One of the awesome privileges of student ministry is the chance to talk about Jesus with students and see them make a commitment to follow Christ with their life. I’d love to say every time that happens the angels rejoice, but it’s simply not the case. The last few weeks though, a couple of our students made decisions (one of whom went forward as a child to beat her sister to the punch, the other who was stubborn and didn’t think he was ready). In the time since then, we’ve talked about baptism and publicly testifying of Christ. I’ll get the privilege and joy of baptizing them in a couple weeks, my second round of student baptisms.
I have a little longer baptism script than some other people do, which can be attested to a couple things: 1) I’m long-winded, and 2) I see baptism as a much deeper and more significant experience. Point 1 is obvious, so no point in dealing with that. The second point is what will be discussed.
One of the distinctives we hold as Baptists is that baptism is a requisite for church membership, as the church is to be comprised of those who are regenerate and who publicly testify of Christ through baptism. So for us, baptism is more than a photo opportunity, it’s a commitment to join a local church as a member (more on that perhaps later on what church membership entails) rather than a prospect or attender. In short, I believe church membership is akin to marriage, and so it should be taken seriously and not treated as flippant as often is in our subculture of church consumerism.
A cursory read of Ephesians 5 shows that there is a deep and intense relationship between a marriage and the relationship Christ has with the Church. This image is used throughout Scripture to describe Christ as the loving Husband who gives His life for the Bride, protects, provides for, encourages, and loves her; as She is faithful, honors, cherishes, and submits to Him (the only distinction is that wives don’t worship their husbands). That’s why God hates divorce. Just as Christ keeps those who are His, and endures the Union, breaking that union in divorce is in essence lying that God cannot sustain His elect. Just as a husband and wife must prepare for and enter a lifelong relationship in marriage, so should the penitent who comes to Christ. Jesus will not give up on His Bride, nor will He divorce His Bride (instead He dies for Her, even when She is a harlot and pursues other lovers).
2) It’s a Covenant relationship
Covenants are made throughout Scripture as agreements between two parties for a purpose. The book of Deuteronomy is one big covenant between God and Israel that God will protect, provide, and sustain Israel as part of their faithfulness. Exodus’ Sinai discourse is the image of a wedding, as God inaugurates His covenant with Israel to be their God and they be His people. Marriage is a covenant too, complete with all the terms, themes, and sealing. It’s public, there are vows, there is an exchange of tokens symbolic of the covenant (rings, unity candle, unity sand, painting, etc), a celebration of the covenant, and a sealing/consummation (birds and the bees).
Baptism carries this too. There are vows, promises, and commitments. The penitent and the local church agree to encouragement, appropriate discipline, prayer, love, support, and growth. The church agrees to care for this baby Christian and disciple him/her, and the penitent agrees to be under the authority of the church. It’s sealed with the actual act of going under the water, and is celebrated with applause, certificates, and sometimes a meal. In short, a baptism is a shadow of a wedding, between the penitent and Christ but also involving the church, which stands as the visible and tangible representation of the “Body of Christ.”
3) There is a link between the permanence of marriage and the seriousness of church membership
I’ll go ahead and say now, I’ll offend a lot of people with this. God intends for marriage to be for a lifetime, and hates divorce. There is much evidence for the “exception clause” in Matthew to be limited to the betrothal, because of the nature of covenant relationships. I’ll be honest, I’m still finding exactly where I stand on this issue, but for now suffice it to say I have my toes on the edge of that view. God hates divorce, but He does not hate divorced people. All have sinned, but in the midst of that there is grace abundant in Christ. Obviously extreme cases can be presented, but even in those the goal should always be repentance and reconciliation, even employing temporary separation as needed. For more, consult God, Marriage, and Family by David Jones and Andreas Kostenberger.
Regardless, church membership is a big deal. The church is called to be salt and light, a witness to the nations, a city on a hill, etc. And by that God does not mean for the building – He intends for the people, the community, to be this. In short, there should be something different and distinct about the church, something different and distinct about believers. Brennan Manning says it best “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle, that is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” In light of this comes the mutual understanding in baptism that there should be accountability in the life of the believer, and the penitent submits to this accountability as part of belonging to a local church. Baptism is tied to church discipline in this way: by submitting to baptism, each person is allowing their lives to be molded to the image of Christ through accountability, discipline, and labor in sanctification. The penitent falls under pastoral authority and opens themselves up to be corrected when their conduct, behavior, and life do not reflect the glory of Christ and the transforming power of the Gospel.
Church membership is serious. It’s not just adding your name to a roll sheet so a preacher can do your funeral. It’s stepping out as the “called out” and declaring to a lost and dying world one’s allegiance to Christ. Discipline within the church ought be loving and restorative, same way discipline of a child should be. Just like how marriage is intended to be a picture of the Gospel and a reflection of the love of Christ for His Bride, so should be the relationship between a believer and a local church. It means commitment, partnership, and “buy in.” Just like every marriage has its difficult days, fights, tension, and everything else that comes from being under the effects of the Fall, so does the interworking and interpersonal nature of the local church. But, as many of you know, the returning theme is the commitment and dedication to the vows made that endures the difficulty and rejoices in the gladness.
