Thursday, May 28, 2009

Restoring Regenerate Church Membership
By and large, in our day, church membership has really lost much of its biblical meaning. Centrally, the loss has been seen in compromising the principle of regenerate church membership. For example, it has been said that the typical Southern Baptist church has 233 members, but only 70 are present at the regular Sunday service of worship. The obvious question is, where are the other 163 members? Could it be they are at home sick, in a nursing home, on vacation, or in the military? Some may fit these categories, but not all 163. The painful truth is, the majority of the church membership are members in name only but not in fact. In other words, their names may be listed in the church records as "members", but there is no physical nor spiritual evidence that they are indeed faithful disciples of Christ.
In the rural South, where I pastor, this problem is pandemic. Church membership is more of a form of "fire insurance" (i.e., to keep the sinner out of hell) or a sentimental family tradition ("Mom, Dad, and my Grandparents were members, so I guess I'll join too"). What makes this situation even worse, is that many pastors who are obsessed exclusively with "numerical" church growth, will compromise the gospel commands to savingly believe on Christ alone and repent, for shallow decisions which results in bloated membership rolls of unconverted sinners. Recently commenting on this problem in Southern Baptist life, Dr. David Dockery (president of Union University) observed:
"It seems to me that we are doing harm to the person and to the church by allowing them to stay on the roll. One thing worse than people being lost in their sins is lost people who think they are saved because their names are on a church roll."
The obvious challenge confronting churches with unregenerate church membership is recovering and maintaining the biblical ideal of a church membership that is genuinely saved. But how can this be done? Where can such a recovery begin? The restoration of regenerate church membership must start by reinstating three Scriptural practices that were once common in evangelical churches (especially Baptist churches): first, there must be great care given in the receiving of new members. Many churches are hasty, careless, and irresponsible in how they receive prospective church members. Rather than looking for spiritual fruit that points to a true conversion, they look only for someone's base desire to join - as if they are joining a community club or the local gym. The Bible however teaches us that we are not to lay our hands on anyone hastily lest we share in their sins (I Tim.5:22). The context of this mandate is affirming and receiving men into public ministry. Yet, there is a principle that can be applied here to church membership: prospective church members should only be affirmed by the church if their testimony, character, and understanding of the gospel is biblical. Questions like, how is a sinner made right with God? who is Jesus Christ? what is sin? what confidence do you have that God accepts you? why do you believe you're a Christian, and what is the gospel? - should be asked of any who wish to join a church. Endorsing strongly this careful approach to receiving new members, Mark Dever once said:
"Guard carefully the front door and open the back door. In other words, make it more difficult to join...and make it easier to be excluded...the path to life is narrow, not broad. Doing this will help churches recover their divinely intended distinction from the world."
Second, there must be the faithful practice of formative and corrective church discipline. Many churches fail in one or both of these types of biblical discipline. And the result has been a membership of gross spiritual immaturity, the spread of false doctrine, divisive relationships, and all-out unrestrained sin. Together however, both formative and corrective church discipline maintain a level of spiritual healthiness that separates the church from the world by upholding a Christ-exalting purity of doctrine and life (see Matt.18:15-17; Rom.16:17-18; Gal.6:1-2; Eph.4:11-16). In short, they provide a boundary for all members which makes a clear distinction between the sheep and the goats.
Finally, there must be a formal commitment to maintain God-honoring relationships. This means having a written church covenant that spells out the church's mutual obligations to fulfill all of Scripture's "one another" passages (e.g., Jn.13:34,35; Rom.12:10; Heb.10:24,25). Keeping such a covenant clarifies the spiritual & relational commitments that church membership biblically signifies.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Myth of the Non-Resident Church Member
There is no such thing as a "non-resident church member." Despite the fact that this is an actual category recognized among churches (most notably Southern Baptist churches), the very concept is in direct contradiction to what the Word of God identifies as a legitmate member of Christ's church.
When one is described as a "non-resident church member" they are typically classed as someone who has made a public profession of faith in Christ, received baptism, and has joined a local church - yet, for whatever reason, they are completely absent from the fellowship and service of the church they have joined. However, in spite of their disappearance, they are still considered as members in "good standing" of that local church. In fact, their credibility as church members is especially seen when they just happen to reappear to vote the latest pastor out of the church (I know of this experience first hand)!
