Once each quarter I teach a new members class for people interested in joining our church. It’s become one of my favorite responsibilities as a pastor. I’m a believer in church membership, no question. But I’ll be honest: every time I teach the class I cringe a bit along with my audience at some of the things we discuss.
Concepts like authority, exclusivity, and discipline just don’t sound right on a pre-reflective, aesthetic level. They evoke a yuck factor ingrained in us by the often unnoticed influence of our western culture—literature, film, music, pop psychology—and its celebration of the unfettered individual. (Chapter 1 of Jonathan Leeman’s The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love is helpful for tracing out examples of this influence.)
Now, I know that some of these ideas have always been distasteful to fallen humans. Self-denial is nauseating to the self-centered. That said, I don’t think we’re guilty of ear-tickling if we look for counterbalancing images, images that make sensible the beauty that’s in a community defined by the goals of membership. And to that end I’ve really come to appreciate the world created in the novels of Wendell Berry.
Berry is not the sort of author to whom you turn for help crafting your church’s statement of faith. His works aren’t the right genre and he isn’t the right author. But novels are especially well-suited for retraining our aesthetic tastes, for putting flesh on ideas that otherwise may remain sterile and abstract.
Set in an isolated Kentucky farming community called Port William, Berry’s works portray the beauty of a bounded life, a death to the options of Elsewhere, the embrace of a concrete place and its people. It’s no accident that Jayber Crow, my favorite of Berry’s novels, is subtitled The Membership of Port William. Like all common graces, a community fostered by the willing limitation of one’s horizons can turn idolatrous, breeding an insularity Alan Jacobs has recently described as unchristian. And it’s also true that there is a darker side to small town life. Those familiar with the works of William Faulkner will find the world of Port William to be an ideal world by contrast. And yet Berry’s novels are especially useful for illustrating the liberating submission that’s always involved with membership.
In Jayber Crow, Berry’s characters show what it is to belong to a community, by which I mean more than the welcome and affirmation typically communicated by the word today. To belong to a community is to be at its disposal, to have given over all you have to be used for whatever your community needs. It is to be implicated substantively, not just sympathetically, in the ups and downs of a place and its people. It is a submission of yourself—your identity, your interests, your ambitions—to the needs of those to whom you’re bound.
The book’s heroes reject the notion that you make your own identity rather than receive it. They know and embrace who they are through their connection to things larger than themselves: their community, the land, the march of history, the mysterious purposes of God. They find joy, peace, and freedom in accepting their subsidiary status.
One of the barriers to this sort of belonging, of course, is the selfish ambition that dwells deep in all of us. Rather than submitting ourselves to community, ambition drives us to subordinate all things to our personal gratification or our relentless effort to build a name for ourselves. Berry’s villains in Jayber Crow depict this impulse vividly. They’re not the sort of villains who steal, kill, and destroy. They’re characters like Cecilia Overhold, a woman who marries into Port William from the upper crust of the town next door and can never forgive “the failure of the entire population of Port William to live up to [her] expectations” (209). She’s described as a woman who “thought that whatever she already had was no good, by virtue of the fact that she already had it” (209); she lives as if “there is always a better place for a person to live, better work to do, a better spouse to wed, better friends to have” (210). In the midst of a vibrant, gracious, and happy community she is discontented, angry, and lonely.
Troy Chatham is perhaps even more to the point. His character emerges in detail as a young farmer who rejects the old ways, never imagining that “the reference point or measure of what he did or said might not be himself,” never belonging to the place but convinced the farm exists “to serve and enlarge him” (182). Throughout the story, Chatham leverages the present for the future in his all-consuming desire to “be somebody,” using and abusing all the resources he could claim in service to his exalted self-image. He is a man who utterly fails to recognize his limits or his dependence on what is outside of and bigger than himself.
Jayber Crow is a nostalgic book, and—for all its beauty—a sad one. The world it describes is for the most part a lost world. It was held together by traditions no longer valued and an isolation no longer possible. Which is to say much of its staying power rested on personal preference for its traditions and to some extent an ignorance of alternatives.
Bound in time, Berry’s world offers but a pale reflection of the local church ideal, a community where members’ submission to each other is rooted in the message of the gospel and the power of God’s Spirit. Against his redeemed community, Jesus has promised us, even the gates of hell are no threat.
But Berry’s stories bring to life truths at the heart of the community we’re aiming for when we emphasize church membership. A thriving, covenant-shaped local church requires precisely the sort of self-abnegation Berry celebrates and is opposed by the same self-exaltation he portrays in all its ugliness.
Too often we try on new churches like we try on new clothes and for much the same reason. We’re looking for style and fit, for what meets our needs and makes the appropriate statement about who we are. We put our churches in service of our desire to be somebody and our commitment doesn’t outlast the better options of Elsewhere. But this posture—beside its offense to the cross—leads to self-absorption, restlessness, and isolation.
By contrast, there is freedom in coming off the market. There is sweet rest in belonging to one people, for better or worse, and there is the opportunity for displaying costly, Christlike love. We’re called to die to our narrow interests and to what we might hope to enjoy or become on our own. But we’re called to a truer life in our identification with Christ and his body on earth. On the terms of 1 Corinthians 12, we must embrace our status as a mere hand, ear, or foot, helpless apart from the other members and happy so long as Christ is exalted and the body is thriving. This is boundedness, for sure, but it’s liberating and it’s beautiful.
Matt McCullough is the pastor of Trinity Church in Nashville, Tennessee and the author of My Brother's Keeper: Christian Nationalism, Messianic Interventionism, and the Spanish-American War of 1898 (University of Wisconsin Press, forthcoming).
Last time, we looked at the biblical rationale for making disciples and asked the question, “Why aren’t we obeying the Lord’s command?” I suggested that “cheap grace” was one of the prime suspects.
TWO MORE REASONS WE DON’T DISCIPLE
Let me suggest two more reasons our discipleship is so shallow.
1. Our Churches are Seeker-sensitive, but Believer-insensitive.
First, our churches are seeker-sensitive, but believer-insensitive. No church has done more to research and develop seeker-sensitive services than Willow Creek in Chicago. They first started tailoring their church services specifically for seekers 30 years ago.
But in 2008 they published the results of a four-year survey on how effective they had been in fulfilling Jesus’ call to make disciples (Matt. 28:19). Their conclusion was that after three decades, they needed to shift from seeker-sensitive services to services which focused on enabling believers to grow in their faith: from seeker-sensitive to believer-sensitive.
What Willow Creek realized (the hard way) is that we cannot serve two masters. If our focus is always on trying to please seekers, we will not be growing disciples. Our diet as a church will be restricted to milk, and our growth will be stunted because we’ll never get to consume solid food.
The writer of Hebrews castigates those believers who have never progressed beyond “the elementary truths of God’s word”:
…though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. (Heb 5:12-14)
To be clear, I’m not saying there isn’t a place for one-off services which focus on the outsider. Carol services, for example. But if that’s our general approach every week, Christians will not be hearing the deeper things of God, their discipleship will remain shallow, and as a result they’ll be practically incapable of discipling anyone else.
We needn’t fear that in making a shift toward more believer-sensitive services our churches will no longer speak to non-Christians. We will still, after all, be preaching the gospel. And the gospel that sustains and grows believers is the same gospel that got us started.
