Chapter 6: Church Membership And Its Duties
INITIAL MEMBERSHIP IN THE CHURCH
TRANSFER OR CESSATION OF MEMBERSHIP
DUTIES OF CHURCH MEMBERS TO THE LORD
DUTIES OF CHURCH MEMBERS TO THE WORLD
DUTIES OF CHURCH MEMBERS TO EACH OTHER
considered the basic make-up of a New Testament Church, it now becomes our duty to consider the membership of a church, together with the duties entailed in that membership.
In all too many present day churches, it has become the practice to "sign up" almost everyone who crosses the threshold of the church building, and to count them members though they may never appear in the services again. But this practice proceeds upon principles not found in the Scriptures. Even where the gospel is preached in its purity, there is often a woeful lack of teaching relative to church membership and its duties. The writer knows of one church whose sign reads "Where salvation makes you a member," but which is attended by only a small proportion of those who have made professions of faith in its services.
There is something gravely wrong with a church which has a much greater proportion of enrolled members than attending members. Where such a situation exists, there is the need to contact the non-attenders relative to their duty to attend and to support their church. Such an out-of-proportion ratio finds explanation in several things. (1) Some have moved out of the community and have neglected to transfer their membership to their present home town. (2) Others simply have ceased to attend because they have no real concern for the Lord or His house, and are more concerned with catering to the flesh which finds no satisfaction in spiritual things. (3) Still others have never been taught that there is a responsibility in being a church member, and are at fault primarily through ignorance.
Whatever the reason may be for neglecting to attend the Lordís House, the Scripture has this admonition and warning: "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching. For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries" (Heb. 10:25-27).
It is to be acknowledged that there are occasions when one may be providentially hindered from attending the Lordís house, but most absences are backed up by excuses rather than by reasons . However, mere attendance is not the sum total of the duties contained in church membership. It is, at best only the basic or first such duty, and that which leads into most other duties.
It is the mistaken notion of many that the church is a mere social organization, or an organization which has as its primary goal the personal pleasure or its members, and this mistaken idea has led to the disregard by many of their duties as church members. "I donít get anything out church," is an excuse often given. Such a person is probably getting more out of it than he or she wants to admit. Conviction for sins may be producing un-admitted guilt. But what is more important is "What are you putting into church?" Our duty, not our delight, should be the criteria. It must be remembered that above all else the church is to be a militant and ministering body, and the duty of self-edification, while of equal importance with that of evangelization, is, in itself, a means to the end of preparing the members for the duty of witnessing to others. That church, therefore, which disregards the duty of its members to seek the salvation of the lost, fails in its primary duty, while that church which fails to indoctrinate and edify its members, cuts off the most effective means of evangelization, which is personal testimony and influence.
Too often it is thought the task of the pastor only to endeavor to reach the lost, but the most fruitful and influential period in all the history of the church was that period of persecution when "they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word," Acts 8:4. Yet these who did so were manifestly not apostles (v. l ff.), and indications are that they were simply lay members, including at least one deacon (v. 5). This is one of the duties of church members, and it requires no special training, nor any great oratory or wisdom.
All that is needful is that which even a new convert can do, namely to "Go home to thy friends, and tell them how great things the Lord hath done, for thee, and hath had compassion on thee" (Mark 5:19).
One of Satanís most efficient methods of suppression of personal testimony is to make the Christian believe that his witness will have no effect, or that the lost will think that he is trying to "force" him to be saved, or that he will be laughed at. The blessed truth is, that every Christian, yea, every person regardless of his spiritual condition, has some influence for good or for evil upon someone else. The Christian should use this influence for spiritual good. Most lost persons appreciate the help and encouragement of Christians who are concerned about their spiritual welfare, and as to the last objection, there are very few objections that are more groundless. Whether a person is led to the Lord by the personal testimony of another or not, he generally respects and appreciates the one who has tried to help him too much to laugh at him. The one person in a hundred who might laugh at such a person, would do so only as a cover-up for his own conviction, and not out of any disrespect to the other one.
These duties which are entailed by membership in the Lordís church will become increasingly clear as we further consider this subject. However, it will first be our duty to note:
INITIAL MEMBERSHIP IN THE CHURCH
By this is meant membership in the first scriptural church of which a person is a member. In the United States at the present time, probably the majority of persons are members of some religious organization which calls itself a church, but many of these are not true New Testament churches, and most such persons are not even genuinely born again. Therefore, we take no cognizance of any former membership in a false church, but wish to deal only with the joining of a New Testament church after a person has been genuinely born again by the Spirit. Now church membership (whether in a false or a true church) has nothing to do with saving a person. Nevertheless, it should be recognized that the place of blessing for the Christian is in one of the Lordís churches, and to knowingly labor in a "synagogue of Satan," is, for the most part, to labor for the wind. Godís command to Christians in false systems of worship has ever been the same: "Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues" (Rev. 18:4). And, "Come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you" (2 Cor. 6:17).
By initial membership in a New Testament church, we mean just that. We take no cognizance of any former membership in a false church, for a manís uniting with a true New Testament church will be the same way whether he has been a member of a pseudo-church, or whether he has never seen the inside of any so-called church. In either case, it must be by profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and by scriptural immersion.
It should also be noted that church membership is a strictly voluntary thing, and no one has the authority to use coercion to bring another into the membership of any religious organization.
When we form, with our fellow Christians, the ecclesiastical tie, we promise merely to obey Christ, and while we do this, as we have never pledged ourselves to obey the commands of each other, every man is as free of his brother, as his brother is of him. We are bound to obey Christ, and no one else. Such is the only rational exposition of true Christian liberty. The church has no authority as a body to make laws for us, nor can she enforce any, but the laws of Christ. We have never surrendered to her such right. An attempt to exercise it, therefore, to say nothing of its despotism, would be a violation of the spirit of religion, and a manifest infraction of the statutes of Jesus Christ already cited. No man, whatever may be the dignity of his office; nor company of men, however large, or wise, or sincerely desirous to do good, can change any thing which Jesus Christ has appointed, absolve our obligations to the least of his commandments, or make binding any thing he has not required. The church has no such power, and consequently can neither exercise it herself, nor delegate it to others.óR. B. C. Howell, Terms of Communion, p. 29.
