A Short Primer on Church Membership & Discipline

After this past Sunday’s message (the audio of which is available HERE, and the video HERE) I wanted to offer a couple quick follow up points. Mostly due to the importance of the subject and the delicacy that it demands.

The concept of “church discipline” can really only be understood within the concept of meaningful church membership. As a young church plant in a highly post-Christian city, we are still in the early years of developing church membership. Our desire is to create relatively few obstacles to sincere community (ie: there’s not a whole lot you “miss out on” if you’re not officially a member at Engage) while also recognizing that formal membership offers some additional checks and balances that provide health to our community (ie: accountability for leaders and legal protection in an increasingly litigious society). In short, being a member of a local church is biblical, practical, and important. On the other hand, we desire to be a church where people can explore Christianity without being coerced into joining something before they’re ready. I’d recommend THIS SHORT VIDEO for anyone looking for more info on church membership in general.

With this simple cultural piece addressed, a couple follow up points that are worth bringing clarity to during a time where we don’t need to exercise the process of “church discipline.”

  1. The essence of church membership is to partner together in following Christ and to make the multi-faceted wisdom of God visible to a world longing for redemption (Eph. 3:10 and Rom. 8:22). One of the most challenging aspects to grasp of the Christian life is the idea of regeneration (aka “being born again” see John 3:3). Those who are “born again” start to develop eyes that see and desire the kingdom of God. Yet, that reality is largely invisible in the material world and other Christians are left to examine the fruit of one’s life to see if it resembles that of others who’ve had the same experience (Gal. 5:22-23). This can really only be determined through time in community. At this juncture we get a glimpse of the mystery of the gospel (1 Cor. 15:51), the Christian church is, in essence, a group of people who have been supernaturally born again by the Holy Spirit. This reality is invisible to the naked eye, but known by God and intuitively experienced by those with spiritual eyes (Eph. 1:18-19).
  2. At best, the local church looks for external and measurable evidence of an internal and invisible reality. Someone who has experienced this miraculous transformation begins to find that sin is less desirable and holiness (or to put a finer point on it, Christ himself) is more desirable. In cases of ongoing and recognizable sin, we should heed Christ’s commands found in Matthew 18:15-20 to seek restoration of the offender. The emphasis here is always on restoration. Should the steps outlined within escalate to the final stage, the person is “disfellowshipped.” This is a serious and sobering step, but a necessary one should we understand the eternal importance of what Jesus is alluding to here. This is a good segue into my last point which was briefly touched on Sunday:
  3. What is essentially being said when someone is “disfellowshipped” (to clarify this step, in most cases this means “barring” someone from communion and removing from official membership, and only in extreme situations would it result in removal from community or Sunday gatherings entirely) is, “based on your actions/choices we have reason to doubt that you have truly been born again of God.” Worldly models of community balk at this sort of “exclusion,” but they play by the same rules. Every “club” the world knows removes from its membership those that break rules or lapse dues. The Church is no different. What is so weighty about things escalating to this level is the eternal ramifications. What a church is essentially saying when it disfellowships someone is “we believe you are on your way to hell.” But we don’t stop there, we plead with them: “turn back around – repent.” The end goal, once again, is restoration. We turn over to the devil (1 Cor. 5:5) so they might see the due effects of their sin and come running back to Jesus (Luke 15:20). As the old saying goes, “if you love something, let it go, if it returns that’s a good thing.” The disfellowshipping is to tell the truth about the fruit that is being revealed. To call rotten fruit rotten is not unloving, but helps prevent upset stomachs (the Church is, after all, a body, and we want it to be healthy). The alternative is so much worse: to call rotten fruit good is to mock and distort the Church Jesus died for and is actively working to purify (Eph. 5:25-27). It is to give anesthesia to a heart that has been hardened. To put up signs that say, “this way to Jesus” when in fact there is serious reason to believe their life is actually on the wide path to destruction (Matt. 7:13).

This is a brief primer on a weighty subject. Because Jesus has the words of eternal life (John 6:68) we seek to obey them, even when they are challenging and costly. We trust him, even when it costs us because he gave his costly blood and bought us.

We note this now during a time of peace, so we can return to it – with heavy hearts, and teary eyes – during a time of trial should we have to take Jesus at his word.

With hope, grace, peace, and love,

Pastor Sean

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