As a result, for the benefit of believers and unbelievers alike, we should be preaching the gospel every week—in every service, whatever our text. Jesus spoke of the whole Scripture as testifying about him (John 5:39). So even if we’re lurching through Leviticus, let’s preach it the way Jesus did: as pointing to the redemption that is in him.
Of course, if we’re fixated on trying to be seeker-sensitive, there’s a good chance we won’t ever preach Leviticus anyway—or any other part of Scripture we think might startle the unsuspecting. This is not good. As 2 Timothy 3:16-17 reminds us:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
In other words, we need all of Scripture to make disciples. If we neglect certain parts of it because we’re worried we’ll drive away non-Christians, the quality of our discipleship will sharply decline.
2. Our churches are less converted.
Second, our churches are less converted. That is, our churches have fewer Christians in them, so there are fewer people able to disciple each other. No doubt the reasons for this are complex, but let me suggest two.
Firstly, it used to be that to be known as a member of the body of Christ, you had to be a Christian. That’s the assumption of the New Testament.
But now, in many churches—even in some large, well-known evangelical churches—you can become a member simply by ticking a box on a welcome card. There is little or no attempt to examine the person spiritually to try and ascertain that they are truly followers of Christ. How can we expect people who aren’t disciples themselves to be discipling others?
Secondly, the practice of church discipline has been all but lost.
This was the standard custom of the New Testament church, or at least the obedient New Testament church. In 1 Corinthians 5, for example, Paul says that we are to expel unrepentant sinners from membership in the church.
Our failure to obey Paul’s command here is spiritually deadly. It results in members who are not disciples. Indeed, they may be showing signs of being actively opposed to Christ, to the great dishonor of the Lord and his gospel. Again, we can’t expect people who aren’t disciples themselves to be discipling others.
Why have we neglected these two things?
I think there are several reasons, but here’s one of the main ones: numbers have become so important to us that we will do anything to boost them. We are desperate for people to enter, and desperate for them to stay. We have lowered the cost in the hope that more will buy.
What happens when we duck the biblical practices of church membership and discipline? We end up with a church culture that becomes increasingly de-Christianized, denuded of its salt and light. A culture of discipleship in our churches is impossible when so many of our members are not disciples themselves. And the influence of those non-discipling church members on those church members who are genuinely seeking to follow Christ will not be benign.
To put it another way (and to borrow Mark Dever’s analogy), it used to be that the front door of the church was protected carefully, while the back door was wide open. That is, churches were careful about who they let in, and they diligently disciplined those whose lives contradicted their professions. Now, however, we leave the front door swinging wide open, and we jam the back door tight shut because we’re so afraid of anyone leaving.
If this is our mindset, then sadly we can expect to see congregations who are not discipling one another.
Next time, I’ll suggest a fourth reason we don’t disciple.
Barry Cooper is the author or co-author of Christianity Explored, Discipleship Explored, One Life, The Real Jesus, and If You Could Ask God One Question. He blogs at Future Perfect, Present Tense and is helping to plant Trinity West Church in Shepherd's Bush, London.
Click here for part one of the series.
About a week ago, we posted Toby Jenkins' article on how a number of churches in his county and state rallied around his church when his community was struck by a tornado last Spring. A few days after posting, the tornado hit Moore, Oklahoma.
So if you missed Toby's article, take a look. (We asked him to re-write the intro.) It might encourage you to look for ways to serve churches in Moore or other disaster-affected areas.
Seeing an EF-4 tornado zero in on your town is terrifying. Living in the devastation it brings is horrifying. Responding with the gospel is liberating.
On March 2, 2012 this is exactly what I faced as a pastor of First Baptist Church of Henryville, Indiana. The town that I love was reduced to rubble, as were the homes of the people I love. It was beyond imagining. As I drove through our community, I was brought to tears by the destruction around me. I remember asking my wife Sonia, “What are we going to do?”
I felt overwhelmed, unprepared, and insufficient for the work God had dropped in my lap. My fellow pastors and I knew we needed to reach out both to the needs of our church and to the community around us, and to speak the gospel through it all. But how?
I was not prepared. For far too long my ministry vision was nearsighted. Whether your church is thriving or struggling, it is easy to become self-focused. Before the tornado hit, I had not valued church association, because I was more concerned about us and ours.
But the easy way of selfishness is anti-gospel. The Bible calls us to a caring, cooperating, serving, and giving ministry that puts action to our affirmations.
In 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, Paul calls the church in Corinth to a ministry of cooperation and giving. He was working to send an offering of relief to the church in Jerusalem. They were suffering from a devastating famine. The book of Acts tells us the Jerusalem church had made great sacrifices to meet the needs in their midst, but then found themselves needing more help than they alone could provide. So Paul called the Corinthians to model Christ to the world by using their abundance to meet the needs of other congregations (8:13-15).
In so doing, he teaches us that using the gifts that God has given to meet the needs of other churches is a reflection of Christ’s own love for us (8:9). We do this work knowing that God is the one who provides the resources for our ministry (9:8-10). And we do this, ultimately, so that God would be glorified as his gracious character is made known: “The ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God” (9:12; cf. vv. 11-15).
The home of one of First Baptist Church of Henryville's deacons after the March 2, 2012 tornado.
Our church surely needed help after the tornado. The day after, I woke up not knowing whether help would come. The phone towers had been destroyed in the storm, and only a few calls had come through. But then the calls came, churches responded, and believers joined together to bring us gospel-fueled assistance:
- First Baptist Church Fairdale showed up Saturday morning and started boarding up the church’s windows and putting tarps on the roof.
- Bethel Baptist, which is three miles away, housed hundreds of volunteers that helped me love my people for months.
- Local churches all across our country deployed volunteers and overwhelmed us with financial gifts.
- Victory Memorial Baptist Church sent a stack of Wal-Mart gift cards for us to give to our neighbors in the community with personalized stickers that read, “From FBC Henryville with love.”
- Our state association of churches rushed to our aid with disaster relief. Our SBC State Executive Director Cecil Seagle called to assure me: “Don’t worry. Love your people. Meet needs. Preach the gospel. Money and materials are on the way.” So we did. The next day he shows up with a stack of $500 gift cards.
The stories are too many to tell. This last year, because of the generosity and love of sister churches, we have been able to love our community. We have been able to meet needs, bind up wounds, and most importantly preach the gospel to the people of Henryville. And God has worked mightily! Many individuals have believed. The wind of God’s Spirit has blown and is still blowing, a mighty gust stronger than any tornado.
CARE FOR SISTER CHURCHES
I want to encourage you to turn from a selfish inner-focus to an outward-looking mission focus. This demands a vision for leading churches to care for the needs of their sister churches. It took a tornado to teach me this ministry-altering lesson.
We are co-laborers in the gospel. Many are hurting. Many are in need, and God has given us the resources to assist, to equip, and to evangelize. Let us center our cooperation on the cross and work together for the good of our churches and the glory of our Savior. As we join together in this way, we will be led to declare all the more: “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (2 Cor. 9:15).
Toby Jenkins is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Henryville, Indiana. Cade Campbell is the associate pastor for teaching and discipleship of FBC Henryville.
Yes, autonomous local churches really can cooperate in church discipline. No, they typically don’t. But, yes, they should!
The first step my own church takes to cooperate with other churches in discipline is to ask everyone joining the church, have you ever been disciplined from a local church? If the person answers “yes,” more questions will follow, and possibly the pastors will reach out to the former church.
