An Argument for Church Membership from a Different Direction

1 Corinthians 6:1-8 – 1 When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? 2 Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? 3 Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! 4 So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? 5 I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, 6 but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? 7 To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? 8 But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!

Quite often, when I hear any reference made to the above passage, the reference has to do with whether or not a Christian can file a lawsuit against another person, especially another Christian. Of course, that is a fair topic of discussion in the passage. Paul is clear that there should not be a reputation in society of Christians going after one another in courts of law. But I think there is something that we miss if we only think that the question is, “To sue or not to sue?”

Paul’s argument is quite simple, and it speaks to a need that every Christian has. Small matters should be adjudicated in the church. Issues of conflict between members of the church should be brought before church leadership, and godly church leaders should be able to judge well enough to prevent Christians from going to law against one another.

Ask yourself what is implied in this standard. What does the word of God assume? It is almost a throw-away assumption, but it really matters. Assumed in this paragraph in the word of God is that every Christian will be so connected to his or her local church that the ways of God may be followed. It assumes that every local church should have recognized, godly leadership. It assumes that every local church will know who does and who does not belong to that church. It assumes that individuals will have a genuine concern not to go against the decisions handed down by church leaders and affirmed by the body. In short, this passage implies a clear grasp of biblical church membership.

Every Christian should be connected to a local church. Let’s not play the exception game here. We all know that a person providentially hindered by health or inalterable circumstance has to deal with that statement differently. But, given all normal life, every single Christian should be actively connected to a local church. Every local church should know exactly who is and who is not a member of that body. There is no way to follow the commands of God as a church if your church does not keep track of exactly for whom the church is responsible and who has sought to be a part of the body. And, no, attendance in general is not enough. No pastor or group of elders can be held responsible for the souls of every individual who happens to come in on a given Sunday morning. Shepherds have to have a way of identifying which sheep they are caring for and which belong to other flocks.

Are you a Christian? Go to church. Connect to your church. Officially join that church. Let the elders know that you want to be under their care. Let the elders know that you want to be someone they can count on.

Are you part of a church? Urge your leadership to take biblically based church membership seriously. Plead with leaders to know who belongs to the body and who does not. Plead with the body to recognize how important it is that we all know each other and care for one another. Ask for leaders to practice genuine church discipline with a heart for restoring the wayward.

The truth is, 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 makes no sense at all for a person who will not join a church. Nor does it make any sense for a church that is not faithful to pay attention to church membership and practice church discipline. Nor does it make sense for a person who says they are connected to a church but who will not connect with the life of that church. The passage only makes sense for a person who actively, joyfully, willingly joins and participates in the life of a local church.

Church Discipline Has More than One Goal

It seems that we discuss church discipline more commonly today than we did a few decades ago in the American church. This, of course, is a good thing. After all, it has been said that a true church is a body where the word is preached, the sacraments are administered, and where discipline is applied. And it has also been affirmed that, when discipline departs, so does the church.

If you talk about church discipline, the most common place you will find a person turn in the Bible is Matthew 18, and for good reason. There the Lord Jesus gave us a pattern for discussion inside the church when one member is wronged by another. It is the pattern that most know. WE go talk to the person privately. If they will not repent, we go with witnesses—perhaps church leaders. If they still will not repent, we make their sin known to the body. And if they still will not repent, we treat them as a tax collector or unbeliever. It is a simple and fairly clear process.

But Matthew 18 is not the only passage on church discipline in the Scriptures. A faithful minister will also point the people of God to Galatians 6 which speaks of restoring a wayward brother gently and guarding our own hearts in the process. We will look to 1 Corinthians 5 for an example of strong discipline being affirmed for a man who is unrepentantly sexually immoral. We will turn to 2 Corinthians 2 for a picture of a church being called to forgive and restore a repentant sinner. And, as Paul closes 2 Corinthians, we see a couple of lines that must remind us of the goal of church discipline. Yes, we do all we do for the glory of God. Yes, we battle for the purity of the church and the honor of Christ. But we also do church discipline for the sake of restoring fallen brothers and sisters in Christ.

2 Corinthians 13 :9, 11 – 9 For we are glad when we are weak and you are strong. Your restoration is what we pray for…. 11 Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.

In a letter that includes a strong focus on the issues relating to church discipline among other things, as Paul wraps up, twice he points out that his heart, his aim, his goal is restoration. Paul says that he prays to see the fallen restored, and he wants the church to make restoration her aim as well.

When you consider church discipline, then, remember that restoration is central. We do not take delight in dropping the hammer on somebody who is failing in their Christian walk. Instead, we call on those who are wayward to return. We must call firmly, as continuing in sin may well be a sign that a person is not at all saved. But we call lovingly, because we know that God can bring a sinner back from the brink of destruction. Our goal is not to win a battle. Our goal is to win a brother.

Joy in Heaven

In Luke 15, Jesus preached three parables intended to illustrate the fact that there is great joy in heaven when a sinner repents.

Luke 15:7 – Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

These parables tell us of a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son (sometimes called the prodigal son). In the first two, we see people going to great lengths to regain something that had been lost and then rejoicing over the find.

