Category Archives: Church practice

Serious Obligations Require Order

Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,

Even a cursory glance at the relationships described in the New Testament brings us to an irrefutable conclusion – the local church is serious business.  God has called us into weighty accountability with our leaders and meaningful obligations with our brothers and sisters.  He requires these relationships to function according to His word, and we not only ignore what God has said to our own peril, we also miss out on the richness of a life that transcends the shallow connections of the “normal” church.

The obligations of those who lead and those who follow

Hebrews 13:17 is striking:  “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account.  Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.”  If that doesn’t give you pause about  your choice of a local church, you haven’t thought about it very deeply.  Obey.  Be submissive.  Give an account for souls.  This should make leaders and followers equally sober-minded.  This is no baby shower, where we show up, chat awhile, eat cake and then go home.

And that admonition is far from isolated.  Paul says, “And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake.  Be at peace among yourselves” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13).  We see a theme developing.  There is very real structure and authority in the church, but it is intended to be anything but adversarial.  It is serious but affectionate.  Those who follow recognize and highly esteem their leaders in love, and those who lead work hard on behalf of those in the church.  Souls are being watched out for.  Honor is being rendered.

1 Timothy 5:17 continues the theme:  “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine.”  Diligent oversight.  Labor.  Honor.

So the obligations are serious.  No one could deny that.  Question:  What initiates all this?  Attendance?  On the first Sunday, or the fifth, or the twelfth? How do we decide? For now, let’s simply agree that we must decide.  There must be criteria.  It cannot be that you have an accountability for my soul, being over me in the Lord, and I am obligated to obey you, on the first Sunday and without knowing each other.  That flies in the face of any description of New Testament church life.  There is something real and significant here, and the very nature of the obligations requires some mechanism of order, some way to understand when this leader/follower line is being crossed.

The mutual obligations of  the “one anothers”

The seriousness isn’t limited to the relationships between leaders and followers.  In fact, the greater weight may be in the mutual care we should have for one another.  This is less than half the list, but here are my favorite “one anothers”:

  1. Be devoted to one another (Romans 12:10)
  2. Bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2)
  3. Be kind to one another, forgiving each other (Ephesians 4:32)
  4. Speak to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19)
  5. Be subject to one another in the fear of Christ (Ephesians 5:21)
  6. Do not lie to one another (Colossians 3:9)
  7. Encourage one another and build up one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
  8. Stimulate one another to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24)
  9. Do not speak against one another (James 4:11)
  10. Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another (James 5:16)
  11. Keep fervent in your love for one another (1 Peter 4:8)
  12. Be hospitable to one another (1 Peter 4:9)
  13. As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another (1 Peter 4:10)

Now, there is no arguing that these “one anothers” are to be restricted to only those in our particular local church.  Clearly we owe a debt of love to everyone in the body of Christ with whom we come into contact.  But look at the list! How many of these can be accomplished to a meaningful degree outside of the week-in-and-week-out rhythm of healthy church life? Not many.  I need people sowing into my life through the months, years, and decades, and I hope to have the privilege of doing the same.  Few things are as frustrating as investing a year or two into a “we’re not sure who we are” church, only to find out that there are the most fundamental incompatibilities in doctrine or practice.  Back to square one.  Better luck next time.

We need to be thinking in terms of decades, not weeks or months, and that requires a reasonable basis for longevity.  What is my family going to be taught? What is expected of me? What can I expect? People who intend to invest for decades have a right to solid, explicit answers.

All churches have membership 

Here is the reality:  all churches have membership, even the ones that don’t.  What I mean is that there are commands to be obeyed, based on the serious obligations that exist in the local church, and this requires us to order our life together.

