“Bring up church membership and watch people squirm.” –Ed Stetzer
Isn’t that the truth? I squirmed just typing that and you probably did too as you read it. Formal church membership can be an explosive subject because people either see no need for it or they have a deep-seated emotional investment with it. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who is truly neutral to the idea of formal church membership. We seem to either run from it as an unnecessary burden that can in some instances be abusive, or we run to it with robust fervor because we’ve convinced ourselves those who aren’t a formal member in an institutional church are either sinning or fringe Christians who don’t really get it, or both.
In this post, I want to talk to you about formal church membership. It’s a subject that keeps presenting itself to me on this journey God has me on, so I want to address it. My views on formal church membership haven’t changed much in the last 44+ years but more recently, I’m seeing a trend in many institutional churches that is alarming. Allow me to say at the outset that I’ve pastored churches that have formal church membership and I’ve pastored churches that don’t. I’ve been on the inside of both systems and I’ve seen the positives and the negatives of each. I’ll talk more about that in a minute. First, let’s review where we’ve been in this Rethinking Religion series.
Review and Rewind
This is part five of a multi-part series I’ve called Rethinking Religion. If you haven’t read parts one thru four yet, you can use the links below to do so. In this post, we’re going to continue building on what I introduced in parts one thru four as we tackle the subject of formal church membership. What is formal church membership? Is formal church membership required of me? Is formal church membership a Biblical mandate that I am compelled to obey? If I choose not to become a formal member in a local church, am I sinning? Should I feel guilty? To refresh your memory, I’m presenting this multi-part series in the following order and there is more on the way:
- Rethinking Religion, Part 1: What is a Pastor?
- Rethinking Religion, Part 2: The Pastor’s Calling, Authority, and Our Use of Honorific Titles
- Rethinking Religion, Part 3: The Clergy/Laity Distinction
- Rethinking Religion, Part 4: Community and Accountability
- Rethinking Religion, Part 5: Formal Church Membership (this post)
- Rethinking Religion, Part 6: Confessing Our Sins
I urge you to read these in the order they were written, as each builds on the previous.
In parts one thru four of this series, we’ve been interacting with something Ignatius penned around 110 A.D. I keep pointing out what he said because I want us to understand that a large part of our modern practices originate in tradition, not in the New Testament. A large part of our traditions flow out of what Ignatius said:
“Shun divisions as the beginning of evil. Follow your bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and follow your presbyters as the apostles; and respect your deacons as you would respect God’s commandment. Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop. Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes. Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the church.” (Emphasis mine.)
I’ve previously noted that this directive by Ignatius was firmly in place in most local assemblies by the middle of the 3rd century (250 AD). By that time, it was considered the norm that “Follow your bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father… Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop… Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes.” was a directive found in Scripture. But it is not. Tradition and tradition alone has given us this model. It is nowhere in the New Testament.
We’ve already shown that this top-down authority structure, present in most modern institutional churches is a product of tradition that started as early as Ignatius. The one pastor top-down authority model that we unquestionably embrace is actually something that has been handed to us by church history and tradition and we accept it without question. Not only do we accept it without question, but we’ve also complicated it by adding layer after layer of hierarchical organizational strata where pastors are over pastors, and those pastors are over other pastors, and the higher the structure rises, the more sophisticated and complicated the honorific titles become. Our church authority structures are complicated and more closely resemble the corporate America CEO model than anything in the New Testament assembly.
We’ve taught tradition as the commands of God for so long, it doesn’t dawn on us to look past the traditions, open our New Testaments, and ask hard questions, questions that threaten 2,000+ years of those same entrenched traditions. But with so many leaving the institutional church, not because they’ve left Jesus, but because they feel the institutional church has, it’s time to ask why. Will Ignatius’ words, “Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop. Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes” stand in the light of scripture, or should we jettison it as tradition that has proven harmful to the church, its elders, and the functioning of the priesthood of all believers. How does this top-down authority structure that is present in so many institutional church settings impact our understanding of church membership? Let’s take a closer look.
What is the Church?
I guess a better question to ask before talking about church membership is “What is the church?” Google the word “church” and your search will yield endless images of buildings or directions to buildings in competition with one another to draw you in, including web site addresses, phone numbers, and contact info. What you’ll see is one organization after another, competing for your attention and support. It’s been so ingrained in our thinking for so long that church is a building, location, or event, that we accept it without question and we consider it normal. Most formal church membership contracts assume the only valid expression of a local assembly is the traditional, institutional church model. But what does the New Testament say about the church and membership in it?
