In the wake of a landslide vote to pass the new resolution on regenerate church membership at this summer’s Southern Baptist Convention in Indianapolis, much conversation has rightly been generated among pastors and other church leaders regarding the integrity of church membership and the practical out-workings of biblical church discipline.
Even within the past few weeks I have been involved in a number of conversations on this issue. These conversations have differed greatly from one pastor who is all fired up about getting on the phones and “cleaning up the church roll” to another pastor who is soberly poring over the Scriptures to map out a redemptive and restorative process that might model Matthew 18. It is no secret that this resolution on church membership has been a long time coming. It is no secret that a great many Southern Baptist churches have been behind the eight-ball on this issue for years. And it should come as no surprise that many pastors went home from Indianapolis with much to think about regarding the work that lay ahead of them in the recovery of this historic practice.
Of course with all of this conversation being generated by this resolution, a good deal of the buzz has come in the form of concern. Could this be a symptom of the cold ivory-towerism of “Hyper-Calvinists” whose dead orthodoxy is continuing to squelch evangelistic fervor throughout the convention? Is this the rash idealism of a new generation of seminary-trained pastors whose freshly-minted Mdivs are burning theological holes in their pockets? Is this another manifestation of the “emergent” tendency to poke fingers in the eyes of “most Baptist churches” by boasting a superiority that is now not only technological and missiological, but even ecclesiological? There are many who wonder about the origin and the destination of this movement and have reacted against it for a variety of reasons.
The initial response of many resolution-supporters to all such “concern” has typically been a knee-jerk of cynicism and assumption. I must admit, while sitting in the convention hall in Indianapolis, I personally felt appalled to see even a single hand raised when the vote came to “all opposed.” Do these people not read their bibles? If they do, do they not believe them? What kind of hermeneutical gymnastics can bypass Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5?
Upon further reflection, however, while I certainly believe in the resolution and am encouraged about this move toward the recovery of an historic Baptist distinctive, I have come to realize that most dissent expressed on this issue is not at all founded upon differing views of the Bible or even differing interpretations of the relevant passages, but rather it is founded upon a perceived difference between the hearts of those who practice church discipline and the heart of Christ. In this, I believe a real problem is often being pointed out. How much damage has been done by theological Rambos who have gone after fallen church members with guns-a-blazin’ just to make an example of a “brother in sin?” How many unbelievers have been jaded to the Gospel by seeing a close family member ousted from his church via phone call or postage stamp without so much as even a knock on the door and a look in the eye? How many sinners have been cut away from local congregations with an explanation no more urgent or involved than that of a club member who did not pay his dues on time? Church discipline is biblical. Church discipline is essential to the Great Commission. But church discipline does not look like this. I would like to propose three areas that our churches must have in check if church discipline is ever to reach its intended goal of having a Regenerate Church Membership in the Southern Baptist congregations of the 21st century.
1. Authentic Relationships
Contrary to popular belief, church discipline is not simply what happens when a pastor stands before a congregation and reads off a name. Instead, church discipline ought to be happening all around us all the time. Discipline for my sons doesn’t only take place when I have a rod in my hand. It also happens when I am putting them back on their tricycles and saying, “try again.” In the same way, discipline for a church member is not simply the moment when they are removed from a roll, but should begin the moment when they are brought into it through Baptism. We are to be always teaching, always rebuking, always correcting, always training one another in righteousness, and always calling one another to repentance, even if it means that call to repentance must come through excommunication.
The difficulty that we often face at this point is that we are surrounded by congregations who do not know one another. We do not spend time in one another’s homes and lives, but walk out of church foyers into pod-like individualism. In many cases, pastors do not even know their congregations well enough to speak the truth in love. Instead, the talking head in the pulpit blends with the nodding heads in the pews to form a mass of faceless people who make up the “service” you attend. Without the love and care shown on the tricycle, my sons would see the rod as vindictive and arbitrary. In the same way, without authentic relationships and ministry in the church, “church discipline” exasperates those disciplined and does little good in restoring the fallen to a Regenerate Church.
While I found most of the 1995 “Brady Bunch Movie” to be classless and distasteful, I did feel the sting of truth, even as a young Christian, in Marcia’s snide comment about her trip to church camp where she “learned to be more judgmental.” The truth is, human nature has always contained an inherent pharisaical bent. There have been “pharisees” in the world since even before there were Pharisees in the world, and the situation in our pews today is no different. Many pastors, from a right desire to muzzle wolves who would devour injured sheep, respond by doing away with “church discipline” so that the concept of judging others is never even brought to the table. In doing so, however, the right command to “judge those within the church” (1 Cor 5:12) is overlooked. We must guard against the self-righteous tendency to take an offending member outside for stoning. But we must balance this with the recovery of a right “judging”; a Gospel-Centered “judging.”
The admonition to “take the log out of your own eye” (Matt 7:5) does not teach that we must be sinless in order to rebuke a brother. Instead, Jesus points the hypocrites to their need for a Gospel foundation. When you rebuke a brother, it is not in haughtiness or self-righteousness, but with the common petition “Lord, have mercy on us sinners.” A call to repentance should not be a humiliating act, but a loving and urgent warning about the wiles and snares that lie ahead. Perhaps if we became more Gospel-centered in our worship, in our discipleship, in our teaching and preaching, even in the way we read the Scriptures…Perhaps our churches would have more of this Gospel foundation upon which to construct a Regenerate Church.
3. A Compelling Fellowship
What happens to an unrepentant sinner who is biblically confronted with one witness, two witnesses, and is then brought before the church? He is to be treated as an unbeliever and removed from membership (Matt 18:17; 1 Cor 5:2-5). What happens, though, when the person responds, “is that all?” Of course, this comment overlooks the obvious fact that excommunication equals judgment and danger of hell-fire. But the question, “is that all?”, should also serve as an indictment. If someone were removed from the membership of your church, would it be easy for them to see the gravity and majesty of what they are losing? Or, would it be merely an inconvenience similar to a parking citation or a late fee? Are unbelievers (or Christians for that matter) seeing in our churches a compelling vision of what it means to take part in Christ? Do our congregations present a vision of the church that causes unbelievers to fall on their faces declaring “surely God is really among you” (1 Cor 14:25)?
After Jesus tells His disciples “I am the vine, you are the branches”, He shows them what kind of fruit they will bear by commanding them to “love one another” (Jn 15:12). In fact, this is how the world will know we are His disciples (Jn 13:35). Perhaps if more of our churches were bearing fruit in keeping with the Vine, the prospect of excommunication would thrust sinners to their knees in realization that to be pulled from the church is to be pulled from Christ. Perhaps if our congregations loved and faithfully served one another as one body with a common redemption in Christ, the acceptance and affection seen by a watching world would cause inward groaning for unity like that. Perhaps if we presented a vision of what it means to be a church member that is more compelling than simply a wafer, a thimble of juice, and the right to vote, those who face discipline would see their removal as perilous and would be brought to repentance. And perhaps if we all learned what it means to be authentic, Gospel-centered, and one body in Christ…perhaps then we might all be able to see more clearly the Kingdom Glory of Regenerate Church Membership.