“Yahweh makes a record in writing of his people;
‘This one was born there.’ Selah!”
Yahweh makes a record in writing of his people. Indeed. Such is language that anticipates what we know better as the Lamb’s Book of Life (Philippians 4:3; Revelation 3:5; 13:8;17:8; 20:12,15; 21:27). Yet, do not think of this book as something that is entirely a New Testament concept, for we find this language not only in this psalm, but in places like Psalm 56:8 and Daniel 12:1. In fact, an argument can be made that this language extends back as far as Genesis 5:1, where it speaks of the book of the Generations of Adam — a book that follows the line of God’s promise from Adam to Noah and his sons. No other children of Adam and his descendants are mentioned, just those who preserve the line that will eventually lead to the Messiah…a line of faithful fathers.
Here lies the heart of the practice behind churches establishing “rolls” or membership lists. Yes, they are practical and useful for things like accountability, church discipline, and knowing who might be given the privilege of voting on a church decision, but practical does not always mean that there is a Biblical basis for something, and if a church is going to establish a precedent like this, like taking vows of membership, then one must ground that in the Bible, not pragmatism (of course, that concept opens a whole new can of worms for many churches!).
Thus, we look back and see that God lists names in his book…names of those who he will redeem across the course of time (remember, this book was written before the foundation of the earth — Revelation 13:8; 17:8). Further, you see the people of Israel constantly making lists of names every time God renews his covenant with them. While names listed on a set of human rolls are not synonymous with the names God lists on his rolls of the elect, the human rolls are meant to anticipate and reflect the divine rolls. Thus, before someone enters into church membership, we expect them to make a credible profession of faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. If the profession is not made, the person’s name has no business being on the rolls. Further, when someone, by the manner of their lifestyle, demonstrates that their profession is not genuine, their names are removed from the rolls as a part of church discipline, thus handing them over to Satan (to use the language of the Apostle Paul).
There is a trend today to move away from formal church membership. People like being able to preserve their anonymity and they don’t like binding commitments or accountability. Further, many pastors do not like giving the folks in their churches a vote in matters is significance — many pastors seeing themselves as the president of CEO of an organization and not as the shepherd of a church (and there is a world of difference). Paul speaks of the church appointing leadership by the raising of their hand (Titus 1:5); that is voting. But who votes? If you do not have a formal membership process where confessing Christians covenant with the other believers in the local body around them, how do you preserve the vote as one made by believers? Plus, how does one justify walking away from the Biblical precedent that we find throughout the Old Testament? God indeed makes a written record of his people; we ought to do the same in our churches.