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