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9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever

Church Disciplines 575 Members

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I recently asked Pastor David King who is a pastor in Tennessee about his church’s work of cleaning up their membership roles. Here’s the interview:

David, I heard that you recently excommunicated 500 members from your church. Can this be right? 
What you heard is only partly true.  We actually removed 575 members.

Okay, why? What did they do? Can you give me the story in a nutshell?
Well, it's not so much what they did but what they didn't do.  The members we removed were no longer actively involved with our church.  Half of them had moved away, and the other half still lived in the area but never worshiped with us.  

Inactive membership is contrary to what the New Testament teaches about the life of the church, so our action in removing members was motivated fundamentally by a desire to become a more biblically-functioning church.    
 
What biblical passages are you thinking about? And why is such inactive membership “contrary to what the New Testament teaches about the life of the church”? 
The language of membership in the New Testament is metaphorical.  To be a "member" is to be part of a body (1 Cor 12:27) and part of a family (Eph 2:19).  Both of these images depict vital relational connections.  If we saw a foot in a jar on a lab shelf or met a daughter who hasn't spoken to her parents in twenty years, we would know in both cases that something had gone wrong. 

It's odd that we lack this perception when it comes to members who no longer have any involvement with the church. God doesn't mean for any of us to amputate ourselves or to run away from home and imagine that all is well. In calling us a body and a family, we can be reasonably sure that God means for us to stick pretty close to each other.

Beyond the actual metaphors of membership, biblical passages abound that, if they are to make any sense at all, necessitate active involvement with the church. It’s not just about having your name on a roll.  One needs only to read the Epistles and ask the question, "Is it intended that I would carry out the instructions of these letters in isolation from the local church?  Is it even possible?"  

If none of that is persuasive, Hebrews 10:24-25 is still in the Bible.  

So how did you actually lead the church through this meeting? 
In our monthly Members Meeting, I read a recommendation that included the names of all 575 members to be excluded from membership.  The recommendation was seven pages long, and we took the time to read every name on the list.  It was very sobering.  Our by-laws call for a ballot vote in removing members, so we voted by ballot.  

What preparation work had you done before the meeting?
In one sense preparation began over nine years ago when I talked to the church about meaningful membership before they called me to be their pastor. Throughout the years I have continued to talk about what it means to be a member as the subject came up in the texts I was preaching.  

Last year, due to several unfortunate events within our membership, it became clear that we shouldn't wait any longer to do the hard thing.  The pastors, with the feedback and approval of the deacons and then the church, outlined a process in which we would ask every member to reaffirm his or her membership based on our church's mission, doctrine, and covenant.  Sermons were preached, letters were mailed, articles were written, contact lists were published, phone calls and visits were made, time was given.  

Nine months passed between the beginning of our membership focus and the Members Meeting in which we voted to remove members.  
 
Did you encounter much resistance before or during the meeting?
I don't know whether to laugh or cry about this question.  Yes, we encountered resistance all throughout this process.  Despite all the teaching, there are some brothers and sisters who believe that membership is more of a right than a responsibility and that we ought not remove anyone from membership except maybe in the grossest of immoral situations. Theirs’ is a principled disagreement.  Others struggled for more personal reasons, as when the list of members to be removed included adult sons and daughters and grandchildren. 

The pastor really shouldn't expect to whack a hornet's nest and not get stung. Thankfully, the majority of the church shared my belief that the pain of getting stung is worthwhile if it means we become more biblically faithful. 

I have two more questions for you: first, having gone through this process, what final advice would you give to church leaders about initiating this kind of process in their church?
 
(1)  Be convinced, utterly so, that the biblical nature of membership necessitates going through a process like this.  You will need this resolve.  

(2)  Don’t allow fear to stop you.  There might be other good reasons to wait in undertaking a process like this, but fear isn’t one of them.  

(3)  Evaluate your church culture as carefully as possible.  Anticipate the fears and objections of your people.  Get in their shoes so that you can lead with precision and compassion.  

(4)  Once you officially start the process, don’t go so fast that people can rightly liken you to a stealth bomber, and don’t move so slowly that Lloyd-Jones could’ve finished preaching Romans by the time you’re done.  Try to run at a careful but deliberate pace.  

