In the early church, we see a community that looks very different from the world. A glance back at Acts 2 and 4 makes this very clear. That church was by no means perfect (see Ananias and Sapphira); however, in general the early church looked far different from the world in which it lived. Today, how can we get back to looking like the early church? Is there anything that can be done?
I believe a key in all this is the combination of meaningful church membership and church discipline. If these are put in place, then the church should look far different from the world. Let’s take a look.
In many Southern Baptist churches (I use SBC churches as an example because they are what I know best), all a person has to do to join the church is to “walk the aisle” and tell the pastor that he wants to join. The pastor announces this and the body gives a hearty “Amen.” That’s it.
In the above situation, the church body is inviting a person to join with no evidence that the person is even saved. This leads to unregenerate church membership, which in turn creates all sorts of problems. What could be better?
Why not have prospective members have to wait a while prior to joining? This would allow the body to watch their behavior. If true Christians bear fruit (see John 15), then it will be clear who is saved and who is not. During this time, these folks could also take a few classes offered at the church in basic doctrine, church history, ministry opportunities, etc.
Related to this, new members should have to agree to live by a church covenant, which of course would be based entirely on scripture. This covenant, which all the members would agree to live by, would state both what the church believes and how they are going to live. A key aspect in a covenant should be the “one anothers” of life in the church; members would be clearly told that they are to love one another, care for one another, etc.
Part of the covenant must state the standards by which the church body will live. If these are followed, then the community will look much different from the world. If these standards are broken, then church discipline comes into play.
Church discipline is a practice that used to be alive and well in American churches. However, it is rarely seen today. Within SBC churches, discipline is something that most members do no even know exists.
When enacting church discipline, churches must be careful to follow the biblical model. Discipline should only be applied to an unrepentant member. The goal of discipline should always be repentance and restoration.
When a member is in unrepentant sin, the process seen in Matthew 18 must be followed. This should be followed methodically, and the member should be given time to repent. Passages such as I Corinthians 5 and Galatians 6:1 should be consulted also. Again, the goal of church discipline must be the restoration of the member. Those enacting discipline should also beware of pride during this process.
To summarize, churches today do not look much different from the world. This can and must change. How is this to happen? Churches must switch to practicing meaningful membership and consistent discipline. In essence, this means that it becomes more difficult to become a member, and more of a responsibility once you become one.
The purpose of all this must be the glorification of God through the practices of a holy church.