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Posts Tagged ‘church membership’

The idea that the local church is more than an organization which people join and for which there is little, if any, accountability is a foreign one to the twenty-first century American church. Tom Ascol commented on the high tolerance for sin in the fellowship with these observations: “The corporate discipline of the church has gone the way of the Mastodon in the thinking of most Southern Baptists. There was a time when church discipline was recognized by Protestants in general and Baptists in particular as one of the distinguishing marks of a true church. The teaching of Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17 was not only regarded as inerrant, the steps which he outlined there were actually practiced by the churches. Today it is tragically common to have church members living in open immorality with absolutely no response from the congregation of which they are a part.

“Thus it hardly even shocks us to read Hollywood badgirl and former Playboy pinup Shannon Doherty describe herself in TV Guide as ‘just a nice, Southern Baptist, Republican girl.’ Of course she is! Why should shameless immorality stand in the way of being a church member? Somewhere along the line, Southern Baptists have lost their moral nerve. The world’s relativism (‘nothing is always right or wrong’) and sentimentalism (‘because I love you I will let you’) have displaced the Bible’s moral absolutism and genuine love that cares enough to correct.

“John Dagg, the first Southern Baptist theologian to produce a systematic theology textbook . . . , argued that ‘when discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.’ If Dagg is correct, what does that say for the state of our churches today?” (Thomas Ascol, “Southern Baptists at the Crossroads: Returning to the Old Paths,” The Founders Journal, Winter/Spring 1995, 3).

Jesse Mercer was one of the most renowned of Georgia and Southern Baptists during the first four decades of the 1800’s. Historian Charles Mallary noted: “Mercer firmly held to the necessity of church discipline. He maintained that ‘all divisions are the fruit of contention and strife, originating in pride and ambition, the agitating of “unlearned questions,” or departures from the true faith and order.’ He continued: ‘I consider the causes of these divisions, which have rent our churches and spoiled our beauty, as a denomination, are to be found in the neglect of a godly discipline, and the consequent results’” (Memoirs of Elder Jesse Mercer, 248).

Avoiding church discipline has always been the easy way for churches. L. Fletcher, in the December 12, 1855, issue of Kentucky’s Western Recorder, recounted how believers are to “Let their light so shine before men as to exert a healthful and saving influence upon the community around them.” He reminded readers that Christians reveal their love for the Lord by their obedience. He noted pointedly that “as Baptists, we glory in proclaiming to the world that the Word of God is our only rule of faith and practice. And yet, we fear that very few of our churches either believe or practice all the teachings and requirements of the Son of God!”

The cause of Fletcher’s concern was the failure of some churches to exercise church discipline. “Our principles and practice when legitimately carried out and rightly understood, commend themselves to the judgment and understanding of all honest and unprejudiced minds; but, when there is a glaring discrepancy between what we profess and practice, our doctrines become unsavory and our name a reproach.” Churches which refuse to discipline members of known sins greatly hinder their influence in the world for the cause of Christ: “Can we think it strange that, under such circumstances, we have so few revivals of religion, or that so many that profess conversion under the high pressure system of protracted meeting, return again to the beggerly elements of the world?”

Fletcher reminded his readers that discipline is not for revenge, but “with a view to the well-being of the offender, the purity of the church, and the honor of Christ.” His concluding remarks need to be broadcast to Baptist churches in our day, churches unfortunately more concerned with numerical success than with biblical faithfulness: “Let all our churches, instead of glorying in the number of their membership, go to work with the pruning knife of discipline, and disencumber themselves of their unfruitful branches, and thus purge out the old leaven of unrighteousness that has hitherto paralyzed their influence for good, and then they will become as beautiful as Tirzah, comely as Jerusalem, and as terrible to evil-doers as an army with banners.”

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How strict should a church be about its membership? Should everyone who applies be admitted? Should members who quit attending be removed from the membership? Does membership really matter?

These are not easy questions. Admittedly, they are rarely asked in our day. It has been said that there’s nothing easier to join than a Baptist church and nothing harder than removing a name from the roll. Churches regularly have on their rolls names of persons who have not attended in years.

Frankly, the way “church” has been done during most of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century among American Baptists has, for the most part, been a gross departure from our Baptist heritage and the Scriptures themselves. Seventeenth-century British Baptists suffered persecution in the form of lost civil rights, loss of employment, and imprisonment because they dared insist that the local church be comprised of regenerate believers. Only those who gave evidence of having been truly converted were allowed into the church’s membership. They recognized that, as members of the church, they were expected to live according to standards of godliness. Leading godly lives was not an effort to satisfy God; such an effort would have been legalism. Rather, the reputation of the church and of God himself was at stake. If church members lived according to the standards of the world around them, then the church would be not different than the world and God no longer would be seen as holy.

The most basic reason for the existence of the local church is to glorify God. The apostle Paul wrote, “To him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever” (Ephesians 3:21). Consequently, the question which must be asked is this: How does the church glorify God? Obviously, it is only possible to glorify God if we obey his Word. It is impossible to live in disobedience while claiming to love the Lord. Did not Jesus himself ask, “But why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46).

Obviously, no church sets out to be disobedient to God. Disobedience, however, becomes evident when scriptural commands are neglected. For instance, the Bible could not be more clear about the necessity of church discipline. Both Jesus, in Matthew 18, and Paul, in 1 Corinthians 5 and Titus 3, make clear that discipline is necessary for a faithful church. Yet church discipline has gone the way of the horse and buggy. As a matter of fact, you may as likely see a horse and buggy being used for transportation than find a Southern Baptist church exercising church discipline.

What about meaningful church membership? Why is it that most Baptists act as though church membership is an inherent human right, regardless of how one conducts one’s life or even whether one regularly attends the worship services of the church? Such a notion was completely foreign to Baptist history prior to late 1800’s. For instance, Dr. Greg Wills, Professor of Church History at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, illustrates: “Baptists gained such a reputation for spiritual exclusivism that even religious southerners hesitated to join. Many attended regularly without seeking membership. In 1791, John Asplund, a Baptist pastor who traveled up and down the eastern seaboard gathering statistics on American Baptists, estimated that the ‘congregations,’ those who attended church but were not members, totaled several times the number on the membership rolls. ‘There is in reality more Baptists than on this list, when we consider those who have not joined any church, excommunicated, &c. and a large number attend the meetings, at least three times as many as have joined the church.’ A generation earlier, the clerk of the Philadelphia Baptist Association reported ‘partly from their [the churches] letters to the Association, and partly from private information,’ that the churches of the association had 4,018 members and 5,970 ‘hearers.’ The total number of people who participated in Baptist congregations was thus some ten thousand, two and a half times the number of church members. Jesse Mercer, longtime president of the Georgia Baptist Convention and editor of the weekly Christian Index, estimated in 1835 that Baptists in the United States numbered 400,000, with ‘certainly not less than twice that number of persons attached to our congregations, who are not church members,’ making the total number of adherents 1.2 million, three times the number of church members” (Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South, 1785-1900, [New York: Oxford University Press, 1977], 14).

As Wills points out, the number of those attending worship in Baptist churches was much larger than the actual membership. Because churches expected membership to be meaningful and members had responsibilities, many attenders were reticent to join. How different is our day, when members don’t even have to attend to continue as members in good standing. We need to continue the difficult process of attempting to restore the concept of meaningful membership. Anything less than that is foreign not only to Baptist history but, more importantly, to the Bible itself (for instance, read Hebrews 10:24-25 and 1 John 2:19).

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