In the New Testament, the word translated as church (ἐκκλησία) is a word that refers to people, not buildings. It is a hybrid word of sorts that means a called out people; an assembly. We find the ἐκκλησία in many different contexts in the New Testament including private gatherings (Acts 14:27), public gatherings (Acts 2:1-13), meeting together in homes (Romans 16:5, Col. 4:15), experiencing persecution (Acts 8:3), and experiencing peace (Acts 9:31). The ἐκκλησία also refers to a group of people in a geographic location (Acts 11:22, Acts 13:1, Romans 16:1, 1 Cor. 16:9). In each occurrence, the ἐκκλησία is a reference to people Jesus purchased with his own blood (Acts 20:28) and never a building, a location, or an event to attend.
How does one become a part of this church? The short answer (and the only correct answer) is that membership in Christ’s church is a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit that places us in the assembly, the body of Christ. At conversion, we are made members of his body, the church. This is his work, not ours. There are no rogue Christians out there who are not members of the church. None. If one is a Christian, he or she is by definition, a member of the church, the body of Christ:
…so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. (Romans 12:5)
But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. (1 Corinthians. 12:18)
The New Testament also refers to the church as a mystery. In the New Testament, a “mystery” can refer to something previously hidden under the Old Covenant, but now revealed with the coming of Jesus in the New. This is Paul’s meaning when he is talking about the church being made up of both Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews). That the people of God could consist of both Jews and Gentiles is a New Covenant phenomenon. To the church at Ephesus he writes:
When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (Ephesians 3:4-6)
Earlier in the same letter he said,
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off [Gentiles] have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both [Jew and Gentile] one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man [the church] in place of the two [Jew and Gentile], so making peace, and might reconcile us both [Jew and Gentile] to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility [between Jew and Gentile that kept Gentiles out]. (Ephesians 2:13-16, brackets mine)
The mystery kept hidden prior to the New Covenant was that both Jew and non-Jew would one day make up the people of God, the church. There is no class, gender, or racial separation in the church (Gal. 3:28). Paul sums it up this way:
And he came and preached peace to you who were far off [Gentiles] and peace to those who were near [Jews]. For through him we both [Jews and Gentiles] have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you [Gentiles] are no longer strangers and aliens, but you [Gentiles] are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:17-22, brackets mine)
The church, as described in the New Testament, is a beautiful, living illustration of the grace of God redeeming lost sinners, giving them a new identity as saints, and placing them in community with the Father and with one another. The church consists of those outside the Father’s family being brought into his family by a work of the Spirit so that we now “have access in one Spirit to the Father” resulting in our being made “members of the household of God.” This supernatural work of God takes the imagery of the Old Covenant Temple (a physical building) and shows us the New Covenant fulfillment where the physical Temple gives way to a spiritual temple (1 Cor. 3:16) and the people of God, not bricks and mortar, are the “holy temple in the Lord” and “a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” In the church, unlike ancient Israel, everyone in it functions as a priest with direct access to the Father, not just a select few. There is only one Mediator, and he is none of us.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10)
Our day-to-day casual conversations about the church reveal our basic misunderstanding of what the church actually is and our acceptance of what tradition has told us it is. Statements like “Where do you go to church?” “It’s time to go to church” and “We go to John’s church” all point to our allegiance of the accepted norm; church is a building, a destination, or an event built around someone other than Jesus. I use the same phrases. It’s hard not to. But every time I do, I cringe a little at how off message and cluttered we are even about the beauty and simplicity of Christ’s church. It’s a little awkward to say “where do you go to building?” or “it’s time to go to building.” But it’s more of an accurate description because since the church is people and those people sometimes gather in buildings, maybe we should think of our gatherings as the church going to a building, not the building being the church. I’m being a little sarcastic to make a point. Tradition has handed us this way of thinking, not the New Testament.
I alluded earlier to the fact that more often than not, our view of church has more to do with Old Covenant imagery than with New Covenant reality. Under the Old Covenant, the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, were the center of Israel’s worship. It was there that God met his people, mediated by a priest. It was there that God dwelt, hidden from the people behind a curtain in the Most Holy Place of the Tabernacle and later, the Temple. The tent, and later the building, were the physical holy destination where holy events took place and there were requirements for being there.
