Mailbag #35: Excommunicating a Non-Christian; Elders for Church Plants; Membership Interview


A church member denies the faith; is the proper response excommunication?»
In a church plant, how long you should wait to install the first elders? »
What questions should you ask during a membership interview? And what should you do if something like a past divorce comes up? »

Dear 9Marks,

We have a member who struggled with the divinity of Christ and has now has come to reject Christ, saying she is not a Christian. Should we exercise church discipline per Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5? Or should we simply announce to the church that she has renounced Christ and is no longer a member? Practically speaking, how many people and who should be involved in this kind of situation? Do elders need to be involved?

A few related questions on the topic generally: what if the person renouncing faith is struggling with some sin? Also: would you deal differently with someone who says the gospel is false and someone who says they believe it is true but that they are not converted?

—Nathan, Texas

Dear Nathan,

I would not excommunicate the woman but simply announce to the congregation that she has resigned her membership on account of the fact that she explicitly denies the gospel and no longer understands herself to be a Christian.

In a sense, you treat her resignation like you would treat a death in the church. When someone dies, there is no action for the church to take, because a church has no authority over the dead. All you can do is recognize the fact and remove the person from the rolls.

In the same way, a church has no authority over someone who does not call him or herself a Christian. All you can do is warn the individual personally of the promise of divine punishment that will come to all those who die outside of Christ, remove the person from the rolls, tell the church, and ask the church to pray for the person’s repentance.

The decisive verses, I believe, are 1 Corinthians 5:11-12, where Paul writes, “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler. . . . For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?”

Notice that Paul tells the Corinthians to exercise their authority with someone who “bears the name of brother.” The person who stops calling him or herself a “Christian,” however, belongs to the ranks of “outsiders” (Paul’s word). And we have nothing to do with judging outsiders, he says. One of the purposes of church discipline, recall, is to set the public record straight when a professing Christian’s profession and life don’t match. When the person stops calling him- or herself a Christian, however, the record has already been set straight. The church no longer needs to contradict the person.

As to your other questions: yes, the elders should be involved in this process. They are the shepherds of the flock who possess oversight.

What if the person renouncing faith is struggling with sin? By that, I assume you really mean, you wonder if they are renouncing the faith just so that they can have their sin and avoid church discipline. Well, you might suspect that, and you might be right, but if they renounce the faith, you no longer need to set the record straight. You don’t discipline. You simply remove them and remind them they will have to deal with God himself on the last day, and he can see all hearts.

To your last question, no, we would not deal any differently with someone who says he believes the gospel is true, but that he is not converted. Again, we would let them resign. In fact, we had such a scenario a couple years ago. A man sat in front of the whole elder board, said he believed the claims of Christianity entirely, said he had fought his sexual addictions for years and now was tired, said he wanted to pursue his addictions, and said he was convinced that he did not have the Holy Spirit and was not converted. We warned him strongly, and then let him resign. He was no longer calling himself a “brother.”

Last comment, you will need to teach your congregation through this. I can think of at least three times we have been in such a situation, and every time we have taught the church through these same ideas. I hope this helps, Nathan.

Dear 9Marks,

My question has to deal with establishing elders in a church plant. I recently was sent out with eight families from my church to plant a new church. We have also seen several new families jump in quickly to help establish a solid core of 14 to 15 families. I am the lead pastor/planter.

How long you should wait to install a first elder team? I have heard a variety of counsel.

We will be congregational governed and elder led. We are establishing our first round of members in the next two months. I have four to five men that could be considered for elder right now, one of which has served as an elder in a precious church. What would you advise on a process and timing to move us forward in a positive yet not hurried way? And how would you recommend I share this vision with our core families as I teach the first members’ seminar?

Grace and peace!

—Tom, Tennessee 

Dear Tom,

I have been involved in a couple of revitalizations, but never a church plant. Maybe I can offer some biblical perimeters, and then point to a couple broadly applicable lessons I’ve learned in establishing elders generally.

In Scripture, it does appear that the church membership is typically established first, while elders come second (see Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). After all, the church is its membership. Plus, the congregation possesses the authority, as delegated from King Jesus, to guard the who and the what of the gospel (Matt. 16:13-20; 18:15-20), which, by implication, includes the ability to affirm who are the teachers of the gospel Word.

All that to say, I would commend you for beginning by establishing membership and then moving to establish elders. I have friends who have done contrariwise, but I favor the path you have chosen.

The next question becomes, who nominates the first batch of elders for the congregation to affirm. Popular in American churches these days is a nominating committee, particularly one that represents the various demographics in a church. I’m not a fan of this. Better, I think, for elders to nominate elders. The ones affirmed and qualified to teach should take the lead in pointing the church toward others who are qualified to teach. Plus, we see a precedent for this in the passages cited above. Paul and Barnabas “appoint” elders planted on their first missionary journey (Acts 14:23; and the word “appoint” does not preclude congregational involvement; it just means Paul and Barnabas took the initiative). And Paul says he left Titus in Crete to “appoint” elders in every town (Titus 1:5). So you have the apostle (Paul) and the apostolic delegate (Titus) taking the lead on recommending new elders. If congregationalism is right (and I don’t intend to make that argument here), we would assume that the various churches involved in these locations then affirmed Paul, Barnabas, and Titus’s recommendations (just as the diaconal selection in Acts 6 shows a coordinated effort between church and leaders).

The take-away lesson from Scripture, at least by implication, is this: ordinarily you want elders nominating elders, and congregations affirming (or denying) those nominations.

