Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Why Pursue Regenerate Church Membership (Part 4: To Clarify the Gospel and for the Sake of Non-Christians)

In our brief series of posts on pursuing regenerate church membership, we've maintained that such a pursuit is good and necessary for the health of the church because it strengthens the corporate life of the church, improves the relationship between pastor and congregation, and blesses the individual spiritual lives of members. Those benefits should be enough to make most Christians interested in reforming church membership practices with the prayerful aim of increasingly limiting church membership to persons who give evidence of adequate knowledge of the gospel, personal experience of conversion, and fruit worthy of repentance and abiding faith.

But there are two other benefits to consider. The pursuit of a regenerate church membership helps to both clarify the Gospel and to further the evangelistic efforts of the local church. Today's post will consider these two benefits, and Lord willing a future post will offer some practical thoughts on how to begin pursuing healthier membership practices.

1. A regenerate church membership helps Christians live lives worthy of the Gospel. "Let your conduct be worth of the gospel" is the Apostle's straight-forward command to the Philippian church (Phil. 1:27). Can we credibly say that filling our membership rolls with people who show no evident signs of grace and conversion is to "let our conduct be worthy of the gospel?" Is it "worthy of the gospel" to call people "Christians" who "forsake the assembly" and live unrepentant sinful lives? If a Christian is one who is purchased with the precious blood of the one and only Son of God, surely his or her live should adorn the good news of the Savior (Titus 2:10b) with humility, joy, purity, love peace, faith, kindness, etc. A Spirit-filled life is worthy of the Gospel. It protects and affirms the Gospel by demonstrating that a Christian is one supernaturally changed by the Spirit of God who grants repentance, faith, a new heart, eternal and abundant life, and a new hope. How often is the gospel disparaged in the eyes of a perishing world because it's left languishing in the hands of churches that do not work to preserve a distinction between the world and the redeemed? We would do much to protect the gospel, to clarify its effects in the lives of the converted, and to witness a good profession before the world if we would pursue a Christian church as best we can.

2. A regenerate church membership helps the church to speak evangelistically to the non-Christian. This follows from most everything we've been saying up to this point. But here, I want to offer a number of thoughts about how this helps the non-Christian to think more soberly about the state of his soul before the Lord.

  • Practicing church membership penetrates the veil of deception caused by false teachers (Eph. 5:5-6). Many are comforted in their sins by preachers and churches that think doing a good law work is out of fashion, that sin is not a serious problem. To encounter healthy churches that have wise, biblically-informed membership practices is surely a jolt to persons wandering under such delusions. It may be that many will come to see and know their disqualification (2 Cor. 13:5) through the faithful proclamation of the gospel and practice of church membership.

  • Still others will be made aware of self-deception, that they have been possessors of a form of godliness but denying the power of God and pursuing false pleasures (2 Tim. 3:1-5; Titus 1:15,16). Their deception results not from false teaching about sin per se but a failure to see themselves accurately. It's significant that these persons are a real concern addressed in the pastoral epistles, where we take so much of our instruction on how to govern the local church. Good membership practices -- like requiring participation in membership classes where the gospel, the church's statement of faith, and the church's covenant (if you have one) are detailed and applied and membership interviews with pastors/elders where examination for an understanding of the gospel and a credible profession of conversion are given -- hopefully cause potential member to test themselves to see whether they are in the faith before they join the church. Pursuing a regenerate membership hopefully teaches such persons not to blaspheme (1 Tim. 1:20) or bear false witness.

  • The practice of church membership, particularly the practice of church discipline, works to save the soul of folks who are potentially non-believers, potentially self-deceived. That's the end-game for Paulo's instruction to the Corinthians; they are to put the one who calls himself a "brother" out of the fellowship so that his spirit might be saved (1 Cor. 5:5). Is there a worthier aim for reforming membership practices in churches? We desire that all men would come to a saving knowledge of the Truth. And we pray fervently that those who would know the discipline of the church would be won to the truth and to pure faith in the Lord Jesus, knowing the comfort (2 Cor. 2:6-8) and the instruction in righteousness (Heb. 12:5-13) that comes from faithful correction.
The local church that does not pursue regenerate church membership poses a great danger to the souls of men. We unsuspectingly offer our non-Christian friends a harbor for perishing in their sins, lulling them into an ever-deeper self-deception.

As I was finishing up this post, I came across a fitting quote from Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones. It points out the dual danger that an unregenerate church membership poses for both the church and the false professor. It's taken from the first sermon he preached at Westminster (29 Dec. 1935; reprinted in The Banner of Truth, March 2006). Here's how Lloyd-Jones opened his exposition of John 6:66-68):

I feel it is an interesting and profitable subject to try to decide which is the more dangerous position for a man to be in - to state openly and avowedly that he is not at all interested in Christ and religion, or to follow Christ for the wrong and false reason. I know that, ultimately, there is no difference between these two men. The one who follows Christ for the wrong reason is as much outside the kingdom as the man who makes no pretence to follow Christ at all. That is perfectly true. But I do think there is an important distinction between the two when you regard things merely from the human standpoint. The difficulty with the man who follows Christ for a wrong reason is that he not only deludes himself, but he also deludes the church. When you are confronted by one who says he does not believe in Christ, then you know exactly what to say and what to do with him. When a man presents himself as a religious person, the church tends to take him for granted; it would be an insult to question him. The church assumes that because he acknowledges himself to be a religious man, therefore he is a Christian. One of the most dangerous places for such a man to be in is the church of the living God.

I am not at all sure but that one explanation for the present state of the church is to be found at just that point: she has been far too ready to associate church membership with true discipleship, and to assume that all who join the church are really following Christ.

When the Southern Baptist Convention failed to adopt a resolution to make its membership practices more reliable and healthy, arguing that the inflated membership rolls make a good prospect list for evangelism, I'm afraid it may have declared itself the enemy and not the friend of those persons listed on rolls, perhaps believing they are Christians, but who may one day meet the Lord to hear that terrible pronouncement: "Depart from me for I never knew you." It would be far better to remove those persons from membership, even if it means lovingly rankling a few feathers, and have those persons hear the message that their local church can no longer in good conscience affirm their testimony to be a Christian. After all, it is fare more likely the outcome that hearing that message may be what the Holy Spirit uses to prick the conscience, stir the heart, and convert sinner. The alternative -- keeping people on a list and either never seeing them participate in the life of the local church or watching them live unrepentant, unaccountable lives -- holds no promise either for the local church or the souls of the unsaved.

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