I’ll never forget my first weeks as a deacon.  Four of us were appointed as a brand new deacon team, none having prior experience as a deacon.  We had read the books but not yet served in the office.  To shorten the learning curve, we connected with a very experienced deacon from another church.  He was so kind to talk us through issues we might face and provide the working documents their team used to keep on top of their duties.  Since theirs was a Brethren church, I was more than a little surprised to find a “member since” slot on their benevolence form.  When I asked him about it, he explained that they didn’t really have members, but that they needed a way to prioritize the people who had been committed to the church, and this was a way to identify them.

Benevolence isn’t the only area that requires understanding who is who.  What about appointing leaders? Do you know of a church that appoints leaders with whoever happens to be present? Would that be consistent with the New Testament admonition to carefully qualify candidates (1 Timothy 3:1-10), not laying hands on them hastily (1 Timothy 5:22)? Of course not.

When you don’t have official church membership, you may very well end up with ill-conceived, informal, impromptu membership.  But when matters like these arise, you will have membership, by that name or another.

The punch line is that leaders ought to know with clarity who they are leading and who has actually made the commitment to follow.  Implied commitment in either direction is a lousy substitute.  And we ought to be on record as being ready and willing to “one another” our brothers and sisters in the local church for the foreseeable future.  Nothing less than this forms a sufficient basis for the serious obligations that are part and parcel of the New Testament church.

May God give us such a life together! And may we be faithful to these relationships that have been given to us as a blessing.

Soon I will discuss Argument 4:  The Regulative Principle Requires Church Membership (not precludes it).

The Local Church Is a Flock

Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,

What is the local church? The local church is a distinct Biblical entity, but that simply tells us that it is, not what it is.  The question is essential, given that our answer greatly determines our conduct in the church, but it isn’t a question for us to decide for ourselves.  The answer has been given to us by the apostles.

In the inspired view of Paul and Peter, the local church is a flock.

Paul – “take heed to all the flock”

Knowing this is his last opportunity, Paul sends for the Ephesian elders.  The gathering is recorded in Acts 20:17-38.  Paul reminds them of his manner of life among them, exhorting them to follow his pattern.  Then he says this:  “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28).  Fundamentally, the local church is a flock, complete with shepherds who are to feed and protect.  This is a beautiful picture of a very practical way in which God provides feet-on-the-ground care for His people.

These shepherds, put in place by the Holy Spirit, are exhorted to give attention to “all the flock”.  It isn’t “teach Christians” or “encourage believers,” although there is ample basis in the Scriptures for both.  It is “take heed to all the flock”.  The task and the target are both eminently specific, not generic.  Take heed.  All the flock.  No wondering who to shepherd here.

Peter – “shepherd the flock” 

What Peter teaches in 1 Peter 5:1-4 is so similar to Acts 20 that it would almost suffice to say “ditto”.  In the opening verse of the book, we learn that Peter is writing to “the pilgrims of the Dispersion”, and in the fifth chapter he narrows his exhortations to the elders of these scattered congregations.  “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers” (1 Peter 5:2a), he tells them.  They are to serve selflessly, tenderly, and by example.  They are to shepherd the flock like the Chief Shepherd does.

Again, the task and target couldn’t be more specific.

So what?

This all has tremendous significance, given the rich Biblical teachings which draw on the imagery of sheep, flocks, and shepherds.  The implications are profound.  Shepherd elders aren’t the Chief Shepherd, but they have been given passages like Psalm 23 and John 10 to learn what it means to serve after the manner of their Master.  The shepherds are to know, feed, and protect the sheep.  The sheep are to know and follow their shepherds.  “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (John 10:27).  In fact, when things function by God’s design, when one in a hundred goes missing, the shepherd notices, goes in search, and rejoices at the safe return (Matthew 18:12-13).

Not exactly the arm’s length, “hide and not seek” atmosphere of the modern evangelical church, is it? But it is the local church of Paul and Peter.  And isn’t this what we want – churches where faithful men have a vigilant eye on the people of the congregation, really knowing them and really being known by them?

This is the heart of God for His people.

