Why Are The UAE Churches Obsessed With Formal Church Membership?

By | December 13, 2015

“The other day I was talking with a pastor of a largish church. A pastor I respect very much. And he told me he had no idea what is going on in the larger evangelical world. It was the most refreshing thing I’d heard in a long time.”
Matt B. Redmond, Echoes and Stars

“Injury is done the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or larger amount of time is devoted to indulgences than to the Word.”
Thesis 55, The Ninety-Five Theses of Martin Luther (1517)

2015-12-13 Burj Khalifa from Churchill Tower

Josh Manley, senior pastor of the Ras Al Khaimah Evangelical Church in the United Arab Emirates, has recently written an article which was published on The Gospel Coaliton’s website.  Surprising to me is how much attention these 9Marks churches in the UAE garner in the USA.  I would guess the RAK church has 50 members. The Gospel Coalition is a para-church organization; generally it is a forum which gives voice to celebrity Christian “leaders.”  Former celebrities who have resigned from the Gospel Coalition Board include C.J. Mahaney, Joshua Harris, Mark Driscoll and Tullian Tchividjian. Celebrities like D.A. Carson, Tim Keller, Matt Chandler and Kevin DeYoung are current Board members.  Normally you will not see unkown pastors of small churches getting articles published on the TGC website.

But, as the saying goes, “it’s not what you know, but who you know” that matters. Manley has friends in high places, a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Manley is friends with Mark Dever, John Folmar and Albert Mohler. Prior to Manley moving to the UAE he worked for Albert Mohler. Manley was handpicked by John Folmar of UCCD to plant the RAK church. Folmar is good friends with both Albert Mohler and Mark Dever. He served as an assistant pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church for several years prior to becoming senior pastor of UCCD and in 2012 Albert Mohler awarded John Folmar the SBTS distinguished alumni of the year award.

In additon to Manley’s powerful friends playing a role in getting his article on TGC website, there seems to be a mystique among American Evangelicals for any type of Christian ministry carried out in the Middle East.  Observe Pastor Emeritus Piper in the video below for a great example of what I mean.

I imagine you are curious about the subject matter of Josh Manley’s article on the Gospel Coalition website. I would urge you to go here and read the article for yourself.  Manley doesn’t break any new ground in his article, rather he uses his forum to once again emphasize the underlying principle of 9Marx churches –  the importance of formal church membership. It appears this recurring theme is akin to an oath of allegiance to the 9Marx organization. I have mentioned in other articles how Folmar preaches about the importance of formal church membership in nearly every sermon. It would seem there is not a passage in the Bible that doesn’t contain this message.  (Eisegesis anyone?) Here is a brief example culled from several of his sermons.

Even though the message of the importance of formal church membership is often heard in the 9Marx churches of the UAE, apparently it is not being sufficiently grasped by the average pew-sitter.  Therefore, the Big Guns of 9Marx will be making another appearance in Dubai in early January.  That’s right, Mark Dever will be appearing for probably the 4th or 5th time, along with his lieutenant, Jonathan Leeman.

2015-12-04 Dever and Leeman conference at Redeemer

I would now like to analyze what Josh Manley says about church membership. Manley’s quotes will be italicized, my comments will be in blue.

Simply put, church membership is how the divinely ordained assembly of God’s people define the relationship between each other. It’s the mechanism that brings clarity to the relationships in the congregation. It’s how the good lines of God-given authority are exercised. 

Could I have some Scripture passages that lend credence to your assertions Mr. Manley? Because I am unable to find anything in the Bible commanding me to become a member of a local body of believers.

But as with anywhere, fringe involvement in the church takes its toll on the soul and adversely affects the witness of Christ. 

Define “fringe involvement.”  If believer “X” and believer “Y” both attend your church regularly, donate money and otherwise display godly character but believer “X” has not formally joined your church whereas believer “Y” has, would you consider believer “X”  to be one of the “fringe involvement” crowd? Further how would this adversely affect the witness of Christ?  You state further down that unless I am a formal member of your church you will not know me.  If you would not know me, how would an outsider know me?  I think your argument is disingenuous.

 For those struggling spiritually, I long for them to experience the blood-bought graces that could be theirs through intentional, committed membership in the body.

Surely you do not intend to say that members of your church do not have spiritual struggles.  I believe the Christian life is one of constant spiritual struggles, irrespective of whether they buy into your view (which has no Biblical precedent) of formal church membership.

