Michael Memorial Baptist Church- 8-3-2008, sermon preached by Dr. Bill Safley

First, let me thank you for caring enough about your church to be here and help with this decision. And, let me sincerely thank those of you who were kind enough to let me know of your concerns ahead of time. That really helps, and I hope that will make this time more productive. Let me also remind of our plan. Tonight, I am going to try to address as many of these issues as I can. And, I want this time to be, above all else, biblical. I think we all can start by agreeing that what counts most is not what I think or you think, but what God thinks. So, I’ll try to stick close to Scripture. Then, you will have to judge whether or not what I say is, in fact, truly in line with the instructions in the Bible about organizing and administering the local church. And, let me get a couple of things out of the way up front. You may not agree with your leadership. You may speak or vote against this – and we will have a secret ballot so everyone will not be pressured in any way – you can oppose this, and we will still love you. And, I’m aware that there are some strong feelings, so I would plead with you to keep your mind open to what we say. Also, don’t bother taking notes, or writing down Scripture references; the text from which I am speaking will be available to you to read and pray over. As we start, let’s ask for the wisdom of God to be with us over the next few weeks.

We are considering a new church Constitution. This all started in a Deacon’s meeting in June of ’06. One of our deacons was frustrated that he was not having more time for ministry. That’s where this man’s heart is, and he didn’t want to be distracted with Administrative issues. He understood the biblical call of a deacon is to be a servant. It turned out several deacons felt the same way. As this church currently set up, the Administrative Board is a sub-committee of the deacon body, and reports to them. So, I was asked by the Deacons to help formulate a new Constitution that would allow us to better separate the administrative and ministry functions of leadership. I did not start this ball rolling, though I certainly do agree with it as scriptural. It began in that Deacon’s meeting. At that time, we thought that a simple revision / a touch-up of what we have was not going to be adequate, so I moved in the direction of a new document. I got together, and then presented to the deacon body a framework to revise. Now, two years and many revisions later, these documents come to you for your consideration with the recommendation of the Deacons and the By-Laws Committee. How was this document formed? To quote our dear friend, Chuck Brooks, you don’t want to go out and reinvent the wheel. So, my starting point was to gather constitutions now in use from a variety of churches, mostly Baptist, and start there. We didn’t write most of this document. The basic framework is from the Constitution of the Capital Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D. C., with some additions from other churches as appropriate, and adjustments for our particular situation. This is a legal document, which requires some precision and legal language, but there has never been any intent to confuse or hide anything. You can go to the Capital Hill Church web site and download that document, and get a very good idea of where much of this started. Still, we have made every effort to consider the special needs and situations of our congregation here. I have received the concerns that this proposed Constitution turns our church into a (“”) secular or social organization. I have been told that this document is “unfriendly.” We are not a secular organization, as this Constitution clearly reflects. Yet, we still must function in a secular world. A Constitution is needed to do that. And, while we don’t want to ever be unfriendly in our approach to anyone, we also must be clear, saying in this document what we believe and are going to do. And, remember our most important concern should be whether or not this document accurately reflects what the Bible teaches. And, I don’t think you will ever find a secular organization with that emphasis.