Read Greg Wills’ book Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority and Church Discipline in the Baptist South, 1785-1900, and you will discover that, once upon a time, it was harder for excommunicated individuals to float from church to church because pastors asked those kinds of questions. Yes, it is rarer today. But what if more and more church leaders—like you?—began doing that again? How might that affect the evangelical landscape? My guess is that it would deal a hard blow to nominal Christianity and that our witness to outsiders would improve.
If you are a Baptist or believer in a free-church polity generally, say it out loud with me: cooperate.
Here are three illustrations from my own church’s experience of cooperating with other churches in discipline:
1) In a membership interview, a woman admitted that she had been excommunicated from a church in another part of the country for non-attendance. She had stopped showing up, and the church faithfully excommunicated her (see Heb. 10:25). When pressed, she admitted that she had never reconciled with her past church, but that she wanted to. The elder conducting the interview therefore called her former pastor and asked about the situation. The former pastor said that, in light of the fact that she now lived in another part of the country, her repentance would be shown in joining our church. His congregation then formally and publicly expressed its forgiveness toward her, and she joined our church.
2) Another woman joining our church admitted to having been excommunicated from her church (again, in another part of the country) for rebelling against her parents and the pastors. Our pastors, no doubt, took such a charge very seriously and wanted to respect and honor that church’s action. Therefore, they researched the incident carefully through phone conversations with her former pastors and family members. In the final analysis, however, our pastors decided that her former church had been mistaken in its decision to excommunicate her, and they decided to recommend her membership to the congregation.
3) A man was excommunicated from our congregation for a public sin. He then attempted to join another church in our metropolitan area. Somehow (I don’t know how) the new church caught wind of his excommunication. Since their pastors are friends with our pastors, they immediately called us, asked for our counsel, and told us they would delay on any membership decision, seeing that the man had unfinished business with us.
As a small “c” congregationalist, I believe that churches are autonomous, meaning that they rule themselves under God’s Word and King Jesus. But no church should be entirely independent. Indeed, we should be inter-dependent, even in matters that go to the heart of a church’s authority such as membership and discipline.
That means (i) another church’s decision in a matter of discipline and membership never formally binds your church, but (ii) you should give other churches the benefit of the doubt, assuming they have acted wisely until you have concrete reasons for thinking otherwise. Also, I hardly think churches should conduct manhunts for excommunicated members, following them everywhere they go and putting in phone calls to the pastors of any church building they walk into. But you should do what you can, with prudence, to aid other churches whenever they ask you about members who once belonged to you.
Finally, there is no reason why Baptist, Presbyterian, Anglican and other churches might not informally cooperate in such matters. Every church has a gospel-interest in seeing the others succeed in gospel health and faithfulness.
Jonathan Leeman, a members at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, is the editorial director for 9Marks and is the author of Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus.
I know this Christian named “Guy.” An out-of-town friend once sent him a thank-you note that read something like, “Hey, Guy, I’m so glad you were willing to help support the missionaries from my church when they came through your town. You know, we ought to support missionaries like them because when we do we partner together for the gospel.”
What do you think of that note and the sentiment it expresses?
I admit that talk of “partnering together” makes me a little cynical. It’s a common phrase in the missions world, especially among workers who raise their own support. When I hear someone say “monthly partners,” “financial partners,” or “strategic partners,” I feel like they just want me to “part” with my money or time.
But then again, I have found that the cynic in me is frequently wrong, and quite often sounds like the voice of Satan.
The Apostle John, at any rate, would not agree with the cynic in me. After all, he is the one who penned those words to Guy, or Gaius, as he’s better known. John writes in his third epistle, “You are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers, even though they are strangers to you…Therefore we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth” (3 Jn 5, 8).
WHY COOPERATE IN MISSIONS?
Cooperating in missions among local churches is a big-time important deal. It was during the New Testament era, and it still is today. The books of 3 John and Philippians are especially clear on this point.
In recent days, churches have increasingly recovered a sense that they—not fundamentally a denomination or missions agency—are biblically responsible to send missionaries. That’s good. But there is a danger: churches can loose sight of the fact that Bible encourages churches to cooperate with one another in the missionary endeavor.
So as better theology, technology, and transportation encourage many churches to take a more personal, hands-on approach to missions, we don’t want to stop joining hands with other churches. Such cooperation is both humble and gospel-clarifying, as we publically affirm the work of other churches by joining with them in it.
TESTIMONIES OF CHURCHES COOPERATING IN MISSIONS
We have seen this kind of cooperation in a number of ways in our own church. In every case it has begun by getting to know other like-minded churches that are invested in the same areas of the world where we are.
In one case, a church in another state was sending a team to a country in Central Asia where we also have members serving. The team had only one single woman, so they needed another woman to live with her and to provide accountability and fellowship, but no one from their church was available. So what did their pastor do? He humbly called us and a couple of other likeminded churches to see if we had a woman who might join them for the two-year post.
In another case, our church had committed to providing short term-workers to help host a meeting for missionaries in a city overseas, but the needs of this missionary meeting outstripped our church’s volunteer pool. So I called another church also invested in that part of the world. It was a delight to see them joyfully jump onboard and outdo us in their good works. They sent childcare workers, a dentist, and even a hairdresser to serve the workers extravagantly.
HOW CHURCHES CAN COOPERATE WELL IN MISSIONS
But cooperating in missions is not always easy. Here are a few reflections on how to cooperate well in missions with other churches.
1. Only partner deeply with likeminded churches.
First, only partner deeply with likeminded churches. Churches can grow discouraged from trying to partner in missions with other churches that see the work too differently. Life is too short, and the return of Christ too imminent, to spend too much time trying to bridge too many gulfs. Anything that would make you think twice about planting a church together in your home town should probably give you pause about partnering for foreign missions, particularly if planting churches is the end goal. But where you agree on the fundamentals of church life, you have a good foundation for most missions partnerships. As for the rest of Christ’s churches, thank God for them and then get back to work with likeminded churches.
2. Network within your network.
Second, network within your network. Inside whatever groups or entities you may use to go about doing missions, work to create a more closely-knit group of especially like-minded churches. Our church cooperates with the International Mission Board (IMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) to pool resources for missions. But inside that larger group of churches we have cultivated a much smaller group of churches with whom we more directly cooperate. These are the churches with whom we have a personal history of trust and are most eager to partner with, to share members for teams, and to join with in short-term projects.
3. If you don’t have a network, build one.
Third, if you don’t have a network, build one. Talk to pastors of churches with similar theology and find out what they are doing in missions. See if there might be ways that you could join with them in support and encouragement. Just a phone call or an email a few times a year may be enough to get something started. Let other sister churches know what you are doing, and even be willing to invite some of their members to join with you. Or, join with them and learn a few things yourself.
4. Keep it simple.
Fourth, keep it simple. Sometimes well-meaning churches may bite off too much too soon when they start cooperating for mission. But this doesn’t need to be complicated or take a ton of time. You can open a door to fruitful cooperation just by sharing plans over lunch with a fellow pastor once a year. Another good place to start is to send an email a couple of times a year inviting another church or two to join you on some project. Then, as you get to know the culture of another church, you may find it’s possible to cooperate more deeply and permanently—maybe even sending a team of members from both churches to labor long-term overseas.
