I believe that church membership is a covenant commitment to a local body of Christians under the leadership of pastors. A church member is not responsible for submitting to all leaders everywhere but only to those whom they have joined themselves within a local church. A pastor will not give an account for the spiritual health of all Christians everywhere but only to those who are under his care in his local church. (Heb. 13:17; Acts 20:28)
Under these assumptions from the word, it becomes clear that individuals should commit themselves to only one local body of believers, but what about unique cases such as soldiers going to war, missionaries being sent to unreached peoples, and college students temporarily living in a different location? Quite obviously, Christians should join churches where they are living and serve with their whole hearts as good stewards of their time, resources, and giftings, but does this mean that their “home” churches and pastors vote them out of membership and thus outside of their accountability or care temporarily?
The Dilemma of Dual Membership
Meaningful covenantal membership can lead to some important practical questions in unique situations. At our church, you must be a church member to serve in any official capacity. A church member recently moved to another city for college and she became involved at church that also practices covenant church membership. In that church’s covenant, it states that members cannot be members of another church. But, what about when college students come home for the summer? For three months out of the year she will be at our church under the care of our pastors, and for nine months out of the year, she will be at her college church under the care of those pastors. Now it gets messy and you’re left with five conceivable options:
- The college student joins the church where she will spend the most time, and then is simply unable to serve in the same capacities when she comes home for the summer.
- The college student keeps her church membership from home and is unable to serve the church fully for the nine months she is in school.
- The college student flip-flops her church membership twice a year. In August, she is voted out of her home church’s membership and into her college church’s membership and in May the switch happens again and so on for the four years of her college career.
- One church embraces a sort of temporary “watch-care” category of membership which opens some of the privileges and responsibilities of church membership while the other invites her into full membership.
- The college student submits to a dual-membership as agreed upon by the pastors, the congregations, and the student.
Options one and two have some obviously negative drawbacks because it forces the student out of the fullness of church accountability and service for a significant period each year whether it be three months or nine months. Option three may actually take the meaningfulness out of meaningful membership because it can so easily be flipped and flopped in such a short period of time. Can pastors totally relinquish all responsibility and accountability for three months only to reclaim that responsibility and accountability again in the Fall? Option four is a viable option, but, it may just be semantics. Option four may actually be a version of option five with a different title. This leads us to the following question?
Is Dual Membership Without Exception an Un-Biblical Category?
You will not find an explicit command in Scripture that prohibits dual church membership, but there are not any explicit commands regarding membership process, membership covenants, membership classes and so on. Much of what we do with membership are practical expressions that are grounded in a theological belief that church membership is a meaningful covenant commitment to a local group of Christians under the oversight of pastors.
Paul, Barnabas, and others found themselves sent out from a local church to help start other local churches in which they would sometimes spend as much as a year to three years. It seems that there was still some sort of connection between both their sending churches and the churches they were starting during the missionary journeys. This does not prove anything, but it does show that there may have been provision made for accountability to two churches at the same time in two distant locations. I do not suppose I will solve this dilemma, but I would like to suggest a few requirements that would have to be in place if dual church membership or some form of “watch-care” membership was embraced as a viable option.
- Both sets of pastors would have to be in communication with one another.
- Both congregations and both sets of pastors would have to agree doctrinally.
- Both congregations and both sets of pastors would have to agree pragmatically as to how the dual membership process would work during different seasons of the individual’s church involvement.
- Both sets of pastors would have to inform the other of any issues that required church discipline.
- If at any point the individual became a full-time resident in one location, they would have to notify the other church of their intentions and the need to be removed from the membership roll.
If these requirements can be met, I do not believe that dual membership is without exception unbiblical or impractical. That does not mean, however, that dual membership is without exception biblical and practical. Dual membership should most definitely not be permitted in cases where people want to keep membership at churches due to things like sentimental reasons. Dual membership is only plausible in unavoidable situations where individuals find themselves living in two different locations for considerable amounts of time throughout the year.
Pragmatic issues such as this should be approached with utmost humility but with an unwavering faithfulness to the Biblical text and to the most careful attention of the flock in which the Holy Spirit has made us overseers. Some churches may come to different conclusions on how to navigate the waters of these less than clear issues, and both churches and pastors should seek unity where it can be achieved. The fact that church membership is supposed to be a meaningful commitment is black and white, but how that fleshes out in certain circumstances may be gray. May we be led by the Spirit, by his grace, and for his glory.