actually serve and worship at Trinity in accordance with Scripture and our theonomy. When someone leaves, or is removed through church discipline, he is moved to a clerical roll for the purpose of keeping up with who has been a member and when and why they are no longer. We only send letters to churches requesting a transfer of membership noting “in good standing” when we know a person is actively living for Christ.
When I came to Trinity in 1998, there were almost 3,000 members on the roll, and no one knew where most of them were but God, and I suspect He was not happy about their non-resident status. As we began to contact people, somewhat surprisingly, we found several who viewed their membership catholically (their name on the roll involved some salvational efficacy). Now, our roll corresponds to the people who walk the halls of Trinity Baptist Church.
Fourth: The body of believers must be willing to follow the New Testament teaching of church discipline in order to remove those who no longer live like regenerate followers of Christ, and who no longer submit to the teaching of Scripture as reflected in the local church with whom they agreed previously. Unfortunately, and tragically, some leave the local church in spirit, support and love, long before they leave physically, which some only do after seeking to install themselves as the de facto authority in the church.
I have found disruptive departures quite perplexing as well as disheartening because it seems so easy to leave peaceably as many people do every day somewhere. To watch people fall out of love with Christ or one of His local churches, or both, and yet be unwilling to leave without unleashing spiritual smart bombs can only be described, at best, as arrogant carnality because the departing place themselves above the good of the church.
Oh, I understand the theology and spiritual warfare of it all, but I am speaking personally about my own experiential bewilderment over this. Sometimes this is done by those to whom you have personally ministered and loved. I have left two churches, one as a member and one as a staff member. Although I found myself at odds with the incoming pastor’s neo-orthodoxy or frivolous preaching, in each circumstance, I met with the pastor to see how he thought that I could leave with least amount of harm to him or the body of Christ. We did not allow others to draw us into criticizing the pastor or church because we value the local church far more than we value our thoughts.
Both times, my wife and I were young in the faith, so the need to leave graciously does not seem to be something only the mature can grasp. Consequently, spiritual entrance into the life of membership is a free association and spiritually peaceable, and it appears to me the exit should be the same. God does not look kindly upon those who harm the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 3.16-17).
©Ronnie W. Rogers
 See, Roger Williams, The Bloudy [Bloody] Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience, Richard Groves, ed., (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2001), xiii-xiv. See also my previous blogs on SBC Today Separation of Church and State: A Baptist Understanding! And Tear Down That Wall.