“Come to meall who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” -Matthew 11:28

“Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” -Hebrews 4:16


“Church membership enables pastors to know the souls over whom they’re called to watch and for whom they will one day give an account before God” (Heb. 13:17).

So am I to believe that if I acknowledge Christ as my Savior, am baptized, am a member of the church universal, attend Josh Manley’s church regularly and fellowship with the other 50 or so believers from that church, yet do not formally become a church member Manley will not know my soul?

“When we submit to the local church through formal membership, we help pastors carry out their God-given work of shepherding the flock of God (Acts 20:281 Pet. 5:2). And we tell our brothers and sisters they can expect the kind of Christ-exalting, Spirit-given commitment Christ has purchased for us at the cost of his own blood (Acts 20:28).”

The position of a paid pastor is not mentioned in the Bible, nor can I find any passage stating that I should submit to the local church through formal membership. Further, since formal church membership is nowhere mentioned in the Bible it does not follow that the vehicle of formal church membership tells my fellow believers that “they can expect the kind of Christ-exalting, Spirit-given commitment Christ has purchased for us at the cost of his own blood.” Undoubtedly believers in a local fellowship will love each other and be committed to each other, but to attempt to say this will be so because of formal church membership is an example of eisegesis.

 “But none of you should be called a teacher. You have only one teacher, and all of you are like brothers and sisters.  Don’t call anyone on earth your father. All of you have the same Father in heaven.  None of you should be called the leader. The Messiah is your only leader.  Whoever is the greatest should be the servant of the others.  If you put yourself above others, you will be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honored.
Jesus-Matthew 23:8-12(CEV)”

“This clear statement of Jesus gives background to why you will not find any paid, professional, pastor/teachers in the New Testament.  Not one.  Notwithstanding this clear teaching of Jesus, as well as the unmistakable absence of a professional clergy class in the New Testament, is it not stunning that the central and non-negotiable feature of today’s western churches, the vast majority of which claiming to be modeled after the New Testament, is exactly that: the paid, professional pastor?

All of this, and much more, is the fabrication of the human ego, desperate to maintain security and control over the human resources of the masses.  It is a serious and historic tragedy.  It has reduced adult believers from living confident lives in the understanding of their spiritual identity, to stumbling along like toddlers, always needing the helping hand of the spiritual parent, from whom they must never stray.

As I have said in the past, when I was a paid professional pastor, I became increasingly convinced that someday my cover would be blown.  Someday, someone would simply point out that according to the New Testament and the teaching of Jesus, I am not only not needed, my presence as a spiritual parent is the single most detrimental influence on the spiritual fulfillment of those believers who are under my hypnotic spell.  It never happened.  Only when I began to say that it should, was I shown the door so that a ‘real pastor’ could be brought in.  Welcome to today’s ‘New Testament Church’!”
-“The Pastor Problem,” The Glass Pastor

“It is a universal tendency in the Christian religion, as in many other religions, to give a theological interpretation to institutions which have developed gradually through a period of time for the sake of practical usefulness, and then read that interpretation back into the earliest periods and infancy of these institutions, attaching them to an age when in fact nobody imagined that they had such a meaning.”
Richard Hanson, twentieth-century patristic scholar

“Moreover, through membership, we make an important statement that we’re no longer simply in a “casual” relationship with a particular manifestation of Christ’s body. Rather, we’re in a clearly and biblically defined relationship that enables the church to be all that she’s called to be”

Once again, since Manley hinges his conclusions on formal church membership, which is nowhere to be found in the Bible. I would therefore necessarily say that his conclusions are wrong. He is again engaging in eisegesis.  When we are born again we are placed in the church universal.  This is no casual relationship.  It is not my being in “a clearly and biblically defined relationship that enables the church to be all that she’s called to be” rather, it is Jesus Christ, the head of the church, that enables the church to be all that she can be.

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” -Matthew 16:18

“looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” -Hebrews 12:2

“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.  Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,  from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” -Ephesians 4:11-16

“As we move from place to place as circumstances often necessitate in this world, we should be the people deliberately looking to define our relationship with a church as soon as possible.”

The above statement may sound nice, but what does it mean?  I should be looking to define my relationship with a church as soon as possible?  How is this done?  I assume Manley would say by becoming a formal member of the church.  What does the Bible say?

“But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.” 1 Corinthians 12:18

“so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”  -Romans 12:5

“We should be seeking to make ourselves known to pastors and other believers so they know they can count on us, and we on them.” 

