Do Elders Need to be Members of the Congregation?

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Simple answer is yes.

But this kind of a question usually reveals another dynamic going on in the life of the congregation. In our day, membership in an organization is not highly prized. It is seen as a burden and an obligation. Membership restricts our freedom and seems contrary to our sense that church is a volunteer organization. In addition some may not want to become a member because they either do not agree with the doctrines of the church or do not want to embrace the history of the denomination in which church belongs.  

In either case, the call to become a member in order to serve in leadership is seen as a significant change in the way a person has engaged in congregational life. So the question gets asks:  do I have to be a member in order to serve? Do I need to be a member in order to be involved in leadership? 

Let me suggest few important considerations a congregation needs to consider:

  1. While membership is not highly prized in our culture, membership is an essential part of the legal and accountability structure of the congregation. Members vote. Members have legal and fiscal responsibilities.   Elders are accountable by law for its corporate health. An elder must be a member to stand for office and take these responsibilities.  
  2. Elders provide primary leadership within the congregational life. Through prayerful reflection, they make decisions that are intended to guide the congregation and its members in their walk with God  (read the ordination/installation forms). This includes such considerations as budgets, faithfulness to Scripture, faithfulness to the theological tradition, worship and teaching ministries of the congregation. As they exercise their responsibilities they are in covenant with each other, the congregation, and God. The vows of membership and eldership are public ways of taking this covenant seriously. I would want to have elders who promise to take these covenant responsibilities seriously. 
  3. Sometimes a person may have hesitations about becoming a member or serving in council because of particular reservations over doctrinal matters. This is of greater concern. There are two important points to keep in mind: 

a. First, because we are a confessional church (denomination) we have bound ourselves together under a certain understanding of the gospel. When people become leaders within this tradition, they are called to teach and lead under this understanding of the gospel. It would seem to me that as a congregation we would want elders to be faithful in this task. 

b. Second, if a person wishes to become an elder in a congregation believing that it teaches faithful to the Scripture, I can’t imagine that he could not become a member – even if the person has reservations. The reservations can be handled in a few ways. One a person can agree not to teach those things that are contrary to the confessions of the church. Basically a promise to keep a respectful silence. Or a person may go through the church orderly gravamen process (rarely done). If a person could not do this, then this person’s leadership would undermine the congregations and council integrity as members of the CRC.  

In our time there are many who participate in the life of the congregation but do not become members. Part of the ministry of the leadership needs to address the importance of membership covenants and relationships. Many who wish to maintain their freedom and avoid the conversation of membership, fail to take seriously that spiritual growth happens in the context of commitments to God and His church in the particular communities of our lives. This is about our life together in Christ. I want to know that you will be with me and for me. To hear a person make the commitments of membership lets me know that this person will walk with me in this community. 

I recognize that some do not wish to make these commitments. I believe it is to the determent of their spiritual life. It is part of the individualism of our time and the consumerism of the church life. I do not believe it serves the church or individuals well when the membership covenant is not demanded for service in the leadership of the church.  

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