Membership and the Local Church (Part 2)

Membership and the Local Church (Part 2)

Membership and the Local Church (part 2)
Text:  Matthew 18:15–20

Main Point: When it comes to formal declarations about the “what” and “who” of the gospel, the gathered membership of the local church is the highest authority under Jesus Christ himself.
Sermon Outline:
I.   The Foundation of the Church’s Authority (Matthew 18:15–20)
II.  Two Examples of this Authority in the New Testament
A. Guarding “The What” of the Gospel (Galatians 1:6–9)
B. Guarding “The Who” of the Gospel (1 Corinthians 5:1–5)
III. Two Implications of this Authority in the Life of the Local Church

Well, good morning church. As we continue this mini-series on the local church we are going to be transitioning from the Bible’s various descriptions of “church membership,” that we explored last week, to the vital and irreplaceable role that the assembled membership holds in the life and ministry of the local church. But before we delve into this role, we need to acknowledge the sad truth that countless church members don’t feel like they have a very significant role in their church. Rather, they feel more like:

  • Interchangeable cogs and gears in a program-driven machine.
  • Overburdened pack mules in a never-ending ministry trek across the Rocky Mountains.
  • Or long-forgotten lawn gnomes in a professionally maintained flower garden.

And this is because, all too often, church membership is confined to the means we vote for yearly budgets and vet other people for active ministry in the local church.

  • Should every Christian be involved in the life and ministry of the local church? Ephesians 4 and 1 Corinthians 12 loudly declare Yes!
  • Is it proper to make sure that our ministry leaders, teachers, and servants have truly come to faith in Jesus Christ, that they agree with us theologically, and that they understand our distinctives and our philosophy of ministry? Yes!
  • And is it prudent to establish a yearly ministry budget? Of course it is!

Yet, as we turn to God’s Word today, we are going to see that the biblical description of membership completely eclipses these functions, in that, God has established the gathered membership as the highest authority in the Church under Jesus Christ himself. OR to put it in terms of the main point this morning: When it comes to formal declarations about the “what” and “who” of the gospel, the gathered membership of the local church is the highest authority under Jesus Christ himself.[1]

Now, I realize that this statement raises any number of questions. So my goal this morning is to accomplish two primary things: One to clarify the true, biblical scope of this authority. Two, to demonstrate that this authority is an incredible service (not hinderance) to the elders’ rightful leadership of the church because this this complimentary relationship is at the very heart of what it means to be an Elder-led Congregationally ruled church.

In light of this I have organized the sermon around three key headings:

  • The Nature of the Church’s Authority (Matthew 18:15–20)
  • Two Examples of Church’s Authority (Galatians 1; 1 Corinthians 5)
  • Two Implications of this Authority in the Life of the Local Church

The Foundation of the Church’s Authority (Matthew 18:15–20)

The Manifestation of this Authority

Now, you might be wondering why we are starting with the very passage that we ended on last Sunday? Well, it’s because these verses have a lot more to tell us about membership and authority in the local church. On the one hand, this passage is a discipleship tool for the church of every age, in that, it tells us how to rightly work through the inevitable sin and conflict that occur among Christians in the local church by providing a God-given (Jesus prescribed) roadmap to forgiveness and restoration in the local church. Just think about it, how many problems in the local church could be solved if church members would simply follow step one?! But on the other hand, this passage is pointing disciples of every age to the surprising (maybe even counterintuitive) truth that The gathered membership is the highest authority (under Jesus Christ himself) when it comes to formal declarations of an individual’s discipleship to Jesus Christ.

And as we noted last week, when Jesus tells the church to remove an unrepentant sinner from its midst, he is not talking about bruised egos, pet-peeves, or even patterns of indwelling sin. No, if that were the case none of us would be in the church! Right? Rather, Jesus is talking about the kind of flagrant, substantial sins that openly contradict a Christian’s true discipleship to Jesus Christ.[2] See, the fundamental problem in the final stage of Matthew 18 is that the person is actively and persistently living as if they never came to faith in Christ and will not enter the kingdom of God!

