These are the two major missing ingredients in most churches today. Sadly the commitment-less, non-judgmental and PC-heavy mindset which characterises the world also characterises much of the church. For too many believers church is a place of entertainment, therapy and self-esteem boosting.
When it fails to amuse, or meet their perceived needs, they simply move on and check out the next church. This complete lack of commitment means there is no accountability, no responsibility, and no real body life. And all this can be compounded in the mega-churches.
How many believers slip in and slip out of the big churches each week, totally unknown, unnoticed and unattached? Sure, the leaders of these big churches will say that they need to plug into a small group. But I suspect most Christians in these larger churches are not part of a small accountability group.
Thus the majority are just slipping through the cracks. And that means there may well be many who attend our churches every week who are not even saved. This lack of accountability and transparency means that many are just fooling themselves.
Pastor Mark Dever from Washington DC has done much to correct these dangerous trends. To set the stage for what he is doing, let me cite some words he gave to 8000 ministers at a recent conference. The evangelical pastor warned: “My fellow pastors, could it be that many of our hearers each week aren’t saved, even many of our members?”
And he emphasised five key truths which are seldom taught, contributing to this problem: God’s judgment is coming, we should be judged by God, our only hope is in Christ, we don’t see the fullness of our salvation in this life, and we can deceive ourselves and others about our relationship with God. By not teaching these truths clearly, churches become filled with those who do not “evidence the fruit of the Spirit” or who aren’t truly born-again.
He has done a lot to turn this around. In addition to speaking at conferences and modelling things in his own church, he has penned a number of important volumes here. His Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Crossway, 1997, 2004) and What Is a Healthy Church? (Crossway, 2005, 2007), lay out some of the key features of a living, thriving church.
A whole series of related initiatives have come out under the rubric of 9Marks. A number of books and products have already come out of this, and a series of books examining each of these nine marks in more detail is also under way. Thus Jonathan Leeman has already penned two volumes: Church Membership and Church Discipline (both Crossway, 2012).
Related volumes include Greg Gilbert’s What is the Gospel? (Crossway, 2010), and Mike McKinley’s Am I Really a Christian? (Crossway, 2011). My review of the latter volume can be found here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/03/18/a-review-of-am-i-really-a-christian-by-mike-mckinley/
Church membership and church discipline are two of the nine marks Dever speaks to. The two of course are intimately connected. As to the former, he reminds us that while the New Testament sometimes speaks of the church universal, mostly it is referring to the local congregation. And it is a body of believers with definite insiders and outsiders. Some were included and some were excluded – there were clear boundary lines drawn.
As Dever writes, “If you read the story of the early churches recorded in the book of Acts, there is no evidence that any of them meant to have anyone other than believers as members. When you read the letters of Paul it seems clear that Paul too wrote as if the churches were composed entirely of believers; thus he addressed them as saints – those whom God has specially chosen. The church is the body of Christ, the local collection of Christians committed to Christ and to each other.”
Of course joining a local church will not save you, but it will “help you in making certain you are saved”. Indeed, joining a church “will help counter our wrong individualism and will help us to realize the corporate nature of Christianity”.
And again, “Church membership is our opportunity to grasp hold of each other in responsibility and love”. As Leeman defines it, “church membership is a formal relationship between a church and a Christian characterized by the church’s affirmation and oversight of a Christian’s discipleship and the Christian’s submission to living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church.”
Or less formally, it is “all about a church taking specific responsibility for you, and you for a church.” It is about accountability, responsibility and commitment in other words – often missing ingredients in many Christians’ lives today.
Closely connected with church membership is church discipline. We expect parents to discipline us, and we expect God to discipline us – in both cases because they love us and they want the best for us. But God has also ordained that the local church becomes this place of discipline for Christians.
And it is not just a negative thing. Says Dever, “notice that much of discipline is positive discipline, or as it is traditionally called, ‘formative discipline.’ It is the stake that helps the tree grow in the right direction, the braces on the teeth, the extra set of wheels on the bicycle.”
But many believers today think that any type of discipline, correction or reproof is just judging, and they will appeal to texts like Matthew 7:1. But as Dever replies, “Whatever Jesus meant by not judging in Matthew 7, He didn’t mean to rule out the kind of judging He mandated in Matthew 18… If you think about it, it is not really surprising that we as a church should be instructed to judge. After all, if we cannot say how a Christian should not live, how can we say how a Christian should live?”
Says Leeman, “Broadly speaking, discipline is necessary whenever a disciple departs from the way of Christ by sinning. It’s necessary whenever a gap opens up between a Christian’s profession and life, and the so-called representative of Jesus fails to represent Jesus. Most often, discipline occurs informally and privately. . . . Occasionally, the process occurs formally and publicly.”
Also, “All sin is wrong. All sin misrepresents Jesus. But some sins or sin patterns will cause a whole assembly of people to lose trust in a person’s profession of faith. . . . So the church removes its public affirmation by barring the member from the Lord’s Table. It takes away his passport and announces that it can no longer formally affirm the individual’s citizenship in Christ’s kingdom.”
Of course all this is just basic New Testament Christianity. But the reason it sounds so strange and alien today is because so much of the church has moved away from New Testament Christianity. Neither membership nor discipline is talked about much, and even less practiced, in today’s churches.
As Martyn Lloyd-Jones said a half century ago: “It is almost true to say that such a thing as discipline in the Christian Church is non-existent today. When did you last hear of a person being excommunicated, or of a person being kept back from the Communion Table? Go back to the history of Protestantism and you will find that the Protestant definition of the Church is, that ‘the Church is a place in which the Word is preached, the Sacraments are administered, and discipline is exercised’. Discipline, to the Protestant Fathers, was as much a mark of the Church as the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments. But we know very little about discipline. It is the result of this flabby, sentimental notion that you must not judge, and which asks, ‘Who are you to express judgment?’ But the Scripture exhorts us to do so.”
Or as Albert Mohler put it more recently: “The decline of church discipline is perhaps the most visible failure of the contemporary church. No longer concerned with maintaining purity of confession or lifestyle, the contemporary church sees itself as a voluntary association of autonomous members, with minimal moral accountability to God, much less to each other.”
Dever offers these summary remarks about these two areas: “Membership draws a boundary line around the church, marking the church off from the world. Discipline helps the church that lives inside of that boundary line stay true to the very things that are cause for drawing the line in the first place”
Both these topics deserve much more comment of course. Hopefully in future articles I can do just that. But consider this as an introductory write up, and an admonition to seek to get back to biblical discipleship and church life. This is a major need of the day, and we all can do our bit to make it happen.
Note: Just moments ago an important new volume arrived in the mail: John Hammett and Benjamin Merkle, eds., Those Who Must Give an Account: A Study of Church Membership and Church Discipline (B&H, 2012). It is too late to incorporate this here; but that volume will be worth an entire review in itself, so stay tuned.