How does this work when you have not yet recognized elders? Clearly we have to stick our hand into the prudence bucket for an answer that question. Scripture offers no script. Which means things might differ between one context and another. But here is my general counsel: whichever one (or two) individual(s) already possesses the implicit trust of the congregation as a de facto elder should probably make the first round of recommendations. In all likelihood, that’s you, since you are the main teacher of God’s Word. The 14 to 15 families have already implicitly recognized you as an elder by following you to this church plant.

Start by explaining what I said above about elders ordinarily nominating elders. Explain that, in order to establish a good precedent, you intend to make the first round of nominations since you are the main teacher. Explain also that you plan to privately canvass the congregation to see whom the people find trustworthy and commendable. You’re not looking to declare anything by fiat, but to take the lead in trying to find whether a consensus already exists around two or three other “safe” guys. You goal is not to “make” elders, but to help the congregation discern and affirm the men who are already acting as elders. That means, the congregation’s sense of who they find trustworthy in life and doctrine is important.

For this first round, I would stick with the one to three “safest” candidates—those around whom it will be the easiest to build consensus and demand the least of the people’s trust. I’m not saying you should always approach elder nominations like this. But, if you can, make the first round as easy as possible. That will set good patterns for the long run. You can always come back in a few months and nominate that fourth and fifth guy.

Also, you might not include yourself in that first round, but tell the church you will then leave it to those first two or three to turn around and nominate you. Let them and the church ask you any questions they want to ask. Then recuse yourself from the room so that they can discuss and vote on you, led by their new elders. Does that sound scary? Maybe. And I’m not saying you have to do it, biblically. But it does teach the church about their own authority, and it will earn their trust for the long run.

Time-wise, oh, I’d probably wait at least 3 to 6 months (maybe more?) into the plant’s existence before nominating that first batch. That’s really your judgment call; you’ll know better what your 14 to 15 families need than me. Yet here is what you are waiting for: You want the church to adequately know who they are affirming to lead them for years to come. You want them to trust these men as “above reproach” and “able to teach.” You want the men to have at least some opportunity to demonstrate they are trustworthy, such that when you nominate “Shawn” or “Mike,” people think “Of course!” because they’ve already benefited from Shawn or Mike’s ministry in their marriages or Sunday School classrooms. And how long does all that take? The answer depends on a variety of factors, including how long the members have known Shawn or Mike before the church plant began.

Remember, the members have the job of guarding the gospel, just like the priests were to guard the holiness of the temple (see 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1). That means they must insist on being led by men whose words and lives exemplify this gospel. Teach them about their responsibility, and train them to fulfill it. That by itself will take at least 3 to 6 months.

Though I have never planted a church, as I said, I pray I have directed you wisely and biblically.

Dear 9Marks,

I have a couple of questions about membership interviews. First, what questions do you ask? Second, we have a lot of people come through who have been divorced. How do you handle that?

—Dave, North Carolina

Dear Dave,

Obviously the Bible does not prescribe exactly how you should do membership interviews. But based on the manner in which Jesus asked Peter who he was before affirming him as the rock (Matt. 16:15-17); based on John’s command to “test the spirits” by enquiring into whether they affirm the doctrine of the incarnation (1 John 4:1-3); based on Paul’s assumption that every member of the churches in Rome and Galatia knew the gospel and had been baptized (Rom. 6:1-3; Gal. 1:6-9), the heart of a membership interview is asking a member candidate “How did you become a Christian?” and “What is the gospel?” This much, I propose, every church everywhere should do, whether sitting in a pastor’s office or going for a walk in a park. Everything else in a membership interview is adjustable but serves these two basic questions.

Linked here is a three-page instruction form we give to all new elders before doing membership interviews. But let me give you a brief run down here, with a few extra words on divorce since you asked about it:

The interview starts by asking for basic biographical data: name, address, and workplace. We also ask, “Are you married?” and then (even if the answer is “no”) “Do you have any children and what are their ages?”

At that point, we’ll also ask, “Have you ever been divorced?” If the person has been divorced, we will ask about the circumstances of the divorce, who initiated it, whether it had biblical grounds, what role they played, whether they understand themselves to be repentant if any of the fault was theirs, and so forth.

If it was not their fault or if they are clearly repentant, I’ll proceed with the interview. If for some reason it appears that they are not repentant, I would probably suggest that we needed to work through that issue before proceeding with the membership conversation (and though I have stopped membership interviews for other reasons, I’ll admit I’ve never stopped one for this reason). To be sure, this is one of many reasons why you want elders leading membership interviews!

Following the basic bio information, we ask whether they have been baptized and are coming from another church. There are some “baptisms” that we don’t count as baptisms, as with a church that teaches that baptism is regenerative or an infant baptism. At that point we will also read Matthew 5:24 and ask, “how are you leaving your relationships at your previous church? Are you on good terms with that church’s leadership and membership?” We will also ask whether they have ever been disciplined from a church.

Most importantly, we then come to the basic gospel information portion, where we ask about their testimony and the gospel. As they provide answers to these two questions, we will ask follow up questions. With the gospel, we are looking for some grasp of God, Man, Christ, Response, and a basic grasp of substitution (not that they have to use that word). Again, follow-up questions might help ferret out missing elements, such as their understanding of repentance.

Finally, we conclude with nuts and bolts about what we expect from them and what they can expect from us. Again, you can see what we say here.

I hope this provides what you were looking for.

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.

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