TO EXALT AND CLARIFY THE GOSPEL
In a special way, cooperating in missions can serve to exalt and clarify the gospel. It helps to show that your church is about more than just your own programs and projects. It shows that you care about the spread of the gospel, even if another church is doing most of the spreading and reaping. And maybe it will help you to find “fellow laborers for the truth” that will bless you and your congregation for years to come.
Andy Johnson is an associate pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC.
Every Sunday morning, I lead the congregation of Third Avenue Baptist Church in what we call a “pastoral prayer.” I pray for many things during that time—congregational events, members who are suffering, evangelistic opportunities, various officials in government, missions opportunities, and even events that have been in the nation’s headlines. The part of that prayer that elicits the most comment, however—both positive and out of sheer confusion—is when I pray for another evangelical church or two that is meeting in the city of Louisville.
Each week, I choose one or two churches and pray for their services that day. I pray for the church to be attentive to the Word of God. I pray for the pastor to speak boldly and accurately from the Bible. I pray for people to be convicted of their sin, for Christians to be encouraged in the faith, and for non-Christians to be converted. I also thank the Lord that we live in a city where we are not the only church in which the gospel is preached!
Believe it or not, the practice of praying for other churches is so rare in many Christians’ experience that many don’t know exactly how to process it. More than once during my pastorate, a visitor to Third Avenue has walked up to me with a very concerned look to express surprise that such-and-such church is having troubles. After all, why would the pastor of one church pray for another church if there weren’t serious problems afoot there?!
I think there are many benefits to doing this sort of thing week after week. For one thing, it helps me in the work of crucifying my own spirit of competition. It’s so easy for pastors to subtly (if not less than subtly!) begin to think of other churches as “the competition” instead of as fellow proclaimers of the gospel in their city. I want to go on record, in the most public forum I have, as praying for the success and faithfulness of those churches. We are not in this to make a name for ourselves; we are all in it to make a name for our King.
Not only so, but I think those prayers do the same work of crucifying a spirit of competition in the members of Third Avenue. Pastors are not alone in struggling with feeling competitive with other churches. Members do too, and it is good for them to see their leaders working publicly to counteract that tendency so that it doesn’t take root in the life of the church.
Praying for other churches also communicates an important truth about the various churches in a city: We are all on the same team! We all have the same mission, and it is to proclaim the gospel of Jesus and make disciples of him. The last thing we should want as pastors is to communicate a provincial, myopic spirit among our members that recognizes good only in our church, and cannot see what God is doing more broadly. We serve a massive God, and an important way to show that to our people and teach them to rejoice in it is to teach them to care about God’s work in the lives of other churches.
I have found that praying for other churches also helps me to cultivate friendships with their pastors. It reminds me, week after week, that there are other men engaged in this same work that so consumes me each day, and challenges me to strain against any tendency I might have to isolate myself in the work.
In our church covenant at Third Avenue, one of the promises we make to one another as members is that we will not “omit the great duty of prayer both for ourselves and for others.” At its heart, that is a promise that we will remember not only God’s great delight in answering prayer and his unstoppable power to do so, but also the great truth that He is glorifying his Son through the work of churches all over our cities and the world.
Greg Gilbert is the senior pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church and is most recently the author, with Sebastian Traeger, of The Gospel at Work: How Working for King Jesus Gives Purpose and Meaning to Our Jobs (Zondervan, forthcoming).
Are denominations dying? That seems to be the common wisdom. Certainly the mainline denominations are bleeding out; people are leaving those churches en masse. But what about denominations of evangelical churches that are holding fast or growing?
I’m no demographer, so I can’t give you data to test the idea that denominations have seen better days. But this common line does seem to be picking up a genuine trend that deserves attention—namely, that relatively new ways of relating church to church are at least complementing, and sometimes replacing, traditional denominational structures.
What follows is based on anecdotal, entirely unprofessional observation of (American) evangelical churches. But my goal in this article isn’t so much quantitative analysis as qualitative description. I aim to describe and theologically evaluate a handful of “glues” which bind pastors and churches together, and offer pastors a few tools for thinking through who to partner with, and how.
WHAT HAS CHANGED?
First, though, we need to ask: what has changed? Why do new ways of relating pastor-to-pastor or church-to-church seem to be cropping up, and even competing with older structures?
There are probably a number of reasons: the theological downgrade of the old denominations, the ever-growing Western skepticism toward all forms of authority, even the shrinking of the globe due to revolutions in communication technology. Just consider this last factor and the rise of the internet. Sure, many of the connections the internet fosters are “weak ties”—like Facebook friends and Twitter followers. Yet communications technology gives those “weak ties” the chance of becoming stronger ties. And it allows us to sustain stronger ties over distances that would’ve been unthinkable a generation ago. With the rise of communication technology, traditional denominational structures aren’t the only show in town—or even the leading one—for connecting pastors and churches.
Further, by democratizing access to information, the internet has also democratized ecclesial identity formation. Previously models of church were inherited, now they’re mixed and matched. Certainly plenty of pastors throughout the ages have read widely. But I’d guess that today more pastors are influenced by figures outside their denomination than was true in former generations. Eighteenth century Baptists may have read Jonathan Edwards, but they couldn’t download his sermons for free. Bottom line: for many pastors and churches, informal ties to leaders and movements are growing stronger, and formal ties to denominations are growing weaker.
AN INDEPENDENT CONVERSATION
In speaking about churches as independent entities that can be “glued” together in a variety of ways, I am, of course, speaking as a congregationalist. That is, I don’t believe that the “church” on earth exists in any formal, institutional manifestation over and above the local church.
Many congregations, though, do belong to such an extra-local structure. Roman Catholicism is one kind, Eastern Orthodoxy another, Episcopalianism another, and Presbyterianism still another. In all these polities, the local church is formally accountable to an outside individual or entity. We call these “connectional” polities to recognize that this authoritative connection is an intrinsic part of what it means, on this understanding, to be the church.
A connectional polity necessarily enforces a certain confession and practice: someone is able to say “this is out of bounds” to a local church. This means that a connectional church’s very identity is wrapped up in its association with the broader communion in a way that isn’t the case for independent churches.
Connectional polities have their own promises and pitfalls, but I won’t address them here. That’s not because I think they’re unbiblical—though I do—but because most 9Marks readers belong to churches that are formally independent. To put it crassly, connectional polities more or less determine your friends—or enemies!—for you. On the other hand, independent churches have to look up and ask, “Who do we want to associate with, and how?” Hence my focus on the latter.
WHY SHOULD CHURCHES COOPERATE? FOR OUTREACH AND INREACH
In order to describe and assess what holds churches together, we should first think a bit about why they seek to hold together. Jonathan Leeman’s piece “A Church and Churches: Integration” offers several exegetical and theological reasons for why churches should band together. Here I want to take a snapshot from another angle—a practical one. For what practical purposes should churches attempt to stick together?
As I see it, there are basically two: to fulfill the great commission, and to both receive and supply what is lacking in the life of a local church. You could call these two goals outreach and, to use some evangelical-ese, inreach.
Outreach: The great commission is bigger than any local church (Matt. 28:18-20). To evangelize all peoples and establish churches across the globe requires that churches cooperate. And the same is true when it comes to evangelizing our local communities.
Inreach: On the other hand, churches should also seek to aid in supplying each other’s needs as they have opportunity (e.g., 2 Cor. 8-9). If you’ve got a counseling situation that’s spiraling out of control, I hope there’s a wise pastor friend across town you can call. If your church is devastated by a natural disaster, I hope other local churches will rally around you.
