10.19.15

The Survival of Your Church May Depend on Its Membership Practices

Healthy membership practices matter a great deal. That’s the lesson a small church in Georgia learned recently.

In August, the Rev. Tim Mattox and several members of the congregation acted to remove from membership and bar the Ms. Genora Hamm Biggs from the church’s services and property. Ms. Biggs (who is 103 years old!) had been a member of the Union Grove Baptist Church for 92 years. In recent months she vocalized her concern and criticism of Pastor Mattox, calling his preaching style “Pentecostal” rather than “Baptist.” After some time, the pastor and members responded with excommunication.

The troubles at Union Grove Baptist Church provide an object lesson for every local congregation—members and pastors. Here are a few:

1. Don’t Mess with the Old Ladies in the Church

Honestly, that’s pastor survival 101. Picking a fight with older members is doomed to failure. Especially if that older member has her name, along with the names of five other family members, listed as “secretary” on the current building’s memorial or dedication stone. It’s even listed before the then-current pastor’s! That’s a bad fight to pick!

Ms. Biggs is listed as “secretary” on the current building’s dedication stone.

The older saints can be pretty settled in their ways. And though no pastor needs to comprise to the point of unfaithfulness to Jesus, he ought to have a lot of respect, patience and even deference to older members of the church. Indeed, every pastor should be more concerned about helping the older members ready themselves to meet Jesus and enter eternity with as much joy as possible with the lives they have left. We pastors have to remember the God-breathed instruction: “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father…older women as mothers” ().

2. Church leaders sometimes win or lose their congregations by their manner rather than their position.

Every pastor knows or will soon discover that opposition is part of the job. There’s Satanic opposition, the world’s rejection, and sometimes the snipping and biting of sheep. If we are faithful in following Christ, we shall encounter hardship and resistance.

But the difficulty of facing opposition gets multiplied by the Bible’s instruction on how to face it. Peeped lately?

24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured to do his will.

The Lord’s servant doesn’t get to strike back. He must be kind, patient, gentle as he teaches. And he must do this keeping in mind that the opposition he faces is in fact a spiritual war against Satan’s influence in which he wars not to be “right” but to save the very one opposing him. We pastors lose if we grow impatient, quarrelsome, mean, vindictive or ruthless. If we punish, we fail. Our effectiveness in overcoming opposition has a lot to do with our demeanor.

3. An up-to-date membership roll is everybody’s friend.

Seems I’ve heard this story a hundred times. The leaders attempt to take the congregation in a desired direction, some minority of folks grow disgruntled, then at a members’ meeting people the leaders thought were long-gone and maybe even dead show up to vote them down and sometimes vote them out. They’re like the “undecideds” in American politics, those swing voters who finally get energized and cast their vote with the people who stirred them from their slumber.

How do you prevent this from happening? Before you attempt any changes, first get to know the active members of the church. Then, in an attempt to love those once in the fold, go seek the sheep who no longer come to service but remain on the roll. Before there’s ever a conflict to resolve, be the guy who called when others had forgotten, be the guy who visited even when the member has moved several times, be the guy who invited them back though they’d long ago grown too awkward to come back. Do all this while teaching the congregation the importance of belonging and participating in the family of God, given the active members a vision and sense of the privilege that comes with belonging to the Lord’s church. Then when all those attempts at gathering lost sheep fail, as a congregation update the membership roll.

Once you have a church defined and marked off, then you won’t have to worry about long inactive “members” showing up to veto a necessary development or change. Then you can begin to teach the congregation the various things the Lord through the scripture wishes to improve in their lives.

4. Neither covert nor coercive change will last.

There are no perfect churches. Period. Full stop. None. All our congregations comprise wheat and tares. All of our local bodies have blemishes, weaknesses and sins. So, in some sense, every congregation needs to be continually reformed by the word of God. A good, honest pastor and church member knows that.

However, such reform cannot and must not come through cloak and dagger. If it’s true that Pastor Mattox attempted to secretly or coercively introduce changes foreign to Baptist history, polity, and practice, then Ms. Biggs correctly challenged the changes as deceptive and inappropriate.

Even if his changes were good and he could effect them in the congregation, if the congregation did not understand and own the reforms it’s very likely they would slide back to their old ways after Pastor Mattox left or call a pastor with very different convictions. Reforms don’t last when the people don’t understand and embrace them.

5. Church discipline is a heavy club meant to be used sparingly and redemptively.

The good folks at 9Marks and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary just held a conference on church discipline. If you haven’t thought much about the importance, motive, and practice of discipline, I heartily commend these sermons to you.

But in a nutshell, Union Grove Baptist Church seriously erred when they resorted to discipline with no view towards reconciliation and redemption. Ms. Biggs may have been a disruption or even divisive, and perhaps she misunderstood some important issues, but our Lord gives us corrective discipline as a means to win and restore people not silence or punish them.

6. The membership may not always be right, but they always have the right.

I believe the congregation as a whole is the final authority in the local church. Baptists have held this since the beginning of the movement. When it comes to calling pastors (), church membership and discipline (; ), the final and decisive actor is the membership.

Now, that’s not to say the membership always has it correct. They may fail to submit to the leadership of the elders () and they may judge an issue incorrectly, thinking themselves generous when they should be aghast (). The congregation may not be right, but biblically they have the right and responsibility to act in these matters.

It’s messy. Ms. Biggs and her followers could be faulted for a variety of missteps and inappropriate attitudes and behaviors. Meanwhile, Pastor Mattox and his crew appear to have made their share of mistakes. Our polity determines who gets to be “right” when everybody has committed some wrongs. Being clear on this question goes a long way in preserving authority as well as protecting unity.

Most people think polity is unimportant until they really need it in a crisis. It’s generally too late then. The wise pastor and congregation work out their biblical convictions regarding church governance before some messy situation produces pain in the body.

5:1 Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity. (ESV)

24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (ESV)

13:1 Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them. When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus. He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him 10 and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? 11 And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.” Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand. 12 Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.

13 Now Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem, 14 but they went on from Perga and came to Antioch in Pisidia. And on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. 15 After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent a message to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of encouragement for the people, say it.” 16 So Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said:

“Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen. 17 The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. 18 And for about forty years he put up with them in the wilderness. 19 And after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance. 20 All this took about 450 years. And after that he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet. 21 Then they asked for a king, and God gave them Saul the son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, for forty years. 22 And when he had removed him, he raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, ‘I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.’ 23 Of this man’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised. 24 Before his coming, John had proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. 25 And as John was finishing his course, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but behold, after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.’

26 “Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation. 27 For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him. 28 And though they found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed. 29 And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. 30 But God raised him from the dead, 31 and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people. 32 And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, 33 this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm,

“‘You are my Son,
today I have begotten you.’

34 And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way,

“‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.’

35 Therefore he says also in another psalm,

“‘You will not let your Holy One see corruption.’

36 For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, 37 but he whom God raised up did not see corruption. 38 Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, 39 and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. 40 Beware, therefore, lest what is said in the Prophets should come about:

41 “‘Look, you scoffers,
be astounded and perish;
for I am doing a work in your days,
a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.’”

42 As they went out, the people begged that these things might be told them the next Sabbath. 43 And after the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who, as they spoke with them, urged them to continue in the grace of God.

44 The next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. 45 But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him. 46 And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. 47 For so the Lord has commanded us, saying,

“‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles,
that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’”

48 And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. 49 And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region. 50 But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district. 51 But they shook off the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium. 52 And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. (ESV)

5:1 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.

Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (ESV)

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (ESV)

17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (ESV)

5:1 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.

Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (ESV)

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

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