Book Review: 40 Questions about Membership & Discipline, by Jeremy Kimble
Jeremy M. Kimble, 40 Questions About Church Membership and Discipline. Kregel Publications, 2017. 272 pps, $14.95.
If Western Christians think church membership and discipline are strange and alien ideas, then it’s totally new for churches in China. During the cultural revolution and persecution, it was very dangerous for believers to have a list of names because it exposed members of the church. Therefore, church leaders tried to avoid keeping a list. Chinese Christians became accustomed to being “anonymous.”
Though the political situation in China is much better than 1960s, the import of Western individualism and consumerism keeps Christians in China in favor of this anonymity. Church membership challenges them to give up their anonymity and autonomy. This triggers resistance from self-centered Christians—not only in the US, but also in China.
As a pastor, the most common objection to church membership I hear is this: I don’t see it in the Bible. The second most common objection is, it’s a new idea invented by the Western church to bring a corporate/club structure into the church.
In 40 Questions About Church Membership and Discipline, Jeremy M. Kimble answers these two common objections. He argues that church membership and church discipline is both biblical and traditional. It’s included in the Bible, in the early church, and in the history of Christian churches. Kimble finds strong biblical, theological, and historical proof to support the practice of church membership.
In chapters 16 (“Is Church Membership Biblical?”) and 17 (“How Does Matthew 16 Speak Specifically to the Matter of Church Membership?”), Kimble unfolds a picture of God’s people from the Old Testament to New Testament, and then focuses on Matthew 16:13–19 and 18:15–20 to explain the connection between church membership and binding and loosing. Kimble rightly points out that whether it’s the Old Testament or New Testament, the people of God is never an abstract concept but rather a visible community.
In the Old Testament, “the nation of Israel was a community, with a distinct ‘membership,’ a people who were in covenant with God and one another to live holy lives in the midst of the nations” (46). In the New Testament, there’s “certainly evidence of the necessity of its existence within a local church.” Kimble quotes Bobby Jamieson: “By drawing a line between the church and the world, the ordinances make it possible to point to something and say ‘church’ rather than pointing to many somethings and saying ‘Christians’” (47).
Matthew 16 and 18 provide solid scriptural ground for the authority of local church to use the keys of the kingdom, which is “the power to make and enforce binding decisions” (53). It’s helpful to teach the congregation that church membership is a matter of binding and loosing, not a matter of church management. It will help the audience to rightly understand the meaning of church membership.
Church membership and discipline isn’t only an exegetical conclusion, but also a theological conclusion. If we look at other topics related to soteriology and ecclesiology, or if we take into view the whole Bible, we have to agree that church membership is a necessary conclusion in order to fulfill the mission of the local church.
In chapter 5 (“How Does Church Membership Relate to the New Covenant?”), Kimble uses a New Testament biblical theology approach to explain the necessity of church membership. And in chapter 9 (“How Does Church Membership Relate to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper?”), Kimble teaches his readers that without church membership the sacraments lose their original purpose and rich theological meaning.
Chapter 8 (“How Has the Church Practiced Membership Throughout Its History?”) provides a good answer to the second most common objection I mentioned earlier. Kimble summarizes how church membership looked throughout the eras of Christianity—from the Patristic era to the Medieval era to the Reformation era to our modern era. From this overview he concludes that church membership isn’t a creation of the 20th century like some people imagine. Instead, it’s quite the opposite: in the 20th century, church membership started to get attacked and diluted. Church membership may look different in different ages, especially considering the church-state relationship, but it’s not a new idea.
Kimble also provides a lot of practical reasons for church membership. He talked about to the relationship between church membership and leadership and discipleship. He also provided many practical suggestions for how churches can implement membership. How should a church process the acceptance of new members and the removal of existing ones? This book offers wisdom.
This book is also suitable for a layperson to read because Kimble answers common questions every Christian should be asking, like “What kind of church should someone join?” (Chapter 15) and “What are the benefits of being a church member?” (Chapter 19).
USE THIS BOOK
I suggest every church leader who wants to reform his church’s membership structure—or wants to teach church membership to new members—should read this book. It will help him avoid the pitfalls of pragmatism, and lead his church in a healthy direction. It’s also helpful for seminarians to understand ecclesiology, and laypeople to understand the role of church membership in their Christian life.