Next is Argument 3:  Serious Obligations Require Order.

More to come.

The Local Church Is a Distinct Biblical Entity

Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,

This post is part of a series on church membership.  If you missed the introduction, you can find it here.

It could go without saying that by and large, professing Christians have become very casual about the local church.  A common view is that membership in the worldwide body of Christ is the thing that really matters, and the local church is simply the gathering of nearby Christians who happen to share a doctrinal persuasion.  Because that view only represents a sliver of the New Testament’s teaching on the subject, people come or go, attend or stay home, invest or fritter, with no awareness of how one or the other relates to faithfulness.

I want to argue that the inspired authors of the New Testament actually put forward the local church as a real, distinct entity, one which serves critical functions, and that this has monumental implications for our life together.

Big-C, little-c

Most Christians understand and affirm the existence of the Big-C-Church.  This is the universal church, the people of God, past, present, and future.  Ephesians 4:4 says, “There is one body”.  This is the Church.  Simple enough.  The author of Hebrews speaks of “so great a cloud of witnesses”(Hebrews 12:1), which includes the great men and women of faith from the preceding chapter – Noah, Sarah, Abraham, Moses, and Rahab, to name a few.  One day all those of faith will sit down with them at a great wedding feast.  What a Church!  What a glorious prospect!

The little-c-church may be a bit foggier in our minds.  What exactly are these local assemblies of professed believers, these local churches where we have most of our eyeball-to-eyeball interaction with brothers and sisters in Christ? The New Testament sets forth a clear testimony of the local church as a distinct entity.

View of the inspired New Testament authors

–  1 Corinthians 1:2, Paul writes “To the church of God which is at Corinth”.  Can we agree that this is not the Big-C-Church? However the parameters are defined, it is clear enough that this is a church with borders.  This isn’t an open letter to Noah, Sarah, Abraham, Moses, Rahab et al.  It is a rather personal letter to a distinct group of people.  Later in the same chapter, verse 11, Paul bemoans the contentions that have been declared to him, and then in verse 13 he asks, “Is Christ divided?”  He means, “Is the Big-C-Church divided?”  This is a rhetorical question and the obvious answer is “No!”  At first glance it may seem like this argues against the local church as a distinct entity, but actually the opposite is true.  It gives us a picture of the local church that mirrors the character of God.  Is God one?  Yes.  Deuteronomy 6:4, “The LORD our God, the LORD is one!”.  Is God many? He is Three.  Genesis 1:26, Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image”; Matthew 3:16,17, and behold, the heavens were opened to Him [Jesus], and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him.  And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”  Here in 1 Corinthians 1 we see the Church and the church, side by side, the one and the many.  This is not division, this is the design of God, founded on the nature of God.  Are we surprised to discover ways in which the people of God reflect the nature of God?

–  Acts 20:17 recounts Paul sending to Ephesus “for the elders of the church.”  Again, this is clearly the church, not the Church.  Paul is not sending for men who have an accountability for the souls of every Christian, as elders have for the souls in a specific local church.  He is summoning real men with real responsibilities as the God-appointed leaders of a local church.

–  Revelation 1-3, the letters to the churches.  In 1:12-16, our resurrected Lord, in the most glorious form, is walking among seven lampstands.  Then in verse 20 Jesus says to John, “the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches.”  As the succeeding chapters unfold, we see with great clarity that these churches are indeed distinct entities, each with a personality, things to be praised, things requiring rebuke, commands to be obeyed.  A nebulous concept of the local church is a thousand miles away from the letters to the churches.

Hand-in-glove

I hope that these texts satisfy us on a critical point:  the universal church and the local church, the Church and the church, are both thoroughly Biblical categories.  The inspired writers of the New Testament speak of both, fluidly and without a hint of contradiction.  So far from being a single category, or two categories which stand in opposition, the universal church and the local church actually represent a compelling vision of how God intends to relate to His people, care for them, and equip them for the work of the ministry.  Like all things of His design, they fit hand-in-glove.