There have been many abuses of this in times past. Whole nations were threatened with the sword if they did not accept Christianity, or rather the perverted form of Christianity held by the ruling party. And those churches which have been wedded to the state have most generally practiced conversion by coercion, if we may so prostitute the term conversion. Indeed, every instance of infant baptism is a violation of this principle, for it puts into the church membership those who are unable to make a voluntary choice in the matter. E. T. Hiscox well observes that:
It is sometimes said that a church is a voluntary society. This is true in a sense, and only with an explanation. It is true in that no external force or authority can compel the relation of membership to be formed, or dissolved. The church can compel no one to unite with it, nor can the individual oblige the body to receive him. But it is not true that it is a matter merely optional and indifferent whether or not a believer identifies himself with the Household of Faith. He is under moral obligation to do that...A church, therefore, is more than a voluntary society: it is a society under law to Christ.óNew Directory For Baptist Churches, pp. 61, 62.
The one passage which has sometimes been urged as opposed to voluntary membership in the church, is Luke 14:23: "And the lord said unto the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled." However, this was not a command by Christ to His disciples, but was only a duty taught parabolically. Not only so, but the word translated "compel" intimates no more than a moral persuasion at best.
It is strange how any argument for a compulsion, save indeed a moral one, should ever have been here drawn from these words. In the first place, in the letter of the parable to suppose any other compulsion, save that of earnest persuasion, is absurd; for how can we imagine this single servantófor he is but one throughoutódriving before him, and that from the country into the city, a flock of unwilling guests, and these, too, gathered from those rude and lawless men unto whom he is now sent.óRichard Trench, Notes On The Parables, p. 297.
It is not to be denied that the Lord would have us seek to persuade men of the need for repentance and faith, and church membership afterward. Paul says, "Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men" (2 Cor. 5:11), yet we do so knowing that if there be any persuasion, it partakes only of the form of moral conviction, and that this is actually accomplished only by the Holy Spirit.
When, however, we speak of church membership being voluntary, we are, of course, looking at it from the human standpoint. No person has a right to force another to be a member of a church. On the other hand, when we consider it from the Divine standpoint, it is a different matter entirely. The Lord has every right to demand that those who have been redeemed by the precious blood of Christ should be baptized into His church. Baptism, and consequently, church membership, is a command of Christ to every born-again person, and no one can acceptably worship, witness, nor work for the Lord so long as he remains apart from the church, the blood-bought body of Christ. Baptism and church membership are duties of Christians, not of unregenerate sinners, and therefore cannot be for salvation. There is, however, a physical danger in refusing to be baptized into a scriptural church even as Peter also tells us. "The like figure (note carefully that is a figurative matter that he is speaking ofóDWH) whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ." The likeness is drawn between the physical deliverance of Noah and his family through the flood waters as a result of them obeying God, and the physical deliverance of the believer when he obeys the Lordís command to be baptized upon his profession of faith. There is a parallel danger in holding in contempt the duty to be baptized with the danger of disregarding Godís will in the Lordís Supper. See the danger in 1 Corinthians 11:28-30.
It is abundantly clear from many Scriptures that baptism and church membership were the natural consequence of salvation in the churches of apostolic times (Acts 2:41, 47; 16:30-33, et al). Pedobaptists get things all muddled up in this matter, for they compel an unconscious baby to be sprinkled and made a member of the church because its parents are members. Dr. W. G. T. Shedd says that childrenó
Are church members by reason of their birth from believing parents; and it has been truly said, that the question that confronts them at the period of discretion is not, Will you join the visible church? but, Will you go out of it? Church membership by birth from believers is an appointment of God under both the old and the new economies; in the Jewish and the Christian church.óDogmatic Theology, II, p. 576.
Yet, while they compel an unconscious baby to be thrust into the membership and faith of a church without its own will in the matter, they too often allow adult members to believe and practice any lifestyle or theology whatsoever they wish without the least word of rebuke or admonition. Thus, compulsion is used over children because they cannot object to it, while those who are capable of being persuaded by the Scriptures are hardly dealt with at all. What has been said truly of all state churches, is also true of all Pedobaptist churches, namely, that they can only be maintained by infant baptism: For all state churches, and all Pedobaptist churches, if they had to depend upon a voluntary membership, would drop to such low membership numbers as to virtually cease to exist. If any church can only exist and perpetuate itself by the violation of the rights of unconscious babies, then it does not deserve to continue to exist.
Infant church membership is based upon the idea that there is an analogy between citizenship in a nation, and membership in a church. Yet there is nothing in Scripture to sustain such a notion. A child is indeed an American if born of American parents, and he retains his citizenship until it is forfeited through crime, or renounced. On the other hand, a person may be born of believing parents, yet he is not automatically a believer himself: Indeed, he may be the worst kind of infidel. As noted before, no person can be scripturally a member of a New Testament church unless he has been saved, yet salvation comes only through personal faith, and no infant is capable of such a faith.
Some would object that infants may believe by proxy. That is, they may be made members of the church upon the faith of their parents or sponsors, yet this is denied by several passages. "The just shall live by his own faith," is the literal rendering of Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; Hebrews 10:38, as it reads in the original text in Habakkuk 2:4. In each of the New Testament passages the verb is in the middle voice, and therefore is reflexive.
If then those only are justified who have exercised personal faith, and if only the justified are to be baptized into the church, then it is clear that none can be members of a church but believers. This is borne out in all of Paulís epistles which are addressed to churches, for he always speaks to them and of them as to persons possessed of both knowledge and faith. He never gives the least intimation that he is speaking to, or of, infant church members. Much of this discussion has already been covered previously, therefore, we pass on lest we be repetitious.
Although we have touched upon the subject of the requirements for membership in the church (see Chapter Two), it will be well for us to consider this at greater length. The first requirement is that of regeneration. One must be "born again." How could one become a member of Christís body when he is still in his natural state of rejection of, and rebellion against, the Lord Jesus? When his whole nature is still at variance with the Lord Jesus? He would be unable to witness of the gospel, because he would be personally ignorant of its efficacy. Both of the ordinances would be pointless to him, and his observance of them would be a mockery. His unconcern for the propagation of the gospel both in mission work, and in the local ministry, would be borne out by his lack of financial support of them. When all of these things are considered, it is easy to understand the spiritual lethargy, the carnality, and the lack of missionary zeal which characterizes so many of the present day Pedobaptist denominations. They are made up in large numbers by unsaved members who have been brought into the membership through infant baptism. When any group starts accepting members who are evidently not saved, they begin to corrupt their own polity. And it takes only a few short years for such an organization to become so permeated with unregenerate members, as to lose all spirituality, and to retain only a "form of godliness, but denying the power thereof" (2 Tim. 3:5).