One question asked why we should have a Constitution at all. It is true that this is a legal requirement to do business, specifically to borrow money. But, in my opinion, there is a much more important reason. From the very start of the church, there have been and still are false believers who want to twist the meaning of Scripture. Peter says that (2Pet. 3:16). The first example of this was the Judaizers who hounded Paul, and the churches he founded. These were self-appointed teachers who said that Christians had to be circumcised and keep all the Law of Moses. They caused such a ruckus that the church met in the first church counsel in Acts 15 to settle the issue. The leaders of the church, then, put out a statement to protect the truth. That has been the pattern of the church ever since. Counsels met from time to time to reject heresy, correct error, and protect the Scripture. And, Baptists have always seen the need for this protective document in the local church. That is the reason the Convention publishes the Baptist Faith and Message. That document clarifies what we, as Southern Baptists, believe the Bible means by what it says. The earliest Baptist confession I can find is the first London Confession of Faith from 1644. The first Baptist statement in America was the Philadelphia Confession of 1742. I wish it was as simple as just saying, “We believe the Bible and love Jesus,” but it is not. Mormons agree with that. A Jehovah’s Witness can say that. So, a Constitution defining what we believe is essential, and I think that document should also say how we will run our church. That’s necessary from a legal standpoint, from a theological standpoint, and I think it is required in order to be honest with new members. There are so many interpretations of some parts of Scripture; we ought to be clear with potential members where we stand simply on the basis of honesty and integrity. And, there is the issue of protecting ourselves in a society that will sue over anything and everything. This document helps protect us in that area. And, I’ve heard that we shouldn’t worry about things like that and just trust God. But, the Bible also says we are not to put the Lord to a foolish test (Matt. 4:7). It’s like Bro. Frank Schmidt said, “The Lord is not going to do for us, what he has told us to do for ourselves.” If I get on my motorcycle without a helmet and wind up a brain-dead, do I bear responsibility for that? Sure. Jesus says (Matt. 10:16), “Be wise as serpents.” Stay out of obvious trouble. Take reasonable precautions. That is Scriptural. Proverbs agrees This is Prov. 22:3, “A prudent man foresees evil and hides himself, But the simple pass on and are punished.” That said, I think we see the need for a Constitution. Also, I would ask you to understand there is a certain priority in these four documents. The statement of faith and church covenant should be rock solid and nonnegotiable. We should be utterly united there. The Constitution certainly is somewhat flexible, and open to amendment, but amendments should be carefully considered, and have to be properly done. The membership application, however, is something that can be modified at any time.

As far as I can tell, I think the main issues are those of Membership requirements, Church Discipline, and Elder Rule. So, we will try to look at these in that order, which is the order they occur in the Constitution. To consider Church Membership, I want to start by reading to you a resolution adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention at the national meeting a couple of months ago.

The resolution is entitled “On Regenerate Church Membership and Church Member Restoration.” The Southern Convention national meeting on June 11 of this year passed this. So, that’s 8 weeks ago.

“WHEREAS, The ideal of a regenerate church membership has long been and remains a cherished Baptist principle, with Article VI of the Baptist Faith and Message describing the church as a “local congregation of baptized believers”; and

WHEREAS, A New Testament church is composed only of those who have been born again by the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Word, becoming disciples of Jesus Christ, the local church’s only Lord, by grace through faith (John 3:5; Ephesians 2:8-9), which church practices believers’ only baptism by immersion (Matthew 28:16-20), and the Lord’s supper (Matthew 26:26-30); and

WHEREAS, Local associations, state conventions, and the Southern Baptist Convention compile statistics reported by the churches to make decisions for the future; and

WHEREAS, the 2007 Southern Baptist Convention annual Church Profiles indicate that there are 16,266,920 members in Southern Baptist churches; and

WHEREAS, Those same profiles indicate that only 6,148,868 of those members attend a primary worship service of their church in a typical week; and

WHEREAS, The Scriptures admonish us to exercise church discipline as we seek to restore any professed brother or sister in Christ who has strayed from the truth and is in sin (Matthew 18:15-35; Galatians 6:1); and now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana, June 10-11, 2008, urge churches to maintain a regenerate membership by acknowledging the necessity of spiritual regeneration and Christ’s lordship for all members; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we humbly urge our churches to maintain accurate membership rolls for the purpose of fostering ministry and accountability among all members of the congregation; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we urge the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention to repent of the failure among us to live up to our professed commitment to regenerate church membership and any failure to obey Jesus Christ in the practice of lovingly correcting wayward church members (Matthew 18:15-18); and be it further

RESOLVED, That we humbly encourage denominational servants to support and encourage churches that seek to recover and implement our Savior’s teachings on church discipline, even if such efforts result in the reduction in the number of members that are reported in those churches, and be it finally

RESOLVED, That we humbly urge the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention and their pastors to implement a plan to minister to, counsel, and restore wayward church members based upon the commands and principles given in Scripture (Matthew 18:15-35; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15; Galatians 6:1; James 5:19-20).