The point is this, when one becomes a member of a church, it means something. It means a commitment to serve, love, encourage, pray for, and labor faithfully for the cause of the Gospel and the work of the local church. Membership entails ministry, every member of the Body of Christ is equipped with unique spiritual gifts to serve. The pews will hold themselves down, it’s called gravity. But the nursery cannot be watched by itself, the offering cannot collect itself, Sunday school classes cannot teach themselves, the prayer room cannot become a dust collector, and the meals for funerals and births cannot cook themselves. I encourage our students to find what God has gifted them to do and serve in the church. Not everyone can sing, and not everyone is built to watch babies. And that’s fine, God gives each unique gifts for the work and building up of the church.
When is it wrong to leave a church?
1) “Not meeting my needs” – This says that the reason the church exists is to serve you. Not the case, at all. You exist as a believer to serve the church, and by doing so bring glory to God and the spread of the Gospel. What this phrase in essence says is “my needs are more important than faithfulness to Christ.” In my opinion, this excuse is the epitome of selfishness.
2) Worship Style – It breaks my heart to see “worship wars” divide churches, sadly along generational lines. There is a fear of new, and a disrespect for the aged. This is not the unity in the Body that Christ aims for. The church is a beautiful picture of many generations, backgrounds, and families coming together under the banner of Christ. Worship Style is a functional idol in many churches and for many Christians. It comes off as “I just can’t worship to ___________.” The only command for worship in the New Testament is that it be Gospel-driven, the Scriptures preached, and it remain orderly. When people leave a church over worship style (unless there are greater issues at stake, see discussion below), they again are placing selfishness over the glory of Christ.
3) Personality Conflict – Are you going to always get along with everyone all the time under all circumstances? Of course not! But the humble, regenerate (born again) person moves beyond personality conflict and seeks fellowship. Does it mean you have to be BFF with everyone? Of course not. There’s people I can’t stand but because of Christ I love them and seek fellowship with them in His Name. The prideful, unregenerate person takes personality conflict and in essence takes their ball and leaves. The saddest part is when this happens over a pastor, when people usurp him and seek to destroy his work through conflict. It’s divisive, satanic, and seditious.
4) Programming – Some people leave a church because it doesn’t have ______ or will go to another church because it has _______. Here’s what I say to that: If it’s not there and you know it, maybe that’s God’s way of saying “Pick it up, this is here for you.” Expecting a church staff to do everything or when there’s a need to hire someone is not the solution. If there is a lack of something that someone feels is essential, then humbly speak to the church’s leadership and take on the task.
When is it OK to leave a church?
1) Heresy – If you’re a member of a church and they begin teaching heresy from the pulpit (not secondary or minor issues), then leaving is not only a good idea but highly suggested! In fact, I would go so far as to say that, after attempting to correct the false teaching (provided there is not repentance and restoration), then not only should you leave but you should quietly but decisively take others with you. Remember, this is not based on not liking the preacher or the style, it’s an issue of content.
2) Relocate for work – It used to be that you stayed in one place for the most of your life. But now, as society has become more mobile and more transient, so comes the issue of what to do about church. If you move for work, then that is an appropriate reason to break fellowship with one local church, provided you seek to join a fellowship of believers in a new congregation upon settling. You should be a member and plugged into the church in your community in which you live and work, not a member of some church across the country you grew up in.
3) Church fails to be on mission – I’m not a huge fan of holy huddles. The church exists to be the city on a hill, a lighthouse, and a beacon within the community as the manifestation of the Gospel. That said, if a church has failed in this, then it has ceased to be about its given task and calling. Again, this is a last resort and should be done only after many attempts at correction and restoration.
4) A last resort to keep peace – Maybe you’ve been in this spot before, where things are so chaotic and ugly and all that and the best and wisest choice is just to leave. Perhaps it was a job, or a social organization, maybe even your kid had a horrible experience at school that necessitated a change. The point is this, it’s a last resort in order to keep peace. If you do find yourself in this situation, don’t fire your last shots into the crowd. Leave graciously, humbly, and speak well of the Gospel.
Why does this matter? I think we’re living in a time where church is driven by consumerism, and you find people bouncing from church to church trying to find one that is perfect. The problem is, none are. And if you do find the perfect church, don’t join it, you’ll only mess it up. Instead of asking what the church can do for you, ask what you can do for the Bride. Look at what they teach, are they driven by the Gospel? Are they on mission? Do they encourage community among believers? Commit to a church as a family, worship together, not separate in different churches because one has this and the other that. A culture with a nearly 50% divorce rate demands a Gospel-centered response that values permanence, commitment, and a desire to persevere for the sake of something greater.
Sorry for the length, much on my mind! Hope it challenges, stimulates, and brings up fruitful discussion!