All too many Protestant churches, many of which at one time preached the pure gospel, have now, in their zeal for numbers, lowered themselves to sign up almost any one, without regard to this first requirement for scriptural church membership. Such could never constitute a scriptural church, even were all other things right.
Besides the requirement of regeneration, there is also the requirement of a scriptural baptism. No person can be scripturally admitted to a New Testament church whose baptism is defective in any one of the four requisites which we have noted in Chapter Five. If a person has held membership in a Protestant church either before or after being saved, he cannot be admitted to a Baptist church except by confession of faith and by baptism. It matters not if that former membership was entered through immersion. Immersion is but a part of the requirements. Even to have been immersed is not enough if the organization which administered it traces its beginning as a denomination to a date short of the First Century, or if it has changed its faith and practice sometime since the First Century. In such a case it is manifestly not one in kind with the church at Jerusalem. Speaking of the church as an institution which would live on and on in a continual chain of like assemblies, our Lord said, as the literal rendering is, "Behold, I Myself am with you all the days, even unto the consummation of the age" (Matt. 28:20). If He has been, and continues to be, with His church all the days until the end of this age, then it is clear that there must have been churches corresponding in kind to the one at Jerusalem to which He spoke, in every age since that time. And a church whose perpetuity of faith and practice does not date back that far is not one the Lordís churches, comprised though it may be of saved people. Salvation is only one of several requisites for being a true church.
Nor is it enough that the individual member himself is satisfied with his baptism when he presents himself for membership in a Baptist church. He may well be satisfied in error through ignorance. But the church is to examine his baptism, and be satisfied that it is scriptural before it receives him. If a man has never been baptized, or if he has a defective baptism, the church is only to receive him by scripturally baptizing him. Baptists were originally termed "Anabaptists" for this reason: they rejected any former "baptisms" which they had reason to suspect were defective, and they baptized converts from other communions as though they had never been near the baptismal waters. Baptists have long been reviled and calumniated for this practice, as if they were purposefully being uncharitable, but it is a matter of conscience and conviction with them, and they cannot violate this principle except at the cost of reversing their beliefs and practices of almost twenty centuries.
For any church to accept alien baptism, or, for that matter, even alien immersion, is to corrupt their own baptism eventually. It is for this reason that Baptists feel that the only safe and consistent procedure is to baptize all who come to them from other communions. To accept the baptism of some Protestant denominations and not others would be inconsistent, for they all originated from the same corrupt source, and so, cannot have proper authority.
There must also be scriptural authority behind any baptism, and that authority must be church authority. Even where a member is accepted from another Baptist church, there is a danger in this present evil age, for there are organizations today which bear the name "Baptist," but which have long since departed from the historic faith and practice of true Baptists. Many Baptist churches no longer teach the inspiration and infallibility of the Scriptures, the virgin birth of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, blood redemption through faith alone, immersion as the only scriptural mode of baptism, etc. Therefore, to accept members even from other Baptist churches without examining their beliefs regarding the fundamentals, is an unwise thing to do. It should be clear to any one that an unscriptural church cannot administer scriptural baptism, and that a church comprised of those who do not believe the basic teachings of the Scriptures is not a scriptural church.
Reception into the membership of a church is by vote. The democratic and congregational polity of the church necessitates this. It is a logical deduction from the fact that exclusion is by vote of the majority. When the incestuous man at Corinth was dealt with, Paul wrote, "Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of [the] many." The inspired text has the definite article, which makes this the majority, and a majority can only be ascertained through some sort of vote.
Reception into the church by vote is clearly implied in Romans 14:1: "Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations." This was addressed to the Roman church, not to its officials. If the members were so exhorted to receive such an one, it is obvious that they had the power to receive or not to receive him.
The executive power contained in the binding and loosing, Matt. 18:18, is applicable to this same thing, and most Bible scholars so interpret it. The Lord had just spoken of the churchís disciplinary authority in verse 17. Here, He expands that authority to include, not only loosing, or disciplinary action, but also binding, or receiving into church fellowship.
Paulís statement in 2 Corinthians 7:2 also implies a churchís power to receive or not to receive a member. "Receive us; we have wronged no man, we have corrupted no man, we have defrauded no man." He gives the moral qualifications which would entitle him to membership in the church-unblamable conduct. They already knew that he possessed a scriptural baptism, and so the only objections they could have received against his admission to the membership would have been moral or doctrinal. Certain Judaizers had before this lodged several charges against him: i.e., that he was using the ministry simply to exalt and to enrich himself. His statement is a denial of these charges.
It is an impossibility for a church to possess the power of exclusion from its ranks, unless it also possesses the power of acceptance into its ranks.
In view of these things it must also be noted that no church is duty bound to accept into her membership any person unless he has met the prescribed requisites for membership. The Scripture makes no allowance for those who refuse to be bound by its teachings. There can be no waiver of Scripture for the sake of admitting any person to the membership of a church. Man must meet the Lordís standard, or be rejected. There is no room for compromise. "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me" (Matt. 16:24).
TRANSFER OR CESSATION OF MEMBERSHIP
In our present world, when travel makes it possible for people to move about much more than formerly, and when the average family moves from one town to another on the average of three or four times within their lifetime, it is necessary to consider the matter of transferring oneís membership from one church to another.
Baptists have sometimes been reproached with having no scriptural ground for their practice of giving and receiving letters of recommendation for members who desire to move their membership to another church. This objection, however, is based upon a superficial knowledge of the New Testament. The principles upon which Baptist church polity is based make church letters a necessity. There could be no honoring of the disciplinary action of sister churches unless there was some sort of communication between churches relative to the reception of members from other churches. However, it is not always safe to found a practice upon principle alone, for erroneous elements can often enter into the foundational principles of a church, and can, under certain circumstances, result in erroneous practices. Therefore, what saith the Scriptures? Is the interchange of church letters scriptural? The answer is an emphatic YES!