But when we turn to God's Word, the characteristics and conduct of a genuine member of Christ's church is anything but the non-residential type. First of all, there is nothing superficial about the salvation they have received. They were chosen from eternity by God for salvation (Eph.1:4; II Thess.2:13), given to Christ for redemption (Jn.6:37; Eph.1:7; Tit.3:14), and regenerated by the Holy Spirit unto a new life (Jn.3:3-8; Tit.3:5). They have also been taken out of Adam and placed into Christ (Rom.5:15-19), being forever liberated from the power of sin (Rom.6:1-14). And they have become a part of Christ's living body, the church, and thus joined eternally to all of God's redeemed people (I Cor.12:12-13; Rev.7:9).
Second of all, there is an evident change in who and what they are. They are called a "new creation" (II Cor.5:17), a "new self" (Eph.4:24), and "light in the Lord" (Eph.5:8). The fruit of this transformation is seen in the growth, process, and progress called "sanctification" (Rom.6:19,22). The manifestation of this inner divine work is a manner of life that is being conformed to the image of Christ (II Cor.3:18). Hence, there there will be humility, love, patience, gentleness, kindness, faithfulness, joy, forgiveness, and self-control - which are all Godward virtues exercised for the sole purpose of glorifying God (Gal.5:22,23; Eph.4:17-5:8; Col.3:12-17; cf. I Cor.10:31). Moreover, there is seen in them a growing hatred for sin that is carried out in the daily work of killing sin by the Spirit (Rom.7:14-25; 8:13). And finally, this transformation is also evidenced by an intentional witness to bear to others the glory of Christ in the saving message of His gospel (Acts 5:42; Rom.10:15).
Lastly, they desire the fellowship of other believers and seek that fellowship in the gathered community of a local church (see Acts 2:41-47). This means that they place themselves under the teaching of the Scriptures (Acts 2:42a) and thus under the discipleship of a faithful pastoral ministry (Eph.4:12-13). They also strive to build up other believers by bearing their burdens, exhorting them to holiness, praying for them, worshiping with them, and stirring them up to love and good works (Eph.4:16; Gal.6:1-2; Heb.3:12-14; Eph.6:18; Col.3:16; Heb.10:24-25).
Are there really non-resident church members then, in the light of what Scripture says? No. The truth is, if someone claims to be a "Christian" yet refuses to be committed in covenant with a local church - their entire claim is false and hypocritical (see I Jn.2:19; 3:14). So what should we look for in someone who joins a church? More than a decision but a life transformed by grace.

Friday, May 22, 2009

A Cardinal Baptist Doctrine
One of the most important foundational and historic principles in Baptist church life is what's called, "regenerate church membership." This principle simply states that the church can only be made up of people who have been "born again" (Jn.3:3-8). The church therefore cannot be composed of any other person but those who have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit with credible proof of that inward work by a life of saving faith in Christ and repentance of their sins. Or to state this principle in the words of the 1689 Baptist Confession:
"All persons throughout the world who profess to believe the gospel and to render gospel obedience unto God by Christ are, and may be called, visible saints, provided that they do not render void their profession of belief by holding fundamental errors or by living unholy lives; and of such persons all local churches should be composed "(Chap. 26, para. 2; italics mine).
Writing once on the practice of this principle in Baptist churches during the 18th & 19th centuries, Greg Wills observed:
"Baptists believed that Christ designed his churches for the redeemed. They held that the churches should admit the regenerate only. They therefore required persons seeking admission to the church to give evidence of their conversion. Members knew they could not peer directly into another's soul - they could not know certainly whether a person was truly born again. But they were convinced that Christ required them to judge the evidence. They admitted persons who 'in the judgment of charity' gave satisfactory evidence of conversion."
Needless to say, regenerate church membership is mandantory to the health of a local church. For one thing, it separates the church from the world. This principle maintains the truth and integrity of biblical teaching which draws a clear distinction between believer and unbeliever (see Eph.4:17-5:14; I Jn.3:4-10). A regenerate church membership says that Christians cannot be under the same "yoke" with a non-Christian - "for what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols" (II Cor.6:14-18)? The church may be in the world but the church is not of the world (Jn.17:16).
