Purging the Membership Rolls? — Part II

Over the last year, few things in this blog have drawn such attention and comments as the article earlier this week titled “Shall We Purge the Church Membership Rolls?”

Everyone has an opinion. That’s good.

Not everyone agrees. That can be good, too.

Nothing we said should be interpreted to imply I’m against a church cleaning up and making current the membership rolls to reflect those who are part of that family. If people have moved away and cannot be located after a period of time, we do not want to drop them altogether but to simply transfer their information into an inactive file.

However, as one of our friends put it, the object of “church discipline” should be to restore a sinner. When the church’s efforts work toward that aim, no reasonably minded person should fault that.

The problem comes when a church decides to go through the membership rolls with a scythe (chain saw?), clearing out all those who do not measure up to someone’s concept of what a member of that congregation should look like. The only two outcomes of that are to wound good people and to guarantee that the outcast never again darkens the door of a Christian church.

Someone says, “The object is to have a regenerate membership.” Sounds good. After all, who doesn’t want that?

My limited experience says that many people promoting “a regenerate membership” are convinced the big problem in the church today is that vast numbers of church members have never been saved.

Could be. Unable to look inside the hearts and souls of others, I have no way of knowing.

But neither does anyone else.

“By their fruits you shall know them.” Jesus said that (Matthew 7:16), but what is overlooked by those often quoting this is that only God knows the complete fruit harvest of any of us.

I have a couple of thoughts on the question of whether large numbers of church members are unsaved.

My first pastorate after seminary was mostly made up of members who had been improperly discipled. Thereafter, when they began to doubt their salvation or to have a sin problem, their custom was to conclude, “I’ve never been saved or this would not be happening.” So, down the aisle they would come and the pastor would counsel them and baptize them again.

Being young and green, I fell into that pattern of “let’s get you really saved this time” with some. I’m embarrassed to remember that some of those people were baptized three or four times or even more.

So when I hear ecclesiastical commentators/expert-observers/authors concluding that since so many church members aren’t coming to church or tithing or sharing their faith, they must be unsaved, I feel like I’m back in that church again.

Returning to Christianity 101 for a moment, let’s recall there are three types of people in the world. There are the outsiders, the unsaved. The Bible calls these “the natural man” (I Corinthians 2:14). Then there are the Christians, who fall into two groups: the spiritual (I Corinthians 2:15) and the carnal (I Corinthians 3:1-4).

A carnal Christian is one who has never grown, for whatever reasons. Or, perhaps he did grow, but fell from a life of devout discipleship into a life of sinful rebellion and indolence. From the outside, he/she may look just like the natural person and observers are tempted to call him “lost” or “unregenerate.” But they’re not necessarily. They could be immature or even disobedient Christians.

I’ve read those books and articles where authors say things like “a disobedient disciple is a contradiction in terms.” They point out that if you are disobedient, you cannot call yourself a disciple, and if you are a disciple you are obedient.

I think it was Bonhoeffer who said a silent disciple is a contradiction in terms (what we now call an oxymoron). “Either the secrecy will kill the discipleship or the discipleship will kill the secrecy.” On the whole, I agree.

But not entirely. There are plenty of saved people who are not living the life they know they should.

Take that bunch of mixed-up disciples in the church at Corinth. They had tons of problems, prompting Paul to write this epistle in the first place. And yet, in the opening lines, he addresses the members as saints. (I Cor. 1:2)At no point does Paul even suggest they would not be fighting such battles if they were saved.

Or take that line from Hebrews 5:11-14 in which the author–whoever he/she is–calls the believers to task for their immaturity. Instead of being teachers themselves, they still need to be bottle-fed.

My point here is: let us not make the mistake of thinking all the church’s problems could be solved simply by getting all the members saved. On the surface, that has a nice sound to it. In reality, one can be saved and still struggle with doubts, still backslide, still be lazy and immature and even rebellious at times.

Adrian Rogers said to the congregation I pastored on one occasion, “The difference between a Christian and the world is this: the world leaps into sin and loves it; the believer lapses into sin and loathes it.” On the whole, I believe that.

