I stood on a stage in June 2013. Well, it was more like a platform where they pulpit resides. I stood with several other people in front of the congregation. We were reciting vows. No, not saying “I do” in matrimony but definitely making a commitment to the local church. We professed faith in Jesus Christ. We agreed to be involved in the life of the church. And, wait for it…we agreed to be submitted to it’s leadership and including, should the need arise, agreeing to church discipline.
“Wait, whoa, what? You actually agreed to THAT? That’s what cults do!” I might be the reaction of the reader. Of course, this came after a 12 week class on basic Christian doctrine, the definition and role of the church and Presbyterian specifics. We each met the pastor and one of the elders to give our testimony and share with them where we are spiritually. This does give one the opportunity to see if this is something they want to be committed to. (On a side note, I have made similar commitments before. But prior to joining the PCA, I came from a place with very loose commitments and little accountability and it showed.)
But given the reaction to the recent social media explosion over The Village Church, I can bet that this scenario immediately inspires thoughts of control, abuse, and squashing love for members. Now granted, there was some fumbling on their part especially considering the highly sensitive and painful nature of circumstances. They did apologize for the careless and insensitive way in which is was handled (not that it will ever be enough for public outrage calling for their pound of flesh). Nonetheless, I’m not writing about that specific incident because there’s been enough ink spilled already. Rather, I want to address the mass response that I saw that by and large rejected any type of commitments to pastoral intervention in the lives of its members. It made me question what exactly do we consider being part of the life of the local church.
I’m no fan of J.D. Hall of Pulpit and Pen nor the site, but I think he delivered what I believe to be a fitting and poignant commentary regarding the situation and specifically the reaction against making any kind of covenant with the local church as unwarranted, unbiblical and otherwise unnecessary. In this post here, he states,
Regarding these misconceptions, let me state four facts for your consideration.
1) Membership in the Local Church is Essential. Oh, yes. I can hear it now. “Church membership is unbiblical.” Church membership is unbiblical in the same way the Trinity is “unbiblical” (which of course, it’s not). Some would like a more explicit rendering, but the the concept is explicitly biblical and irrefutable. To claim “there’s no such thing as church membership in the Bible” is an absurdity because what is required of a church is impossible without at least some form of formal church membership. Various membership lists were created, for example, in what we see regarding widows in 1 Timothy 5:9– they had to know who was and who was not eligible for financial support for the church. As MacArthur points out, it appears that when members moved between churches, letters were shared in order to commend them as good-standing additions (Acts 18:27, Romans 16:1, 2 Corinthians 3:1-2). Elders have specific charge over specific churches and the people in those churches (1 Thessalonians 5:12) and they would have to know who is under their care (having to give an account for those specific people –Hebrews 13:17) and the people would need to know what elder had care over them. Likewise, discipline matters were to be decided by the church (Matthew 18), and a clear understanding of who could be disciplined and who could judge matters of discipline would require membership (could you imagine having to discipline any person who happened to attend service or imagine any person on the street being able to wander in and decide important matters of discipline?). In 1st Corinthians 5, the church members are to “purge the evil person from among [them].” Who is among you, technically? The casual attender? That guy who was here last Easter? The family that drives by on Sunday? Furthermore, who gets to decide to purge this person? Any random person from outside the congregation or a notoriously unrepentant sinner who may infrequently attend the services of the church? Clearly, who was inside and who was outside the church was distinguished for all of these reasons; pastoral care, discipline, decision making, ministry eligibility and more. A certain amount of liberty exists as to how membership may work in a New Testament congregation, but there’s certainly membership or else none of these things are possible.
2. Discipline in the Local Church is Essential. Discipline in Matthew 18 (in the case of interpersonal offense) and 1 Corinthians 5 (sexual immorality and public shame) were mentioned above, but the topic is all throughout the New Testament and especially in the pastoral epistles. The congregation has the authority to decide matters of interpersonal conflict (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Those who stir up division by teaching bad doctrine are to be warned once and twice and then formally removed (Titus 3:9-11). Those cast out by the congregation for unrepentant sin should be brought back by the congregation when they become repentant and be comforted (2 Corinthians 2:5-11). Those who refuse to accept the teaching of the Apostles should be sent out from the church (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15). Those who sin should be rebuked and then restored (Galatians 6:1) upon forgiveness and repentance. A church that does not discipline, simply put, does not fit the mark of a church.