But under the New Covenant, all of that imagery collapses and gives way to a better reality. The physical imagery of the Old Covenant gives way to the spiritual reality of the New Covenant. What was once a physical destination with required holy events, gives way to something far better, a spiritual temple comprised of redeemed people and everyone in it is a functioning priest, not just a select few (Ephesians 2:19-21, 1 Peter 2:9-10). Membership in this church is supernatural and immediate at conversion. There are no extra layers needed or hoops to jump through.
What is Formal Church Membership?
Here’s where the train starts to go off the rails. This is the spot in this blog post where some of you are going to get really mad at me, if you haven’t already. In our top-down authority-based church systems, the beautiful work of the Spirit described in the verses above, simply isn’t enough. We will probably all agree with them in principle because they’re all over the New Testament, but in our top-down authority models, they alone cannot be trusted to compel you to do enough to support the system or structure that is in place. To accomplish that, we’ve created an accountability contract called formal church membership.
Formal church membership acknowledges the Holy Spirit’s work in making one a member of the body of Christ (the church), but it is specifically designed to compel you to further action in support of the local institution. It is a document that you will be required to sign, usually after taking some sort of membership class, that contains obligatory statements in support of the local institution that you will be required to adhere to after signing. The obligations within the document will vary depending on the local setting, but I’ve found that they generally revolve around three or four key elements. By key elements, I simply mean the things that are vital to the ongoing success and perpetuity of the physical institution and its paid staff. Remove any or all of these key elements and the institution crumbles and ceases to have control. These key elements are normally:
- Money and Personal Resources
- Power, Authority, and Accountability
- Threat of Excommunication
Money and Personal Resources
Giving of yourself and your money to the institution is paramount in perpetuating the institution. After all, there are mortgages, utilities, and salaries to pay. I don’t think there is anything wrong with mortgages and salaries in and of themselves but don’t be fooled. The institution comes first and giving outside of the institutionally-sanctioned programs is discouraged for the most part. I’m speaking from personal experience. This obligation to give must of course be “sacrificial” “cheerful” and “voluntary.” Here’s one example I found on-line a of a formal membership contract specifying the contractual obligations one is required to make.
“…to steward the resources God has given me, including time, talents, spiritual gifts and finances. This includes regular financial giving, service and participation in community that is sacrificial, cheerful and voluntary” -The Village Church (emphasis mine)
Let’s be real. The fact that I am being compelled to give by signing an accountability contract, makes my giving neither sacrificial, cheerful, nor voluntary. I’m giving by compulsion and obligation with fear of reprisal if I fail to give as instructed.
“Will you consistently contribute, as a good steward of God’s blessings, such time, talent, and resources, in the measure that God prospers you, so that our local and worldwide ministry of spreading the gospel may continue?” -Grace Community Church (emphasis mine)
Of first importance in the institutional setting is the keeping alive of the institution and its goals. Any giving of money, time, or talents outside of the institutionally sanctioned sphere of influence is prohibited or discouraged. This is our ministry and it is in competition with all the other ministries and the other institutions down the street that compete for your money and time. By signing this accountability contract, we own you, your time, and your pocketbook.
Power, Authority, and Accountability
In order to keep the money flowing and the structure viable, you must obligate yourself to submit to the top-down authority structure of the institution so they can keep you accountable to the signed membership contract. Anyone with a differing opinion of formal church membership who doesn’t see its need or authenticity, is a threat to the institution by virtue of the fact that they can’t be controlled. Submission to the appointed top-down leadership is equated with striving for unity in the institution. In formal church membership you will be required to acknowledging the validity of the authority structure that is in place by your passive acceptance of it.
“…to submit to the elders and other appointed leaders of the church and diligently strive for unity and peace within the church” -The Village Church (emphasis mine)
Those at the top of the institutional church’s top-down authority structure reference passages such as Hebrews 13:17 and 1 Timothy 5:17 to justify their statements. I deal with those passages later in this post.