If we miss this, we undervalue an entity given to us by God according to the kind intention of His will, miss the blessing, and dishonor Jesus Christ.

In a few days I will engage Argument 2 in the series:  The Local Church Is a Flock.

Stay tuned.

Church Membership: an Introduction

Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,

Teaching means preparing.  Preparing means wrestling with what the Bible does and doesn’t say, along with the associated implications.  That process always imparts increased clarity, and I have recently been the beneficiary, having been given the privilege to teach on the subject of church membership.  At the heart of my preparations has been the careful consideration of two critical questions: (1) Is church membership Biblical? and (2) Is it important?

Skipping to the punch line, I believe the answers are “solidly” and “vitally”.  Church membership is solidly Biblical.  Church membership is vitally important.  These conclusions are the output of several years of intermittent thought and study, though, so I don’t expect you to take my word for it.  I don’t even desire you to take my word for it.  I would be grateful, however, if you would give a fair hearing to the arguments that I think are most relevant.  At least to me, they are compelling and definitive.

My intent is to write a series of posts which establish these arguments from Scripture:

–  Argument 1:  The Local Church Is a Distinct Biblical Entity
–  Argument 2:  The Local Church Is a Flock
–  Argument 3:  Serious Obligations Require Order
–  Argument 4:  The Regulative Principle Requires Church Membership (not precludes it)
–  Argument 5:  Blessing Awaits Those Who Cross Two Lines

These core arguments build up to an understanding that church membership is Biblical and that it really matters in the life of a church.  As always, the Bible must be the first word and the final word.  The pragmatic arguments are interesting, but they are not the mind of God on the matter.  My hope is that by carefully handling texts which speak to the subject, God will give us unity and clarity.

Onward!

“We Will Not Let Thee Go”

Greetings Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,

It is so refreshing to be in the Sermon on the Mount, and especially in the beatitudes, where our minds are reset again to know that the ways of the kingdom of heaven completely overthrow everything that the world loves, thinks, does, and advocates.  Poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, hungering and thirsting for righteousness – all things despised by the world, and all things that make for the happiness of the children of God.

I have been particularly thinking about “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4), and yesterday I ran across a related statement from one of Samuel Rutherford’s pastoral letters.  In it, he laments the apostasy of the church in Scotland and longs for the people of God to mourn their sin and earnestly prevail upon Jesus not to depart.

“Would God we could stir up ourselves to lay hold upon Him, who, being highly provoked with the handling He hath met with, is ready to depart! Alas! we do not importune Him by prayer and supplication to abide amongst us! If we could but weep upon Him, and in the holy pertinacity of faith wrestle with Him, and say, ‘We will not let Thee go,’ it may be that then, He, who is easy to be intreated, would yet, notwithstanding of our high provocations, condescend to stay and feed among the lilies, till that fair and desireable day break, and the shadows flee away.” (Letters of Samuel Rutherford, Letter XXVIII)

There are several types of mourning encompassed in what Jesus is teaching in the beatitudes, and this is one of them.  It is the mourning that recognizes our coldness towards God and actually weeps over it.  The first and great commandment is to “love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37,38)  We dare not skim over the top of that.  All your heart.  All your soul.  All your mind.  Surely those who are truly born again can feel the crushing weight of that.  The Biblical vision of God makes it abundantly clear that He is more than worthy, and yet we find ourselves so divided in our affections.  We have much to lament, and God actually wants us to lament, so that we would turn away and turn towards, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.

Unless you mourn an order of magnitude more than I do, there is something essential and precious that has been lost to be recovered.  As Rutherford exhorts, let us weep upon Jesus, and cling to Him that He would not depart.  Is He less easily entreated in our day?  May it never be!  Let us humble ourselves, mourn for our sin, and cling to Jesus with this resolve:  “We will not let Thee go.”