That’s sort of like our proposed Constitution, in that there is a lot of fancy language, but that is a call to honesty. The truth the convention sees is that if someone never comes to church, we cannot honestly count him as a member. If someone gives no evidence of being saved / regenerated, we ought not tell them they are by admitting them as members of the church. If someone sins like the lost world, and will not repent, we should take a stand, for their sake. That’s what this resolution is about. These messengers realize the church is weak and worldly. And, they realize that the answer to that can only be found in the Scripture. So, I want to focus, first on the definition of a church. That is where this resolution starts, with a call to work for “regenerate church membership.” What does that mean? Well, to be regenerate is to be saved. So, this is saying a true New Testament church will not knowingly admit people who are lost. This is in keeping with the Bible, of course. The letters to the churches in the New Testament are addressed to those who are “saints” and “love Jesus.” In April, I gave a sermon on the importance of church membership, which I won’t repeat. But, I would hope we could agree that formal church membership is the example of the New Testament, and is important. Also, I would hope we would agree to restrict church membership to Christians. To me, that is self-evident. You don’t have to think a lot about that one. But, this brings us to the second page of the proposed Constitution and the requirements for joining our church. One objection is that these are too strict because we can’t see someone’s heart. And, we can’t. But the Bible says that if someone doesn’t understand the gospel / if they have not trusted in the death of Christ alone for salvation, received by faith alone accompanied by repentance, the Bible says they aren’t saved (1Cor. 16:22). Paul warns us in Galatians (1:6f) against a “different gospel” that doesn’t save, but brings a curse. “With the heart (Rom. 10:10) one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” But, if the confession is not the true Gospel / if the Jesus these people believe in isn’t the Jesus of the Bible, they aren’t saved and shouldn’t be members of a church. If someone is in open rebellion against God, and will not repent and turn, then there is a problem with the heart as they have not believed unto righteousness. If someone wants to join this church, and I learn they run a strip joint in Biloxi, I would like to ask them to repent and close it before they are admitted to membership.

Basically, there are five membership steps, and let me tell you how we anticipate this working. An individual would indicate a desire to join our church, and we would ask them to fill out an application form and agree to abide by what this church believes. A mature believer will have to talk to them and make sure that they can give a credible witness to being saved. That could be done when they first express an interest in membership, or on a home visit later. And, I want you to understand this is being done now. When someone tells me that they (“”) “are saved,” or even have a membership in a Southern Baptist Church, that doesn’t mean much by itself. I have had people come down seeking membership who did not understand the Gospel. I have asked them how people are saved / what the gospel is / how people go to heaven, and the answer is along the lines of “Well, you just try to keep the golden rule, and live by the 10 Commandments, and hope you’re good enough when you die.” I’m sorry, you don’t have to be able to see the heart to understand that person is not saved. They don’t need to transfer a membership, they need to repent, believe in Jesus as the only way of salvation through faith alone. Then, they should join the church through baptism. Anything less is to refuse to love them enough to tell them the truth. The most recent experience I had like that resulted in the individual stopping to examine his heart. He came to the realization he was lost, even though he was a church member. He professed Christ. I, then, had the privilege of baptizing him. This membership interview is not a theological exam, or an interrogation. It is simply a spiritual talk to see if the person understands the gospel, and can give some evidence of true faith and repentance. And, I believe this is commanded in the Scripture.

