Discipline Needs the Church (Church Membership, Part 5)
As we've already looked at in a previous post, Matthew 18:17 shows us how the Biblical process of discipline culminates in bringing a case to "the church." We saw how, looking at the context, this can't just mean "a group of Christians," because that's step two of the discipline process, as we see in Matthew 18:16. Given the historical and cultural context in which Jesus lived and ministered, it's pretty likely that by saying "the church," Jesus meant specifically the leadership of the church, rather than the whole congregation at once, but we don't have to agree on that in order to come to the conclusion we want to draw here.
Let's follow the process, beginning in Matthew 18:15. If someone sins against you, step one is to go to them and talk to them about it. If that does not produce repentance and reconciliation, then step two is to talk to them with a few witnesses present. The point of that is not to gang up on someone and pressure them into repenting, but rather to have neutral observers who can observe the lack of repentance and who can speak to their brother or sister from outside the situation. Sometimes, when we're the ones who have been sinned against, it's can be hard for us to see and accept genuine repentance and to speak in a way that is helpful, and we need others to be peacemakers for us. But if even the witnesses agree that you have been sinned against and the sinner is unwilling to repent, then "tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector" (Matthew 18:17).
It is that last step that is noteworthy and which bears some deeper consideration. A Gentile (non-Jew, not a worshiper of the God of Israel) and a tax collector (Jewish by birth but disobedient and disloyal by lifestyle) are two categories of people who were excluded from worship. They were not a part of the gathering of God's people. When Paul, likewise, in 1 Corinthians 5:2 urges that an unrepentant sinner should be removed from among the congregation, it seems he has this same process of discipline in mind.
Will we stop such a person from walking into our worship? No. Will we prevent them from being in the place where the gospel is preached and where the grace of the gospel is ministered? No, of course not. If anything, treating an unrepentant person as an unbeliever means that we all the more desire or them to be in the path of grace, in hope that they repent and leave their sin (since that is one of the goals of discipline, as expressed in 1 Corinthians 5:5). So what does it mean that we "remove" the unrepentant sinner and regard such a person as "a Gentile or tax collector?" It means we cease to consider them a member of the church. In other words, we say, "Because of your unwillingness to repent and turn from your sin, we do not see in you evidence of the new life that is of Christ's Spirit. From what we can tell, you are not a follower of Jesus."
That's not something anyone should ever do lightly. In fact, that's not something just anyone can do. It's a task entrusted to the leadership of a church - those who are accountable for the flock, those charged with spiritual care and safekeeping. More specifically, the leadership of that person's church - those specifically accountable for his or her spiritual care. I cannot go around enacting church discipline against anyone that I see sinning. That is the job of their shepherds. Which is why discipline (in its full sense, though not in the early steps) is an element of Christian life that belongs exclusively to the local church, thus setting apart the church from other Christian activities such as prayer groups, Bible studies, online communities, etc.
And this, then, is an extension of what we explored in our previous post - if elders are to shepherd the flock that is under their care, then there must be an understanding of who is and who is not under their care. In other words, there is (officially or unofficially) a "roll" of members who have placed themselves under the care of a local church and its leadership. If the church is to be led and the flock to be cared for (and disciplined) in the way God's Word describes, then we need church membership.
But of course, that's not the only reason church membership makes sense. From a practical standpoint, all that the Bible calls us to do and be in Christian community makes greater sense if we see that community as a group of mutually committed disciples. That practical reality is what we'll explore in our final post on church membership.