This excerpt is adapted from Jonathan Leeman’s new book Understanding the Congregation’s Authority. Copyright 2016 by B&H Publishing Group.
When you hear the words “church government,” what do you think? Members’ meetings? Elder board rooms? Fights over the budget or the color of the carpet? Too often it can seem that way.
Yet church government should involve so much more than that. In fact, it should tie into the everyday life of the church. And everyone has a role to play.
Did you know, ordinary church member, that Jesus has given you a job? Your elders have a special office, to be sure, but so do you. And Jesus has given you elders in order to train you to do your job.
So if Jesus’s discipleship program gives every single member a job, what responsibilities come with this job? There are at least seven.
1. Attend Church Regularly
You, as a baptized Christian and ordinary member of a church, are responsible to attend church regularly. Scripture could not be clearer about this fundamental responsibility so that you can give yourself to love and good works and encouragement.
And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our worship meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near. (Heb. 10:24–25)
The author threatens final judgment if you do not attend (vv. 26–27). The stakes are high indeed. After all, if you do not attend, you cannot fulfill the next six responsibilities. Attendance makes everything else possible.
2. Help Preserve the Gospel
You, as a baptized Christian and ordinary member of a church, are responsible for protecting and preserving the gospel and the gospel’s ministry in your church.
Think about Paul’s “amazement” in Galatians 1: “I am amazed that you are so quickly . . . turning to a different gospel” (v. 6). He upbraids not the pastors, but the members, and tells them to reject even apostles or angels who teach a false gospel.
What this means, Christian, is that you are responsible to study the gospel and know it. Can you summarize the gospel to me in 60 seconds or less? Can you explain the relationship between faith and works? Can a Christian live in unrepentant sin? Why or why not? Why is it important for a Christian to affirm the doctrine of the Trinity? What role do good deeds, fellowship, and hospitality play in promoting a church’s gospel ministry? Why should a church never let its identity and ministry be subverted by a political party?
These are the kinds of questions, Christian, that you are responsible to answer in order to help guard the gospel. I am not telling you to find answers independently of your elders. They should equip you to answer such questions. If they aren’t, you might not be in the best church.
Know the gospel, and what the gospel requires in the church’s and a Christian’s life.
3. Help Affirm Gospel Citizens
You, as a baptized Christian and ordinary member of a church, are responsible for protecting the gospel and the gospel’s ministry in your church by affirming and disaffirming gospel citizens.
In a matter of discipline Paul doesn’t address the Corinthian elders, but the Corinthian church itself (1 Cor. 5:1–13; 2 Cor. 2:6–8). Likewise, it is your responsibility, Christian, to receive and dismiss members. Jesus has given it to you. For you to neglect this work only cultivates complacency, nominalism, and eventually theological liberalism.
Of course, the job here is bigger than showing up at members’ meetings and voting on new members. It involves working to know and be known by your fellow members seven days a week. You cannot affirm and give oversight to a people you don’t know, not with integrity anyhow. That doesn’t mean you’re responsible to know personally every member of your church. We do this work collectively. But look for ways to start including more of your fellow members into the regular rhythm of your life. Paul offers a useful checklist for doing this:
Show family affection to one another with brotherly love. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lack diligence; be fervent in spirit; serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; be persistent in prayer. Share with the saints in their needs; pursue hospitality. (Rom. 12:10–13)
How are you doing on this list?
4. Attend Members’ Meetings
So how do you preserve the gospel and affirm gospel citizens? By showing up consistently for members’ meetings.
Different churches make decisions in different ways, which is fine. But whatever venue your church uses for making the decisions concerning the gospel “what” (the purity of the gospel) and the gospel “who” (the people of the gospel), you should be there.
You cannot do your job if you don’t show up to the office.