For that, I would refer you to the little book we recently studied, 2 John. Starting at V9, John says, “Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. [If someone does not hold to the correct doctrine about Christ, he “does not have God,” i.e. he is not saved.] He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. [That implies that you can tells something about their salvation by their doctrine.] If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; (V11) for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds.” That is a serious verse that we ought to take seriously. John is saying there are false Christians out there, and we should not accept them just because they claim some relationship with Jesus. Remember, James (2:19) says that demons believe. They have a relationship with Jesus; it’s just not a good one. We are to evaluate everyone before we affirm them as believers or assist them in any ministry. A failure to do that leaves us accountable to God for the damage these lost people do in Christ’s church. If we aren’t supposed to let them into our house, I don’t see how you can let them into your church. And, this is established, time-honored Baptist practice. John L. Dagg was one of the 6 or 8 men regarded as the Founders of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845. He wrote the first systematic theology book by a Baptist in America. That book was a standard text in our seminaries for many years. In fact, it is still required reading in some. He also wrote a book on church order and organization. He said this, (“”) “In order that the church may judge whether a candidate is duly qualified for [church] membership, they should hear his profession of faith. … The churches are not infallible judges, being unable to search the heart; but they owe it to the cause of Christ, and to the candidate himself, to exercise the best judgment of which they are capable. To receive anyone on a mere profession of words, without any effort to ascertain whether he understands and feels what he professes, is unfaithfulness to his interests, and the interests of religion.” In other words, to receive someone as a member without a look at their life and doctrine is bad for them and bad for the church. The apostle John commands us not to affirm or aid anyone who does not have “this doctrine.” OK, what is this doctrine? Well, remember the point is to have regenerate church membership, i.e. members who are actually saved. So, the doctrine at issue is what you must know to be saved, not your view of end times or the seven days of creation. You must believe in the God of the Bible: Father, Son, and Spirit. You must believe that Jesus is God. You must believe that you are a lost, condemned sinner who needs a Savior. You believe that Jesus is the Savior who died bearing your sins. You must believe that forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life is offered to you (Eph. 2:8-9) by grace through faith, and not by works or human effort. You must understand that, in receiving salvation, you surrender yourself to Jesus as both Savior and Lord with a commitment to obey as a disciple. And, you must believe the Bible: including such things as Jesus was born of a virgin, and rose bodily from the grave, ascended to heaven, and is one day coming back to judge the living and the dead. And, this examination is necessary because there are not only Baptist church members who don’t believe those things; there are Southern Baptist churches who don’t teach them. By God’s grace, there aren’t a large number of liberal and apostate Southern Baptist churches, but there are some. So, one who is a mature believer – an elder, a deacon, a faithful Sunday School teacher – should have a spiritual conversation with the person wanting to join this church. They should, then, vouch for them to the elder board. The candidate doesn’t have to appear before the board, but the board has to know that someone trustworthy has talked to them, and believes they are saved. And, Tony and I should not be the only ones making that decision, for the protection of the church. So, the elder board helps both positively and negatively. If there is someone I am a little concerned about, I can ask another elder to go talk to them. Or, if someone on the elder board knows that the candidate does own a strip club in Biloxi, we can deal with that before we admit them as a member. Remember, our witness as a church, as well as individuals, is at stake here. The candidate for membership will be asked to fill out the application form, appear before the church for affirmation, be recommended to the Elders after a brief spiritual interview. Also, we would ask them to complete a brief new member’s class. The order of all that is not restricted, in an effort to retain some flexibility. In this, the membership application can be easily modified by the Elders, and the one thing I might consider adding would be to advise people that an elder or deacon would be happy to help them fill it out.

Admission to membership is, of course, closely tied to what is called “Church Discipline.” That’s not the best term for it, because the purpose is restoration. This is the command of Paul in Galatians (Gal. 6:1), “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.” And, this goes on all the time, without people even knowing it. Someone cares enough about a Christian brother to go and tell them what they are doing isn’t what a Christian should do. Then, that Christian brother repents, and the relationship is restored. This is what we are supposed to do for each other. This happens all the time, and no one else knows about it, which is how it ought to be. At issue is what do you do with someone who persistently, over time, repeatedly refuses to repent. Please turn with me to Matt. 18.

To get us from membership to church discipline, I want to address for just a moment the idea that we are never supposed to make any judgments of another. Understand, that is a secular, worldly idea, not a biblical one. If you go back 100 years, good judgment and discernment were virtues. Those were respected and sought. So, the idea that any judgment is bad is wrong. Certainly, there is bad, inappropriate judgment, but there is also proper judging. We are not the final judge and do not determine anyone’s eternal salvation. So, whether it is in admission to membership or in discipline, we don’t really tell someone they are lost. We can’t know that. But, we can know whether or not they are acting like it. So, in love we are to go to them and say how worried we are for them, because we don’t see evidence of salvation in their life. That doesn’t always mean they are lost, but often / even usually, they are. But, that is why we are called to remove them from membership, and that does not indicate we know for certain whether or not they are saved. When Jesus says (Matt. 7:1), ““Judge not, that you be not judged,” He is talking about self-righteous, ungodly judgment. That is obvious if you keep reading in that passage for He then says (Matt. 7:5-7) to first get the speck out of your own eye. Then, you will be able to see clearly to help your brother get the plank out of his eye. It is not right, nor biblical, nor loving, nor Christian to leave the brother with the plank in his eye. Love demands we help him with it – love for him, and love for Christ. So, if we never make a judgment as to whether or not a plank is there / if we just pretend we don’t see it, how is that showing Christian love? The point is that we are to, first, deal with the sin in our own life, and then we will be able to go with sincerity and humility to help our brother. Then, in the next verse the Lord tells us to not give the holy to dogs, or pearls to swine. To do that requires we judge who are dogs and pigs. We want to be generous and forgiving and gracious and merciful in our judgment, but we cannot escape the command to judge. In John 7 (:24), in fact, Jesus commands us to “judge with righteous judgment.” Jesus was our example, and He made judgments about people. He was gracious and good to the repentant sinner (John 8:11), and he drove the unrepentant merchants out of the temple (John 2:15). And, both are equally manifestations of His perfect love which puts God’s honor, purposes, and causes first. But you might object, “He could see the heart.” OK, Paul says to the Corinthian church (1Cor. 5:12-13), “What have I to do with judging those also who are outside? [The obvious answer is ‘Nothing.’ God judges them. Then, Paul goes on to say,] “Do you not judge those who are inside?” [And what is the implied answer? Yes! Of course!] Therefore ‘put away from yourselves the evil person.’ ”

The most important text to deal with is Matt. 18 (:15-20), so I want us to quickly walk through this. V15 > “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother.” That’s what is supposed to happen. We are to care about one another enough to help each other stay out of sin. As a candidate joins this church, we would make it clear that we are serious about this. We understand that the seductiveness of sin can trap any one of us. And, we understand that sin can and will mess up our own judgment. So, while we are in our right mind / before sin makes us crazy, we ask each other to do this for us. Christians do this for one another. It is, after all, church discipline, not pastor discipline. What sins should be dealt with in this way? Well, most simple personal offenses should usually just be forgiven and never mentioned in the first place, as (1Pet. 4:8) “love covers a multitude of sins.” But, when the sin is public, or serious, or damaging to the individual, the church, or the witness of Christ, we should go to them. We should, in love, and with all the gracious humility we can muster, plead with them for repentance. Often, that is all that is needed. So, what sins need to come under church discipline? Those that are public, serious, those you cannot forgive, and this is most important, sins that are unrepentant. A person does not come under church discipline / you are not removed from the church role for adultery, fornication, lying, cheating, stealing, homosexuality, axe murder, genocide, or nuclear war. You come under church discipline for a willful, persistent refusal to repent. And, that could involve the sin of gossip. If, month after month, you continue in gossip, and will not stop doing damage and causing division in the Bride of Christ, we have not choice but to act. And, we have to act with sufficient force and firmness to stop the damage. At any stage, repentance and turning from sin leads to restoration, and the process is over. So, V16 > “If he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ ” If the person will not listen, you go with witnesses. That is to protect you and the other person. These witness are to verify that sin is indeed occurring, and that the person is unrepentant. If either is not true, it’s over. And, sometimes, the witnesses might decide the whole deal is trivial; so, just forget about it. If so, you do. And, if the person listens to the group – again, repentance brings restoration. V17 > “And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church.” I think the best plan for this is what we are recommending, i.e. that the church leaders get involved here and try to call the person to repentance. After they work with the sinning one, he will not hear, then the church leadership is to inform the church as a whole that we all need to seek this person out and plead with them to turn from whatever is the ongoing sin. You see, there is a step-wise ratcheting up of the pressure. And, if you have ever been involved in this, you know this takes months, occasionally years. Finally, back to V17 > “If he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” The person is hardened and simply will not listen to anyone, we are to treat him like a “heathen and tax collector.” What does that mean? What do you do with pagans and tax collectors? You try to get them in church and hear the word so that the Lord will soften their hearts. But, you also recognize they are, as best as we can judge, outside the covenant community of faith. You don’t let them teach, or serve, or speak or vote in business meetings. When you see them, you are kind and cordial, but you don’t enter into intimate fellowship with them. Instead, when you see them, you plead with them to turn from sin. And, you do not let them remain church members. Why not? What is the harm in leaving people like this on the role? The answer is simple. Church membership is a statement by this congregation that we believe that person is redeemed. Remember, the church is a body of people who are saved. But, Christians are characterized by a lifestyle of repentance (1John 1:9). So, when someone will not repent, there is real doubt as to their eternal fate. And, it is sin for us not to warn them that they are danger. Usually, considerable time should elapse at each stage before moving on to the next one. And, I think you can go back and forth between some stages for a while. We want repentance, so we must give God time to produce that. But, there also are instances when discipline must move quickly, for the protection of the innocent, or the church (Titus 3:10). And, of course, there are special circumstances, such as a person under discipline being disruptive. Then, we would have to ask them not to come back. Another special situation would be the wife of a man under discipline. She still has to strive to be a godly wife. This is hard, and gut-wrenching, which is why Jesus goes on to say (V18-20)), “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” That’s not primarily talking about a prayer meeting, rather the subject is dealing with sin in the church. Jesus knows that this is very difficult, so He gives us this assurance of being with us in this action. If you do it right, the discipline decision you make is verified by heaven. Now, turn back a few pages to Matt. 13. This Constitution strives to follow that pattern, ultimately, if required, leading to the termination of membership by the body that voted to give it to him, i.e. the congregation. To answer the charge that this is some new idea or interpretation, at least for Baptists, I would go back to John L. Dagg, one of the founders of the SBC. He said, “When discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.” That is very strong, but many would agree with him. Another thing I have heard that I want to mention is the parable of the wheat and the tares in Matt. 13. Some have said that this forbids removing people from the church, but I would suggest that is not the proper view. Start with V24, which says that this is a parable about the Kingdom of heaven. Then, Jesus tells the parable of the weeds being in the field, and the owner not separating them from the wheat until the harvest. But, Jesus goes on to explain what this means. V37 > The sower is the Son of Man. V38 > the field is the (?) world, not the church. V39 > The harvest is the end. V41 > the servants who tend the field, do the reaping are (?) angels. Nowhere is the church mentioned. Nowhere is church discipline mentioned. This is a warning of the judgment to come on the lost in the world at large when Christ returns to establish His kingdom. And, honesty requires that I point out that – if this parable applies to church discipline – then we have a contradiction in the Scripture, and we can chuck the whole deal, go home and turn out the lights. Church discipline – including the removal from membership if necessary – is in Matt. 18, and 1 Cor. 5 & 6, and Romans 16 (:17-18), and 2 Thessalonians (3:14), and so on. And as far as the argument that no other Baptist church is doing this, that is obviously not true by the resolution we read earlier. That resolution is a clear call to return to the church discipline and integrity that once characterized our convention. Capital Hill Baptist and FBC, Durham, N. C. are both prominent churches that have reinstituted biblical church discipline after a lapse of many years, and there are others. This return to discipline in Baptist churches even made the Wall Street Journal this past January. The article was, of course, a distorted hatchet job, just as you would expect from the secular pr

ess. But, this shows that there is a major recovery of biblical principals going on in this area right now. One of the down sides of being a preacher is that your wife expects you to live like you preach. The world is looking at us. We say we believe the Scripture, and they expect us to live by it. If we claim to follow the Bible, we cannot escape the commands to deal with sin in the fellowship, even to the point of removing the unrepentant person from the church role.

Another issue of concern is the termination of membership when someone has been absent for a year. That is determined by looking at giving and Sunday School records, as those are the best ways we have to identify who is here. But, this is similar to church discipline, as those who are continually absent are in rebellion against the command (Heb. 10:25) to never forsake assembling with the church. Also, this is like church discipline in that you never hear of the cases of restoration, when the brother repents and is restored. You only hear about those who refuse to repent, and they are angry about it. You hear about the people who have gotten letters like this, and have gotten angry, because they have no intention of becoming faithful. But, you never hear about the other side. There are people in this church who got the letter, and said, “Hmm, they are right. I need to be back in church.” Those people returned and are now faithful and are growing in Christ.

Let me read the letter we send out to you.

Dear Church Member,
I pray this letter finds you well in both soul and body. However, we are concerned as our records show you have had no contact with us in the past year. Perhaps you just need some encouragement. If so, let me say that we would like nothing better than have you again be part of our fellowship. Further, we understand these records may be in error, so we would appreciate your letting us know if you have worshipped with us recently. Certainly, if there has been a change in your condition that prevents your attendance, we would like to know in order to pray for you and minister to you in what way we can.

If you have attended worship services or Sunday School with us in the last year, please let us know that. If you are now unable to attend because of illness, travel, military service, or due to some other cause, please let us know that as well. It is our desire to do what we can to minister to you. If you have moved, or are now attending another church, we would appreciate that information as well, and hope that God will bless you in your new church family.

Our desire is to obey Christ’s commission and “make disciples.” We would love for you to be actively involved in our fellowship. We have many exciting new opportunities for growth and service. However, we believe that active involvement in a local church is a biblical necessity for spiritual health and growth. Regular attendance in services and contact with the community of faith is good for both the Christian and the church. So, membership is both a privilege and a duty. Our bylaws call for removal from the membership of any individual who has not attended in the past twelve (12) months. Of course, this requirement is waived in the case of invalids, chronic illness, long-term care of ill family, military service, or any other justifiable cause of non-attendance. Please come and worship with us.

Our bylaws require we hear from you within 90 days from the date of this letter if you wish to remain a member of Michael Memorial. If our records are in error, please excuse this letter and help us correct them. If we can minister to you in any way, please let us know. We look forward to seeing you in church.

Now why should we ever send a letter like to anyone? Why should we care if there are people on the role who have been dead for 30 years? Well, the first thing is that, if we don’t do something, they are still going to be on the role in 200years. But, there are some better reasons. First, It is sin (Heb. 10:25). It is never loving, or kind, or helpful to approve sin, if only by acting like it is OK. Second, it is not spiritually good for a believer to be isolated from the Body of Christ. Without worship, the word, service, and fellowship they won’t be growing spiritually. They are dodging the accountability of the fellowship. So, if you really care about them, you will encourage them to what is spiritually healthy and beneficial. Also, if they are just allowed to wander off, that isn’t showing love for them, and, (1John 4:20) how can we claim to love God if we don’t really love our brother by wanting the best for him? To let these people remain on the role confuses them about their own spiritual state, as we are approving it. Also, this confuses the lost, watching world. These folks – at the moment anyway – are not interested in the things of God, and to retain them as members in good standing is bad for the witness of Christ. This is part of the reason the church now is indistinguishable from the world. And frankly, this puts the pastor in a difficult spot. He is supposed to be the shepherd watching over these people. How can he do that, when he doesn’t even know who they are, and they don’t know him? How can you shepherd sheep who aren’t part of the flock? To accept non-attenders as members in good standing is simply bad for them, bad for the church, and bad for the witness of Christ. Just from a practical standpoint, how can we give people voting rights in business meetings when they have no idea what the condition of the church is, because they haven’t been here for a year?

The third major concern is regarding the elder structure. This is unfamiliar to modern Baptist churches, but that unfamiliarity is something that has developed only in the last 100 years. At the time the SBC was founded, this was the normal structure of most churches. The first president of the SBC, W. B. Johnson, published an article strongly endorsing elder rule. And, we would be electing Baptist elders, not Presbyterian. We have talked in the past about elders, and deacons, and their qualifications and responsibilities. In the New Testament, the elder may also be called “bishop,” “overseer,” or “pastor.” Those words all refer to the same group of people. But, most Baptist churches have a ruling body that blurs the distinctions. There is only one group to lead the church, referred to as deacons. Inevitably, something has to give. If the emphasis in that group is on the oversight ministry, the service ministry suffers. If the emphasis is on the service ministry, the oversight suffers. That’s exactly what our deacons encountered. After investigation, mediation, and prayer, I really believe the Elder system is best, primarily because it is biblical. And, it has many practical advantages. There is help with the workload / the wisdom of many counselors (Prov. 15:22), and the power of group prayer. This promotes confidence in the congregation and helps share the burden of criticism. The elders serve at the pleasure of the congregation, and may be dismissed with proper procedure at any time – including the ministers. We remain a Baptist church. The ultimate authority is you. Of course, there is nothing in the Bible about sheep leading shepherds, so I would say the best thing to do is to elect godly men and then trust and follow them. And, if you find you can’t trust and follow them, get rid of them and find men you can trust and follow. The congregation can vote whatever it wants, whenever it wants. The only qualification that is unique to elders and not shared by deacons is the man must be “able to teach.” There is no reason to interpret that narrowly, so I believe this would be any man skilled in handling the word and able to teach, whether that be to large or small groups, or even individuals. So, while elders would be ordained as elders, this does not restrict the eldership to men were think of as “ministers” or “preachers.”

So, when it comes to elders, I really want to just share my own experience with you. I came up from the pew, not through seminary. And, as I read the Bible, there is no such thing as an elevated, special class of ministers in the New Testament. But, that is what has developed in many places. I have been in a number of Baptist churches over the years, and have seen this in action as the pastor forced his way into making every decision. I believe that the situation of one man alone on top of a pyramid of others under him is abnormal and corrupting, yet that is exactly where many Baptist churches are. I have seen real problems develop precisely because the pastor saw himself as king. Now, I am 58, and in good health. I plan to be here as the Lord allows, but I am eventually not going to be here. However, I have children who want to live on this coast, and I would like for them to have a church to attend that is run by the Bible, and not by a minister who sees himself as a cut above everyone else. I think elder rule is not only the biblical model, but is actually the best defense against an imperial pastorate in which the minister – or ministers – think they are kings and fall into the trap of lording it over their flock. This is actually not much of a change from the leadership structure as it is now, except to make the Elder Board report to the church rather than the deacons. The elder board, then, is a group of men to lead the church, in which the pastor has only one vote, like anyone else. And, the constitution requires that the majority of members of the Board not be receiving any sort of pay from the church. That is for the protections of the people. So, as you can see, this is not some sort of ministerial power grab. If anything, this is attempting to block the pastor from assuming power we see as unbiblical and improper.

Tonight, I have tried to show you two things: that we can defend this constitution as being thoroughly in line with Baptist church governance, both historical and current. Then secondly, and more importantly, we can defend this constitution as being thoroughly Scriptural. I know this has been long, and I’m sure many of you have still more questions and issues. And, that is good. The only thing that is not good is to let the question go unanswered. As we close, I just want to run two passages of Scripture by you. The first is Heb. 13:17, which warns the pastor or elder that he is going to have to stand before God and give account for the job he did “watching out for their souls.” As a church leader, I am going to stand before God and answer for how I treated His church. The longer I am in the ministry, the more this becomes a matter of genuine, serious concern for me. If I am accountable for a flock, I have to know who is in the flock. Doesn’t that make sense? That means we can’t have sheep that never are part of the flock, and are strangers to the shepherd. If I admit someone to the church who is obviously not a Christian, when a few simple questions would make the matter clear, I am going to have to answer for that. How can I be a shepherd and admit a wolf to the flock by sheer carelessness? Even if this lost person is not a wolf / even if he is just sincerely wrong, I have told this man he is saved / going to heaven / reconciled to God when he is not. I have not “watched out for his soul.” And, I am accountable for the damage he does in the church. If I fail to obey the inescapable biblical commands about church discipline, I am running Christ’s church like I want, rather than as He commands. That damages the fellowship and the testimony of Christ. So, that is not going to make our Lord happy.

And, this is an accountability for you as well. The other passage is Ezek. 33 that says a watchman who fails to warn others of approaching danger is going to held responsible by God for their deaths or loss. If you are saved, you know the truth, and you have a debt to the lost to warn them (Rom. 1:14). If we do not warn the lost church member of his danger / if we do not warn the non-attender of his sin and his danger of spiritual loss and stagnation / if we do not warn the unrepentant believer of the consequences of his sin, we do not love God, or others, and we will have to answer to our Lord. Obedience is crucial for blessing. I want the blessing of God on this church, and I think that means we have to run His church the way He tells us. Now, I know there is an awful lot of passion and emotion regarding all this, and that is not necessarily bad. I would ask you to take that passion and turn it into prayer. Don’t pray that everyone would come around to agree with you. Rather pray that all of us would find the wisdom to understand the teachings of Christ in the Scripture and put them into action. Pray that all of us would come around to agree with Christ.

As I said at the start, we will have an open discussion of all these issues next Sunday evening. I appreciate your being here tonight, and do hope that you will come back. There are 50 copies of the text of this sermon, which I will place in the foyer. If you would like to pick one up to review, pray over, and consider, please do. Or, the text will be online or available through the church office sometime tomorrow. Please remember that the issue is what the Scripture says. I have great sympathy with those who don’t like member screening and discipline and all that. You have no idea how much I don’t like being involved in those things. But, I want to be able to stand before God and say that I at least made an effort / weak and fallible, but still an effort to follow the Bible as closely as I could understand it. I pray that we would all have that commitment.