Among You and Over You (Church Membership, Part 4)
Much of what we think of as defining a local church - teaching, singing, prayer, serving one another, outreach - can and should happen in other contexts as well. Perhaps that is why the idea of a local church is dissolving in our culture. Perhaps this is why some people believe that they can watch a video of a sermon, listen to some praise music, and chat with Christian friends as a replacement for regular church involvement. But there is at least one trait of the local church that cannot be found in a Bible study group, online community, or other church substitute.
As we see in Matthew 18:17, the local church is a place where the process of discipline against sin is carried out. But before we can dig deeper into discipline, it would help to look at something along those same lines, something that lays the foundation for the practice of discipline in the church. The local church is a place where established spiritual and administrative leaders exercise loving authority over believers (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:1-3). Let's look at some of these verses in more detail to see how they assume what we now understand to be "formal" church membership in a local church.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, Paul admonishes us "to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work." In describing church leadership, Paul speaks of elders as being both 'among' and 'over' the believers. 'Among' implies presence and locality - someone who is there with you. 'Over' describes authority, official position - someone who is recognized as having a role of leadership. How can this be true of a person who is not committed to any one gathering of believers?
Likewise, in Hebrews 13:17, we are commanded, "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you." What stands out in this verse are the phrases 'your leaders,' 'keeping watch,' and 'give an account.' Hebrews describes church leaders as those who have a direct and personal connection with those in their care ('among you'), and who are held accountable for the spiritual well-being of those people ('over you')!
Looking at it from the perspective of the elders themselves, we see in 1 Peter 5:1-3, "I exhort the elders among you... shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight... not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock." The same ideas of presence ('among') and authority ('oversight, in your charge') that we saw in Hebrews and 1 Thessalonians is reflected here.
As I sit in my office, I can lean back from my desk, look out a window, and see another church across the street. There are at least a hundred of my brothers and sisters in Christ who attend that church. And yet, as an elder, as a pastor, I am not responsible or accountable for them in the way that I am responsible for the members of my own congregation. I will not need to answer for how I have shepherded them. Why not? Because I am not 'their' leader. Do you see how these passages of Scripture assume that believers will be a part of a specific congregation where they will be directly cared for? And similarly, these verses imply that the members of my congregation do not owe submission and obedience to every pastor and elder they come across in the way that they owe it to the elders of our church.
There is an agreement - in biblical terms we wouldn't be off base to consider it a covenant agreement - between the leadership and the congregation of a church. The elders obligate themselves to oversight, shepherding, spiritual care and vigilance, prayer, sound teaching, etc. The congregation commits itself to obedience, respect, and submission in the Lord. That might not be how many churches present the idea of membership in their church, but that is what Scripture calls us to, whether or not we use the word "membership" to describe it.
I'm sure there are some of you reading this who, though you see the truth of this teaching, you are hesitant because you have been hurt. Church leaders - elders, pastors - are still capable of sinning, and the office of church leadership has been too often abused. James 3:1 reminds us that those who teach will be judged with greater strictness, and the Lord speaks sternly against shepherds who harm the sheep they are supposed to protect (Jeremiah 23:1-4, Ezekiel 34:1-10, Acts 20:28-30). This is nothing short of sin. But abuse and misuse of something does not rule out its proper use, and church leadership as God created it to be, exists for the blessing of the flock.
This leads us to the final consideration – discipline as a unique feature of the local church, and how the idea of church discipline presumes church membership.