In addition to this, the principle of regenerate church membership treats conversion to Christ as a supernatural work of God. One of the great implications of this principle is that to be a true member of the church results from one thing only: the sovereign, omnipotent grace of God in Christ bringing salvation to a lost sinner (Eph.2:1-10). Church membership therefore is the consequence of what God has done to bring the sinner to Himself. Thus conversion to Christ is not a decision made, a prayer prayed, or an aisle walked - but the work of God in the sinner delivering him from the tyranny of sin and uniting him to Christ, whereby he is supernaturally baptized into the body of Christ, which is the church (see Rom.6:1-11; I Cor.12:12-13; Eph.1:22,23). And the visible proof this divine work is a life in love with Christ, trusting Christ, and obeying Christ above all things. Such a person bears the marks of a genuine member of Christ's church.
Finally, regenerate church membership keeps the door to the church narrow & exclusive. There is no "open door" policy under this principle. It is not "come one, come all" - no matter what you believe. The door to church membership allows only those who trust in Christ alone for their salvation and bear the fruit of that trust in a life of faithful obedience to Him.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Why did Christ die?
Under the "big tent" of Evangelicalism there are two opposing views concerning the intention and purpose for why Christ died. One view says that Jesus died to make salvation possible. This is actually the most common and popular understanding among Christians today. The idea goes something like this: "Jesus came into the world to provide salvation by His death and make it possible for anyone who would choose to be saved." The vast majority of preachers on any given Sunday will proclaim this concept as gospel truth.
The second and opposing view regarding the intention of Christ's death declares that Jesus died to secure salvation for all those He came to save. In other words, Jesus did not make salvation a mere possibility, but actually accomplished salvation by His death on the cross. His death purchased a real salvation for a particular people in whose place He died as their substitute.
Now concerning these two very different views of the purpose and intention of Christ's death, we have to ask: which is biblical? The first view is certainly attractive, and that for two reasons: on the one hand, it seems "fair" because it maintains that Jesus died for everyone without exception; while on the other hand, it leaves man as the decision maker for his own salvation. Thus Jesus is held up as a "potential" Savior for someone who might choose to accept what He did on the cross as a worthy provision for salvation.
But is this the way the Bible portrays Jesus Christ? Are we to believe that God would have His Son pay for the salvation of everyone if He knew that Christ would not be able to obtain what He paid for? Was the death of Christ just a gamble God took in the hope that someone somewhere in time would accept what Jesus did and be saved? Or are we to assume that Jesus is sitting in heaven wringing His hands with worry over whether or not His death will bring salvation to some poor sinner? Of course the answer to these questions is a resounding "no"! Let me also add "never". Quite frankly, despite how popular the first view may be it slanders God and makes a mockery of what Christ came to do. Hence it is not biblical.
The second view, though not as widely accepted, treats the purpose and intention of Christ's death with honesty and seriousness. In other words, it holds up the biblical view. The reason why Jesus was sent into the world was to save all those His Father gave Him to save (see Jn.6:37,39; 10:27,28; 17:2,6,9,12). His death therefore was an actual price for an actual people He intended to redeem.
For this reason when the Bible describes what Christ did on the cross, it speaks of what His death accomplished. For instance, His death accomplished "propitiation" (Rom.3:25), "redemption" (Eph.1:7), "justification" (Rom.5:9), and "reconciliation" (Rom.5:10). Each of these terms describe the death of Christ as a curse-bearing, wrath-removing, ransom-paying sacrifice which Jesus procured and effected only for those His Father gave Him to save.
And who exactly are these people the Father gave to His Son to redeem? The Bible is very explicit: they are "His people" (Matt.1:21), "His sheep" (Jn.10:11-13), "the children of God" (Jn.11:51-52), "believers" (Jn.3:16), "the church" (Eph.5:25), "His seed" (Isa.53:10) and "the elect" (Rom.8:32,33). Therefore Jesus did not die to make salvation possible for everyone. But rather, His death guaranteed salvation only for His people. Henceforth, when we proclaim the gospel, we do not proclaim a "potential" Savior but a Savior who really saves. "And you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins" (Matt.1:21).

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Pillar and Buttress of Truth
There is a description of the church in God's Word, which I believe is a rare characteristic to be found in most local churches today. In fact, it is an attribute of the church which has been laid aside (unintentionally or not) because it may be viewed as irrelevant to so-called "church growth". In I Timothy 3:15, we are told that "the church of the living God" is a "pillar and buttress of truth." Now of all things that could have been said to capture an essential distinctive and quality about the church as it is seen in the world, God breathes in his biblical writer these words: "a pillar and buttress of truth."