1 Corinthians 6:9–11 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

Notice, the issue at hand is not a person’s lifestyle before they came to faith in Christ nor is it the lifestyle of unbelievers. It is the willfull, persistent, flagrant rebellion of a person that has been welcomed into the local church as a fellow disciple of Jesus Christ. Yet, what is the goal in this escalating confrontation and threat of discipline? Is it their swift removal and expulsion? No. The ultimate goal in this process at every stage is repentance and restoration. Don’t miss this, even in the final stage, the goal is that the unified declaration of the assembled membership of the church would compel the sinning Christian to wake up to their sin and respond in heart-felt repentance.

Don’t miss this, it’s not just the elders or the elders and deacons. And it’s certainly not the leaders of the denomination. Is it? No, it is the assembled membership of the local church that confront the sinning Christian with the true nature and gravity of their sin and call them to repentance.

ILLUSTRATION: So, in practical terms what does this third stage look like? It’s the collective declaration of the elders and Edna the 85-year old organist, Harold the 90-year old Navy veteran, Joseph the 45-year old math teacher, Erica the 32-year old homeschool mom, Kyle the 26-year old hipster barista, and Emily the 23-year old clerk at Barnes and Nobel that: they are going to removing John from membership and restrict him from communion BECAUSE they no longer consider him a true Christian. And they are doing this because he has blatantly ignored their unified, loving, and persistent exhortations to abandon his continuing affair with another woman.[3]

Notice, what are they doing? They are saying you cannot maintain this sinful lifestyle and still call yourself —in any true, biblical sense— a Christian. In fact, that is what it means to treat someone like a Gentile or tax collector. The person should not be treated like a true brother in Christ BUT someone who needs to come to faith in Christ.

OBJECTION: Now it’s at this point you might be thinking: What right do ordinary Christians like Edna, Harold, Joseph, Erica, Kyle, and Emily have, to be involved in such a serious matter? Shouldn’t something this important be reserved for the professionals? After all these people are just ordinary Christians! What if they get it wrong? Well, Jesus seems to anticipate this very question.

Matthew 18:18–20 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.

The Judicial Basis For this Authority

The first thing that I want you to see in these verses is that that the “you” in verses 15–17 is different from the “you” in verses 18–20, in that, the Greek pronoun “you” switches in the from singular former to plural in the later. What this means is that it is not merely the one individual from verse 15 or the two or three from verse 16 who do the binding and losing in verse 18. Nor is it some other, unnamed outside committee. No, it’s the gathered membership of the local church in verse 17.

Secondly, the explicit relationship between the congregation’s act of discipline in verse 17 and Jesus’ explicit authorization in verse 18 points us to fact that Jesus is empowering the entire assembly to wield “the keys of the kingdom.” Now just in case you are wondering, “What in the world are ‘the keys of the kingdom’ and what they have to do with this passage?” All we need to do is turn back to the initial “binding and losing” conversation between Jesus and Peter in Matthew 16.

Matthew 16:18–19 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Notice, Jesus responds to Peter’s Messianic declaration by doing two things: He declares that Peter is going to have a special role in God’s New Covenant community, the church. (Peter is the rock on which Jesus is going to build his church) He gives Peter the “keys of the kingdom.” And as we saw in the very first sermon in our series, these keys were not a set of physical keys. Rather, these “keys” depict Peter’s two-fold authority, to affirm “the what and “the who” of the gospel.

  • The What: The authority to officially affirm the fundamental message and doctrines of the gospel.
  • The Who: The authority to officially affirm and welcome professing believers into the church of Jesus Christ.

