Church Membership Among Former Mormons? A 9Marks Mailbag

Dear 9Marks,

I have read the Nine Marks material, particularly the emphasis on church membership, and I agree 100%. The problem we face in Utah County is that we have an 85% LDS population and over 90% in our community. As Mormons are leaving their church membership behind and embracing Christ, they are being asked to join another church membership. Having been theologically led astray and sociologically manipulated by their former church, any kind of membership is a huge stumbling block to them, and immediately raises red flags in their mind. Consequently, we do not have an official church membership. How do we ever get to that structure if the people’s experience is a negative one, and they view it as a mechanism of control?

—Steve

__________

Hey Steve,

Your question is extremely important. I hope more pastors in Utah will think about church membership with your level of concern. As our culture becomes more hostile to institutions, pastors everywhere will encounter more skepticism about church membership. In Utah, we have an additional challenge: we minister to people who have been manipulated and deceived by a false authoritarian “church” and its leaders. Many ex-Mormons want the kingdom of Christ, but not membership in the local church. What should we do? Here’s my answer: Teach and practice biblical church membership. I know, it’s not exactly profound advice. But I believe that many ex-Mormon Christians will embrace Jesus’ teaching on church membership when they see it in Scripture and when they see just how different Biblical membership is from the authoritarianism they left behind. Not everyone will be convinced, and that’s okay. We must be willing to lose people over this issue because it’s that important.

In what follows, I offer some reflections on why and how we should talk about church membership with ex-Mormons.

NOT A CONTROL MECHANISM, BUT A BARRIER TO AUTHORITARIANISM

Biblical church membership is not the invention of power-hungry leaders who want to gain authority over people. It’s not a control mechanism. Sure, some church leaders—especially cult leaders of false churches—abuse their power and take advantage of others. That’s what ex-Mormons experienced. But a biblical understanding of church membership actually inhibits such authoritarian abuses from ever happening.

How?

Jesus placed the locus of authority in the members of a church (I write as a congregationalist), not just a few select pastors. The members of a local church—two or three gathered in Christ’s name—are responsible to wield the keys of the kingdom of heaven together (Matt 16:19, 18:18–20). In other words, the whole body must collectively defend and confess the true gospel while affirming one another’s professions of faith in that gospel. Paul did not rebuke the Galatian elders for allowing false doctrine into the church, he rebuked the whole church (Gal 1:8).

I am always encouraged when I get to see the excitement on the faces of those burned by authoritarianism when they learn that biblical church membership is about individual members taking responsibility to ensure that the truth of the Bible is faithfully proclaimed. What if, I ask them, I stood in the pulpit, proclaimed myself a modern-day prophet and preached that tithing is required to make it to heaven? Who would be responsible to call me to recant and repent? Would it be anyone who just happened to walk in the doors on that particular Sunday morning? What if some of them were atheists or Mormons or Muslims or scientologists? They might actually “amen” my false teaching! No, Jesus has entrusted the members of the local church with that kind of responsibility—kingdom of heaven wielding authority on earth. Authority in the LDS church belongs to a select few. Whatever they say goes. Jesus didn’t set up his church that way. In Jesus’ church we are all priest-kings and church members have right and responsibility to oust false or abusive leaders.

FIGHTING FALSE PROPHETS OR SITTING ON THE SIDELINES?

I want ex-Mormons to understand that biblical church membership is a direct assault on Joseph Smith’s strategy to undermine biblical truth by attacking historic Christian creeds. Biblical church membership requires the members of a church to uphold the truths of the gospel through their statement of faith. We must explain to our ex-LDS brothers and sisters that their membership in a local church is part of Jesus’ strategy to preserve the true gospel. Even if our local churches do not adopt a historic confession of faith, our statements of faith reflect the same core theological commitments proclaimed by the church in every generation. By affirming and defending their local church’s statement of faith, church members fight together against false teaching that infiltrates churches and leads people astray.

By refusing church membership, ex-Mormons abdicate the responsibility Jesus has given them to defend the gospel from the kinds of cultish lies they now so heartily renounce. Sure, they can refute Mormonism on social media, blog posts, and personal conversations, but individual evangelistic effort without church membership is like running onto the field of battle alone with no army, no general, and no uniform, while the opposing soldiers whisper to themselves, “Who’s that guy? Whose side is he on?” But in the local church, the members together embrace Jesus’ program for fighting false gospels in their communities. Local churches are outposts of the kingdom of Christ. Do ex-Mormon Christians want to get in the fight against false religions under the Lordship of Christ and under his command, or sit on the sidelines?

By “joining” a local church, ex-Mormons actually take on the responsibility to ensure that the gospel is faithfully taught, new members are warmly received, loved, and discipled, and consciences are not unbiblically bound by abusive, legalistic teachers. In other words, practicing church membership in a true church means they commit themselves to Jesus’ strategy to prevent the lies, abuse, corruption, and authoritarianism that dominated their experience in the Mormon church. To refrain from church membership is to work against the preservation of the truth and the spiritual growth of their fellow Christians.

EX-MORMONS WHO DON’T WANT TO PRACTICE BIBLICAL CHURCH MEMBERSHIP SOMETIMES END UP LOOKING LIKE JOSEPH SMITH MORE THAN THEY REALIZE

I can tell you story after story after story of the Ex-Mormon—let’s call him Joe—who “converted” to Christianity and then fell away. When Joe first made a profession of faith, he seemed like he was on fire for Jesus, but he was skeptical about the local church. He refused to join a church. Joe felt like baptism wasn’t a big deal in light of his new understanding of grace, but decided to go through with it as long as he wasn’t baptized into the local church’s membership. He continued to attend church for a while, but never became a member. Eventually he left the church disgruntled over various issues. He visited a few others, but ultimately decided that none of them were good. Joe wasn’t fond of pastors. He’d rather stay home to listen to preachers on the internet that appealed to his interests.