Though it is simple, this is a place we need to be sure not to gloss over. After all, often the simplest things are the things we forget. God is showing us that there is great joy in heaven when the Lord brings a lost person to repentance. There is great joy in heaven, I would add, when the Lord brings a straying believer to repentance. There is great joy in heaven when God is glorified and someone who is away from the Lord is brought into right relationship.

Think about how this might impact you if you take it seriously. God loves us sinners coming to him in repentance and faith. We need to never forget that. We need to take action to see it happen. We need to pray that the Lord will make us a part of the process. We need to love there being great rejoicing in heaven.

One angle on this is that you and I, Christians, need to love taking the gospel to the lost. We do not compromise it. We do not reshape the gospel to make it something that the world will tolerate but which lacks the truth of saving grace. We just graciously and lovingly and honestly take the truth of Jesus to all we can. We want to call all people everywhere to repent and believe.

I would add that this also applies to how we deal with straying believers. When a child of God wanders from the faith, we need to be loving enough not to write them off. We need to honestly and clearly and lovingly call for repentance. Yes, we may work through the process of church discipline. But we never work through that process with a desire to just slam the door and get rid of somebody. We are always working for, praying for, striving for that person’s repentance, return to faithfulness, and reconciliation with the church.

We love the glory of God. We love doctrine. We love the truth of God’s word. And if we really do love these things, we will love what God says he loves. And God says he loves it when sinners repent. May we be a part of seeing that kind of joy in heaven to the glory of God.

An Example of Wisdom in an Abuse Case

If you’re active on the Internet, especially in Baptist or reformed circles, you have been exposed to the discussion of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson’s comments regarding a woman suffering spousal abuse. This conversation, of course, has triggered a great deal of anger, multiple discussions, and many condemnations. Patterson has since issued an apology for making unwise statements.

Without getting into the political Internet rancor regarding Patterson, the SBC, SWBTS, and all the rest, I want to simply point out an example from biblical narrative of a wise response to abuse from one in a position of authority. This is not all there is to say, but it came from my daily Bible reading, and it is a good start.

David was in the service of King Saul. Saul was insanely jealous of the people’s response to David, and from time-to-time, Saul had been overcome by rage against the young man who had slain a giant. But Saul’s son, Jonathan, loved David.

AT one point, David feared for his life because of Saul. And So David came to Jonathan to ask for help.

1 Samuel 20:1-4- 1 Then David fled from Naioth in Ramah and came and said before Jonathan, “What have I done? What is my guilt? And what is my sin before your father, that he seeks my life?” 2 And he said to him, “Far from it! You shall not die. Behold, my father does nothing either great or small without disclosing it to me. And why should my father hide this from me? It is not so.” 3 But David vowed again, saying, “Your father knows well that I have found favor in your eyes, and he thinks, ‘Do not let Jonathan know this, lest he be grieved.’ But truly, as the Lord lives and as your soul lives, there is but a step between me and death.” 4 Then Jonathan said to David, “Whatever you say, I will do for you.”

David expressed his fear, a genuine fear for his physical safety. Jonathan expressed surprise, but when he saw that David was serious, Jonathan pledged to help. From this point, David and Jonathan did the best they could to expose Saul’s intentions regarding David, and this all eventually led to Jonathan helping David to escape from Saul’s murderous intent.

Note that, in this situation, Jonathan did not say to David, “Saul is your authority, so you have to submit to his abuse.” And no biblically thinking Christian gives such counsel. There are certainly times in Scripture where Christians are called on to suffer bravely for Christ, but these commands are in the context of Christians who are in inescapable situations—slaves under harsh masters as an example.

What then should a Christian spouse facing abuse do? First, the one abused or fearing abuse needs to get to a place of safety. You must be aware, however, that often abusers become even more dangerous as you seek to leave the home. Thus, getting away may require careful planning or the involvement of the police. Second, if physical abuse has occurred or genuine threats of harm have been issued, this is a violation of the law. The threatened or abused spouse should contact the police for help. Third, the abused spouse should reach out to the elders of the church to which they belong as a member. The elders can offer prayer, counsel, and support as the abused spouse attempts to deal with the situation. If the couple are both church members, the elders can begin the process of biblical church discipline, calling the abusive spouse to repent of sin.

As a pastor, I would not encourage any person suffering abuse or genuinely fearing physical abuse of any kind to return to an unsafe environment. Instead, I would counsel much of what we see David do with Saul. David got himself to a place of safety and used a go-between to help him in his dealings with the crazed king. When the threat was not repented of and change had not been made, David remained apart from the abuser. David did not attempt to hurt Saul. David simply remained apart from Saul so long as Saul intended him harm.

Obviously, there is more at stake in a modern marriage. The presence of the church and of the legal authorities is a significant part of our situation. But I think that we can see, even in this narrative, a wise principle. If you are endangered by an authority over you, get away and get help. In marriage, this does not assume an immediate move to divorce. But it most certainly assumes an immediate move to safety and a call for repentance.

If you are abused or threatened with abuse:

  • Get to safety (this may require planning and careful timing).
  • Contact the police (the police can help you get to safety).
  • Contact your church elders.
  • Seek reconciliation through repentance on the part of the abuser.
  • Communicate from a place of safety or through a go-between if necessary.
  • Remain in a safe place until credible repentance occurs.