And if we read through the first half of Acts, we see Peter doing these two things. Whether it be welcoming the Samaritans and Gentiles as full-fledged members of the church OR clarifying the relationship between the Gospel and OT boundary markers, like food laws and circumcision. In light of this, we can say at least two things: One “this binding and losing” is inextricably linked with rightful exercise of these “keys.” Two, that this binding and losing” seems to be the rightful authority to render decisions about the content of the gospel AND a persons’ profession of the gospel.

The third thing I want you to see, as we transition from Matthew 16 back to Matthew 18, is that Jesus is making it clear that this God-given authority “to bind and lose” (v. 18) will eventually transition from Peter to the gathered assembly of the local church. In light of this, we can see that Jesus’ promise in verses 19–20 is the mind-blowing declaration that the gathered assembly has the authority to judge these important issues AND that Jesus will guide this assembly as they prayerfully deliberate the issue in the light of his revealed Word.

A Few Qualifications

Now, before we move forward, I think it’s necessary to qualify the proper use of these keys. The keys do not give the congregation the power: to reshape the message of the gospel, to adjust biblical doctrine, or soften the Bible’s description of the Christian life. NOR do they give the congregation the power to “make” someone a true Christian when they are not (just like a judge doesn’t make the law or make a defendant innocent or guilty).

This is important, congregations do not make the rules. They do not get to declare that everyone who goes to church and has good feelings about Jesus is a true Christian. Nor do they get to conform the life and worship of the church around personal or cultural preferences. No.

Rather, the keys give gathered membership the authority to do two key things:

  • To assess whether a confession, doctrine, or practice is consistent with the Gospel and God’s revealed Word. (Like when the council of Jerusalem needed to determine whether circumcision was necessary for Gentiles.)
  • To assess whether, or not, a certain person belongs to the Gospel, like when a church baptizes someone and brings them into membership of the Church (e.g., Acts 2:41).

Let’s take quick a look at how this two-fold authority plays out in the life of the New Testament Church. For the sake of time, we will limit ourselves to two key examples: Guarding “the what” of the Gospel in Galatians 1:6–9. And guarding “the who” of the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 5:1–5.

Two Examples of this Authority in the New Testament

Guarding “the What” of the Gospel (Galatians 1:6–95)

Galatians 1:6–9 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

Notice, what is Paul doing in this exhortation? He is pointing the local church to their God-given responsibility to guard “the what” (the content) of gospel by expelling anyone who teaches false doctrine in their church. We see this clearly in verse 2, in that, he addresses this letter to the churches in Galatia not the elders or some other leadership group inside or outside the church.

Two Observations

One, Paul is treating the gathered assembly of the local church as if they have should have enough discernment to rightly recognize the difference between the true gospel and false gospels. He expects “everyday Christians” of every age to be able to rightly articulate the gospel AND detect the additions, subtractions, or outright denials of false gospels.

Two, Paul is not content to address the historical issue at hand. Rather, he issues the church a much broader command that extends to the church of every age: “If you ever see this happening —an angel an apostle or an elder or anyone preaching another gospel— you have the authority to act!

Now is this to say that Paul is ignoring or bypassing the elders? I do not think so. They are an integral part of the church and their very job description is preserving sound doctrine and protecting the flock of God. So yes, the truth of the matter is, they should be leading the charge! But, at the end of the day who does Paul hold responsible in this passage? The Church! Just think about it, why is this point so important? It’s because the church’s rightful exercise of authority might include their censure of an angel, an apostle, their elders, or an individual member of their congregation.

Guarding “the Who” of the Gospel (1 Corinthians 5:1–5)

1 Corinthians 5:1–5 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.

The first thing that we see here is that Paul is utterly flabbergasted with moral laxity of the Corinthian church. Notice, it is not the content of the gospel but a church member who is living in direct opposition to the gospel. And on account of this most flagrant and irretractable behavior, Paul declares that the gathered assembly should instantly remove this man from membership.

But, what’s fascinating about this episode is that even though Paul has declared his judgment and gives it the full backing of his apostolic office. He turns to the Congregation (elders and congregation together) and tells them they need to address this matter themselves because they are ultimately responsible for determining such matters. Let me highlight three links between this passage and Matthew 18.