A Necessary Caveat: I think there’s a misconception that “church discipline” involves spanking or scarlet letters or something. A brother privately approaching another with concern over perceived sin is church discipline. A sister informing another sister of how she has been offended is church discipline. Church discipline – for a sin that is continual and unrepentant – may be addressed publicly and (depending upon the seriousness of its nature) lead to complete excommunication (or “disfellowshipping,” as we Baptists like to call it). Already-public sins that have scandalized the church or the Savior should be addressed publicly, while private sins will typically be disciplined privately (unless it’s an elder, who being more accountable as a teacher, is to be rebuked before all –1 Timothy 5:20). Discipline may be encouraging someone not to take the Lord’s Supper lest they heap condemnation on themselves, dismissal or prohibition from teaching or serving, or not giving a letter of good standing to their new church. Ninety-nine percent of “discipline” done in a church is not what you would call “formal” and is not public.
3. Unity in the Local Church is Essential. The church in Philippi was instructed to be of one mind (Philippians 2:2). The church in Colosse was to be bound together in perfect unity (Colossians 3:14). The church in Ephesus was to maintain the unity of the Spirit (Ephesians 4:1-6). The church in Rome was to live in harmony and be together in one accord with Christ (Romans 15:5). The church in Corinth, despite of diverse gifting, was to be completely unified in Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:12-31) – and on and on it goes.Churches must strive for unity in both matters of doctrine and holiness. For this reason exists both confessions of faith and church covenants (confessions cover the former – doctrine, and covenants cover the latter – holiness).
It is here that a skeptic may say, “No creed but the Bible!” My brother (or sister), the Jehovah Witnesses will line up behind you and chant that with you. A Campbellite or Millerite will shout with you, “No creed but the Bible.” And yet, I suspect that if your church is full of Campbellites, Millerites or Watchtower converts, your church will not be unified regardless of the heartiness of your chant, “No creed but the Bible” (that chant, by the way, is a creed). As a Baptist, I should love my Lutheran or Presbyterian brothers…but as we say back in the Ozark hills, “Good fences make good neighbors.” If we’re wrestling over the infant being baptized or boxing over whether or not the charismatic should be blathering to himself in the corner, we’re not unified. May God bless you as you worship in unity…over there. What I’d like to convince Baptists like Pastor Burleson to understand is that if you call yourself a “Baptist” you have a confession of faith, whether or not it is formal or informal. You have one, or you wouldn’t call yourself a Baptist.
A church covenant is similar to a confession of faith because it is designed for unity, but different in that its focus is holiness rather than doctrine. Can’t we all just say, “be holy.” Yes, but what does that mean? What do you think the Bible teaches? The Millerite thinks that means not eating pork. The fundamentalist thinks that means not drinking alcohol. The old-school Baptists thought that meant not dancing. The holiness Pentecostals think that means ladies not wearing slacks. It is best to have unity on what you think holiness looks like from the Scriptures, lest you end up disciplining everyone for everything or – worse yet – doing no discipline at all. A covenant is an agreement on what we believe the Bible teaches regarding the expectations and responsibilities of membership, and exists to unify rather than to divide.
He follows this portion with a really good section on discipline from an historical perspective. This is not an invention of parachurch organizations or sinister people who just want to control others but Scripture itself, which commends commitments to life of the church. I also appreciate how he explained discipline but I would go further to say that I think it carries unfortunate misrepresentation as being punitive. Rather, it is intended to be restorative. I also like that he equated membership covenants with confessions of faith for the sake of unity in the church.
In our anti-authoritarian, anti-institutional age, post-many abuse stories and present leadership distortion age, I do wonder how much of rejecting any notion of submission to pastoral leadership is due to distortions in the pastoral role itself and distorted power structures. As I wrote about in Acceptable worldliness in the Church, adopting CEO style leadership is antithetical to the kind of leadership called for in Scripture, which is about shepherding not salesmanship.
Listen, I get that leadership and discipline in wrong and less than faithful hands can bring harm. But to deny any type of commitment to those who would have watch over your souls, to rebut any type of restorative actions on their part, and to reject making any type of vows to be engaged in the life of the church, is really to reject the Scriptural warrant for submitting ourselves to a local body, to be a part of it and to be transformed by it.
But as Hall points out, if you don’t want to make a commitment and want to be left alone to do as you please, don’t sign anything. Don’t agree to anything if you don’t want pastors in your business to try to help when things go awry. Just be there for your edification and convenience. But then just call it what it is – a consumer.