"I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea: that ye receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints, and that ye assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you: for she hath been a sorcerer of many, and of myself also" (Rom. 16:1-2). Here are all the necessary ingredients to a church letter. (1) It is a recommendation to the Roman church. (2) It is the recommendation of one who was a member of the Cenchrean church, but who was moving to Rome. (3) It testified of her character. (4) It also testified of her official standing in the Cenchrean church, for "servant" is literally "deaconess." My brethren, do not strangle on good Bible truth. (5) It was written by one who had authority. The one difference between this letter of recommendation and those of today is that this one was written by an apostle, and not by a church. But this one who sent this had "the care of all the churches" committed unto him (2 Cor. 11:28), and consequently, had the authority to do such things. However, with the death of the last apostle, the churches became the highest religious authorities on earth.
A similar example is found in the book of Philemon. Onesimus had been a slave belonging to Philemon, but he had stolen some of his masterís money and had ran away, but in his travels he came to Rome, heard Paul preach, and was converted and baptized. When Paul learned the details of Onesimusí former life, he sent him back "not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, especially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?" (v. 16). His admonition to Philemon was therefore "If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself" (v. 17).
Someone will doubtless object that this was simply a letter from one individual to another. But we deny this. As in the preceding example, Paul wrote with apostolic authority. The inclusion of this epistle in the Canon of Scripture indicates this. Nor was this letter written exclusively to Philemon, but rather was addressed to "Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellow-laborer, and to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellow-soldier, and to the church in thy house" (vv. 1-2). Most churches often get letters which are addressed to the pastor, the church clerk, the treasurer, etc., but which are obviously meant for the whole church because of the matters to which they relate. And such was the case with the letter to Philemon. In it Paul recommended a converted slave: (1) To his master. (2) To the fellowship of the church which met in Philemonís house. (3) As a born-again believer, Vs. 10. (4) As a man who was now "profitable to thee and to me" (v. 11).
But if there be those who still reject this as bearing upon the question of letters of recommendation, we can omit this and still pass on to stronger evidence. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "Do we begin again to commend ourselves? Or need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you?" (2 Cor. 3:1). Paul had labored among the Corinthians for a considerable length of time (Acts 18:1, 11, 18), and was well known to them. He therefore needed no letter of recommendation to them. Letters of recommendation are primarily for those who are unknown to the church to which they wish to join themselves. In the case of a man who has once been a member of a church and has been away, and wished to once again unite with the church, a letter of recommendation would probably not be necessary. However, in such a case, when he unites with the church, that fact should be communicated to the church where he had been a member so that his name could be taken from their membership rolls.
Though Paul denied the need for a letter of recommendation for himself, he manifestly declared that such a letter would be necessary in the case of some. "Need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you..." Obviously he felt that there were some believers who, being unknown to the church at Corinth, would need letters of recommendation before they could unite with the church.
But the evidence is stronger yet. "And when he (Apollos) was disposed to pass unto Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him: who, when he was come, helped them much which had believed through grace" (Acts 18:27). Here, as before, are all the constituent elements in a church letter, and one which is the perfect example for churches today: (1) Apollos was about to move from Ephesus to Achaia (v. 27). (2) The Ephesian church gave him a letter of recommendation (v. 27). (3) The recommendation was that they "receive him." (4) It was sent to the "disciples," or church at Corinth (Acts 19:1).
Here, then, we have, not one, but several scriptural examples of the use of letters of recommendation by the churches of the New Testament. Though there are several variables in these, they were all letters written to churches in which the church was encouraged to "receive" some saint who was coming to their locality. Examples are as binding as precepts are where there are no precepts to the contrary, and this is the case here.
It is to be granted that some, even among Baptists, have an erroneous concept of church letters, and consequently draw erroneous conclusions from them. For example, some people evidently think that when a person is baptized into a church, a letter is immediately written up concerning him, which is filed away somewhere, and is accessible upon demand. This writer has had more than one disgruntled church member drive up to the parsonage or church office, wanting to "pick up my church letter." In each case, it was explained that the pastor neither had such a letter, nor was authorized to write one for an individual to join another church, but that the church would have to authorize such a letter to be written if one could be forthcoming. In most instances, the persons who had made such requests went away disillusioned about their church letter, and in some cases were convinced that the pastor refused to give them the letters out of spite.
This leads us to consider another misconception about church letters. Many people assume that the church is obligated to give them a letter of recommendation any time they wish. Because of this, it has even been the practice of some, when they are cited to appear before the church for disciplinary action, to quickly race to another church and join upon the promise of a letter, thinking thereby to escape the consequences of their wickedness. But under such circumstances, no letter of recommendation could possibly be forthcoming until the original trouble is worked out to the satisfaction of the church or other offended parties.
Another misconception which has led to untold abuse, is the practice of granting letters in hand to the individuals recommended. Sometimes this is done at the request of the individual who desires to have the letter ready to present as soon as he finds another church home. And there is nothing wrong with this provided the letter is limited as to how long the recommendation stands. The tragedy in such cases where no time limit is stated in the letter, is that the letter is too often taken home and filed away in a trunk or Bible and forgotten, and sometimes not presented to a church for many years. In such a case, the letter is worthless, for no church could possibly know that the moral or doctrinal character of one of its former members will be months or years in advance, and how could they give a recommendation of such. Therefore it is obvious that no church can recommend a member to his "trunk," or to his "Bible," or any other place of safe-keeping. It can only recommend him to another church, and that for a limited time. At the same time, such letters have sometimes been used to join unscriptural churches that the church giving the letter would never have granted a letter to had it known what kind of a church its former member would join. In such a case, it is made to appear by the recommended member that his former church fully approved of the unscriptural church that he joined. At best, that is slander by implication.
It is true that in the New Testament we read of letters of recommendation being given in hand to the person recommended. But in each instance, that recommendatory letter was addressed to some specific church, and was sent directly to that church. There is no excuse for giving a member who is about to move a letter addressed "To whom it may concern."
