Today, church discipline is as rare as membership. That’s not surprising, because you can’t have discipline without membership. Last week we saw that membership clarified leadership and submission. Discipline is the ultimate, and sadly needed, expression of that leadership. And as uncomfortable as it makes us, it’s thoroughly biblical.
Jesus institutes church discipline in Matt 18 (v17 “and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector”). He’s not talking about the Global Church, but the local church. This must be a defined group – one that has formally joined together in love, taking unrepentant sin seriously.
Paul calls for discipline in 1 Cor 5 where a man in the church was having sex with his father’s wife (v2, “let him who has done this be removed from among you”). How could he be removed unless it was a defined group? Even if becoming part of this group was less formal than our way, the concept is there.
Notice the purpose: v5, “deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” He’s cast out so he’d see the severity of his sin and the hopelessness of being outside the church. They want him back. And this seems to happen in 2 Cor 2:6-7 (“this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him”). Again, for a majority you need a defined group.
Yes, sadly leaders sometimes abuse church discipline. They could be harsh, unfair. But abuse of a biblical concept is no reason to reject it. If you don’t trust the leaders, then certainly don’t become a member – but if you can trust the leaders, what’s stopping you?
‘Submit’ is an unpopular word in our culture. It’s an attitude that has infected the church, making the word ‘dirty’ and controversial. But it’s in the Bible, so we need to listen. It’s also relevant to our exploration of church membership.
The New Testament raises the issue of submission to church leaders several times, such as Hebrews 13:17 (“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account”), 1 Peter 5:2 (“Shepherd the flock of God that is among you”) and Acts 20:28 (“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers”). How should they be understood?
This is helpful both for the flock and the leaders. Are leaders responsible for every Christian they meet, or only for a specific group? Should the flock listen to every leader of every church, or just of their own local church?
This is where formal membership is important. How do the leaders know who the flock are? Does it include someone who attends the church twice in a row? The person who attends but makes no real contact with them? What’s a reasonable answer? Our way of solving this dilemma is church membership.
One thing Christians do in becoming members of a church is voluntarily submit to the leadership of that church. Relationships of responsibility and submission are made clear. Plus, members are given particular rights, including the ability to choose new leaders when there is the opportunity (Acts 6:1-6).
Last week we saw that membership helped identify who were genuine believers. Now we see it clarifies who is in a flock under particular shepherds. Are you willing to submit yourself to Christ’s under-shepherds?