TESTING A FEW TYPES OF GLUE
These two goals of outreach and inreach form the backdrop against which I’ll asses a few types of “glue” that hold churches together. While each of these types of glue can be considered on its own, many connections between churches, especially denominational ones, will combine several of them. Think of a denomination as Super Glue, with some of these individual glues as the ingredients.
The first kind of glue to consider is “ethnic” identity—note the scare quotes. I don’t mean ethnicity per se, though ethnicity is a very powerful glue. Instead, I am using the term metaphorically to refer to churches that share a tradition so culturally thick that it functions like an ethnic identity.
This is many people’s experience of church life in the Southern Baptist Convention. Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, the Southern Baptist Convention became a centralized provider of an all-encompassing church culture: church holidays, Sunday School lessons, midweek programs, music, and more. SBC churches became like McDonalds: you could pop into any one of them, any week of the year, and know exactly what was on the menu.
This kind of “ethnic” identity fosters an intense brand loyalty. On the one hand, that loyalty extends naturally to the thousands of other churches which share the same programmatic profile. Hence many Southern Baptists’ fierce devotion to the denomination’s central mechanism, the Cooperative Program.
On the other hand, this brand loyalty is a double-edged sword. For one, the identity itself is only as biblical as the content of all the programs. Further, the very emphasis on universal, standardized programs can foster a consumer mindset rather than responsible, relational ministry. Finally, this kind of identity can foster a hermetically sealed subculture that finds it difficult to adapt to new people, new places, and new times.
A second kind of glue to assess is personality—usually the personality of a key pastor who is either a formal or informal denominational head. Sometimes attachment to a personality can lead one into a new denomination. More commonly, this personality glue shows up in megachurches that either birth or effectively become their own denominations. An example of the former would be the Willow Creek Association. For the latter, think of any multi-site church that has “campuses” not just across its city, but across the country and beyond.
Again, in these kinds of relationships there’s more to the story than personality. There’s always some shared doctrine and practice, on which more below. But often, if you take away the big personality the center won’t hold, which means personality is an active ingredient in the glue.
On the one hand, I don’t want to deny that God can use singular personalities to achieve big things—John Wesley’s name heads that list. But on the other hand, attaching yourself and your church to a personality puts you in danger of multiplying not just another man’s fruitfulness, but also his errors. When a group of churches’ identity derives more from a single man than from a more objective tradition—say, a time-tested confession of faith—those churches may be building on pretty thin ice.
If your church is attached to a big personality, how many church members were initially drawn, at least in part, because of your connection to the big man? What happens if he falls into sin or serious error? Who or what holds him accountable? What happens if the big personality’s interests conflict with the local church’s? Who should members side with?
A third kind of glue is what I’ll call theological vision. As I said above, in this internet age pastors and churches often find they have more in common with churches of other denominations that share their overall theological vision than with churches in their denomination that don’t.
Conferences like Together for the Gospel and the Gospel Coalition both build on, and in different ways seek to foster, this kind of interdenominational unity. Once every two years, T4G casts a thick theological vision for ministry and encourages pastors to build friendships across secondary divides. TGC presents a slightly broader spectrum, creating more of a “village green” feel on its website and at its conference—though this village green is fenced in by robust doctrinal and practical commitments. Further, while T4G is merely a three-day event every two years, TGC has begun to foster cooperative structures with a life of their own, such as their regional chapters.
Because of the shared theological vision which they embody, these two conferences have become shorthand for a pretty long list of doctrinal and practical commitments. If someone identifies with either of these events, you can take a lot of common ground for granted—common ground in which real partnerships can quickly sprout.
How well can these conferences foster cooperative outreach and inreach between churches? Probably the best thing they do is encourage pastors, and help pastors get to know each other. You might not have known there was a likeminded pastor fifteen minutes up the road until you met him in Louisville or Orlando. But if a conference helps you make that connection, over time your relationship can organically grow into a fuller partnership between your churches.
On the other hand, cooperation based on a shared theological vision has its limits. The cooperation T4G and TGC can foster necessarily excludes ecclesiological distinctives like the sacraments and polity—the very things which make a local church what it is. And since the goal of the great commission is planting and nurturing churches, this means that a “theological vision” by itself isn’t enough to foster long-term cooperation for great commission goals.
NEEDED: AN ECCLESIAL VISION
To foster long-term cooperation toward great commission goals, what you need is not merely a theological vision but an ecclesial vision. In order to work with another church to plant churches, you need to agree about what it is you’re trying to plant. You need to agree on the answer to questions like:
- What is baptism and who are its proper subjects?
- What are the qualifications for church membership? Is (believer’s) baptism on the list?
- How should a church be structured? Who has final authority in matters of membership and discipline?
- How do we decide what to do, and how to do it, in corporate worship?
- What is a pastor’s fundamental job description?
Of course, you can agree about such matters but disagree about essential areas of theology, and then you’re back to square one. That’s why an ecclesial vision requires theological agreement too—more precisely, enough shared theology to constitute a church together.
MULTIPLE LAYERS OF PARTNERSHIPS
The problem is, when many pastors stroll through the denominational grocery aisles, they don’t see any visions on offer they particularly resonate with, whether theological or ecclesial. Or perhaps their preferred vision is just one among many that are tolerated, and by no means the majority view.
If there’s a traditional denomination or network of churches which perfectly matches your theological and ecclesial commitments, the decision to link arms is a no-brainer. But what do you do if there’s no perfect match on offer?
I’d encourage you to think in terms of multiple layers of partnerships. Instead of seeking one all-encompassing identity to wrap your church in, think about multiple overlapping networks.
To begin: What other churches in your area do you have a strong relationship with? Or even just a friendship with their pastor? What formal or informal ways can you partner with them? If they disagree about ecclesial distinctives, you can still meet for fellowship, supply some of each other’s needs, and to some degree cooperate in local outreach.
If other local churches share your ecclesial vision, how can you build your friendships into a more durable partnership? Can you organize pulpit supply to fill a need and train young preachers? Or form a regular pastors’ fraternal where you get into the nitty gritty of shepherding issues? Or even fund a church plant together?
Those are two overlapping local layers. In addition to these local layers, what about a larger scale denomination? Local and larger partnerships can complement each other rather than competing with each other. You may not love everything you see in a big-tent denomination. But if there’s enough basic theological and ecclesial agreement, that big-tent denomination may be able to multiply your church’s efforts for the great commission in a way that outpaces a merely informal relationship.
Further, some larger networks or denominations serve complementary goals. For example, plenty of churches are dually aligned with Acts29 and the SBC. Many brothers I know partner with Acts29 for the coaching and encouragement, and with the SBC in order to support global missions and pastor training.
My point is simply that relationships between churches are not an all-or-nothing affair. They can be more or less formal. They can be local or global. They can focus on planting and building churches, or more broadly on promoting gospel work throughout your city. And you can invest differently in these partnerships depending on your church’s resources, other options for cooperating with likeminded churches, and the needs of your community.
I want to conclude with three brief encouragements for pastors. First, if you’re feeling lonely and isolated, look first to your fellow elders. Do you have fellow elders in the first place? If not, let your loneliness in ministry spur you to patiently lead your flock toward adopting the biblical model of multiple shepherds. And if you do have multiple elders but still feel isolated, consider how you might spread around the shepherding load.