But we must consider the case where a church disbands. How are the members to be lettered out, but by giving them letters in hand? This is not so ticklish a problem as it might at first seem, but one thing is certain, it is the height of folly to give letters in hand which are addressed only "To whom it may concern," and which are not dated. Usually when this is done, the individual takes his letter home, files it away in his trunk or Bible, and forgets it, for he feels that no matter how long he waits to join another church he is still a church member in good standing. Nothing could be further from the truth. He ceased to be a member of the disbanding church, and if he does not join another church, he has no membership elsewhere. The letter of recommendation becomes worthless if not used in a short time, except as a proof that he had been scripturally baptized, and once held membership in a church. It proves nothing as to his present moral or doctrinal character, . but only evidences a long time neglect of serving the Lord.
It is the writerís belief that when it is necessary to give letters in hand which are not addressed to a specific church, they should be dated, and if not used within a matter of six months at most, should be considered worthless, and the individual received into a church only on statement. Such a practice would have the effect of moving the individual to join another church before the letter expires in most cases. But where the church is not disbanding, letters of recommendation should only be granted to the request of the church that has received the member upon a promise of a letter. Years ago, when the means of communication were much slower, letters were often given in hand to those who were moving to another part of the country, but these letters were always dated, and were only good for a specified length of time, generally for from three to six months. See "Forms, etc." in J. M. Pendletonís Church Manual, and E. T. Hiscoxís New Directory For Baptist Churches.
A church letter is simply a letter of recommendation from one Baptist church to another concerning a member of the former, which states that he is a member in regular standing with no known misconduct or heresy. For this reason, a church cannot give a true letter of recommendation concerning a member who hasnít been in attendance for some time. Neither can such a letter be exchanged between churches of different faiths and orders. When a member of a Baptist church desires to join a non-Baptist church, he should do so with the understanding that he cannot receive a letter of commendation from the Baptist church. Baptist churches with any convictions at all cannot recognize those religious societies which are not only unsound on the truth, but are in competition with sound churches. When he joins a church of a different faith and order, however, he should have the Christian courtesy to contact the Baptist church of which he was formerly a member and notify them of this, and ask that his name be dropped from their roll so that they can keep their membership roll current.
Church letters are necessary to the exercise of an effective church discipline upon unruly or heretical members. Without such a system of communication any excluded member could simply go to another church, announce that he was a Baptist in good standing and ask for membership, and there would be no way of checking upon his truthfulness. And the first inkling that the church would have of his real character would be when he next caused trouble in the church, or did that which caused reproach to fall upon the Lord and upon the church, as he, in all probability would do.
Let us now consider the application of an individual for membership in a church by statement. We alluded to this above, but we need to consider it more at length. When one is unable to get a letter of recommendation even though he has been truly born again and has been scripturally baptized, it is not necessary to baptize him again. Only if there is reason to suspect the validity of his baptism should he be rebaptized. If he is unable to get a letter of recommendation, in most cases he will be accepted upon a statement of the facts by a church, provided he has a legitimate reason for being unable to get a church letter.
Some of the reasons which would make application for church membership upon statement necessary may be considered. First, if the church of which a man has been a member has passed out of existence, then he could not get a letter of recommendation from it, and would have to be received upon statement. This is a fairly common case, but it necessarily reflects upon the laxity of the applicant. For such a case can only exist where one has not attended the church in which he held membership for a considerable length of time, or else he has simply neglected to transfer his membership before the church ceased to exist. It is a common evil that too many persons donít want to move their membership from the "home church" when they have moved to another community. This is putting more importance upon a certain church than upon oneís present duty to the Lord.
In the second place, an excluded member would seek readmission upon statement. This would be properly called restoration or reinstatement if in the church from which he was excluded. Such a case is recorded in 2 Corinthians 2:6-8: "Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many. So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow. Wherefore I beseech you that ye would confirm your love toward him."
This one was guilty of gross misconduct. So much so that he had to be excluded from the church. Later, he realized his wrong, and was near to be "swallowed up with his overmuch sorrow." Paul then admonished the church to forgive him, comfort him, and restore him to membership among them. However, a church is not obligated to restore a person so long as he remains impenitent in his sin. Only the truly repentant are to be received back into the membership. Paul gives an apt admonition in this connection in Galatians 6:1: "Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted." This refers to those who are suddenly surprised and overtaken in sin. There is a great deal of difference in being overtaken in a trespass, and in knowingly and willingly overtaking a trespass, or in repeating it over and over again. This deals with the former case, where there has been a slip or lapse (so the Greek word paraptomati). Such an one is to be restored in a spirit of meekness.
Where an individual desires to join upon statement a different church than that one from which he was excluded, there should be a very thorough investigation before such a one is received. To do otherwise would be to nullify the disciplinary action of a sister church, as well as to encourage the sin for which the man was excluded. Such an applicant for membership should be counseled with, and shown that the former trouble must be righted before he can be accepted. In most cases the trouble can be worked out satisfactorily without disparaging a sister churchís disciplinary action, and at the same time an erring saint may be reclaimed. However, it is common for a church, in its zeal for numbers, to accept such an applicant without even consulting the church that excluded the man, thereby invalidating that disciplinary action. Those who do so, very often reap of their own sowing in the same kind, by the new member disrupting the next church with his evil doing.
But these cases are general rules, and almost all general rules have exceptions. Such an exception was the case of those whom Diotrephes excluded from the church, III John 9-10. Here was the first pulpit despot, the first episcopal hierarchy recorded in the church dispensation. "I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not. Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church."
Diotrephes was the prototype of many who have been since his time. He not only rejected the missionaries who had come to the church, but he also rejected Johnís apostolic authority. But in so doing, he also rejected Christ, who had said to His apostles that "He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me," Matt. 10:40. Not content with his own refusal to receive these men, Diotrephes also unscripturally and unceremoniously "booted" out those who desired (Greek tous boulomenous, "those wishing") to receive them. It was, as B. H. Carroll says, "A glaring instance of devilish usurpation of power, of unmistakable high treason and rebellion."óInterpretation Of The English Bible, in loc. cit.
Where there are clearly no scriptural grounds for exclusion from a church, a person so excluded may be accepted into a church when he applies for membership. Nevertheless, it is never good to receive such a person until both sides of the story have been heard and prayfully considered. Even then, there is great danger of hard feelings, and even broken fellowship between churches when a church accepts a disciplined member from another church without requiring the disciplined person to make it right. For further discussion of church discipline, the reader is referred to the next chapter.
