I recently received two very good questions. (1) What are your thoughts on (church) membership and how important should it be? (2) When you do "exclude" church members, how would you go about this process?
These questions arose because someone surfed to my history web site (www.christianchronicler.com) and found some Q&A I did while at First Christian Church in Canton, OH. Over several years I received numerous biblical and doctrinal questions I answered on the FCC web site. Today it isn't "politically correct" to emphasize doctrine so the Q&A was taken down shortly after I left leaving it in my purview to post it on my own site. One question asked if there were any reasons to exclude (excommunicate) people from a church. My response was that the Bible teaches three reasons for putting people out of the congregation: (1) The denial of Jesus; (2) Sexual sin; and (3) Creating factions or division. Both questions above can be tied to this discussion.
Question 1 In my opinion, the continuing emphasis to grow large congregations contributes to a declining interest in church membership. I'm sure there are many other dynamics contributing to it as well, but in a culture that avoids commitment it is easier to gather large numbers than call for membership commitment. Southern Baptist preacher Rick Warren teaches that membership relates to commitment and identifying with a specific congregation is a statement that the member is committed to Christ and the work of the local church.
I think there is a biblical issue at the heart of the matter. The Bible teaches that when a person is immersed into Christ they become part of the body of Christ. Immersion, according to Scripture, is the time when a person of faith transitions from the kingdom of Satan to the kingdom of God. Granted, there is no guarantee that a person's heart is right or that he/she truly believes Jesus is God's Son and trusts him alone for salvation, but baptism into Christ remains an external indication of that commitment. Therefore, membership in a local church provides a means by which the leaders can identify those who have (at least) made that step of commitment.
There is a practical issue, too. Identifying with a local congregation means (or should mean) that the individual is willing to submit to the elders' of a particular assembly. God placed the elders as "superintendents" of God's flock. They are responsible for assuring the teaching of sound doctrine and to maintain a congregation's commitment to God, Christ, and Scripture. This means, among other things, that it is the elders who are responsible for maintaining a congregation's good character and reputation and that implies they are responsible for loving discipline when necessary. They are to serve the church not "lord it over" the members. They lead by example.
In the Restoration Movement the concern has not been simply adding "members" as one would recruit members for a service club or fraternal order. The concern is for evangelism and bringing individuals into relationship with Christ and his church.
Question 2 The answer to this question is partially answered in the response to the first. Church discipline falls into the responsibility of the elders. Biblically, however, the whole congregation must also be involved. The primary method is to follow Christ's directive in Matthew 18:15 and following. Discipline starts with an individual who is wronged or concerned. Galatians 6:1 indicates that an erring brother must be confronted with loving care. The example in 1 Corinthians 5 indicates that Paul insisted the church in Corinth discipline a brother who was overtaken with a serious fault. He recommended "delivering the erring one to Satan" (putting him out of the assembly) until he repented. Contemporary Christians, perhaps afraid of legal ramifications, ignore these biblical instructions and examples. The result is Barna's studies revealing that Christian morality is hardly distinguishable from that of the secular world. Today's church simply does not take sin seriously. To talk about sin is politically incorrect.
In the not so distant past, a church member needed a "letter" to transfer membership from one assembly to another. This letter indicated they were a member in good standing and not subject to any church discipline. By the 1960s, few churches required letters opting instead to write the individual's previous congregation to inform them of a transfer. This provided an opportunity to communicate any problems that existed. In the 1970s and 80s, there was little or no communication between the current and previous congregations other than a note that the previous congregation "should change their records." Today there is no communication at all in most cases. I have known of situations where individuals were members of two or more different congregations at the same time.
A plurality of denominations and an unwillingness to "check out" new members leads to the fear that any discipline simply leads to "going down the road." So, in effect, we are back to the numbers game.
Discipline need not be unkind or unloving. In fact, the biblical picture of church discipline is just the opposite. The recalcitrant were removed and "treated as a gentile." That doesn't mean hatred; that means lovingly communicating the gospel and calling the individual to repentance. No church discipline should ever be practiced "without tears." But…we live in a culture where parents are afraid to discipline their children; it is no wonder church leaders are afraid to discipline the children of God.
Practicing church discipline is not denying the "grace standard." It is, in fact, applying it! Even when such discipline requires exclusion in extreme situations, it must be accomplished with unconditional love for the disciplined. This may seem paradoxical, but much of Christianity is! We save our life by losing it; we gain status by becoming humble and so on. It is entirely possible to discipline, not from anger or vengeance, but from love.
May we seek a restoration of biblical membership and discipline!