This means that wherever the gathered church of Christ is visibly found in the world, it is to be a living, vibrant, and immovable testimony to God's truth. As a pillar...of truth, the church is to be the support of the truth; however, as the buttress of truth, the church is actually being pictured as a foundation to the superstructure of the truth. Thus, the church should never be seen as upholding anything that is false and opposed to the truth of God's written revelation. In fact, any so-called church which openly denies God's Word in any part, or treats it as anything less than being God's infallible Word - cannot be identified with integrity as a true church.
The reason I say this is because without the Word of God, the church has no authority nor legitimate basis for even being the church. For the church is not man's idea but the very creation of God (see I Cor.12:12-27; Eph.1:3-14; 2:11-22). Furthermore, the message and mission of the church in the world does not originate with the cleverness or imagination of man, but is given to the church by God as a stewardship (see Matt.28:18-20; I Cor.4:1-2). Yet the framework and knowledge of all these things come from God's Word. Henceforth, it is only by the truth of God's Word that a local church can be identified as the body of Jesus Christ, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, entrusted with the gospel of salvation; and is able to believe and teach with certainty and assurance the true character of God, the creation and fall of man, justification by grace alone, holiness of life, heaven & hell, and many other great doctrines which distinguish the church from the world. So then, if a church is going to be true and faithful to God's calling on who and what they are in Christ - they must therefore be a visible body of people who are a pillar and buttress of truth. Moreover, the church and the truth have a symbiotic relationship, in which each is always affecting the other. Messing with any part of one will always have adverse effects on the other (see Tit.2:5b, 10b).
In the most practical terms then, as the pillar and buttress of truth the church must, first of all, be digesting the truth. When the world sees the church, they should see a people who are memorizing, meditating, and studying the Word of God (Psa.1:1-2; 119:11; Rev.10:9). If pricked by anyone, the church should bleed bibline! Second of all, to be the pillar and buttress of truth, the church should be defending it. God's Word is always under attack, we must then be ready and willing to lay down our lives (whatever that may cost) to preserve and proclaim it in the face of any opposition (Phil.1:16; II Tim.4:1-4). Finally, as the pillar and buttress of truth, the church must be disseminating the truth & demonstrating its power in holy living. From the pulpit to the pew, from the homeplace to the workplace - the church should always be expounding God's Word without shame or apology to the glory of God, in word and in deed (see Matt.28:18-20; Acts 20:20-27; Eph.4:11-5:21; Col.3:12-17).

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Lessons from Luther on the Authority of God's Word
April 18, 1521 would seem like an ordinary day for probably most people living in medieval Europe. However, for a German monk named Martin Luther (1483-1546), this one spring day was deeply significant beyond anything even he could have imagined. For on this day, Luther would face the most powerful political and religious forces in all of Europe. The reason for this encounter was that Luther had "rocked the boat". Of course, he did more than merely rock the boat - he overturned it and was calling for its destruction.
The "boat" was a thousand years of tradition in the Romans Catholic Church which had literally buried the gospel and gave only lip service to the authority of God's Word. Luther was calling the Catholic church to repent of this apostasy and return to the Bible as the final authority for everything they must believe and practice. The Catholic church however was not listening to Luther's appeal. Instead, they condemned him and his writings and demanded that he recant of his so-called "heresies".
Thus on April 18, 1521 in Worms, Germany, Martin Luther stood before the annual congress of the German nation (called a "Diet"), and was ordered to repudiate all his writings. He had already spent twenty-four hours thinking over this demand, at his own request. But now the moment of truth had arrived. Luther was ready to answer. His response would mark the greatest turning point in the Protestant Reformation up to that time. The heart of his answer was this:
"For I do not trust either in the pope or in the councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradict themselves, I am bound to the Scriptures...and my conscience is captive to the Word of God...I cannot do otherwise, here I stand. May God help me, Amen."
When I ponder these words of Luther at the Diet of Worms, I cannot help but to see in them some timely and needed lessons for us today as the Church of Jesus Christ.