Finally, there is the question as to how long an individualís name should be left upon the church roll after he has ceased to attend. Some would say a year, others, five years, and some would doubtless say that the names should never be taken off unless there it is certain that death has occurred. It is hard to answer this dogmatically. Some churches put negligent members names on an inactive roll, and any request for letter for one of these is only granted a letter stating that such an one is in irregular standing, and stating the details. Certainly no letter stating that they are in regular or good standing should be granted for such negligent people. The writer has come to believe that those who do not attend for as long as three months without good reasonóthat is at least thirty six opportunities to attend in most churches, not counting any special servicesóshould be contacted and counseled with and encouraged to become regular again. If one does not, then he should be dropped from the roll. Such has separated himself from the church body, scorned its fellowship, and, since the church is an assembly of saints, has already in fact disavowed his membership by no longer assembling with it. Why would such an one even want to keep his name on the roll unless to soothe his guilty conscience.
However, there are instances where church members have joined other churches, but the original church of which they were members was never notified for one reason or another. And sometimes it is so that a person attends another church regularly, but simply has never presented himself for membership in that body.
In some churches it is the practice to periodically go over the church roll, and to contact all who have not attended for some time. This often reveals that the negligent member has joined another church which failed to notify the first church. At other times this reveals that the member has died. And still other times it serves to stir up the negligent member to his duty regarding his membership.
When such an examination of the church roll is taken and there are those who refuse to respond to their duty, or who even refuse to answer the churchís enquiry, there is little left to do but to notify them that the church must consider their actions as contempt of the church, for which the Lord Himself has decreed exclusion (Matt. 18:17).
As a man becomes a member of the church by the initiatory ordinance of baptism, so he ceases to be a member of the church at death. Death is the great back door to the church. There is nothing said anywhere in the Scriptures about a "heavenly church," however some may try to define a church as comprised of all the redeemed "in heaven and on earth." Between death and the universal gathering of the saints at Christís return, believers are "absent from the body," but "present with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:8). They have entered into rest, and church membershipóthe place of serviceóno longer has any relevance for them.
DUTIES OF CHURCH MEMBERS TO THE LORD
Accompanying the present day doctrines of free-willism, and will-worship is an utter disregard of Godís sovereign right to manís whole body, soul and spirit. This explains much of the disregard that is paid to the Lordís house, for if a man refuses to submit himself to the Lord, he certainly is not likely to submit himself to his church duties either. Godís right to the believerís whole being is declared in several places. "What? Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are Godís" (1 Cor. 6:19-20). "And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment" (Mark 12:30).
There are many practical deists in the Christian ranks, if we may judge from appearances and actions, for many professing Christians live as if God had left the world to itself with no obligations entailed to it. But this is expressly denied in the Scriptures. All truly born-again Christians rejoice in the blessed truth set forth in Ephesians 2:8-9, but many are not so enthusiastic about the following verse, which is so obligatory of a life of service. "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them."
The same truth is set forth in Titus 2:14: "Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works." And again, Paul affirms the need for constant reminders of this duty when he says: "This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men" (Tit. 3:8).
If salvation were an end in itself, men would be taken out of the world as soon as they were redeemed, but inasmuch as God leaves His children in the world, they should take every opportunity to glorify God by their good works. "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven" (Matt. 5:16). This is accomplished through the study of, and obedience to, the Holy Scriptures, for they are given "That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works" (2 Tim. 3:17). However, it is not enough to just do good works. One must do those good works which the Lord would have him to do. Not every person has the same gift, and consequently, not everyone has the same duty. "Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal...But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will" (1 Cor. 12:5-7, 11).
This means that every church member must be well read in the Bible, knowing its teaching and yielding himself thereunto. More so, he must be led of the Spirit in order that he might know, not only what to do, but also when to do it, for "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven" (Eccl. 3:1). Subjection to Christ is needful above all else, for, "Christ is the head of the church and he is the saviour of the body" (Eph. 5:23). B. H. Carroll has well said that: "A church is under law to Jesus Christ, and never independent of His paramount authority. Mere church authority cannot set aside the authority of our Lord."óAn Interpretation Of The English Bible, on 3 John.
The very essence of Christian responsibility may be summed up in three words from three verses in I Peter, which were called to this writerís attention by the wife of a fellow pastor. These are (1) "Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers" (1 Pet. 1:18). There must first be a personal knowledge of redeeming grace. (2) "As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby" (1 Pet. 2:2). To grow in grace is the second needful thing. (3) "But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light" (1 Pet. 2:9). This is the complete cycle of life in the spiritual realm: birth, growth, and reproduction.
However, the fact that there are different gifts, and diversities of administration is no reason for any person to try to excuse his own short comings, rebellion, or neglect, for fruit-bearing of some kind is required in each Christian. Our Lord Himself says "Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit...Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples" (John 15:2, 8).
Notice here: (1) Christ is speaking of those "in me," i.e., Christians. (2) The fruitless ones are "taken away." There is no need to leave a Christian in this life if he only "cumbers" the ground. Here is doubtless an explanation of many early deaths among Christians. (3) Every fruitful Christian is "purged" in order that he may bear more fruit. This is explanatory of our many trials, chastening, and sifting. The housewife sifts her flour that her cake may have a finer texture; the mason screens his sand that the foundation may be stronger and more beautiful. So the Christian must be sifted by trials and chastenings that the impurities may be sifted out of his life. (4) The Father is glorified in "much fruit." All too many Christians think they should be given some sort of a special medal for any little service that they perform. But God is glorified in "much fruit," not in little or no fruit. (5) So shall ye be my disciples." Fruit-bearing is the proof of salvation and sanctification. It bears out that we are Christís disciples "in deed" (John 8:31), and not just in profession alone.
DUTIES OF CHURCH MEMBERS TO THE WORLD
It is a mistake to think that the church and its members have no responsibility to the world. It is true that the world is antagonistic toward the church, and that it has no authority over the faith or practice of the church. Yet, because the churches exist for the purpose of declaring the truth of God to the world, they are forever obligated to an unblamable life before the world. Paulís First Epistle to Timothy dealt with Christian conduct. "But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). Only so long as church members practice the truth before the world, can they manifest to the world that the church truly is "a pillar and ground of the truth" (So the inspired original).