Eventually Joe started gathering others around him who felt the same way he did. Joe’s “church” had no creed but the Bible, no membership, and no authority structures—except of course for Joe’s authoritative teaching. Joe said he believed the Bible, but experience and “being led by the Spirit” functioned as his ultimate authority. Joe didn’t believe the Trinity was clearly taught in the Bible. It seemed to him the invention of ecumenical councils with political agendas. But theology was less important than spirituality. Joe even concluded that moral people seeking God in other religions could find a place in heaven.

What happened to Joe? I think it’s fair to say that Joe allowed his Mormonism to come full bloom. Ironically, he has become much like another Joe—Joseph Smith. Joe’s church is the true church. Joe is accountable to no one. Joe rejects all creeds and leads others according to his understanding of the Bible. Joe rejects the orthodox doctrine of God because it doesn’t fit with his sensibilities. Sadly, the Mormon religious worldview he so vehemently denies continues to shape his religion.

If we don’t teach and practice church membership, we inadvertently give credence—albeit small and unintentional—to the same kind of private, experiential, and theologically naive ideas that started the Mormon lie. Churches in Utah need to practice church membership for the sake of Joe, the witness of the church, and the watching world.

BREAKING THE BONDAGE OF LEGALISM BY PRACTICING CHURCH MEMBERSHIP

As we both know, a newly converted ex-LDS person has a lot of baggage from the legalism of Mormonism. They tend to view church membership as legalistic, restrictive, and burdensome. Sadly, many well-meaning Christian churches in Utah respond to the legalism of Mormon church membership with a kind of antinomian view of membership— “no church membership necessary here because we’re all about grace!” The problem with this approach is that it actually cultivates the kind of legalism they’re trying to avoid.

As Sinclair Ferguson observes, legalism abstracts the law of God from God’s gracious character.[1] The commands of Scripture divorced from God’s gracious character become not the good and gracious gift of a loving God who has given us everything in Christ and knows what is best for us, but a burdensome duty assigned by a God whose love has to be earned—a God whose commands keep us from real joy.[2] Throwing off the command in the name of grace only bolsters this distorted view of God.

Ex-Mormons are tempted to believe the serpent’s lie to Eve. Ferguson says that Satan wanted Eve to believe that behind the command to refrain from the fruit of the tree was a harsh, restrictive, and demanding God—a God keeping her from true joy by withholding the fruit of one particular tree.[3] Satan wanted Eve to abstract God’s law from God’s gracious character. Satan called God’s love into question by distorting God’s command. The result was Eve’s antinomianism. She rejected the command because it was keeping her, in her mind, from true joy.

When we refrain from church membership, we run the risk of cultivating the kind of legalism (a negative view of commands) already at work in our ex-Mormon friends. We communicate that Jesus’ command for church membership might actually inhibit their joy when nothing could be further from the truth. An antinomian approach to church membership (no membership necessary here) feeds a legalistic disposition that remains suspicious of a God that commands obedience. We do not want foster such misconception by downplaying Jesus’ commands for his disciples.

Our response to a legalistic suspicion of church membership should not follow the course of Eve—jettison the command. Instead, our response should be the gospel. The gospel reveals the depths of God’s grace and love for us. He is not a God whose love has to be earned, but a God who gives us everything in Christ—indeed his very self. When we press the gospel into their hearts and minds, they will see that that behind all of Jesus’s commands is a savior that has already given us everything in himself and indeed knows and wants what is best for us. Faithful pastors, accountability with a body of believers, assembling on the Lord’s day, participating in the Lord’s supper as members are all gracious gifts from a loving Shepherd that died for his flock and summons them to obey all of his teachings for their good. Jesus gives us church membership, indeed commands it, because he loves us and cares for us. He knows that enjoying God is found in glorifying him in every aspect of our lives.[4]

WHAT SHOULD WE DO?

Let’s work hard to fulfill the great commission by making disciples, teaching them to obey all that Jesus has commanded (Matt 28:19–20). Church membership is one of Jesus’ commands. We must be thoroughly convinced of it from Scripture, or we will set it aside in hopes of “better” reaching the lost. We must work hard to teach the meaning of church membership, and to practice it biblically. In church membership classes, at coffee shops, over lunch, in our homes and around our tables, we must disciple ex-Mormons on the importance of church membership. We want them to see biblical church membership lived out as an expression of love. Many of them, with God’s help, will understand and embrace membership. The local church’s health and witness in Utah will grow as a result. We will lose others in the process, but that’s out of our control. Those who refuse church membership will stunt their spiritual growth at best, or eventually commit apostasy at worst. Utah needs more churches that practice biblical church membership for the care of souls, for the sake of the gospel, out of love of our LDS friends, and for the glory of God.


[1] Sinclair Ferguson. The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, & Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters. (Crossway: Wheaton, IL 2016): 82–95.

[2] Ibid. 83.

[3] This whole paragraph relies on Ferguson’s discussion of Eve in Ibid. 80–84.

[4] Ferguson writes, “Legalism can, therefore, be banished only when we see that the real ‘truth about God’ is that when we glorify him we also come to ‘enjoy him forever,’ and with him enjoy everything he has given us. To the unbeliever this is incomprehensible. But it is the happy first principle of the believer’s life.” Ibid. 84.

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