  • They are to assemble in the name of Jesus Christ to discuss the issue, just like church is gathered in Matthew 18.
  • As they do this, how are they doing it? They are doing it with the power of the Lord Jesus, again like Matthew 18.
  • And when they are removing this person from their fellowship, what are they doing? They are saying, we can no longer affirm your discipleship to Jesus Christ and citizenship in his kingdom, because your lifestyle is in alignment with the kingdom of the devil (which is another way of saying treat them like a tax collector or sinner). But again, what is the goal in all this turning? It’s that the true Christian would respond in genuine repentance and that the false Christian would come to saving faith in Jesus Christ.

Two Implications of this Authority in the Life of the Local Church

ONE: If the elders are called to lead and the church is called to submit to the faithful, biblical leadership of the elders; how does congregational authority play out in everyday life?

Well, in light of these passages, we are able to see that congregational authority, is not a simple democracy in which the 51% rule the day and select leaders to rubber-stamp their personal ideas about the church. Nor is it a prescription for ridiculous 4-hour meetings that argue about the color of the carpet, how to organize the kitchen, or how much money we are going to spend on copy paper. No. This approach to congregationalism is unhealthy and unbiblical.

But, as we begin to see that this authority is related to the who and what of the gospel —under the headship of Jesus Christ and the authoritative witness of Scripture— it seems reasonable to propose that:

  • The congregation should oversee both the admission AND removal of church members, elders, deacons, pastors, and missionaries given that they are part of the local church OR sent out as ministers of the local church.
  • The congregation should be included in discussions of sensitive doctrinal matters or clarifications.
  • The congregation should be included in any major decision that impacts the overall ministry of the local church OR our ministry partnerships with our missionaries around the world.
  • And of course, the congregation should oversee yearly budgets and be included in major decisions involving church finances.

TWO: The Long-Term Faithfulness of the Local Church Ultimately Belongs to the members of the Local Church.

What I mean by this is that even though the elders are called by God himself to oversee the congregation, to lead the congregation, to equip the congregation for ministry, and to guard and proclaim sound doctrine. The elders are not the final and ultimate authority in the Local Church. Rather, the gathered membership (elders and members together) are the highest authority in the Local Church under Jesus himself.

In light of this, it becomes increasingly clear that the elders’ primary task is not to rule the church like a group of religious oligarchs. But to oversee the ministry of the church AND equip the saints for ministry by instructing them in AND preparing them for the rightful use of their God-given authority… Because if the Local Church is going to fulfill its calling:

  • Ordinary Christians need to grow in their knowledge of the gospel, the life-changing implications of the gospel, the doctrines that undergird and inform the gospel, and their identify in Christ.
  • Ordinary Christians need to grasp the true nature of biblical conversion and discern the marks of false conversion.
  • Ordinary Christians need to be able to tell the difference between acceptable doctrinal disagreements and blatant doctrinal error.

Olympic, the only way you and I are going to be able to guard the long-term faithfulness of this church —our church— is if everyone of us embraces and grows in this extraordinary authority that belongs to ordinary Christians… Whether that be laboring with your pastors, elders, and deacons in the pursuit of Christ-exalting Gospel ministry OR if necessary, protecting this church from pastors, elders, or deacons that have wandered from the gospel of Jesus Christ.

[1] Adapted from, Jonathan Leeman, Don’t Fire Your Church Members: The Case for Congregationalism (Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2016).

[2] Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary Series on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 685.

[3] ““[T]he Greek expression ‘let him be to you as’ … suggests that each member of the church is to abide by the corporate judgment and reminds the reader of the individual responsibility each believer has toward the others, already presupposed by the singular ‘your brother’ in v. 15;” (D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” in The Expositors Bible Commentary: Matthew-Mark, Revised., ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010], 456–57).