Repeated failure to live up to the commitment you’ve made to the local institution by signing a membership contract may result in excommunication. The threat of excommunication is an important part of most membership contracts, acting as the final motivation for conformity to the signed agreement. Formal membership is required because we can’t kick you out unless we know you’re in. Most institutional churches call this membership document a covenant. But be wise as serpents and harmless as doves in understanding the true nature of this “covenant.” It is little more than an accountability contract, masquerading as a commitment to community, obliging its signers to jump through unnecessary hoops in order to keep the institution viable and its top-down authority structure in place and operating. I’ve mentioned in previous posts in the series that accountability is a poor substitute for genuine community. Formal membership contracts are one more example of that. For more on community and accountability, please read part four of this series. Matt Chandler of The Village Church illustrates my point:
“After considering questions of authority and submission, the second issue that came up in my study of the local church was the biblical teaching on church discipline…. My question out of this text is simple: How can you kick someone “out’ if there isn’t an “in’?” – Matt Chandler, Is Church Membership Biblical? (Emphasis Mine)
Grace Community Church includes this threat of excommunication in its membership contract:
“Members of this church and all other professing Christians who regularly attend or fellowship with this church who err in doctrine, or who engage in conduct that violates Scripture as determined by the Board of Elders, shall be subject to church discipline, including dismissal according to Matthew 18:15–18.” -Grace Community Church (Emphasis Mine)
To further illustrate my point, I want to interact with an on-line article that appeared in Christianity Today in July of 2015. As we work our way through it, you will see a common theme of money, authority and power, and the threat of excommunication. This is merely one example of what must be millions. But please don’t take my word for it. Go to almost any church website that adheres to formal church membership and take a look at their membership covenant (assuming it’s been made public), or Google formal church membership and take a look at the results. You will see some form of these three elements in most membership contracts, if not all.
In July 2015, Christianity Today posted an article by Ed Stetzer entitled, Membership Matters: 3 Reasons for Church Membership. After giving several examples from 1 Corinthians of how Paul uses the word “body” to describe the church (I agree with him on that part) Stetzer notes:
“Why then do we have [formal] membership? Because regardless of how the culture sees it or Christians misunderstand it, [formal] membership is not simply an opportunity to say, I’m a part of a club, but rather a scriptural expression of covenant connectedness to a church.”
Stetzer insists that formal church membership is a scriptural expression of covenant connectedness and yet he is strangely silent in providing any of those scripture texts that support such a bold claim. The only scriptures I can think of that express our covenant connectedness to Christ center around the New Covenant. I don’t think that covenant needs our help in adding another layer to it to keep us accountable. But he continues,
“There are three things that help us understand why church membership is biblical and important…. First, membership is a reflection of the organic community already existing in the body. Paul says we are a body. Can one part say to the other, ‘I’m not part of you’? No, it is already a part. But too often we live as if we are separated. As a matter of fact, too many churches or Christian gatherings look like piles of dismembered body parts, not a body knit together as God’s agent, his body, his kingdom, at work in the world. To reject the value of membership is to deny what God has already established in fact.”
In Stetzer’s explanation, we need formal church membership to reflect what already exists without it; organic community. But if organic community already exists without formal church membership, why do we need a formal church membership layer imposed on what’s “already existing in the body”? Isn’t organic community the stated goal and if it’s already in place, why are we messing with it? Stetzer wants us to add additional layers to the already organic work of the Spirit. He is insisting we need formal church membership as a catalyst to maintain what the Holy Spirit has already given us apart from formal church membership, true organic community. According to Stetzer, without formal church membership the body of Christ looks like a pile of “dismembered body parts.” For Stetzer, formal church membership is a required accountability layer. It’s up to us to finish what the Holy Spirit only started. For Stetzer, to reject formal church membership is “to deny what God has already established in fact.” In other words, we are denying what the Bible says about membership in Christ’s church if we don’t add the additional layer of formal church membership. But again, any reference to scripture in making his “scriptural expression of covenant connectedness” is missing. Stetzer continues,
“We find in Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth that they were putting people out of the body. So Scripture teaches that we can be a part of the body, and we can be apart from the body. It is difficult to get around Scripture when it talks about being brought into the body and also being put out of it…. And yet for most churches there’s no way to put somebody out because they’re not even in.”