Since Manley mentioned earlier that he can only know my soul if I formally join his church I assume this statement has meaning only through his prism of formal church membership. Additionally, is the only reason I should seek to get to know other believers is so they can know they can count on me?  Count on me for what?  To put some money in the offering plate? To be an official church greeter?  To bring cookies and coffee? To not make waves? To nod my head in agreement with everything the pastor says?  My experience is I can count on the pastor to be my friend right up until the point I disagree with him on anything. 

For the glory of Christ, the good of his people, and our witness to him in the world, let’s labor for churches in which relationships are clearly and biblically defined so that the world might embrace him.

Yes sir, if only our churches have clear, biblically defined relationships the world will embrace Christ.  That must be the key to all the great revivals throughout history – said no one ever.

 “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”  And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.”  So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”  -Acts 2:36-41


In conclusion, it is clear to me that Manley, and 9Marx in general, place way too much emphasis on “formal church membership.” This membership requirement cannot even be found in the Bible.  It is my opinion that their obsession with this man made doctrine has a negative impact on Christ’s church by causing unnecessary divisions and actually driving people away from the local church.


“I once took a seminary class titled “Ministry of the Word” where we were taught the supposed biblical basis of preaching. We were given a list of Greek words for various speech acts used in the New Testament. Our group task was to study preaching from these words: preaching as keryxo; preaching as euangelizomai, and so forth. We looked up the references and synthesized our findings as “A New Testament Theology of Preaching.”  It occurred to a friend and me that the exercise was flawed because we had assumed the conventions of preaching, then sought to validate these conventions with texts. But the group would hear no detraction. Apart from our failure to grasp Paul’s repudiation of sophistry with the Corinthians, it never occurred to the group that there is absolutely no evidence for anything like our conventions of preaching in the New Testament – no expository talks, no pulpits, no ordination, no teaching of eloquence. The evidence does not point to the centrality of a monologue in the early gatherings, let alone the conventions of preaching as we have known them for two millennia.

Back in the main group, the professor defended the method. The centerpiece of his argument was the need for authority: “The Word must be ministered with authority,” and this implied the conventions of preaching. My friend and I asked if the Word was always to be delivered with authority. “Yes,” came the ready answer. “Even in the Bible study groups?” we asked. “Emphatically yes,” our professor replied. “Then why don’t we insist on the same conventions on Tuesday nights as we do on Sunday mornings?” we responded. “Because Sunday is church,” the professor replied, somewhat less enthusiastically. The rejoinder was obvious: “And what in the New Testament leads us to distinguish Sunday mornings from Tuesday nights as though one were ‘real church’ and the other something else? If the distinction is simply our construct, why do we persist with it? If the conventions of preaching are unnecessary on Tuesdays, and if the Bible study leader still ministers the Word with authority, then why do we insist on the conventions for Sundays?”

The argument was coming full circle. The case for preaching starts and finishes by presuming preaching, ordination and church as we know them. Without them control, prestige and power lose their footing. The sermon and the service prop up the conventions of eloquence and authority. No sermon, no church service. No church service, no demarcations of authority and control. But church in the evangelical system is about order and control. Leaders must retain the  “central” ministries. At the very center is preaching. Therefore preaching must remain the domain of the ordained and those whom they acknowledge. Eloquence and erudition must demarcate sermon from conversation, ordained from laity, truth from mere opinion.

Two years later the conversation resumed with the same professor, this time on the second fairway. “You were right.” he admitted. “Church and preaching as we know it is very little like what happened in the New Testament.”

“Why then,” I asked, “do we keep teaching this stuff? Most of your students do not see the discrepancy. How will this ever change?”

His answer was as telling as it was unconvincing: “It was my generation’s work to lay out the biblical theology. It is yours to change the system.””
“Reframing Paul: Conversations in Grace & Community” by Mark Strom

“Experience supplies painful proof that traditions once called into being are first called useful, then they become necessary. At last they are too often made idols, and all must bow down to them or be punished.”
J. C. Ryle, nineteenth-century English writer and minister

Rethinking the Modern Church – an interview of Frank Viola:

“To our forgotten brothers and sisters throughout the ages who courageously stepped outside the safe bounds of institutional Christianity at the risk of life and limb. You faithfully carried the torch, endured persecution, forfeited reputation, lost family, suffered torture, and spilled your blood to preserve the primitive testimony that Jesus Christ is Head of His church. And that every believer is a priest . . . a minister . . . and a functioning member of God’s house. This book is dedicated to you.”
Viola, Frank; Barna, George (2008-01-17). Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices . Tyndale Momentum. Kindle Edition.



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