Second, if you can only pick one place to invest, build around a shared ecclesial vision. If there’s only one other pastor in your town who agrees with your theology and ecclesiology, build into each other and your churches. Work together to raise up other likeminded churches, and to put good resources in other pastors’ hands.
Certainly meeting with brothers who have shared theology can be an encouragement and lead to practical partnerships. But for those partnerships to serve great commission ends over time, they have to build on shared ecclesial DNA. So multiply your networking efforts by focusing on partnerships which could, by God’s grace, result in new and renewed churches.
Finally, be willing to give more than you receive. Don’t judge a denomination or network only by what it can give you and your church. Instead, be willing to invest for the sake of others. The payoff may happen in your city or across the world, next year or in the next generation.
Bobby Jamieson is assistant editor for 9Marks, a member of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and the author of Sound Doctrine: How a Church Grows in the Love and Holiness of God (Crossway, 2013). You can follow him on Twitter.
What is the relationship between your local church and every other church in the world?
In the companion piece to this article, I consider what makes different local churches independent from one another. Here we consider how they should integrate.
To understand how and why our churches should cooperate, it is worth taking a second to step inside the U. S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, while the ominous storm of angry Muslim students brews just outside the embassy gates. You probably know that the mob eventually broke into the compound, and fifty-two Americans spent 444 days as hostages in the Iran Hostage Crisis. Yet don’t focus on what eventually happened; focus on what it would have been like to be inside the embassy while the fury was still building. What would you be doing in those moments?
Presumably, you would be on the phone in a frantic search for friends. The U. S. State Department, the nearby Canadian Embassy, the Swedish Embassy in town, even sympathizers in the Iranian government—you would be grabbing for whatever friends you could find.
What you would not do is assume that your little embassy compound, floating like a storm-embattled boat in the middle of the seething urban sea that was Tehran, sat fine all by itself. You would not try to “go it alone!” as if the fate of the U.S. government’s diplomatic mission in the world depended upon your embassy’s shoulders.
Yet strangely, this is the attitude that many of our local churches maintain as we seek to undertake God’s mission in the world. We know we are sojourners and aliens. We know other embassies and friends are “out there.” We know the world, the flesh, and the devil oppose us like a bloodthirsty mob—“for your sake we are being killed all the day long” (Rom. 8:36). But too easily our churches undertake Christ’s mission all by our lonesome. We go it alone.
Just consider: does your church cooperate with other local churches in evangelism and missions, in discipline, in counseling, in mercy ministry, in prayer? Or, honestly, does it do its work fairly independently?
A BETTER APPRECIATION FOR FAMILY TIES
Open the Bible and you will find a better appreciation for family ties among the apostolic churches. They shared love and greetings:
- “All the churches greet you” (Rom. 16:16).
- “The churches of Asia send you greetings” (1 Cor. 16:9).
- “All the saints greet you” (2 Cor. 13:13; also, Eph. 4:22).
- “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints” (Eph. 1:15; also Col. 1:4).
They shared preachers and missionaries:
- “With him we are sending the brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel” (2 Cor. 8:18).
- “Beloved, it is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers, strangers as they are, who testified to your love before the church” (3 John 5-6a).
They supported one another financially with joy and thanksgiving:
- “At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem” (Acts 15:25-26).
- “For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God” (2 Cor. 9:12; also, 2 Cor. 8:1-2).
They imitated one another in how to live the Christian life:
- “…you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (1 Thess. 1:7).
- “For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea” (1 Thess. 2:14).
These apostolic testimonies of shared love and support between the earliest churches are matched by apostolic exhortations. They were told to greet one another:
- “Greet the church in their house” (Rom. 16:5).
They were instructed to love one another by caring for one another financially:
- “Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem” (1 Cor. 16:1-3).
- “So give proof before the churches of your love and of our boasting about you to these men” (2 Cor. 8:24).
They were cautioned about whom to receive as teachers:
- “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
- “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves” (2 John 7-8a).
They were exhorted to pray for other churches and Christians:
- “To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints” (Eph. 6:18).
They were exhorted to imitate other churches in steadfastness and faith:
- “Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring” (2 Thess. 1:4).
The topic of the relationship between churches gets difficult, of course, because it involves different ideas of authority between churches, which is where denominations divide from one another.
But wherever you come down on the question of authority between churches, it is important to recognize that our local congregations should in some measure be integrated with one another. And your church will best fulfill the Great Commission when its life is connected in relationship and awareness with other churches.
It’s worth seeing several things churches share in common and the practical implications these connections have for our corporate lives.
WE SHARE THE SAME CHRIST
Notice, first, that different Christians share the same Lord and Christ, as comes through in Paul’s greeting to the church in Corinth: “To the church of God that is in Corinth…called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Cor. 1:2; cf. 2 Cor. 1:1).
Different churches call upon the same Christ. They are possessed by the same Lord.
Think about what this means: the fact that we have the same Christ, Lord, and King means our many churches are bound together as a distinct body politic, or kingdom, or nation. Just as a common parent makes for familial unity, so a common Lord makes for a kind of political unity. Paul can therefore describe the Ephesians as “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19). Fellow citizens belong to a common nation.
Different denominational traditions make this political unity visible differently. Connectionalist churches put it into practice through presbyteries and bishoprics. As a congregationalist, I find the metaphor of an “embassy” useful here because this Christian “nation” is actually spread throughout the nations of the world, and every individual Christian should be accountable to his or her own embassy. But whichever polity we adopt, we can all agree that churches at least invisibly share a kind of political or national unity together because of our one King.
Practical implication 1: All Christians should care about how our churches are structured, since polity makes this political unity visible. And polity is how Christians are made effectively accountable to our common Lord. Polity is the tool that disciplines us for righteousness.
Practical implication 2: Like a nation, our names and reputations are all bound together, even when we belong to different denominations. Do you know how obnoxious Americans overseas have given rise to the concept of the “ugly American”? In the same way, when one Christian church presents a poor witness in the city, every Christian church in that city suffers. When one church presents a positive witness, every church benefits. We therefore share an interest in one another’s spiritual welfare.
Practical implication 3: Since we share an interest in one another’s spiritual welfare, we should pray for one another, encourage one another, financially support one another as opportunity allows, and generally do what we can to support one another’s ministries. This in turn means there should be an openness to informal relationships with other churches, particularly between church leaders. Having knowledgeable relationships facilitates more specific prayer, encouragement, and aid.
WE SHARE THE SAME CONFESSION
Different Christian churches also share the same gospel confession, even when they belong to different denominations. Think of how Paul exhorted “the churches of Galatia”: “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:2, 9).
John, too, expected every church to embrace a right doctrine of the incarnation (1 John 4:1-3).
Practical implication 4: Churches should partner in learning from one another and teaching one another. If you and I believe in the same truth, might we not both possess some insight to help one another understand that truth better? I listed several examples above of how the earliest churches did this in the sharing of preachers and missionaries.
In our day, there are lots of ways this can be done: through attending or hosting conferences; through supporting seminary education; through working to equip other church leaders with biblical understanding in a host of ways, from writing books to starting a local ministerial association (to supporting 9Marks!).
Practical implication 5: Churches should work to learn from other churches from across time. The great creeds have something to teach us, as do the various controversies of the past. My church often recites a historic creed on Sunday morning.