(5) Don’t be naïve in thinking that your clarity and care will convince everyone that this is the grandest idea since fifth Sunday singings.  

(6) Realize that this process is one of the hardest parts of restoring meaningful membership.  Happier times are ahead, once the church actually knows everybody who is a member and learns to care for each other in such a way that you never end up in this situation again.  Actually, I don't know if there is a shred of truth to this sixth point, but I'm choosing to believe it anyway. Check back with me in a couple of years.

My last question, then, what encouragement would you give to church members in how they can support their leaders in this kind of work?

I wouldn't encourage church members to blindly follow their pastor(s).  But if they have seen their pastor's heart for the church and the word, then love him by listening carefully to his biblical teaching on membership. Help him to lead wisely through the process by giving him thoughtful feedback.  

Also, I would encourage church members to believe that conforming to God's vision for membership will serve everyone better than merely trying not to upset anybody.  Just because some will struggle with a process doesn't mean it's the wrong thing to do, or the wrong time to do it.  Be courageous, trust the Lord, give your pastor "atta boys" as you can, remember the importance of love and humility as you make changes, and go for it!    

Thanks, David. Thank you for your faithfulness in seeking to love Christ’s sheep, love the non-Christian community around your church by presenting a faithful witness, and love Christ. I pray he would bless this faithfulness, and much fruit will come from it. I also pray that some of the 575 would repent and join healthy churches.

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What constitutes involvement?

Sunday attendance, giving, serving in come capacity, attendance in a small group...

I just want to make sure that I am not making a list of requirements for membership that is beyond what I can biblically require.

Thanks

Involvement in my family is a daily...moment by moment thing. If I call the church people that I see on Sunday my church family, then it should be at minimum a weekly thing. But, if they are truly 'family' it should still be a daily...moment by moment thing. No requirements! Just what I should desire to do & be!!
I am a pastor's wife in WV, & we see these issues everyday.

Jonathan,

Thank you for this helpful exchange.

Since you have such a broad audience I think you would do an important service by distinguishing between membership roles [as summarized, perhaps, in Thabiti's book], and membership rolls [as in the earthly lists that mimic the one to be called up yonder].

Praying with you for good fruit at the weekender,

Your brother,

Michael

Interesting comment ... attendance in a small group? I have such a difficult time with those and would struggle if it were required. If we could dig into the Word and discuss it, or use it to discuss a recent sermon, that would be fine. But small groups require the utmost level of trust if the interpersonal aspect is going to work - and too frequently I've seen at least one person in a group that inhibits mutual trust. But I am a rather guarded person, and others may be more open about themselves.

Apart from that reservation, I think you ask an excellent question.

i think it means not involved in ANY ways (basically never show up for anything, maybe except Christmas and Easter)... people hardly know they are there... ;)

I'm extremely concerned with the term "excommunicated". That implies discipline for a moral problem, and yet that is not at all what the process described here involved. It sounds like people either moved away, started attending another church, or just stopped caring about church altogether. Certainly, there are sinful elements to the last. But otherwise, these are not sin issues and the term excommunication absolutely should not be used!

What a shame to the name of Christ that you would so publically denounce people just because they didnt attend your church on your terms.

This is going to negatively affect your ministry and outreach in ways that only God can see...such heartlessness always gets around. And your impact in your community do to your misinterpretation and ignorance of the scripture will be voided...but then due to your statements maybe you dont want to reach out to anyone who doesnt fit your mold.

This is simply appalling. I understand the need to "tidy" a membership list. That happens.

But to "excommunicate" people simply because they moved away or even joined another church? Talk about assigning negative intent.

I hope it's sobering for you. I do. This has nothing to do with Jesus or the Gospel.

