There are certain practices of our congregation that aren’t always well-understood or appreciated. Perhaps at the very top of the list for many is our practice of removing people from membership in our congregation when they have not attended church for a number of years. In some cases, the disapproval of this practice comes from stubbornness or hurt because it is perceived as a personal slight to one’s family or friends. In many cases however, the misunderstanding is a result of good instincts such as generosity and compassion.
Nevertheless, the hesitancy to maintain meaningful membership in our congregation and to have expectations of our members is usually the result of some misunderstandings about what the Bible teaches about membership in a Christian congregation. I’d like to address some of them in this article.
1. We shouldn’t judge them. It is true that we are not the ultimate judge over the souls of men. God reserves that right to Himself exclusively, and on the Last Day He and He alone will pronounce judgment upon each and every one of us (Matt. 25:31-46). But it’s not true that the church has no right or duty to judge and correct the conduct of its members in this life. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 5:12, Paul explicitly teaches that the church has the responsibility to correct the errors of those who are members of the church. And in Hebrews 13:17, it is taught that the pastor in particular watches over the souls of the sheep as one who will have to give an account for them on the Last Day. A common misconception in American Christianity is that our relationship to God is exclusively personal and individualistic. Nothing could be further from the truth. To be in a relationship with God is also to be a part of His body and His bride, the church. God places us into His family where we have obligations and responsibilities towards one another. When a member of the family begins to live in self-damaging ways, love compels us to interfere and warn them of the damage they are causing themselves. Love also compels us to care for the souls of all of our church’s members by recognizing the harmful influence indifference to sin and God’s Word has on the whole flock and removing that person from the congregation so that the spiritual apathy does not spread like a cancer throughout the entire congregation (1 Cor. 5:6-7).
2. It will turn them away. Many are afraid that going after the wandering sheep will only further isolate them and drive them away from Christ and His gifts, but that’s not what Christ tells us is the purpose or necessary result of church discipline. In Matthew 18, Jesus instructs the Christian to go to the one who has sinned against him and tell him his fault one-on-one. “If he listens to you, you have gained your brother,” Jesus says (Matt. 18:15). The implication is that some of the time and God willing, most of the time, your brother will listen to you, repent of his sin, and receive forgiveness and reconciliation. We reach out to those who are absent from the church because we do sincerely love them and want to bring them back into full fellowship with Jesus and with His church. Unsurprisingly, it often does. Even when we reach the final step of admonition and “tell it to the church” (Matt. 18:17) and our warnings go unheeded so that we finally remove the individual from membership at the church, our goal is still their repentance and forgiveness. Removing them from membership shows the seriousness of their spiritual condition so that they might finally be restored. It is a bit jarring to read Paul telling the Corinthian congregation to hand an unrepentant sinner “to Satan for the destruction of the flesh(!)” (1 Cor. 5:5), but this is to that “his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” Anecdotally I can say that, while some do react negatively to having their neglect of God’s Word addressed, far more often I have heard the opposite complaint. The person was absent from God’s House but was hurt that the church didn’t care enough to reach out to them and call them back.
3. We should never give up on them. On this we wholeheartedly agree. Removing an individual from membership at our congregation is not giving up on them. None of us is beyond repentance and forgiveness so long as we are still alive (Heb. 9:27). Jesus says that after an individual is removed from the church they are to be treated like a Gentile or a tax collector, which is to say, precisely the kind of person who needs to hear about the forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus! We continue to pray for those who are no longer members of Zion, reach out to them in love with God’s Word, and readily wait with open arms to welcome them back to our congregation. Does it not much more communicate that we have given up on someone if we simply leave them on our membership list even though they have not attended church in many years because we’re convinced they won’t change and they aren’t worth the effort it would take to lovingly call them back? Jesus does not want us to give up on anyone, but He does want us to use every tool available to be our brother’s keeper (Gen. 4:9), including removing from them any false sense of security they have that their soul is eternally secure simply because their name is on the membership roster at a Christian congregation, even while their faith is not bearing fruit and is dead (Matt. 7:19).
There are more reasons we could list why “cleaning the list” is spiritually healthy both for the individual being removed from membership and for the congregation, but hopefully this addresses some of the most common misconceptions. In the end, this is a ministry of the Gospel to call the erring brother to repent of all sins, including the sin of indifference, so that he might receive forgiveness. Remember that it is not enough to say, “Lord, Lord” to enter the kingdom of heaven. Rather it is “the one who does the will of my Father” who will enter eternal life (Matt. 7:21).
Lastly, I’d like to briefly remind you of our practice here at Zion regarding reaching out to inactive members. In the early months of absence from worship, postcards, visits, and phone calls will be made to remind and encourage the inactive member of their need of the Lord’s Word and Sacraments. Later, letters are sent. If they have not attended church in more than two years, and after at least 7 or 8 attempts have been made to call them back, we remove them from membership at our congregation. But they are not banished. Some do return home and are received back into membership. We pray that all of them would.
Remember too that this is the responsibility of the whole congregation. The pastor and the elders alone cannot complete this work. If you have family, friends, or neighbors that are members of Zion but are not attending church, call or visit with them. Lovingly encourage them to return to church. Remind them of the great gifts that are theirs as well as the danger to their faith that staying away brings. If someone you know has already been removed from our membership list, don’t give up on them! Invite them to attend church with you. Encourage them to come back home to this congregation. Ask if the pastor or elders can reach out to them as well. We couldn’t be happier than to welcome them back to receive God’s gifts with us at Zion!