Reconsidering Our Accounting

Mark Dever
Wednesday, June 6th 2007
Jul/Aug 2002

In September of 1994, I became the pastor of a local congregation in Washington, D.C., composed of about 500 individual members. As good Baptists, we counted individuals, not families. Computing the number of members that way reflects the strong Baptist tradition of the necessity of individual profession of faith for Church membership. Membership cannot be inherited or even automatically assumed and confirmed at a particular "coming of age." That should have meant, then, that I was beginning to lead a church of 500 individuals committed to its life and ministry.

That was far from the case.

It wasn't all bad. In fact, I was taking on the leadership of a congregation that had, by God's grace, remained faithful to his gospel when many churches around it had not. When other churches began to compromise on the authority of Scripture, the exclusivity of salvation in Christ, and justification by faith alone, this congregation had stood firm. Nevertheless, a changing community, an aging congregation, and some previous pastoral infidelities had resulted in a church that was declining in size, growing older, and abandoning its neighborhood of over four decades.

When I became its pastor, the church's regular attendees numbered only about 130. But in my own prayer times, it was the missing 370 that weighed particularly on my mind and heart.

I was reminded of Hebrews 13:17: "Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you." I wasn't struggling with not being respected or obeyed. It was the middle sentence that caught my attention: "They keep watch over you as men who must give an account."

Of course, the Lord Jesus had warned that all of us would need to keep watch over ourselves in light of the coming of the end (Mark 13:33; Luke 21:36). But we see more than just such self-watchfulness in the New Testament. We see Paul laboring over-and yearning for-those whom he taught (e.g., 2 Cor. 6:4-6; 1 Thess. 1-3). He understood that he had been given the watchman responsibilities spoken of by Ezekiel: "Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to a wicked man, 'You will surely die,' and you do not warn him or speak out to dissuade him from his evil ways in order to save his life, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. But if you do warn the wicked man and he does not turn from his wickedness or from his evil ways, he will die for his sin; but you will have saved yourself" (Ezek. 3:17-19; cf. 33:2-6).

I knew I wasn't Ezekiel or Paul, but I also knew I was in the leadership position of Hebrews 13. I was a teacher who would face a stricter judgment (James 3:1). If nothing else, then, compassion worked in my heart. I imagined standing before God's throne at the last day, holding the hands of hundreds of people I had never met, but as their titular pastor having in effect assured them that they would, as far as I could tell, be fine. I felt like I was saying, "As far as we can discern, you have a credible profession of faith. You are trusting in God and, except for the most gross hypocrisy, you are now and will be eternally saved from the just penalty of your sins." Could I say that of people I'd never met? Could I, even passively, allow scores or hundreds to slip into eternity with me at the helm of the church that called them "member" with no word of caution or contradiction?

I remembered the words of the Scottish minister John Brown in a letter of paternal counsel to one of his pupils newly ordained over a small congregation. Though written as a prose sentence, I meditated upon it phrase by phrase:

"I know the vanity of your heart,and that you will feel mortified that your congregation is very small,in comparison with those of your brethren around you;but assure yourself on the word of an old man,that when you come to give an account of them to the Lord Christ,at his judgment-seat,you will think you have had enough."

Of course, the responsibility wasn't merely mine. I had not been this church's pastor when these people were taken into membership, nor even as they had been allowed to remain in membership for years-or in some cases, decades-after we had last heard from them. But were I to allow the situation to continue, I would be the pastor who was responsible for allowing them to remain as members in good standing.

Hebrews 10:25 instructs Christians not to forsake the regular assembling of themselves together. We know from Acts and Paul's letters to the Corinthians that Christians assembled every week on the first day. By both instruction and example, the New Testament shows us that regular congregating is a Christian duty. Yet hundreds of our members were defaulting on it.

Some of this nonattendance may have been for valid reasons. Some may have been prevented simply by age-and should be cared for by us. Some may have been temporarily prevented by military postings or college education or service overseas as missionaries. But the vast majority had simply become lost to us. They had wandered away, even if they lived in our own neighborhood. They were fully able to attend this church or join some other, but they did not. Or at least they had not let us know if they had.

With this weighing on my conscience, I began to lead the congregation in a massive search for the missing members. We interviewed older members and probed their memories. We found old directories and made phone calls. We wrote letters and sent messages via relatives. We found a few who joined with us again; we found that more had died. Several were upset when we contacted them. Some were happily involved in other churches and had simply neglected to tell us. A good number were shocked that we would consider taking them off the church roll without their choosing. But most of these members we simply couldn't find. We would send letters, but most correspondence received no response whatever.

Yet we had tried. We had discharged, belatedly, our obligation to watch over them. They would not slip into eternity to stand before their Creator and Judge without at least some word from that family of faith that had, perhaps back in 1937, accepted them into their number and given them the "right hand of fellowship" but had then let them slip out quietly and unnoticed. Now-like the posthumous righting of some old wrong-we could quiet our consciences. I know I quieted mine.

This process culminated in most of our members-all of the merely nominal ones-being voted out of membership one by one at a members' meeting in May of 1996. Name by name we had taken them in. Name by name we would see them out. As the pastor, I wanted to make it utterly plain to the assembled members what a serious matter it is to take someone into church membership. I was teaching them what a serious matter it is to be a church member. I was teaching them what a serious matter it is to be a Christian.