First, we must treasure the truth of God's Word over the traditions of men. No matter how sacred or sentimental our traditions may be - what matters above all, is that everything we believe and practice as the church comes under the authority of God's Word. Our doctrine, worship, preaching, evangelism and missions, and all our methodology for ministry must conform to Scripture if we are going to be faithful in glorifying God (Colossians 2:9; II Timothy 3:16,17; cf. I Corinthians 10:31).
Secondly, we must be a bibliocentric people rather than an impressionistic people. This means that we are not led by our impressions or feelings to determine God's will - but we are led by God's Word alone in the assurance of what His will is for us as individuals and the church as a whole. In short, God's Word is sufficient to teach us all that is necessary for faith and practice (see Psalm 1:1-2; 119:105; II Timothy 3:16). Thus, we are "bound to the Scriptures", as Luther said, to guide, direct, and determine the very course of our lives.
Finally, it is only God's Word which has the authority to bind our conscience. Whose standard has the right to judge our character, conduct, and creed? There is only one standard that can excercise that right in truth with no contradictions: it is God's Word alone (see I Corinthians 4:6). Man, no matter his position in life, does not have the authority in himself to impose his personal judgments on our conscience. But by the authority of God's Word, judgments can be made in truth and thus be conscience-binding. Hence, Martin Luther found his place to stand with a clear conscience: it was on the Bible alone. But what about us? Is this where we stand - on the Bible alone?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

King Saul, Ourselves, and the Authority of God's Word
One of the most tragic figures in the history of Israel was King Saul. What he might have been as Israel's first king, one can only imagine. But he certainly had all the appearances for a great king, at least in the beginning: he had charisma, courage, a seeming humility, good looks, and he was handpicked by God Himself to be king (see I Samuel 9-11). What a package deal! However, there would prove to be one great outstanding problem in Saul. A problem that would cost him both his family dynasty and kingdom altogether (see I Samuel 13 & 15). King Saul hated authority. Specifically, he hated the authority of God via His Word.
Whatever God commanded Saul to do, he would not fully comply and submit to God's Word. He was simply unwilling for God to rule over him. Rather, Saul wanted to live and do as he pleased, without having to be responsible for his actions and thereby held accountable for his conduct. Moreover, his refusal to honor God's authority was characterized by an overarching attitude that was unteachable, unrepentant, and blind to his own disobedience (I Samuel 15:13,20). Is it any wonder that God described Saul's rebellion as the equivalent to a wicked abomination (I Samuel 15:22,23)?
When I think about King Saul's disdain for the authority of God's Word, I cannot help but to see in Saul's example a vivid and sobering picture of the modern church. On a large scale, there are those movements like "the seeker-sensitive" and "the emerging-church" - which have openly defied the authority of God's Word by redefining the church and its purpose by the standards of secular culture. Churches which follow the philosophies of these movements quite literally take their cues from the world rather than God's Word. An action which seems to scream at God: "We will not honor nor recognize Your authority over us!"
But on a much smaller scale, though no less important, there are simply many of us who claim to believe the Bible as God's Word, but do not submit ourselves in obedience to its divine authority. In certain areas, there is that Saul-like attitude in each of us for being stubborn, self-willed, unteachable, and blind to our disobedience! This can be seen, for example, in Christian husbands who have either abdicated or abused their God-given headship over their families; rather than leading by a loving Christ-like, selfless, sacrificial example (Ephesians 5:25-33). Christian wives can also be seen in rebellion to God's authority, by refusing submission and respect to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22-24,33); but instead, they argue against, bicker, nag, undermine, and ridicule the authority God has placed over them in their husbands.
Another example is in church relations. For instance, there is the relationship between the church and pastoral leaders. God commands believers to respect, honor, esteem, obey, and submit to the elders of the church (see I Thessalonians 5:12,13; I Timothy 5:17; Hebrews 13:7,17) - but sadly, many church members have no regard for such God-given authority in their pastors; and would rather treat them like "hired-help" or indentured servants. Then there is the manifold commands of God to love, encourage, admonish, and build up one another in the body of Christ (see John 13:34; Ephesians 4:29; I Thessalonians 5:14; Hebrews 10:24,25). But do we see these commands obeyed? Self-seeking, backbiting, and bitterness seem to be more characteristic. At root in all of this, is a problem with authority - God's authority. And it is a problem of the heart. We treasure our wants more than God's will. Self-examination is needed here. Do I love the idea of God's authority, or do I love God's authority? Partial obedience is disobedience. Remember King Saul.

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