"Chris, don't you think your last blog on this topic was pretty harsh?"
To some it may have been. But that was not my intent. My intent was to show that those Christians I described who see no need or are not seeking to become a member of a local church and think they’re walking in obedience doing it are deceiving themselves and are in defiance of authority (rebellion). Allow me to also clear up my use of the term rebellion. I did not mean in using “rebellion” (in part 1 or in part 2 here) as in “full-fledge rebellion back into the old sinful life”, but simply “rebellion” as in “defiance of authority”. Also, it was not a directive towards all, just those who are guilty of it.
So what then is this “authority” I am speaking of, and why are we to be submitted to it, and is it really necessary to become a member of a local church?
1. The authority I'm speaking of is the authority of the local church and its leaders to hold its members (leaders included) accountable and when necessary administer correction (i.e. rebuking, admonishments, and consequences), according to the Scriptures (Tit. chs. 1-2, 1Pet. 5:1-3, Matt. 18:15-20, 1Cor. ch. 5, 2Tim. 4:1-2).
2. Why are we to be submitted to it? Because God said so or displayed so (Acts 16:4-5, Heb. 13:7, 17, 1Thess. 5:12-13, 1Tim. 5:17, 1Pet. 5:5; also every N.T. Letter is to a "local church(es)"). It's for our benefit that we obey how God has set-up the local church to lead His sheep. Why? Because God knows us infinitely better than we could ever know ourselves. He knows exactly what we need and how we need to be led. We just have to trust and follow His leading, His guidance, and His sovereign plan.
3. Is becoming a member of a local church necessary? Absolutely! Becoming a member of a local church is nothing more than being submitted to a local church's authority and leadership. Membership is saying I am making a commitment to regularly and consistently fellowship and grow with this specific group of born-again believers (Gr. ekklesia), and submit myself to this group's (i.e. local church) authority (accountability) and leadership (Acts 1:12-14; 2:42-47; 4:32-5:11; 6:1-7; 11:19-30). (And if there is a question of who are the leaders, the leadership of the local church are simply those who have been appointed to lead—e.g. pastor/elders, deacons/ deaconesses, and leaders of or in ministries). The answer above (#2) expresses to us the necessity of membership, and also why not becoming a member of a local church is disobedience to God and detrimental to us.
Allow me to paint a picture highlighting one factor of why local church membership is important. Christian X starts a war of words with Christian Y. Other believers and unbelievers see and hear this war of words. A mature believer comes and admonishes both Christian X and Y to handle this matter more Christlike. Neither of them receives the admonishment. Another believer attempts to do the same. They ignore that one as well. All the while this war of words has turned into slander, gossip, defamation of one another's character, and flat out unChristlike. Finally, a fellow believer from Christian Y's church finds out what's going on by someone who tried to admonish Christian Y. This believer sees Matthew 18 has been done and realizes that they must alert the leadership of the church. Christian Y is counseled by their pastor, and receives the correction and repents. Christian X however is not a member of a church. Therefore Christian X is not submitted to any authority. They can continuing to spew out their war of words, blatantly disregarding their witness for Christ, show hate for their brethren, and defiance of authority to be held accountable for their error and sin. How can this believer be held accountable according to Scripture if they are not under authority as Scripture states? There is no way for the accountability of Matthew 18:15-17 or 1Corinthians 5 to be fully carried out if there is no commitment and submission to a local church.
To say you're under God's authority or the Bible's authority but are not under a local church's authority is a misnomer. God says and displays in His Word that being submitted to the local church's authority and leadership is being submitted to His authority and leadership.
Maybe some of you are thinking, "Chris, what about those who have been abused by church authority or church leaders who abuse their authority?" Well, what constitutes abuse of authority? Anyone can say they have been abused by authority when it could be they just don't like to be held accountable for their actions. So how can one determine true abuse?
Abuse is a corrupt use of authority, or excessive, or flagrant, or unwarranted, or deceitful, or manipulative, or reviling, or improper use for improper gain, and so on. Hopefully you get the picture. If the authority in question falls in one of these categories and it has been verified by more than one person, then it needs to be brought up and addressed. Also, don't automatically assume it's on purpose. Sometimes abuse of authority can happen out of ignorance; but it's still not without consequences. Abuse is a correctable action. Only if the abuse of authority is a continual issue or such an egregious act of abuse should the one guilty of abuse be removed from their authority; (the extent of the removal is a case-by-case base). (The Old Testament is full of a wide-range of stories from the Judges until Jesus about abuse of authority).
For believers who go to a church (presently) where leaders abuse their authority, here's my advice:
1. Remember to follow Matthew 18:15-17. If the situation is not biblically resolved, make the pastor aware of your concern, then give some time for the pastor to inquire and investigate your concern. If the concern is about the pastor, follow 1Timothy 5:19, and tell a trustworthy elder.
2. You can always leave. Local church membership is not an eternal covenant. Just make sure you don't leave divisively. If you have biblical grounds and evidence that there is something heretical or biblically unlawful going on, and it can and has been verified by others, yes you should warn others as you leave, but still do so in a way that is Christlike--seasoned with grace, and in decency and in order. Remember, Jesus is the Great Shepherd, the Omnipotent King, and He can take great care of His sheep whether we warn others or not and whether they receive the warning or not. Don't take on His responsibility. Commit it to Him. And be sure to get plugged in to a church where there is better transparency, accountability, and a grace-driven presence among leadership and the congregation to help guard from abuse.
For believers who have been abused by authority in the church, here's my word to you:
1. If there has not been a healing and restoration time, please do so. Go find a good, encouraging, and gentle-handed and honest Christian counselor to work through the scars and wounds left behind from the abuse. Trust the Holy Spirit to meet you throughout this time as you seek Him for your ultimate healing.
2. Forgiveness is an essential in your healing and moving forward from this abuse. The rest of Matthew 18 after verse 20 speaks right to why forgiveness is an essential. It's easy in our flesh to only want the abuser to be disciplined, humiliated, and some times even to repent, but how often do we desire to forgive the abuser. Jesus reminds us that we treated Him in our sin the same way as you have been abused (and worse) and He forgave you. Again, I know it may be hard, but think of what your sin did to Jesus and extend that same measure of grace and mercy to others as He extends to you. It's more beneficial for you than it is for the abuser.
3. I'll repeat my above point, don't take on God's responsibility. Commit your hurt, anger, vengeance, distrust, and so on to Him who judges righteously (1Pet. 2:21-24).
4. While it may be hard to submit to church authority again, don't group all churches (nor all leaders) in the same basket, and don't throw obeying the Scriptures out the window because of the sin of another. Regardless to what people do to us or not, it has nothing to do with us obeying the gracious and loving God who rescued us from our sin. If our obedience to Scripture is dependent upon how others obey them or not, none of us would ever obey Scripture. Don't let other sinners keep you from submitting to the authority of your Savior.
I know I haven't covered everything, and this is not a comprehensive study. However, I hope from what has been shared that I brought some clarity to membership and helped you better understand that being a member of a local church is being obedient to God's Word. I also hope that I have displayed compassion and grace-seasoned truth to those who may be reluctant to obey the Word regarding this topic because of the sin and hurt caused by others in authority in the church.
*None of what I've shared takes away brethren responsibility to hold one another accountable or correct, rebuke, admonish, counsel, encourage, and so on. I was purely focusing on the local church.