The only part I wonder about is the “loathes” part. In time, the believer comes to loathe the sin in his life. But not at first, otherwise no one would ever backslide.

In his book “The Waiting Father,” a treatment of 16 parables of Jesus, the great German pastor Helmut Thelicke makes this comment on the parable of the wheat and the tares:

“There are no fields or gardens in this world where only grains or flowers grow; the weeds are always there, too.”

That’s the reality of life in this fallen universe.

That’s why I know it’s possible to be saved and still be one crazy mixed-up kid who has grown some but still has “miles to go before I sleep.”

I know it because those words describe me. And I’m wagering they describe a lot of some of the finest Christian people I know.

That fact must be factored into any plans for church discipline.

7 thoughts on “Purging the Membership Rolls? — Part II

  1. Bro. Joe,

    The real problem is that Christians do not know how to rightly “judge.”

    Many of us want to judge others as if we are more righteous, not to help them, but to raise ourselves up.

    I will never forget the first time I read Luke 18:10-14 after I was saved. I know I read or heard it dozens of times before, but then the Holy Spirit gently reminded me that I was that Pharisee. What a wake-up call!

    I really commend you on your ability to raise the questions and let the Holy Spirit deal with the individuals and the answers to your questions.

    Num 6:24-26

  2. Great follow-up to your first post, Joe. I’m hoping to do something I’ll call “Project Bo Peep” in our church. I have 2 primary objectives. First, if people have moved away and/or have joined other churches, I think we should be able to remove them from our rolls (for those who have moved, we can help them find a new church). Second, if we have church members in our area who aren’t coming to church, I want to find them and restore them to the fellowship. Maybe some have become homebound and we don’t know about them. We need to minister to them. Maybe some have slipped into sin and we can help bring them to repentance. Maybe some have left our church over some conflict and we can win them back or help them find another place to worship. The way I see it, the disparity in our church rolls is a serious indictment of me as pastor. When the average Southern Baptist Church averages on Sunday morning only about 37% of its membership number, have we as pastors provided adequate oversight?

    Oh, and as for church discipline . . . we must practice it. But like you said, the purpose is not to get rid of anyone, but to bring healing, repentance, and restoration. When done rightly it can be a worshipful and beautiful thing.

  3. Most churches will not practice any kind of church discipline. Too many family members intertwined and in almost all cases, it will divide the church. It’s one thing to discipline a kid for spitting on the floor but try it on one of the church ‘big mules’ and watch what happens. Timid christians usually take the position (if the take a position at all) to “let God handle it” and this may account for the reason that too many of our churches are spiritually anemic. Weak preaching has produced a generation of weak and timid church members who will allow almost anything. Oh Well…….

  4. Bro. Joe, I forgot to add the quickest way to purge the rolls of membership is to ask the “members” individually how they get to heaven.

    I actually had a former pastor do that and many of the answers he got were unbelievable, to say the least.

    It won’t be funny, but it will be interesting to hear the reasons people give when God asks everyone at the Judgment Seat, “Why should I let you into Heaven?”

  5. At FBC Many in the 70’s we took a year trying to locate inactive and non-resident members. We could not locate about 100 of them after printing their names in both the bulletin and newsletter. We asked older members to sit down and see what they could remember. If we had no idea who they were or where, we moved them to a separate roll and did not count them. Assoc minutes must have looked like we had a horrible fight!

    People who want to discipline are often demonstrating their own need of discipline by their attitudes (not all, but some hard core types). WE forget the word “discipline” is rooted in the words for teach and follow and disciple.

    One last comment – the church minutes of churches is the previous centuries (early 20th and back) show discipline was effective and brought many back. Ezra Courtney, a self-educated pastor of early Louisiana churches was kicked out several times for losing his tempter and the like. But they took him back when he repented and reinstated him as pastor! I doubt we could do that today.

  6. Wow! My church is thinking about purging the roll. I’m the secretary and I have been trying to get the correct membership count for 14 years. This will help my pastor and deacons. But the thing is, will they go find the lost sheep’s?

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