More to the point yet is Paulís word in Ephesians 3:10: "To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God." These "principalities and powers in the heavenlies" are "the rulers of the darkness of this world...spiritual wickedness in high places" (Eph. 6:12). Sound churches teach even angels about Divine things.
The greatest hindrance to Christianity is not the drunkard, nor the atheist, not is it yet even the devil himself. For all of these could be overcome through the witness of consecrated Christians. But the greatest hindrance is the nominal, but worldly Christian. So long as professing Christians publicly swear, lie, cheat, steal, give vent to their lusts, disregard Christian ethics, and in general live contrary to gospel conduct, there will never be a great percentage of the world convicted of their sins and brought to Christ. So long as church members give occasion for the world to say "Iím no worse than such and so church member," or "Thereís too many hypocrites in the church," that long will the world continue content in its sin, convinced that it has a valid excuse for rejecting the gospel. The world little realizes that it is "not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost" (Tit. 3:5). Nor does it realize that it is not sufficient to be "no worse than some church member," but that one would have to be as good as Jesus Christ Himself if he would be saved by works. Ungodly church members are themselves to blame to a great extent for the misconceptions that many people of the world have about spiritual things.
How tragic that so many church members are stumbling blocks to the lost, and leave themselves open to charges of hypocrisy. Shall not many professing Christians have to answer for offences that turned lost people away from the cross? "Woe unto the world because of offences! For it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!" (Matt. 18:7).
Believers are obligated to a walk "in the light" for they were also once in darkness. "For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light" (Eph. 5:8). Paul goes further and exhorts non-fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness: "And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them" (Eph. 5:11). Note well that it is not the individuals who are in darkness who are to be non-fellowshipped, but it is their "unfruitful works of darkness." This is a major source of reproach among church members. All too many are so commonly guilty of fellowship with sinners in their sin, that there is scarcely any distinction between the two classes.
The "field is the world" (Matt. 13:38), and we must work in the field, yet we "are not of the world" even as our Lord is not of the world (John 17:14), and we must never be guilty of conduct which would suggest that we are. We are "the light of the world" (Matt. 5:14), so let us act like it, and not as though we were the darkness of the world.
The universal demand of the Scripture is for a life of separation from the world. "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world" (James 1:27). There is much talk of "religion" in the world today, but it is noteworthy that this is the only time in the entire New Testament that the word "religion" or "religious" is used in a good sense, and this deals only with outward acts of piety, and implies nothing as regards salvation. "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him" (1 John 2:15). "Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whosoever therefore will be the friend of the world is the enemy of God" (James 4:4).
However, beyond the testimony of conduct, there is also the obligation of church members to "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15). This command is given to the local assembly, and is therefore binding upon every church member. It deals with mission work "both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth" (Acts 1:8). "And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come" (Matt. 24:14).
Now it is clear that each individual church member cannot personally go into all the nations of the world as a missionary. Each can, however, be a missionary in the particular part of the world in which he lives, or to which the Lord may lead him. Not only so, but each church member is a missionary representatively speaking, in helping support the ones who do go to the mission fields. "Ye also helping together by prayer for us, that for the gift bestowed upon us by the means of many persons thanks may be given by many on our behalf" (2 Cor. l: 11). But we shall speak more at length upon the subject of missions in the chapter that deals specifically with this subject.
DUTIES OF CHURCH MEMBERS TO EACH OTHER
This subject is a quite extensive one, and covers a great deal of the New Testament. In fact, each epistle written to a specific congregation deals in large measure with this.
Church members sustain a peculiar relationship to each other inasmuch as "we are members one of another" (Eph. 4:25). "Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God" (Eph. 2:19). This relationship makes for obligations to each other, even above that obligation toward the world. "As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith" (Gal. 6:10). The obligation to mutual love is made especially weighty by our Lordís own words. "A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another" (John 13:34-35).
Because of this relationship, there are no useless church members. Each has his own special place and work, and none can be absent or refuse to do his job without harm to the whole body. Therefore, when a member of a church lets sin gain the dominion over him, he harms not only himself, but also the whole church. "From whom (Christ) the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love" (Eph. 4:16). The word here for "edifying" is oikodome, and is derived from oikos, a house, and demos, to build. It appears in the New Testament somewhat over fifty times in its verb and noun forms. When it is not applied to a material building, it is used metaphorically for the spiritual building up of a church.
Consideration of some of these appearances of the word shows us some of the duties of church members to one another. "Let us therefore follow after the things that make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another" (Rom. 14:19). "Let every one of us please his neighbor for his good to edification" (Rom. 15:2). "Even so ye, forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church" (1 Cor. 14:12). (See the whole of this chapter for duties of church members.) "Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers" (Eph. 4:29).
These verses present a unified testimony as to the duty of church members to one another. Each is to build up his fellow-member, and consequently to build up the whole assembly. This can only be done by "submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God" (Eph. 5:21). Only when there is a humble submission to one another in love shall the world be able to recognize church members as children of God: "By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another" (John 13:35).
This love is manifested by the actions and characteristics described in 1 Corinthians 13, for the word translated "charity" is the same word as "love" in John 13:35. Let the thoughtful church member consider his life and actions in the light of this passage if he desires to fulfill the Lordís command.
In seeking to build one another up, there must be a bearing of one anotherís burdens. "Bear ye one anotherís burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2). Some are weak in the faith and need help. All need fellowship and encouragement, which is one of the secondary purposes of the church. And whether Christians realize it or not, everyone is an example, either good or bad, to some one else.
It is also the duty of church members to refuse to fellowship with immoral or heretical church members who refuse to repent of their wickedness. "But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat" (1 Cor. 5:11). This deals with church discipline of which we will treat more fully in the next chapter. This relates to judgment by the church of matters occurring in, and affecting, the church. It is not for any outsiders to judge. "For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? Do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person. Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints? Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? And if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters?" (1 Cor. 5:12-13; 6:1-2).
This duty of the church to judge itself, and to settle internal differences has been greatly abused of late; brought about, no doubt, by an over-emphasis upon materialism, by ignorance of the Scriptures relative to this matter, and by the selfish desire to retain church property when there is a split within a church.