There it is again! Excommunication. The ultimate threat for non-conformity. How can we kick you out if we’re not sure you’re in? The only way we can kick you out is if you have previously signed the accountability contract. In part four of this series, Community and Accountability, I defined accountability using a definition I once heard that said accountability is the right to compel action with the enforcement of that right accomplished through rewards and punishments to conform behavior. Most formal membership contracts are a perfect example of this. We may call them covenants but what they really are is accountability contracts that compel action using rewards and punishments. In most instances, the ultimate punishment for failure to comply is the threat of excommunication. Stetzer’s words that “there’s no way to put somebody out because they’re not even in” are a clear indication that formal church membership is built around an accountability model that may masquerade for a time as authentic community but at it’s core, it’s an accountability contract that becomes a death knell for authentic community. Stetzer concludes,
“God makes us a part of his larger family when we are born again. But then we should covenant in a local body and live in community with them, agreeing to live by certain established godly principles and standards.” (Emphasis Mine)
Thus far in Stetzer’s article, we’ve seen him play the accountability and excommunication cards and now we’re seeing him play the power/authority card. “God makes us part of, …but…” should send up all kinds of warning flags! Stetzer is concluding that formal church membership is an agreement “to live by certain established godly principles and standards.” But what are those standards and who sets them? In most formal membership contracts, the “certain established godly principles and standards” are a reference to giving to the institution, regular weekly and small group attendance, and submission to the authority of the elders and professional staff. These obligation-based rules are designed to perpetuate and prolong the life of the institution. But don’t take my word for it. Direct your giving somewhere outside the institution and see how long it takes before being contacted.
Leaders and Accountability: A Closer Look at Hebrews 13
Something we hear often in support of formal church membership is a citing of Hebrews 13 and the references there of submission to leaders. The assumption that is made is that the leaders mentioned are the elders in a modern, top-down authority structured institution. The verses in question read:
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:7)
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17)
Matt Chandler asks some honest questions about these verses:
“I was preparing at the time to preach through the book of Hebrews and ‘happened’ to be in chapter 13 when verse 17 leapt off the page: ‘Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.’ Two questions occurred to me. First, if there is no biblical requirement to belong a local church, then which leaders should an individual Christian obey and submit to? Second, and more personally, who will I as a pastor give an account for?”
“Regarding the first question, the Scriptures clearly command Christians to submit to and honor an elder (Heb. 13:17, 1 Tim. 5:17). If there is no understanding of local church membership, then who are we to submit to and obey? Is it anyone with the title ‘elder’ from any church? Regarding the second question, the Scriptures clearly command an elder body to care for specific people (1 Pet. 5:1-5; also, Acts 20:29-30). Will I as a pastor be held accountable for all the Christians in the Dallas Metroplex? There are many churches in Dallas that I have strong theological and philosophical differences with. Will I give account for what they teach in their small group, how they spend their money, and what they do concerning international missions?”
We read the word “leaders” in these verses from Hebrews (I’ll talk about 1 Timothy 5:17 in a few minutes) and our minds immediately go to the top-down authority structures that we’ve put in place in so many of our institutions, assuming the leaders mentioned in these verses must be the pastors and professional staff of our institutions. In other words, we insert ourselves and our modern institutional structures into these verses. That’s how Chandler read them and that’s probably how most of us read them. One problem with that view is that the word elder doesn’t appear anywhere in the the book of Hebrews. They’re not talked about at all. Nowhere. The only Shepherd mentioned in Hebrews is Jesus (Heb. 13:20). Another problem with that view is that the passage itself tells us who they are, “those who spoke to you the word of God.” That could be a reference to anyone in the assembly who was proclaiming the gospel. I don’t believe it’s a reference to someone behind a pulpit every Sunday teaching through the Bible since there were no Bibles and there were no pulpits. Additionally, the phrase “the word of God” isn’t used in the Bible to refer to the Bible. It’s a phrase that’s used to refer to Jesus (John 1:1, Rev. 19:13) and the gospel (1 Thess. 2:9, 13). We read our institutional structures back into this text.
