I recently had the privilege to attend a conference run by 9Marks, a group led by Mark Dever from Capital Hill Baptist Church in Washington. Mark is an incredibly well thought our and humble teacher and is leading a great movement to encourage Biblical churches in the USA and beyond. I was there because for the first time ever, a simultaneous conference for Spanish speakers was held, which meant I had a great opportunity to network and learn.
Mark's sessions and generous conversation at dinner made me think about lots of things. Not surprisingly, I didn't agree with everything he said (but then if you are going to conferences where you agree with everything that is said, maybe you need to push your thinking a bit harder) but I was really challenged by one point that he made.
Throughout the weekend there was quite a bit of talk about church membership and church discipline. Membership being the formal process that people are asked to step through to declare their commitment to their local church, and the process of the church accepting and including them. And discipline being the process of confronting those members who move away from the things they committed to in the membership process, with the aim of restoration (guided by passages such as Matt 18).
We had a really helpful discussion on the process and purpose of discipline and, how people within the church are involved, how discipline can be exercised without encouraging "the church police". But the thing that really stuck out for me was this comment. "The first step of church discipline is church membership."
When he said "the first step of church discipline is...." I immediately started thinking about who raises the question, who does the visit, how hard do you go it - all that sort of stuff. But no, for Mark, the first step was membership. Because in his mind, without a clear membership process and commitment, the exercise of discipline becomes much more difficult. Why? Because the expectations and boundaries haven't been clearly defined. And without those in place, it is much harder to say - hey, you are not keeping up your end of the agreement. Perhaps without some sort of membership system, the response might come back... "What agreement?"
Now for different churches and denominations the process of membership will look different. Whether there are covenants to be signed or courses to be completed or pledges to be made - who knows. The point is, if we want to be caring for the people in our churches, then perhaps there needs to be something.
Maybe the 21st century response to this idea might be - wait a minute, I don't commit to anything beyond a 3 month gym membership, and so requiring a commitment to church might be seen as being a bit over the top. Maybe so - but then again, maybe we need to be counter-cultural, and say - people matter to us. They matter so much that we care about them and their walk with the Lord, and to care for them as best we can, this is something we ask.