Church Membership and Church Discipline

Although penned a decade ago, Stephen Pribble‘s lengthy but provocative article on whether church membership is optional is an excellent read. An excerpt is below:

Is church membership, then, a necessity, or is it somehow optional (“I can join if I feel like it”)? Let’s put it another way: Is obedience to Christ a necessity or an option? This question must be asked today because many people have the mistaken idea that to be a Christian all they must do is pray a simple prayer and then they will be forever saved. No particular transformation may ever be evident in their lives. They may never be able to give up any pet sins. They may never have any desire to read their Bible or attend church regularly. They may never exercise spiritual leadership in their family or have a credible Christian witness. They may never amount to anything for Christ. But that’s all right (it is thought) for there are two levels of sanctification: Christian and Super-Christian! Not all Christians must become obedient to Christ. Not all must deal with sin. Not all must read their Bible or attend church regularly. Those things are only for Super Christians, those who have attained a higher level of spirituality.

But is this what Scripture teaches? Not at all! The Apostle John wrote, “If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth…. He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (I John 1:6, 2:4). Thus, the Scriptures know nothing of a Christian who will not give up his sin, who will not keep God’s commandments. Those who refuse to bring their lives into conformity with the will of God place themselves in mortal danger of eternal damnation.

Is church membership optional? For the Christian, who is obligated to live his life according to every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God, it is only necessary to determine: Does God’s Word require it or not? What does our text say? “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves.” That is pretty clear, isn’t it? There is no getting around the fact that the disciple of Jesus Christ is under solemn obligation to submit obediently to the lawful authority of Christ’s church. Submission to lawful authority—whether familial, civil or ecclesiastical—is not a popular concept these days, but it is what God requires in the interest of a well-ordered and prosperous society, and the church must begin to preach this doctrine again or face God’s righteous fury.

By way of application, let me suggest four courses of action. First, it is absolutely essential that you put yourself under the proper authority of a local branch of the true church which has been instituted by Christ. The true church may be identified by three marks: the faithful preaching of the whole counsel of God, the proper administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper, and the consistent practice of church discipline. A church that fails in any one of these three areas is not a true church.

Second, transfer your membership, if necessary, to a church possessing those three marks. You may have to travel some distance at a great deal of personal inconvenience to find one. You may have to move to another area at a cut in pay. Are you ready to make the sacrifice? Obedience to God demands it.

Third, if you move to another community, transfer your membership right away. How can a church exercise proper spiritual oversight over a member out of its bounds? What if there is no local branch of a true church in a community? Then the Christian simply should not move to that community. Some time ago a newsletter writer was asked, “What should the Christian do who lives in an area where he cannot find true worship of the Lord? It is not economically feasible to move.” His answer: “That’s what Lot said. And Mrs. Lot, too. But they eventually moved. Rapidly, as it turned out”!

Fourth, evaluate the way you are directing your mission dollars. Do the organizations you support have a proper scriptural understanding of the church? Are they accountable to a church, or only to a hand-picked board? And do they contribute to the establishing of new churches, or only seek for “decisions”? No organization which does not in some way encourage the establishing of churches is worthy of your mission dollars. Redirect your mission dollars immediately; responsible stewardship demands this.

God’s Word requires, “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves.” Are you willing to live out the implications of this plain command? God will bless you if you do.

The quote that caught my eye was “The true church may be identified by … the consistent practice of church discipline.” I have never been in, around or heard of, a church body that practiced “regular” church discipline. Admittedly, my church does it when a church member is committing open adultery or stealin from the church, the Bible doesn’t specify that only the “big” sins are being worthy of church discipline.

Do you know of a church that practices church discipline regularly? What sins are and are not supposed to be addressed by church discipline?


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