I also think it’s important to remember the context of Hebrews in understanding who these leaders may have been. Keep in mind that the letter to the Hebrews was written to Jews who were hearing the gospel but hesitant to believe it in favor of remaining within the familiar confines of Judaism and the Old Covenant. They had a lot to lose humanly speaking if they received Christ. Intense personal loss of family, friends, reputation, and livelihood were very real possibilities. It is in that context of extreme loss and persecution that the writer of this letter reminds them of both the message of the gospel (the word of God) that they had heard and those who brought that message to them. He’s reminding them, as he’s already done numerous times already (Heb 2:1-4, 3:12-13, 4:1-2, et al), of the liberating news of the gospel and their friends who have shared that good news with them, who are sharing Christ with them and continue to stand by them in the trials that may be pending if they believe. I believe these leaders could have been anybody in the local assembly who had a caring relationship with those being pressured to walk away from the message of Jesus in the gospel. In talking about spiritual gifts, Paul told the Romans,
Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (Romans 12:6-8, Emphasis Mine)
It’s unlikely that the writer of Hebrews would bring these people such a cold and impersonal exhortation as “line up under the top-down authority structure and submit to it” as the solution to their struggle when the solution he has already given them is the gospel (Heb 4:14-16). And unless Paul is wrong, there is a leadership gift in the church, given to those whom the Holy Spirit chooses to give it to. The leaders in our two passages under question could have been anyone in the local church so gifted. Far from being a harsh command to line up under the authority structure of a local assembly (there weren’t any!), this passage is a warm reminder to those being pressured to remain within Judaism that those in the assembly who have served them faithfully with the message of the gospel continue to stand with them and love them. Remember them. Do what they’ve counseled you to do. Consider how that message has changed them. Believe.
I also think it’s wrong and harmful to read the phrase “as those who will have to give an account” as applying to the leaders. How is that remotely possible under the New Covenant? Scripture reminds me that under the New Covenant, my life is hidden with God in Christ (Colossians 3:3) and there is no one who can bring a charge against me because I’ve died and my life is hidden in him (Romans 8:33). I am faultless through the merits of another, Jesus. How is it that in this New Covenant of grace upon grace, apart from personal merit, that I can think myself responsible for the bad decisions of someone else? Do we really think that if someone we know turns from the faith and walks away from Jesus and never comes back, that I have to give an account for it? Really? The Father is upset at me? That doesn’t fit with any understanding of the cross, grace, and the New Covenant at all. Such an interpretation is, I believe, the result of misreading the passage. Those who must give an account are those who choose to walk away from the faith, not those attempting to love them back into it. We could paraphrase the passage by saying, “As those who must give an account, submit yourselves to the message of the gospel you’ve heard from those leading you.” For those who walk away, if they don’t repent and return, there remains no more sacrifice for sin, only a fearful expectation of judgment:
For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Hebrews 10:26-27
Submission and 1 Timothy 5:17
Earlier, I cited Chandler as saying,
“Regarding the first question, the Scriptures clearly command Christians to submit to and honor an elder (Heb. 13:17, 1 Tim. 5:17).”
We’ve already talked about the Hebrews passage and concluded that elders are nowhere mentioned in the passage and it is therefore, not a clear command to submit to elders. Next, let’s look at the Timothy reference:
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 1 Timothy 5:17
This passage is simply a reminder that the elders in the assembly who are faithfully overseeing and facilitating, should be honored. There is no mention of a submission to top-down authority as those within present day top-down authority structures would like us to believe. It isn’t there. Jesus said it shouldn’t be there (Matthew 20:25-28). That structure didn’t exist. For more info on elders and who they are in the assembly, you may want to read part one of this series, What is a Pastor? as well as part three, Pastors, Titles, Authority, and Calling.
This post is longer than I had intended, so let’s wrap a ribbon around it. Is formal church membership neutral, or is it a tradition that harms and hinders life in the assembly? The Village Church refers to formal church membership as a “weighty but wonderful commitment.” I would agree with the first part of that. But when did weighty become wonderful? Didn’t Jesus die to remove what weighs us down?
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
Formal church membership is an extra-biblical construct designed to keep our institutions viable. There is no mandate from scripture for it. It is a man-made layer of accountability that has been placed over scripture in an attempt to control people with fear, guilt, intimidation, and obligation. Formal church membership is an institutionally driven idea. Dissolve the institution and the need for formal membership vaporizes. I know. I’ve done it. It works. Instead of signing contracts pledging behavior modification, perhaps we should live in genuine community together where the 58 “one anothers” of the New Testament can be freely lived out in an honest environment where our yes means yes and our no means no, apart from signing empty oaths.
Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. (Matthew 5:37)