I understand removing someone from the roles via excommunication who is no longer actively involved in any church. I have been at churches who have done this - with a person here or there (but these churches didn't even have near 500 members to begin with - which makes it obvious, by the way, when someone drops out of attending regularly or at all). I've had friends who moved and simply forgot to inform their old church that they had become members at a new church informed of their "excommunication" from the old church as the first note they had from the church that there was anything wrong. It sounds from this interview as if this was not what happened - as if members would have had time to rectify their mistake and note their changed affiliations - and hopefully all 575 really weren't allowed to just drop off the radar and then summarily excommunicated. After all, that's not exactly what all the language about the spiritual brothers restoring the weaker in Scripture means. Thankfully the comments here indicate that all inactive members were contacted a bit before being removed.

This article needs to be edited to carefully delineate between the two very different ideas of excommunication and removing someone from the church roles.

If those of you commenting would bother to read the article, you would find that the term 'excommunication' wasn't part of the response, but part of a question posed by Mr. Leeman to Mr. King.

Mr. Leeman asks:
"David, I heard that you recently excommunicated 500 members from your church. Can this be right?"

Mr. King responded:
"What you heard is only partly true. We actually removed 575 members".

By the way, there's a vast difference between the term excommunication, and removed!

When the roll is called up yonder they'll be there...or will they?

Mr. King did not correct him when Mr. Leeman asked about excommunication. He only corrected the numbers. Mr. King is saying, "Well actually we excommunicated 75 more people than you said." The point remains that excommunication is an unfortunate term to be used here and this article should be taken down or corrected. 9Marks is known for better precision in their use of theological terms than this.

Arturo,
Thank you for your desire to see terms used accurately. Different traditions and writers do define "excommunication" differently, and it sounds as if you use a different definition than we do. In Pastor King's understanding, as well as our understanding, excommunication is to exclude someone from the "communion" of the church because of unrepentant sin. That is, it's to remove the church's public affirmation of an individual's profession of faith in light of their refusal to let go of sin. "Membership" is that public affirmation. "Excommunication" is the removal of that affirmation. The unrepentant sin which was the decisive factor for Pastor King and his church is found in Hebrews 10:24-25, as King observes in the interview. I hope this is helpful, but happy for you to push back.

Thanks, J. I agree with your definition of excommunication and am using the term in the same way. I take issue with the assumption of "unrepentant sin." The process he outlines makes not attending their church an "unrepentant sin." And if they could not document by people's responses that they were indeed attending their church or another church (I hope at least that), they were LABELED unrepentant. I don't mind them removing them from the roles. But it is not sin to stop attending a particular church. I have moved churches several times since college, all but once because I moved cities. I likely wouldn't have gotten a letter even if they had tried to contact me. If they had labeled me unrepentant, it would have been slander. I'd be much more comfortable with this if either 1) you removed the terms excommunication and/or unrepentant sin OR 2) Mr. King clarifies that people weren't labeled unrepentant simply because they didn't respond to his letters to them. Because that is a BIG jump over a number of restraining principles in Scripture.

Arturo,
I see what you mean now. Let me put it like this: Suppose you have a sibling who abandons the family without ever saying anything. Or a soldier who abandons the army without saying anything. Or a band member who leaves with saying anything. Or an employee who walks away from a company without saying anything. In all of these scenarios, I think, you would say the individual who just walked is guilty of a sinful negligence toward the larger unit (of course in some cases, like the army, there'd be a legal breech as well). It's not that an individuals isn't free to leave at all, it's that one bears a responsibility to the group to leave in a proper way in order to fulfill one's obligations to the groups.

What King and I believe is that membership in a church is a THICKER kind of relationship or community, like in a family. Leaving without saying anything is a kind of sinful negligence. King writes, "To be a "member" is to be part of a body (1 Cor 12:27) and part of a family (Eph 2:19). Both of these images depict vital relational connections. If we saw a foot in a jar on a lab shelf or met a daughter who hasn't spoken to her parents in twenty years, we would know in both cases that something had gone wrong."

That means, moving away and saying nothing is actually a bigger deal than most evangelicals think it is. Most have a THIN conception of the meaningfulness of our relationships within the church. Why is this a big deal? Because membership in a local church is membership in a family! It's not that you're not free to move away. You are. But you owe it to your family (and King) to do it in the right way. Is that helpful?

I understand your explanation. Thank you. But there are two factors that make labeling this unrepentant sin and calling the process excommunication a serious problem.