Gone, I prayed, would be our days of easy-come, easy-go membership. Such memberships tend to be fleeting and to mislead people about what it means to be a Christian. A decision is made, an aisle is walked, a card filled out, a handshake given, a vote taken, and the person is baptized and admitted to church membership. We had made people think that in responding to our easy call, they were responding to Christ's saving call. We had made responding to Christ sound as easy as filling out a request for a mail-order catalog. And we had reaped the bitter fruit. Our rolls were full and our pews were empty. Our people were tired and our membership was meaningless. Our hopes were dim and our witness to the world nonexistent because we were the world. We had almost ceased being the Church.

By God's grace, we recovered our witness before it was fully extinguished. Church discipline-for that is what we were beginning to practice-was becoming for us a biblical imperative and a practical reality. Membership began to take on meaning as we required more careful consideration on our part and theirs before people joined. We began to articulate our membership expectations. And we began to act as a congregation-carefully, prayerfully, slowly-to exclude from our number those who persevered unrepentantly in sin.

New members now affirm the Christian gospel and some other basic Christians truths, particularly about what we believe and how they will live. Historically Baptist churches have a statement of faith saying what we commonly believe and a church covenant saying what we will do together. In reinstating this, we have recovered an aspect of the Church's corporate piety that was also recovered at the Reformation-the discipline of the visible Church.

In Book IV of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin teaches us how to distinguish the false from the true Church. In chapter 1, section 9, he takes up the question of the marks of the true Church, writing, "Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the Sacraments administered according to Christ's institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists."

To the right preaching of the Word and the right administration of the Sacraments, the right discipline of the Church has often been added as a third mark (although it really is implied in the proper administration of the sacraments). So article 29 of the Belgic Confession says, "The marks by which the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the Gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church."

These marks include what both creates and preserves the Church: There is the fountain of God's truth, and the lovely vessel that contains and displays it. The Church is generated by the right preaching of the Word. It is distinguished and contained by the right administration of Baptism and the Lord's Supper, which includes the regular and faithful practice of church discipline.

In many churches, practicing church discipline is aided by statements of faith and church covenants. Seeking to be faithful to Scripture and useful to the Church, such simple summary documents enunciate borders and boundaries in faith and practice.

Though the New Testament doesn't mandate them, Baptists and Congregationalists have felt led to create these extrabiblical documents by working out Scripture's implications. This practice agrees with chapter 1, section 6, of the Westminster Confession, where the divines stated that the

whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the word; and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the word, which are always to be observed.

Our statements of faith and church covenants clarify some of these circumstances concerning the government of the church and so we adopt them out of Christian prudence and in accordance with the general rules of God's Word

What rules? Primarily the Bible's teaching on membership and discipline. In Matthew, our Lord says, "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector" (18:15, 16). Here our Lord is assuming several things: 1) that anyone who is called a "brother" may have a responsibility to repent; 2) that other Christians must be willing to be involved in this process, even when it is initially unsuccessful; 3) that the ultimate court here is a local assembly-not a bishop or session, not a synod or a convention of assemblies; and 4) that if there is no repentance, then Christians must take action that makes it clear to the offender and others that we no longer consider him a member of this assembly or, by implication, a Christian.

Did the early Christians understand this passage in this way? I think so. For instance, in the case of the adulterous man mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul presumes that the young Corinthian Christians should have known better than to have allowed him to continue in their fellowship. "You should have put him out," Paul says. "Hand him over to Satan." "Get rid of the old yeast." "You must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat." "Judge those inside." "Expel the wicked man from among you." Certainly, Paul believes in simul justus et peccator-"at once righteous and a sinner." Yet he also assumes that those who are justified will not normally and repeatedly and unrepentantly sin as this man has. I think his assumption is inspired. Certainly his directions are.

Paul seems to be angry with the Corinthians for not seeing the basic, elementary inconsistency between their proclamation and their acceptance of this man. By their laxity, they undermine their witness to others, jeopardize this man's soul, and dull their own consciences. Most crucially, they misrepresent God's Spirit and the holiness of life he imparts. As those who most specially bear his name-those not only made in his image, but redeemed by his Son and indwelt by his Holy Spirit-they are in effect allowing that name to be taken in vain.

Was this New Testament emphasis new? Not really. God has always intended that his character should be displayed to his creation corporately through his people. Adam was given Eve, and they were given children. The promise came to Abraham, and he became the father of many nations. God redeemed the nation of Israel from slavery and gave them his laws. Individuals and indeed the whole Israelite nation were punished when they became indistinct from world around them.

In Leviticus 26:33, God warned his people that if they became marked by unholiness, then he would scatter them. In other words, their becoming indistinct from those around them removes any reason for preserving a distinct place for them. They would then become exiles, scattered among the nations. And so they did.

In the New Testament, God again shows that he intends to express himself through his people. Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 show what should happen whenever this distinction between the Church and the world is breached. The whole New Testament reinforces this through its grand vision of the Church. The Church universal and glorified is not the only grand vision of the Church that we see in the New Testament. The church local and visible is also portrayed as a light in a dark world, presenting the only ray of true hope (Phil. 2:14-16) and showing by our love for one another that we are Christ's disciples (John 13:34-35). The glorious Church universal is truly the invisible church unless it is manifested in the imperfect but truly supernatural life of the local and visible church.

Church discipline is no more all there is to the piety of the local church than correction is all there is to the art of parenting. Yet trying to lead a church without discipline is just as unworkable as trying to parent children without correcting them. An undisciplined church confuses sinners, discourages saints, and dishonors God. For our own sake as well as for the sake of others, for our churches' and for God's own name's sake, let us not disregard God's clear commands to discipline his Church. To disregard these commands cannot be right, and it is never safe, especially not for those who must someday give account.

Wednesday, June 6th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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