Generally, pastors should teach their people to be readers and to be thoughtful. And churches should generally care more about history than we might expect from the population at large.
Practical implication 6: Churches should encourage one another to conform to the same pattern of life, just as the apostolic churches imitated one another (1 Thess. 1:7; 2:4; 2 Thess. 1:4). Paul, sure enough, sought to “remind [the Corinthian church] of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church” (1 Cor. 4:7); and he often insisted on a common rule “in all the churches” (1 Cor. 14:33b-34; also, 7:17, 11:16, etc.).
This implication, too, points to the value of multi-church conferences, books, or ministerial associations. But it particularly highlights the need for pastors to build relationships with one another beyond their own churches, as they seek to grow in wisdom in the nitty-gritty areas of pastoral practice. How do you deal with this tough pastoral counseling situation? I hope you have a pastor friend or two to call, or even a group with whom to discuss it.
Practical implication 7: Churches should work to supply capable pastors or at least supply-preachers to struggling churches who lack them. I know of a number of churches who, when they work to plant or revitalize another church, agree to pay the pastor’s salary in that other church for the first couple of years. And they do so without asking to exercise any authority over that other congregation! It is a gift.
WE SHARE THE SAME COMMISSION
Different churches also share the same calling and commission. All of them are “called to be saints” or holy-ones (1 Cor. 1:2). All of them are commissioned to make disciples (Matt. 28:18-19). All of them are tasked with guarding the name and reputation of Christ through church discipline (see Matt. 18:15-20).
Practical implication 8: Churches should help one another with membership and discipline. As a congregationalist, I do not believe one church can exercise authority over another. But I have watched our church work well together with other congregations in the transfer of members, as well as in the exercise of discipline. For instance, when one individual whom our church had disciplined tried to join a nearby church with whom we have a relationship, that church turned to us for guidance. Our church has done the same when individuals who were disciplined by other congregations tried to join our church. Our church does not believe that it is bound by the other church’s decision, but we would be foolish not to make enquiries. Working together in matters of membership and discipline helps us make and oversee Christ’s disciples and so fulfill the Great Commission.
Practical implication 9: Churches should work together in missions and evangelism. This can happen locally, as when our church partners with nearby churches (from different denominations) to lead evangelistic Bible studies at lunchtime in the business district. Or it can happen nationally and globally, as when the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention pool their money to send missionaries overseas.
Practical implication 10: Churches can partner together in their mercy ministry work. Paul’s example of collecting from a number of churches to support the church in Jerusalem, as mentioned above, provides the most obvious biblical example. Churches today also do well to look for ways to support sister churches with fewer resources at their disposal. This helps Christ’s kingdom and serves the Great Commission.
Cooperating in, compiling, and coordinating resources for mercy ministry among non-Christian neighbors can also help churches fulfill the Great Commission and live as holy ones who are salt and light in the world.
It was not until 2:15 in the morning of December 18, 1944, that the orders came for the 422 and 423 regiments of 106th Division of the U. S. Army to retreat westward toward St. Vith, Belgium from their position in the German forests of Schnee Eifel. By then it was too late. The German Army had successfully executed a pincer movement, surrounding and cutting off the two American regiments. By the next day over 7000 American soldiers found themselves as German prisoners of war.
Now imagine an army regiment trying to do their work alone, without relating to other regiments or the larger division or battalion. It would be foolish.
The army analogy breaks down insofar as the division or battalion command belongs to Christ in heaven. But whether or not you are a congregationalist or a connectionalist, it should be clear that the work of our churches depends upon other churches, like one regiment depending upon another.
How can your church practically support the work of other local churches?
(Click here for “A Church and Churches: Independence.”)
Jonathan Leeman, a member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, serves as the editorial director at 9Marks and is the author of Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus. You can follow him on Twitter.
What is the relationship between your local church and every other church in the world?
In the companion piece to this article, I consider how different churches should integrate together. Here we want to ask what makes each independent.
We can answer that by asking what makes our relationship with fellow church members different from our relationship with Christians who belong to different churches. The biblical call to love, pray for, give to, imitate, perhaps even instruct and rebuke other Christians is hardly restricted to the members of our own church. So what makes the relationship different?
DISCIPLINE AND WHO HOLDS THE KEYS
The short-cut answer is to say that your fellow church members can participate in your excommunication in a way that other Christians cannot. An unresolved offense must be taken to the church (Matt. 18:15-17). The independence of the local church, we might therefore surmise, has something to do with the fact that the local church is where church discipline happens.
But there is a bigger picture here pertaining to who holds the keys of the kingdom, and it’s worth taking the longer route to catch all the scenery.
The theological champions at the Westminster Assembly spent several days debating who in the post-apostolic age holds the keys that Jesus originally gave to Peter (Matt. 16:19), since they understood that the keys represent, at the very least, the power of excommunication. And the power of excommunication is the highest authority in a church, just as the power of the sword is the highest authority in a nation. All power in a nation derives from the authority to end a life, and, in the same way, all power in the church derives from the authority to remove someone from membership, including the authority to receive members, pick pastors, or adopt a statement of faith. Whoever has the power of excommunication has the power to do those other things, or at least to decide who does.
The majority of Presbyterians at the Assembly argued that presbyteries hold the keys. The few Congregationalists present—the “dissenting brethren”—argued that the keys are held by the whole congregation together with the elders. (Thanks to Hunter Powell for the history lesson.)
Staring down at Matthew 18:15-20, I would argue with the dissenters that Jesus places the keys squarely in the hands of the local church—wherever two or three are formally gathered in his name. In Jesus’ narrative of discipline, the ekklesia—the assembly—provides the last court of appeal when a person’s profession does not match his or her life.
Later in the New Testament, we learn that elders should be set apart for teaching and oversight, which suggests they ordinarily lead the church in using those keys. I would even say the church needs the elders to responsibly wield the keys. But finally the keys belong to the entire congregation. No text in the New Testament explicitly links the oversight of the elders with the keys of the kingdom in the manner that Matthew 18 so clearly links the keys with the whole assembly. Elder authority is real, but it is a different kind of authority than congregational authority.
Whether or not you are convinced every member jointly holds the keys together, or just the elders of a church do, what should be clear is that no outside body, whether a presbytery or bishop, intervenes in Matthew 18. The local church alone holds the keys.
The independence of the local church, in short, rests squarely on the fact that it is the local church who holds the keys of the kingdom.
THE KEYS AND THE THINGS OF HEAVEN
So what exactly are these keys of the kingdom for binding and loosing? I have argued elsewhere that the keys represent the authority to build the church on earth on Jesus’ behalf by declaring what and who belong to the kingdom of heaven—what is a right confession of the gospel, and who is a right confessor. Certainly, preaching is highly related to the exercise of the keys, and could even be said to form an implicit part of their exercise. But, strictly speaking, I would argue that the exercise of the keys is the pronouncing of a judgment. It is a legal or judicial binding or loosing. It is a church’s decision about what constitutes a right confession and who is a true confessor.
In other words, the keys are put into practice whenever
- a church decides upon a confession of faith that will bind all church members,
- a church admits a member,
- a church excludes a member.
The holder of the keys—the church—is being called upon to assess a person’s life and profession of faith and then to make a heavenly sanctioned and public pronouncement affirming or denying the person’s citizenship in the kingdom and inclusion in the church.