First, such abandonment is not labeled in Scripture as gross sin. The closest you come is the "don't forsake assembling yourselves together" instruction of Hebrews. But the silence of the respondent doesn't mean that has happened. They very well could be worshiping elsewhere. To label this unrepentant sin because they didn't let the old church know takes leaps and bounds of human logic. It assumes a lot, which Scripture doesn't give us the leeway to do.

Second, why doesn't Scripture give us the leeway to assume all that? The Biblical command to love is the constraint. I Cor. 13 defines love in part as being every ready to believe the best of someone. You give them the benefit of the doubt.

Excommunication is a powerful and painful. When used well in a Matthew 18 process, it has the power to reconcile and to give clarity in how to think of an unrepentant member (treat them as an unbeliever and pursue them with the gospel). But when used haphazardly on things Scripture doesn't specifically instruct, it's a weapon that wounds and destroys.

I hope you will both still consider editing this in some way so that 9 Marks is not encouraging churches to label members unrepentant because they didn't let them know they moved away. That just assumes SO much more than Scripture instructs explicitly on this issue.

J., I'll add one more thought to my reply. Mr. King says this. " The members we removed were no longer actively involved with our church. Half of them had moved away, and the other half still lived in the area but never worshiped with us." HALF of them had MOVED AWAY?! And he's calling it excommunication and unrepentant sin?! Surely you agree this is inappropriately worded and needs clarification.

I'm not attacking 9Marks. I love and appreciate 9Marks. And it is out of that concern that I burdened that this be clarified.

Well apparently according to the last statement by Mr Leeman of his desire that some of the 575 would "repent and attend healthy churches" so based on this it leads one to assume that all these people are indeed excommunicated to the fullest extent and definition of term, and not just "removed from the membership role".

Jonathan, that's not enough change. It's STILL assuming leaps and bounds over what Scripture says. Surely this Catholic view of the Scriptures is NOT what 9 Marks believes. This is labeling something unrepentant sin that Scripture does not label sin. It's inferring and implying from Scripture with the result of pronouncing EXCOMMUNICATION (a VERY serious word) over people who may just have never gotten the letter. Or people who never in their years of attending that church under leadership with a lesser view of membership were ever taught to embrace. It's a sloppy use of church discipline, which is a very needed practice in the church. This undermines the good use of church discipline for every congregation that desires to use it as God intended for the health of the Body. I implore you again, for the health of the churches who read this and are affected by the leadership here, please correct this article or take it down.

What. Those of you who object. The church taught Biblical church membership for years and then years into it spent 9 months seeking out folks before the meeting. Read every name and allowed for some objection or defense.
If you have ever seen the damage done by so many inactive members...ie non-repentant, none growing, more than likely non-christian members that could return at any time or are out discrediting the church and Christ all the time saying I am a member of 1st Baptist, you would not be quite so judging of the active church membership.
Pastor, you have and your active members have done a brave thing and I hope it was a cold glass of water in the face of those who have been sleeping on watch...either past leaders allowing this to go on, or those sleeping in their sins who thought they had "fire insurance" or lastly sleeping saints who God has just awaken out of their slumber. Let us pray they return for restoration.
Grace Alone, In Christ Alone,
Greg

Greg, membership on a church role is NOT, absolutely NOT, the same as membership in the Body of Christ. The church membership role is a fallible, human attempt to count members and be more efficient in ministry. That's great. I'm for church membership and church roles. I support regenerate church membership. I also support culling through roles and taking names off the role because they are inactive and unresponsive. But that is distinctly different from the real theological issues behind the labels "excommunication" and "unrepentant sin." Those two terms need to be used with care and precision. And we are adding to Scripture to justify applauding their use here.

GOOD GRIEF! Some comments above rightly point out the confusion and nebulous dialogue regarding the very weighty / grave issue of "turning people over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh so that their souls can be saved on the day of redemption." The confusion speaks for itself, and the arrogance that often results from a allegorical approach to the Scriptures.
paul

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Oh it is great that you agree with this. I know that its hard to belive on this but u did and wrote a good post.

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