In recent times there have been several cases of church trouble which have resulted in the cases being taken before the civil courts for settlement. These received nationwide publicity of their carnality, and at the same time set bad examples for other Baptist Churches. In every instance, it was a violation of Baptist church polity, was contrary to the Word of God, and indicated that the church members were more concerned for material things than for spiritual things.
Some years ago a church in Rocky Mount, North Caroline, split over whether or not to withdraw from the Southern Baptist Convention, and the minority in the church took the case to the civil courts. More recently, a Baptist church in Wichita, Kansas, had a similar split over membership in, and support of, the American Baptist Convention, and the two factions also went to the civil courts for settlement. In 1963, a Baptist church at Traskwood, Arkansas, in a dispute over the teachings of the pastor, refused to accept the majority rule, and chose instead to seek redress from the civil authorities. The same year, a Baptist church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, filed an injunction in the civil courts against the pastor of the church who refused to recognize the churchís authority to vacate its pulpit.
So far we may judge the spiritual declension in our churches, when we consider how widespread this corruption is, and how it is to be found, not in just one particular Association or Convention, but in almost all ranks of Baptists. Not only so, but when even the pastors of such churches do not recognize the authority and autonomy of Baptist churches, how can we expect the lay members to do so.
It is not necessary to enter into the right or wrong of each dispute. It is sufficient to say that both parties in all cases were wrong in taking any church matter to the civil courts. This is a violation of Baptist practice and polity, and indicates a serious spiritual declension in our ranks. It almost always results from a departure from Scripture truth.
Most divisions which produce such an appeal to the civil tribunal are the results of (1) Ignorance of individual and collective responsibility in church matters. (2) Ignorance of the Scriptures relative to church polity and authority. (3) Carnal and materialistic views of church life. (4) Rebellious attitudes toward church authority. (5) Entangling alliances with human institutions which claim a greater allegiance than the church does. (6) The proud party spirit which refuses to humble itself in the light of the Scriptures.óDavis W. Huckabee, Article: "Corruptions of Baptist Polity," in The Orthodox Baptist, September, 1963.
The portion of Scripture in 1 Corinthians which is cited above leaves nothing to be said in defense of Christians going to law with other Christians. Indeed, it clearly condemns any civil arbitration between Christians in any matter. Now it is to be readily granted that no person likes to lose face by being voted down in a church business meeting. Neither does a person like to see a church in which, and for which, he has labored and sacrificed, being turned to a different use than that for which it was originally intended, especially if it is turning from truth to heresy.
Nevertheless, the plain and simple truth is that Baptist church polity has always been based upon majority rule, and the decision of the church is final with no other earthly appeal. If a person cannot, in good conscience, accept the decision of the church, he should quit the body and unite with one with which he can work in harmony. Certainly the passage above cited leaves no room for an appeal to the unbelieving civil authorities. Such action is equally as contrary to Baptist polity as many of the errors which church members seek to combat by going to the civil courts in a law suit.
And where the civil authority enters into the church to settle disputes, it may return shortly thereafter, not to arbitrate differences between parties within the church, but to suppress the whole church. It was so in the Fourth Century when the Donatists were suppressed and persecuted by the civil power. Some have declared that the Donatists as well as the Catholic party requested civil arbitration or determination, but whether that is so or not, the Donatists very shortly thereafter felt the persecuting authority of the civil rulers when their bishops were driven into exile, and their church properties were sold for imperial revenues. See H. H. Milmanís History of Christianity, Vol. II, pp. 300-311. Such may well be the end result of present day Baptist appeals to the civil authorities. Baptists may find that the civil authority which today suppresses one of the parties in favor of another, may soon suppress both in favor of some carnal worldly church.
C. H. Spurgeon has summed up clearly the duty which faces a church member when such a situation arises:
I have taken a deep interest in the struggles of the orthodox brethren, but I have never advised those struggles, nor entertained the slightest hope of their success. My course has been of another kind. As soon as I saw, or thought I saw, that error had become firmly established, I did not deliberate, but quitted the body at once. Since then my counsel has been "come out from among them." I have felt that no protest could be equal to that of distinct separation.
Church members certainly have a duty to contend for the faith, but they are not licensed to be contentious. They are to seek to build up the church of which they are members, not to tear it down. When a majority of any church becomes confirmed in error, and there is no longer any hope of persuading them from their error, the devout Christian has no recourse but to "shake off the dust" from under his feet (Mark 6:11), and depart to affiliate with a more scriptural and spiritual group.
Mutual care and concern is the duty of church members to one another, and it is also the secret of harmonious church life. Such church strifes as are above referred to are attributable solely to selfishness and stubbornness. Where these are replaced by love and mutual concern, there will be no such troubles.
A further duty of church members is that of using for mutual good every ability and possession that God has given. Let us ponder the question, Does God ever give an ability to a person without expecting that ability to be used for His glory?
No one is given any ability simply for his own pleasure, profit, or pride. Any time the Lord gives an individual some ability, it is meant to be used. "But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal" (1 Cor. 12:7). Several versions translate the latter part of this verse, "For the common good," and this seems to be the sense of the passage. This is one of the purposes of the church, to edify and strengthen itself by the mutual help of the members. This is the essence of the stewardship of abilities.óDavis W. Huckabee, Article: Studies In Stewardship, Chapter Three, The Stewardship of Talents, in The Orthodox Baptist, April. 1966.
Certainly every spiritual gift should be used for the edification of the whole congregation, not merely for personal pleasure or gain. Relative to material possessions, Paul writes, "And God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that ye, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work" (2 Cor. 9:8). "That" (Greek hina) is equivalent to "in order that." It signifies purpose or end. Therefore, when God gives an abundance of some good thing, or some gift, it is for a reasonóthat it may be used for the mutual benefit of the church, and for Godís glory.
There is, indeed, a great responsibility resting upon church members; a responsibility which no unsaved person can hope to fulfill, and which no truly born-again person can meet except through the grace of God. Because of this, every Christian should apply himself to the diligent study of Godís Word, with a humble supplication for Divine wisdom and grace to know and to do what the Word demands. In this way only can any person exemplify Christ before the world, and be a faithful witness of His grace.