The supreme example of this is Jesus’ interchange with Peter: Jesus asked who they thought he was, Peter made a confession, and then Jesus affirmed both the confession and Peter (“flesh and blood did not reveal this to you…you are Peter, and on this rock…”). The same kind of conversation transpires in Matthew 18, only in reverse. Jesus’ envisions a situation in which a church gradually determined that the what of a gospel confession does not match the who of a gospel confessor.
What all this means is, each local church is independent from every other church on earth because Christ has given each assembly the authority to declare before the nations the what and the who of the things of heaven.
The local church is not a building. It is not the place where you go once a week to get your spiritual jolt. It’s where heaven comes to earth, and the truths of heaven are spoken, and things of heaven get handled, and the people of heaven find life and fellowship. Our churches are embassies of heaven’s rule scattered across the nations of the earth now.
What does all this mean practically?
A CHURCH AFFIRMS WHO REPRESENTS CHRIST
An embassy is a useful metaphor for a local church because an embassy does not make someone a citizen, it affirms someone as a citizen. It stamps the passport when it expires.
An embassy, moreover, makes the rule of one nation visible inside of another nation. You can see the building, the flag, the passports, the ambassadorial staff, the soldiers with guns standing at the embassy gates. Plus, the authority of an embassy is, in a sense, independent within a host nation.
In the same way, the independent authority of the local church makes the rule of Christ’s kingdom visible on planet earth as it exercises the keys, which it does through baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The ordinances are what make the receiving and dismissing of members by the authority of the keys visible. Call them Christian passports.
To baptize someone is to identify them by name with the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. To give someone the Lord’s Supper is to affirm their membership in the body of our Lord.
Practical implication 1: The ordinances should be practiced in the context of the gathered assembly. If the gathered assembly holds the keys, and if the keys are exercised through the ordinances, then the ordinances should be practiced in the context of the assembly. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not private mystical experiences in which we shut our eyes and feel Jesus’ special presence. They are corporate and public proclamations of identification and belonging. Together we declare that God’s name is upon us (Matt. 28:19); together we declare our union with Christ’s death and resurrection (Rom. 6:1-2); together we declare his death and our membership in his body (1 Cor. 11:18-19, 27-33). The ordinances are not for Christian families, youth camps, or even small groups. They are assembly activities.
Practical implication 2: Baptism is ordinarily into membership. With the exception of settings in which a local church does not yet exist (e.g. the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8), it is irresponsible (and unbiblical) to baptize an individual—thereby affirming his profession of faith before the nations—and then leave him unaccounted for within a local body. Who will ensure that he remains faithful to his profession? How will this baptismally-affirmed professor be excommunicated if he is not within a church?
Practical implication 3: Christians should belong to local churches. Christians do not have the authority to declare themselves Jesus’ representatives. The church has this authority, which it ordinarily exercises by dispensing the Lord’s Supper to its members. (Which is not to say that church cannot provide the Lord’s Supper to visiting members of other churches for the sake of acknowledging the wider body of Christ.) Plus, maintaining the credibility of one’s profession of faith requires a believer to remain under the oversight of a church.
Practical implication 4: Churches should examine those whom they receive as members, and maintain oversight for the sake of meaningful discipline. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked of Peter. In churches today, too, the elders should interview all prospective candidates for membership. Plus, a church should work hard to make sure it can give an account for the spiritual welfare of every member.
Practical implication 5: Discipleship works best in the framework of accountability, which means discipleship works best in the context of the local assembly. We grow as believers through formative and corrective church discipline—teaching and correction.
A CHURCH AFFIRMS A RIGHT CONFESSION
The independence of the local church is also found in the fact that King Jesus has authorized each local assembly to affirm the faith that believers should confess.
Other bodies in church history have written confessions or creeds that are then used to bind churches and what members believe—from the apostolically unique council in Jerusalem in Acts to the council of Nicaea to the Westminster Assembly. But biblically, the legitimate body in a post-apostolic age for exercising the keys in this confession-prescribing fashion is the local church.
Practical implication 6: Churches gather around right preaching of the Word. It is as the church sits under the preaching of the Word and gospel that they learn to exercise the keys responsibly—assessing both the who and the what of the gospel.
Practical implication 7: Churches should establish a clear statement of faith. The very thing which unites a church to all other churches—its confession of gospel faith—also makes each church independent. Since the gathered assembly has been given the keys, every member of the gathered assembly is responsible to affirm a single statement of faith, a responsibility that fits comfortably with the priesthood of all believers. In fact, it’s this act of corporately affirming a statement of faith (through the ordinances) whereby a group of Christians constitute themselves as a local church.
On the flip side, the fact that a statement of faith in the gospel is what unites a church to every other Christian church suggests that it is wise to employ historical creeds or confessions in its official statement of faith. We must independently affirm a statement, but it should be a statement that is (or at least could be) broadly shared by Christians throughout the ages.
Practical implication 8: Churches should choose their pastors. In Galatians 1, Paul rebukes the “churches of Galatia” for abandoning the gospel. He does not address the elders or pastors, he addresses the congregations themselves. They are finally responsible for ensuring that right doctrine is preached, which, by implication, suggests that the assembly should have final say in affirming who the teachers of the Word are.
A CHURCH ADMINISTERS THE GREAT COMMISSION
Finally, the independence of the local church is found in the fact that King Jesus has commissioned each local assembly to fulfill the great commission and to equip its saints for this task. Of course this does not mean that a church does this apart from cooperating with other churches, but the local church is the primary location where the work of the Great Commission gets done, and which has the independent authority to administer this work through the ordinances.
Practical implication 9: Church membership should be treated as an office. It is a job. It is not a casual connection with a voluntary society like a country club, where you come for the benefits so long as the dues are not too high. It is citizenship, and citizenship is an office of governance. Once a church has affirmed an individual as a Jesus Representative and a member, that member becomes responsible for overseeing other confessors of the faith.
Picture a person’s passport getting stamped at an embassy desk, and then walking around to the other side the desk in order to take part in the work of the embassy. In other words, part of fulfilling the Great Commission for an individual Christian is to take responsibility for other church members, that the keys might be exercised responsibly.
Yes, you, Christian, are jointly responsible for every other church member in the room on Sunday morning, and whether or not they continue to walk in the faith. So get to know them! It is as we accept this formal responsibility for the who and the what of other disciples that we ourselves grow as disciples and help others to grow.
In short, responsibility and authority belong together, just like a custodian with the responsibility of cleaning a building must possess the authority of the building keys in order to open all the doors. Christ gives every Christian the responsibility to make disciples in Matthew 28. Wonderfully, he had already given every Christian the joint authority to fulfill this responsibility by giving the whole assembly the keys back in chapters 16 and 18.
Practical implication 10: A church’s basic work is to equip the saints to do the work of this office. It is true that conferences and books and Christian friends can be wonderfully used to equip Christians for the work of ministry. But the local church and its officers will be uniquely called to account for such work (Eph. 4:11-12; Heb. 13:17).
Churches should work together to fulfill the great commission because they call upon the same Lord and share a common gospel confession. This is the argument of the companion article.
At the same time, the fact that Christ has placed the keys of the kingdom into the hands of the whole assembly means that every church has an independent authority to exercise the authority of Christ in the what of gospel confessions and the who of making disciples.
Jonathan Leeman, a member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, serves as the editorial director at 9Marks and is the author of Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus.