She’s Not Real

Written some years back, this article still has relevance:

Porn and paper pastors by Dan Phillips

Decades ago, I read a disturbingly candid essay by a pastor about his struggles with pornography. It was in Leadership magazine. Years later, two of his realizations still stand out to me.

The author came to see (as I recall) that he was attracted to these images because they were unreal. The women in the pictures never had bad days, were never crabby and demanding, never disrespectful and demeaning. No mood swings. They always suited his mood, his needs, his wants. They were unreal.

He came to see that he had no actual relationship with these women whatever. If (he named a female celebrity) had sat down next to him in an airplane, she wouldn’t know him from Adam. Whatever may have happened in his sinful fantasies, the two of them had no relationship in the real world.

Of course, this is why so many women resent actresses and models. It isn’t catty pettiness or smallness. It is that they know how visually-tempted men can be, and they know that they can’t compete with a fantasy — if their man is fool enough to chase one.

And they’re right, in a way. They can’t compete with these women. Because these women don’t exist in the real world! They may not even look like their pictures! Thanks to computer wizardry, the pictures we see may actually bear only the slightest resemblance to the actual women.

Nobody can compete with a fantasy.

And this post is not about pornography, men, women, nor marriage.

It is about people with paper pastors.

Now, some professed Christians sin outright, by never physically attending an actual, in-person church. We’ve talked about that, and they aren’t our focus.

But others do attend a church — physically. They come in, they sit down. They sing, they may give financially. They may look at you, Pastor, as you preach.

But you know their heart belongs to another.

Their real pastor isn’t you. It’s Dave Hunt. Or it’s John Piper. Or it’s John MacArthur, or Ligon Duncan, or Mark Dever, or David Cloud, or Joel Osteen. Or it’s Charles Spurgeon, or D. M. Lloyd-Jones, or J. C. Ryle. Or Calvin, or Luther, or Bahnsen, or de Mar, or R. B. Thieme (Jr.), or J. Vernon McGee.

And they’re such better pastors than you are! You know they are!

Why? Continue reading

See You In Church!

Strong stuff!!

Article: Why you need to be in a church this Sunday by Dan Phillips (original source here):

Howdy! While Pyro was dark during October, I went a bit nuts over at my place, posting about sixty-six times. A couple of them, I mean to re-work and share with anyone here who may not have dropped by there. Here’s the first, all re-worked, with extra coals added. Hey — this is Pyromaniacs!
“Everything old is new again,” and the saying certainly holds true when it comes to heresy, false doctrine and plain old unbiblical nuttiness.

For instance, back in the anti-establishment 60s and 70s, Christianoid kids would verbally trash the “organized church.” Didn’t need to go to a building, they’d say; they were the church. The real Bible scholars among them (relatively speaking) might yank 1 Corinthians 6:19 out of context and waterboard it a bit, until it said what they wanted to hear.

But no, Trevor, you’re not the church. You’re part of the church. The word ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia) means “assembly,” and no, you’re really not an assembly. Doesn’t matter how many chins you have, you still aren’t an assembly.

What you are (you tell me) is a Christian. If you’re a Christian, you claim Jesus as your Lord.

Where’s your Lord today? He depicts Himself as walking among local assemblies (Revelation 1:12-13, 20), holding their pastors in His right hand (vv. 16, 20). What do you think the message is, there? Why is He not watching a lovely sunset, or fishing, or walking the dog, or riding a comet? Why among churches, among assemblies, cherishing their pastors?

Because that’s where Jesus is. That’s where His great heart is. Do you know better than He? Which one of you is “Lord,” again?

That’s the church, that local assembly of believers where pastors lead, the Word is preached, the ordinances are observed, and discipline is carried out. Christ loved it and gave Himself for it (Ephesians 5:25). He died for it.

But you won’t walk into one of them, and stay there? Which one of you is “Lord,” again?

Before He died, Jesus prayed for the church, all of it (John 17). Even (especially!) with what He was facing, the church was on His heart.

But you won’t attach yourself to one, to join it and work in it and pray for it? Which one of you is “Lord,” again?

Who is your pastor? Are you fool enough to say “Jesus is my pastor”? Nonsense. When He ascended, He gave pastors to the church (Ephesians 4:11). If He gave them, then He isn’t them. Which one is your pastor, your toe-to-toe, eyeball-to-eyeball pastor?

Your “Lord” charged pastors with the care of souls. That means Jesus — your Lord, so you say — thinks your soul needs watching over (Hebrews 13:7, 17). Which individual flesh and bones living pastor is watching over your soul, in person, individually?

If “none,” how is it that you decided you are smarter than Jesus? You know, Jesus. Your “Lord.” Which one of you is “Lord,” again?

Jesus, your Lord, also called you to know, show respect for, esteem highly in love, and submit to the leadership of your flesh-and-blood in-person pastor (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; Hebrews 13:17). Which pastor is it that sees you come regularly to be discipled and led, and sees you loving and trusting God enough to yield him the love and submission to which God calls you?

If you bristle at the thought of embracing what Jesus calls you to — which one of you is “Lord,” again?

And if you fall into unrepentant sin, which assembly will even know of it, let alone discipline you? Jesus says you need that, too (Matthew 18:13-20). I don’t care what complex, high-sounding Dagwood sandwich of excuses you can slap together. If you say you don’t need to be in a local assembly, you say you’re smarter than Jesus, and are sufficient.

Fool!

And remember, that Jesus you say is your “Lord” said that the second most important thing in the world is to love your neighbor (Matthew 22:39). He moved Paul to tell you your fellow-church-member is your premier neighbor (Galatians 6:10). That’s where you take all that rich doctrine (Ephesians 1—3), and live it out in community (Ephesians 4—6). That’s where you do all those dozens of “one anothers.”

And if you tell yourself that your spouse or children are all the “one anothers” you need, God already said “No.” If you insist, you put your judgment over God’s.

Meaning that, whatever your mouth professes, your choices say you find God’s judgment deficient, and yours superior.

Meaning you’re a fool and a de facto blasphemer — whether you intend to be or not.

And you thereby bring harm on your spouse and children, by preaching and living a lie to them.

That’s for starters.

So, Jesus — your “Lord” — says you need to be in a local church. You say you don’t?

Which one to believe? You? Or Jesus? You? Or Jesus? Hmm.

Here’s the problem, I think. I’ve said a word thirteen times: Lord. The confession of Jesus as Lord is fundamental to Christian faith (Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 12:3; Philippians 2:11). In repentant faith, we bow the knee to Christ’s Lordship. Continue reading

Meaningful Membership

Article: Why Churches Should Have Meaningful Membership by Erik Raymond – original source here:

Church membership is a concept that while not explicitly articulated in the Scriptures is assumed and supported. Many of the New Testament letters were written to local congregations with instructions as to how they were to deal with their life together (for example, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians). Even though church membership is common in churches today and throughout history, I’ve found it helpful to broaden out the answer to help fill out my reasons for why we have church membership.

Is church membership biblical? Is it important? Yes, I believe so. Here are four main reasons why.

First, there are theological reasons. In other words, there are certain truths about who God is and what he has done that require membership language and the practice of membership.

When God caused you to be born-again, he established a new relationship with you. Formerly, you and I were separated from God in our rebellion, but God, being rich in mercy (Eph. 2:4), has made us alive and brought us into his family by “adopting us to himself as sons through Jesus Christ” (Eph 1:5). By grace, “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col. 1.13). Those who were formerly far off “have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). To say that we are part of the kingdom of Christ, the body of Christ, the people of God, or God’s family is another way of saying we have become members of the church. This is why 1 Corinthians 12:13 tells us that “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.”

Membership in God’s universal or collective church happens when God the Holy Spirit unites us spiritually to the body of Christ throughout history. However, membership in the local church happens when we unite together with other believers in a physical location. This is what I am emphasizing here. Church membership in a local church presupposes and necessitates membership in the universal church through conversion. Church membership reflects the theological truth of the gospel.

Second, there are covenantal reasons. A covenant is an agreement or a relationship with obligations. Most commonly we think of the marriage covenant. There is an agreement between a husband and a wife that has obligations pledged or vowed to one another. The relationship is undergirded by an oath. When we become a Christians, we become a part of the New Covenant. The New Covenant is the legal oath that God has made with his people. In a nutshell, God promises to be our God, forgive our sin, give us his Spirit, write his law upon our hearts, and dwell with us forever. Our response, upon entering into this covenant, is that we will follow him and be faithful to him. In other words, to use the language of Jeremiah, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jer. 31:34)

This probably seems straight-forward. You become a Christian, and things change. You have a relationship with God that brings a responsibility to follow him. But we often forget that this covenantal relationship with God also brings us into a relationship with others, where we also have responsibilities. In other words, God has not only called us into a covenantal relationship with himself but also with others. This is why we must have church membership. When we join a church, we agree, or pledge, or promise together to take responsibility for one another. We agree to a set of doctrinal specifics. We agree to work together to advance the gospel. Membership expresses our covenantal relationship.

Third, there are evangelistic reasons. By this, I mean that meaningful membership in a church actually communicates something of the value and shape of the gospel. What do I mean? Membership is a congregation’s declaration to one another and to a watching world what a true confession and confessor of the gospel looks like. One of the primary responsibilities of the gathered congregation is to evaluate the profession of faith in its prospective members and then to regularly evaluate it in the lives of their current members (Mt. 18:15ff; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 2 Cor. 2:6-11). In other words, the congregation, the members, declare to a watching world, This is a right confession of the gospel. And, by virtue of their ongoing membership, We stand with this brother or sister in how they are representing Jesus in the world.

Meaningful membership attends our gospel witness. Membership communicates the people and the message of the gospel to a watching world.

Fourth, there are practical reasons. To do the things that we need to do as a church, there must be some way to discern who we are talking about. I mentioned your responsibility as a Christian; does that extend in the same way to every single Christian living on the planet? No, of course not. You and I can’t possibly fulfill the covenantal obligations with brothers in sisters living in Beijing, Baghdad, Toronto, and Omaha. Our church can’t even fulfill the requirements to every Christian in Omaha. Similarly, pastors are called to keep watch over the flock, knowing they will give an account (Heb. 13.17). Whose flock? What flock? How do we know who we are going to give an account for? Peter says to shepherd the flock of God that is among you (1 Pet. 5).

This is also seen in the concept of church discipline. “When Jesus instructed his followers to seek out the brother who has sinned (Matt 18: 15- 21), he was presupposing such an integrated conception of body membership. Actions of reproach and, ultimately, exclusion are to occur within the arena of a specific and identifiable group of people” (Dever, The Church).

In our church, we do this with a physical list and a membership directory. This helps us as members with a resource to pray through and be reminded who we are responsible for.

Some may bristle at the concept of formal membership, but, in addition to the obvious practical benefits, there seems to be a historical and biblical practice.

“[P]hysical lists of members may well have existed in the earliest Christian churches. Clearly, the keeping of lists was not unknown in churches. The early church kept lists of widows (1 Tim. 5: 9). God himself keeps a list of all who belong to the universal church in his book of life (Rev. 20: 12). Paul assumed that the Corinthians had identified a “majority” of a particular set of church members who were eligible to vote. (Dever, The Church)

Meaningful membership helps us to see who we have this day-to-day New Covenant relationship with and who we are immediately responsible for. Knowing who we accountable to and to helps to clarify what and how we are doing. Membership helps us to see who we are accountable to and responsible for.

Church membership must be a priority for Christians because God has not only called us into a covenantal relationship with himself, but also with others. Is church membership biblical? Is it important? Yes, I believe so.

Membership & Eldership

Where’s Church Membership in the New Testament?

John Samson (9/10/17) teaching the Sunday School hour at Eastford Baptist Church in Eastford, CT:

Appoint Elders in Every Town

John Samson (9/10/17): The importance of biblical eldership, and what having a plurality of elders means for the overall health of a church.

Submit to Jesus, Submit to His Bride

Article by Matt Smethurst, managing editor of The Gospel Coalition and author of 1–2 Thessalonians: A 12-Week Study (Crossway, 2017). He and his wife, Maghan, have three children and live in Louisville, Kentucky. They belong to Third Avenue Baptist Church, where Matt serves as an elder. (original source here)

Church membership can feel boring, secondary, extrabiblical, and unimportant. Aren’t there plenty of more pressing things to talk about? Not really, suggests Jonathan Leeman in Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus (Crossway, 2012). In just 132 pages, Leeman unfolds a clear and compelling case for submitting our lives to King Jesus by submitting to his earthly bride.

I corresponded with Leeman, editorial director for 9Marks and editor of its Journal, about the surprisingly pressing significance of local church membership.

Why is it significant to understand that Christians don’t really “join” churches so much as submit to them?

“Join” is a club word. You join a club, whether it’s a country club or a wholesale shopping club. You pay your dues. You receive the benefits. You come and go as you please. Nothing about your identity changes. No real demands are placed on you that you cannot extricate yourself from.

“Submit” is a kingdom and citizenship word. It recognizes the presence of an authority established by King Jesus. It speaks to a changed (new) identity. It suggests that you now belong to a new nation, a new people, a new family. And it suggests that all the new benefits you receive as a member of this nation and family also come with a set of obligations that are not so easily dispensed of.

What difference should church membership make in a Christian’s life?

Your question is sort of like asking “what difference should righteousness make in a Christian’s life?” It should make all the difference. A Christian is declared righteous in Christ, and then he or she “puts on” that righteousness in everyday decisions. By the same token, a Christian is declared a member of Christ’s body through the gospel (e.g., see Eph. 2:14), and then he or she “puts on” that membership in a geographically specific local body.

Don’t tell me you’re united to and committed to the Church—-capital C—-unless you are united to and committed to a local church: “for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).

Less abstractly, our membership in a local church is where our discipleship to Christ takes shape. It’s where we learn to love our enemies, where we learn to turn the other cheek, where we learn to forbear in love, where we learn to go the extra mile, where we learn to employ our spiritual gifts, where we learn to speak to one another in love, and so forth. Certainly, these lessons apply beyond our fellowship in a local church, but the lessons begin here. And they begin here precisely because it’s the local church that has the authority of the keys to bind and loose—-to formally affirm our profession of faith or deny it.

“Kingdom” is a very popular concept among Christians today. How does the kingdom relate to the local church?

The local church is the place on earth where the citizens of heaven can, at this moment, find official recognition and asylum. Churches represent Christ’s rule now. They affirm and protect his citizens now. They proclaim his laws now. They bow before him as King now and call all peoples to do the same. You might say that a local church is a real-life embassy set in the present that represents Christ’s future kingdom and his coming universal church. Continue reading

Should Every Christian Join a Church?

Article by Dr. Mark Dever (an excerpt from What is a Healthy Church? – original source here) Pastor Dever (Ph.D. Cambridge) serves as the Senior Pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and is the author of several books including Nine Marks of a Healthy Church and The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel.

Sometimes college campus ministries will ask me to speak to their students. I’ve been known, on several occasions, to begin my remarks this way: “If you call yourself a Christian but you are not a member of the church you regularly attend, I worry that you might be going to hell.”

You could say that it gets their attention.

Now, am I just going for shock value? I don’t think so. Am I trying to scare them into church membership? Not really. Am I saying that joining a church makes someone a Christian? Certainly not! Throw any book (or speaker) out the window that says as much.

So why would I begin with this kind of warning? It’s because I want them to see something of the urgency of the need for a healthy local church in the Christian’s life and to begin sharing the passion for the church that characterizes both Christ and his followers.

Many Christians in the West today (and elsewhere?) tend to view their Christianity as a personal relationship with God and not much else. They generally know that this “personal relationship” has some implications for how they should live. But I’m concerned that many Christians don’t realize how this most important relationship with God necessitates a number of secondary personal relationships—the relationships that Christ establishes between us and his body, the Church. God doesn’t mean for these to be relationships that we pick and choose at our whim among the many Christians “out there.” He means to establish us in relationship with an actual flesh-and-blood, step-on-your-toes body of people.
Why do I worry that if you call yourself a Christian but you are not a member in good standing of the local church you attend, you might be going to hell? Think with me for a moment about what a Christian is.

What a Christian Is

A Christian is someone who, first and foremost, has been forgiven of his sin and been reconciled to God the Father through Jesus Christ. This happens when a person repents of his sins and puts his faith in the perfect life, substitutionary death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

In other words, a Christian is someone who has reached the end of himself and his own moral resources. He has recognized that he, in defiance of God’s plainly revealed law, has given his life over to worshiping and loving things other than God—things like career, family, the stuff money can buy, the opinions of other people, the honor of his family and community, the favor of the so-called gods of other religions, the spirits of this world, or even the good things a person can do. He has also recognized that these “idols” are doubly damning masters. Their appetites are never satisfied in this life. And they provoke God’s just wrath over the next life, a death and a judgment the Christian has already tasted a bit of (mercifully) in this world’s miseries. Continue reading

How to Pray for Your Pastor

Article by Melton Duncan, a ruling elder at Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, S.C. (original source here)

When Roman legions invaded Caledonia (modern-day Scotland) in the late first century AD, it was said by the historian Tacitus that the powerful Celtic chieftain Calgacus emerged and rallied his tribes against the might of Rome, famously declaring, “They make a desert, and they call it peace.”

Today’s Christian pastor is likewise making similar stands for biblical Christianity in the midst of a secular desert created by an anti-Christian culture. The Bible describes a faithful pastor as an elder who oversees the flock and the household of God. According to Paul, pastor/elders rule the church (Titus 1:5) and guard the treasures of Christ (v. 9). Additionally, they minister to the people by teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16).

If ever there was an era in Christian history that believers should be committed to praying for their pastors, it is now. James rebukes our prayerlessness when he says, “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2). And what prayers are we offering up to God on behalf of our pastors? Let me suggest several.

THAT HE WOULD DELIGHT IN PREACHING

If your minister is not being blessed and instructed by the Word, it is highly unlikely that you will be. Your spiritual well-being is directly linked to your pastor’s seeking the Lord in his preparation for the sacred desk. If he is not diligently seeking the Lord, you won’t find Him in his preaching either.

A godly pastor is a joyful, dutiful herald of the most high King. His enthusiasm for proclaiming God’s Word will be infectious and unstoppable, and it will be readily apparent to all who hear him that this is a man who knows his God. Second Timothy 4:1–2 reads:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.

THAT HE WOULD ENJOY THE LORD’S WAY

I suspect that many people who sit week after week in the pews of their particular church have no idea how difficult a Sunday is for a minister and his family. Pray for your pastor’s Sundays. Robert Murray M’Cheyne says: “A well-spent sabbath we feel to be a day of heaven upon earth. … We love to rise early on that morning, and to sit up late, that we may have a long day with God.”

THAT HE WOULD LEAD HIS FAMILY WELL

Pray that God would help your pastor in the midst of busyness to taste and see that the Lord is good. Pray that his children would grow up loved and cherished in the household of faith. Joel Beeke says: “Family worship is the foundation of child rearing. As family worship goes, so will go the family. The Puritans thought family worship was the whole backbone of society.” We read in Deuteronomy 6:4–7:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.

THAT HE WOULD HAVE A HEART FOR THE LOST

May your pastor have a Christlike love for the lost and a joy in telling others about the Shepherd-King. If a man loves the Lord, he will love telling others the old story of the gospel. He also will teach and model for others a renewed sense of evangelism and mission. He is worthy to receive the glory and honor due Him (Rev. 4:11). Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, is worthy to receive the reward. We need our pastors to have a zeal for the lost.

THAT THE LORD WOULD PROTECT HIM

A growing personal relationship with Christ will supply the motivation and zeal needed for a pastor’s duty to God. It will be tiring. It will require an all-in, total commitment. Pray that God would provide every physical and emotional need for the call to serve. Pastors are often subject spiritual temptation, so pray for God to protect these men from the evil one. Pray that they would guard themselves and be granted personal holiness. Pray that they would apply the means of grace to their own hearts, by God’s help.

THAT HE WOULD PREACH THE GOSPEL

Thomas Smyth of the antebellum historic Second Presbyterian Church in Charleston, S.C., once charged a young pastor by saying:

Preaching is your pre-eminent employment, so the Gospel is the sum and substance of your preaching—the power of God and the wisdom of God unto salvation.

Necessity is laid upon you, yea, woe is unto you if you preach not the Gospel. … Preach Christ as set forth in the Gospel—the sum and substance of God’s testimony, and the author of eternal salvation to all who believe upon him.

Preach—this glorious Gospel of good news—first and last, every way, and everywhere, in public and in private; in the pulpit and by the press; to the living and to the dying; to the lost and the saved.

Pray for your pastor, pray as if your very life and those you love depended upon it.

Why You Will Join the Wrong Church

Article: Why You Will Join the Wrong Church by Sam Emadi (original source here)

Samuel Emadi is a member of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky and a PhD candidate in biblical studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as the director of theological research for the president of the Southern Seminary.

The most read New York Times article from 2016 had nothing to do with politics, culture wars, or comic book movies. Instead, the most-read article of 2016 was all about commitment.

The piece, titled “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person,” was written by Alain de Botton. In it, de Botton takes shots at our culture’s idea that the ultimate foundation for commitment in marriage is romantic affection, that feeling of compatibility that means the other person will finally fulfill my needs and make me truly happy.

We all know this is misguided, so much so that de Botton predicts every married person will eventually find inadequacies so severe in their spouse that it will prompt them to ask, “Did I marry the wrong person?” He humorously notes, the relational arc of a marriage leans away from idealistic romantic sizzle as “maddening children . . . kill the passion from which they emerged.”

CHURCH AND OUR CULTURE

As I read de Botton’s article, I couldn’t help but see how much of our culture’s view of love and commitment mirrors how many Christians view church membership. Many Christians’ broken relationships with their churches resemble patterns of the divorce culture and its attendant assumptions about authority, love, and compatibility.

Almost every Christian knows what it’s like to question whether they joined the “right church.” After an initial “honeymoon stage,” we begin to see our church’s problems with greater clarity than we see its strengths. The sermons start to seem too intellectual, or not intellectual enough. The church begins budgeting for ministries that don’t seem deserving of the dollar figure on the spreadsheet. The small groups don’t meet our needs in the ways we’d hoped.

More personally, the needs of other church members begin to encroach increasingly on our own personal freedoms. Some members sin against us—even without knowing just how deeply we’ve been wounded. Without even realizing it’s happening, we begin to wonder whether our local assembly is the “right” place for us. Of course, we remind ourselves that there’s no such thing as a perfect church—something we’ve even told our fellow church members. And yet, we can’t help but grapple with the nagging question: “Did I join the wrong church?”

“DID I JOIN THE WRONG CHURCH?”

The problem with this question is that it assumes church life shouldn’t be hard. It assumes the “honeymoon stage” should continue in perpetuity or that something has gone awry if we experience significant disappointment or hurt from our relationships with other members or the church’s leadership.

But these assumptions reveal a deep and unthinking commitment to consumerism: only if the perks of membership outweigh its inconveniences will we think it’s worth it to stick it out. Regrettably, many Christians seem trapped in a perpetual cycle of this type of cost-benefit analysis.

I’ve found that Christians most often push eject on their membership not because they’re upset at the church’s budget or because they disagree on matters of polity. Instead, Christians leave their churches for the same reason people leave their marriages: a lack of relational depth and affection. In other words, many Christians leave their churches because they just don’t seem compatible with the church or because the relationships leave them feeling a little dry.

Personal relationships, however, were never meant to serve as the foundation for our sense of church commitment. If we pursue relationships as the foundation of our belonging, we’re more likely to be inescapably trapped in the consumerism and “met-needs” mentality at the heart of our divorce culture. However, instead of valuing consumerism, the Bible roots our membership in the idea of a covenant, which offers an infinitely superior alternative.

COVENANT PRECEDES COMMUNITY

Tim Keller notes in his book on marriage that a covenant “creates a particular kind of bond . . . a relationship far more intimate and personal than a merely legal, business relationship. Yet at the same time, it is far more durable, binding, and unconditional than one based on mere feeling and affection. A covenant relationship is a stunning blend of law and love.”

When the Bible speaks about the church, it refers to it as a covenant community. Church members aren’t just part of a shared interest group. They’re covenanted to one another by a sacred promise to oversee one another’s membership in the kingdom and faithfulness to King Jesus (Matt. 18:15–20). The New Testament unfolds the details of that sacred promise: We regularly gather together (Heb. 10:24–25), bear one another’s burdens and sorrows (Gal. 6:2), encourage one another (Heb. 3:12–14), pray for one another (Jas. 5:16), and forgive one another (Col. 3:13). Many churches helpfully formalize these biblical instructions into a church covenant, a set of promises members make to one another when they enter into membership.

These covenant obligations are the foundations of our church commitment and should function as the backbone to church life. Covenant precedes community. We might even say covenant creates community. The covenant promises members make to one another blossom into the life-giving relationships our hearts crave.

Rooting commitment in our covenant promises doesn’t mean that church relationships are nothing but soulless duty. Instead, covenant commitments are the food that nourishes our relationships with other members. The more we hold ourselves to our covenant promises, the more our relationships blossom and endure through seasons of difficulty. Again, as de Botton perceptively notes in his article, “Compatibility is an achievement of love, it must not be its precondition.” The world argues that affection is pre-requisite to commitment. But the biblical picture is actually quite the opposite: commitment and service create affection.

I’m amazed at how this principle works out even in my own life. A few years ago, after a couple in our church had a baby, my wife and I signed up through the church’s member care ministry to bring them a meal. Our act of service, however, wasn’t rooted in a pre-existing relationship with this couple. In fact, we barely knew them. We simply wanted to be faithful to our covenant promises to “bear one another’s burdens.” Yet that service, rooted in our covenant commitment, ultimately blossomed into a sweet friendship between our two families. We weren’t expecting a relationship to bloom, but that’s what happens when you hold yourself to covenant promises, even with people you barely know.

COVENANTS CARRY YOU THROUGH SUFFERING

The reason God roots the most important relationships in the world—like marriage and church membership—in covenants is to ensure they endure through fire. Have you ever noticed how traditional marriage vows were designed to ensure couples prepare to love one another well in the midst of suffering? Couples pledge themselves to one another even in “poverty” and “sickness” until parted by death.

This same expectation of future trials also marks the promises church members make to one another. We pledge to “bear one another’s burdens,” (Gal. 6:2) and patiently bear with and forgive the sins of our brothers and sisters who wrong us (Col. 3:13; Eph. 4:32). If we make our covenant commitments the ground of our life and relationships in the church, we come to expect the rough patches and prepare to face them with godliness.

While our affections for our church and its members can be fickle, easily dissipating as soon as circumstances shift unfavorably, our covenant commitments never fade. As Keller notes, covenants are by their very nature oriented toward the future. They “are not a declaration of present love but a mutually binding promise of future love.” In some sense, the whole point of a covenant is to pledge our love and fidelity for the rough times ahead. Thus, covenants carry us through suffering. Once more, de Botton incisively notes, “Choosing whom to commit ourselves to is merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.”

FOR YOUR OWN GOOD, STICK WITH THE “WRONG” CHURCH

Joining a church, like seeking a spouse, is daunting. Loving others makes us vulnerable and committing ourselves to a church immerses us in the needs of other sinners. Eventually, every congregation will find a way to get under our skin, frustrate us, or even wound us—and we will do the same to them.

Our relationships will ebb and flow, as will our affection for the church. But the solution is not always looking for a better fit. Instead, we renew our passion and reignite our sense of belonging by holding ourselves to our membership covenant—sacred promises that bind even the “wrong” people together.

Meaningful membership

dever1-1024x682How can I lead my church toward meaningful membership?

(This material has been adapted from Mark Dever’s chapter “Regaining Meaningful Church Membership” in Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches, ed. Thomas White, and Malcomb B. Yarnell, III, pages 57-60)

Answer
Proclaim the gospel. Preach about God’s holiness, man’s sinfulness, Christ’s substitutionary atonement and resurrection, and our need to repent of our sins and trust in him. And make it clear that those who are not committed to one another in love have no reason to think that they have committed to God in love (1 John 4:20-21).
Use a statement of faith and church covenant. Require members to affirm a statement of faith (what a church believes) and a church covenant (how members will live together).

Require a membership class. Help prospective members know what will be expected of them, and what they can expect from the church. Use this opportunity to teach through the statement of faith and the church covenant, the importance of membership, and the practical nuts and bolts of how your church works.

Require an interview with an elder or pastor. In the interview ask the individual to share the gospel and provide an account of their conversion and their discipleship since then. This also provides an opportunity to get to know new people and ask questions in a comfortable environment.

Stop baptizing children. A young child can certainly become a Christian. But a church can’t necessarily discern whether or not a child has become a Christian. Children should be given the opportunity to mature and have occasion to resist the pull of the world. So don’t create confusion by baptizing those whose professions of faith the church cannot reliably assess.

Require congregational approval of new members. Admission into and exclusion from church membership is an act of the congregation (this is an implication of 2 Cor. 2:6). So lead your church to explicitly affirm every member the church receives in and sees off.
Regularly publish an accurate membership directory. Encourage the members to use this as a prayer list.

Give pastoral oversight to members. Try to make sure that every member is in regular conversation with an elder or a mature Christian in the congregation. Take initiative in getting to know what’s going on in the members’ lives.

Cultivate a culture of discipleship. Encourage younger Christians to become disciples of older, more mature Christians. Encourage more mature Christians to take less mature Christians under their wing. Encourage every member of the church to be in multiple spiritually beneficial relationships.

Limit certain activities and areas of service to members. Churches should consider the possibility of restricting its business meetings, public service, and small groups (except for evangelistic ones) to members only.

Revive the practice of corrective discipline. Once you have established a culture of meaningful membership, begin to lead your congregation to excommunicate those who persist in serious unrepentant sin.