Admittedly, members’ meetings have a bad rap. I understand. So many are unhealthy cauldrons of dispute and insurgency. But don’t let bad marriages cause you to give up on marriage. By God’s grace, I’ve been a part of several churches now where the members’ meetings feel like warm, encouraging, and engaging family gatherings. Part of that depends on the leadership of the pastors in those meetings and how they plan it. Part of that depends on you.
5. Disciple Other Church Members
You, as a baptized Christian and ordinary member of a church, are responsible for protecting the gospel and the gospel’s ministry in your church by discipling other church members.
Remember Ephesians 4:15–16. The church builds itself up in love as each part does its work. You have work to do to build up the church. And part of that includes the ministry of words. A few verses later, Paul says, “Speak the truth, each one to his neighbor, because we are members of one another” (v. 25). Speak truth to them, and help them to grow. Our words should be “good for building up someone in need, so that it gives grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29). Also, make yourself available to be spoken to. Are you willing to listen?
Basic Christianity involves building up other believers. It is a part of fulfilling the Great Commission and making disciples. Speaking of . . .
6. Share the Gospel with Outsiders
If through union with the second Adam God has reinstated you as a priest-king, your whole life should reflect the gospel in word and deed. You are an ambassador. Paul’s charge and example is worth repeating here:
He has committed the message of reconciliation to us. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, certain that God is appealing through us. We plead on Christ’s behalf, “Be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor. 5:19b–20)
Every Christian has been reconciled, and thus every Christian has received this message of reconciliation. Therefore, we plead and we pray for sinners to be reconciled to God.
This, too, is a part of your job. The command to “Go and make disciples” belongs to you (Matt. 28:19).
7. Follow Your Leaders
It’s the job of the pastors or elders to equip the saints for the work of ministry: for these previous six responsibilities (Eph. 4:12). If elders aren’t teaching the gospel, catechizing the church in the gospel, teaching them their responsibility for one another, then they’re ill-equipping the church for the job Jesus has given them.
Christian, this means that you’re responsible to avail yourself of the elders’ instruction and counsel. Hold on to the pattern of sound teaching you’ve learned from them (2 Tim. 1:13). Follow their teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, love, and endurance, along with their persecutions and sufferings (2 Tim. 3:10–11).
Be the wise son or daughter in Proverbs who takes the path of wisdom, prosperity, and life by fearing the Lord and heeding instruction. It is better than jewels and gold.
Authority Brings Responsibility
The Bible gives final authority and therefore responsibility to the gathered congregation. With authority comes responsibility. By joining a church, you become responsible for what your church teaches and for every single member’s discipleship.
- You are responsible to act if Pastor Ed begins to teach a false gospel.
- You are responsible to help ensure Member Candidate Chris adequately understands the gospel.
- You are responsible for Sister Sue’s discipleship to Christ, and that she’s being cared for and nurtured toward Christlikeness.
- You are responsible to ensure Member Max is excluded from the fellowship of the church if his life and profession no longer agree.
Who trains you for all this work? Your elders. Add your responsibilities together with theirs and you have Jesus’s discipleship program.
More than 75 Minutes
When people come to join my church, they are asked to do an interview with an elder, where they are asked to share their testimony and to explain the gospel. At the conclusion of any interviews I personally conduct, assuming I’m going to recommend the person for membership to the whole congregation, I will say something like the following:
Friend, by joining this church, you will become jointly responsible for whether or not this congregation continues to faithfully proclaim the gospel. That means you will become jointly responsible both for what this church teaches, as well as whether or not its members’ lives remain faithful. And one day you will stand before God and give an account for how you used this authority. Will you sit back and stay anonymous, doing little more than passively showing up for 75 minutes on Sundays? Or will you jump in with the hard and rewarding work of studying the gospel, building relationships, and making disciples? We need more hands for the harvest, so we hope you’ll join us in that work.
How about you? Have you undertaken this work?
Jonathan Leeman is a member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., editorial director of 9Marks, and author of The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love, Reverberation, Church Membership, and Church Discipline. His PhD work is in the area of political theology. You can follow him on Twitter.