One day we all will give an account. We will stand before the throne of God and our works will be tested by fire (1 Cor 3:12-15). This is especially true for those charged by God to oversee his church (Heb 13:17). Every shepherd will be held accountable by the chief shepherd for the flock of God they oversaw (1 Pt. 5:2-4). The Holy Spirit calls and commissions the pastor to oversee the church specifically by paying careful attention to all the flock (Acts 20:28). This means that pastors must know their flock and must know what to do if any of their sheep go astray. Unfortunately, church growth dominates the conversation in much of modern evangelicalism while little attention is given to the kind of responsibility and accountability we have to our churches now.
Benjamin Merkle and John Hammett have done a tremendous service to the church by dusting off the doctrines of membership and discipline that for many have long been forgotten or disregarded. Together, they assembled a team of contributors, including New Testament scholars, pastors, and historians, to write individual chapters in their areas of expertise. Besides Merkle and Hammett, these include Nathan Finn, Mark Dever, Thomas Schreiner, Gregory Wills, Andrew Davis, Bruce Ashford, and Danny Akin.
The layout of Those Who Must Give an Account is simple. Two parts, sandwiched by an introduction and a conclusion, include biblical, historical, and practical chapters on church membership and discipline. Each chapter is written by a different author according to their expertise; thus, for the purposes of this review, it will be best to offer brief summaries for each chapter with critical evaluation along the way followed by an overall evaluation and application in the conclusion.
Summary and Evaluation
John Hammett introduces the subject matter with a discussion on the nature of the church. The aim is to show how each biblical image of the church assumes the responsibility of meaningful membership and church discipline. Hammett argues,
“These twin practices – addressing how believers are brought into the church, live within the church, and are held accountable by the church – do not rest merely on isolated verses of Scripture, church traditions, or practical wisdom. They are deeply grounded in what the church is. As such, these practices must be the concern not only of leaders, as ‘those who will give an account’ (Heb 13:17), but also of those who compose the church” (28).
Hammett begins with the word ekklesia and shows that the dominant word for church in the New Testament implies that an assembly is a group of people who respond to the gospel and make a personal commitment to the community. More than 90 times ekklesia refers to local, identifiable assemblies and these assemblies can only be known as such if they have a recognizable membership, marked out by a distinctive, disciplined lifestyle (12). Hammett then unfolds each Biblical image highlighting the relevant implications for meaningful membership. For example, the church is the family of God. If God is our Father, then Christians are spiritual brothers and sisters. Each word picture the Bible uses implies that there must be some meaningful lines to show who are a part of the community and who are not. Likewise, there must be a way to remove affiliation with those who prove themselves not to be a part of the assembly. This was a strong, necessary, and foundational chapter which launches the book forward on a clear trajectory.
Having assessed theological foundations for the nature of the church, Part 1 takes up the topic of church membership. Merkle defines church membership as the “formal commitment to a local church. In other words, it is a covenant between an individual and the local church” (32). He admits that no single verse explicitly states the necessity of church membership as above defined, but to reject church membership according to those terms is overly simplistic (32). The necessity of church membership is implied by principals clearly taught throughout. Merkle argues convincingly that biblical accountability of pastors to their members and members to their pastors demand that there must be a formal commitment to one another. Pastors cannot be responsible for every Christian and Christians cannot be accountable to every pastor. Formally defined local assemblies are the best way for commands concerning pastoral ministry to be carried out. Merkle makes this point clearly by approaching the topic from both the sheep’s perspective (33) and the shepherd’s perspective (37).
Other commands, likewise, demand church membership. Biblical discipline cannot be carried out apart from meaningful membership. If there is no way in which someone is officially “in”, then there is no way to put someone officially “out”. Furthermore, Merkle claims that the biblical use of spiritual gifts needs the context of church membership, “If all members are expected to serve the church by using their gifts then it follows that a formal commitment to a local church is necessary component to facilitate the use of these gifts” (44). The variety of spiritual giftings assumes the necessity of local inter-connected fellowships where believers can tangibly serve the churches that they are committed to. While I agree with the aim of the argument; this section was weaker than others. Merkle does not sufficiently prove that the variety of gifts necessitates the kind of meaningful membership he is arguing for. It may have been better to either leave out this section or take extra steps to show why meaningful membership lines enhance or enable the gifts to be utilized as opposed to more loosely connected bodies of believers. Finally, Merkle clearly and rightly argues that the local church is at the center of God’s Kingdom expansion method (49). Converts are added to the local church. Missionaries are sent out by local churches and epistles were written to local churches. The Bible assumes that local churches are joined together, make decisions together, and carry out the mission together.
So, what happened? Was meaningful membership cherished in the early church and if so, how did the church drift from such an essential doctrine through the centuries? Nathan Finn offers a historical analysis in chapter 3. Finn references primary sources from Justin Martyr, Hippolytus, and Tertullian showing how the church took serious measures to ensure that incoming members were regenerate throughout the first three centuries. The imperial adoption of Christianity and the growing preference for pedobaptism changed everything (56). Finn walks the reader through the middle ages, the reformation, and into recent Baptist trends and traces the doctrine of church membership along the way.
At least some of the modern neglect is due to both a lack of teaching on the subject and a lack of understanding how meaningful membership can be pursued practically. Mark Dever offers a helpful chapter on practical issues of church membership, though he does not limit the chapter to practical issues only. He provides his own logic for the Biblical basis of church membership, and his own quick analysis of the historical moment. Like a prophet in the wilderness of American evangelicalism, Dever writes,
Clarity regarding believing church membership is the chief contribution of Baptist to the wider Christian community. And yet this clarity has been sacrificed in the pragmatism and reductionism of Baptist church life in the last century, especially in seeking numerical growth. The local church itself is undermined by the evangelistic fervor that ends up tolerating and even pandering to an individualistic consumerism. And a large body of nominal Christians will subvert the churches ministry in the world, in itself, and even in their own lives (90).
Dever rightly emphasizes membership as a committed love one for the other, and then he winsomely offers 12 practical steps to meaningful membership that any church leader can apply. These steps include simple steps like publishing a membership directory in which members of the church are represented and urging church members to pray through the directory in their own personal prayer time (99). These practical steps are golden for the church planter or revitalizer introducing church membership to their congregation for the first time.
Part 2 transitions to address church discipline according to the same pattern as Part 1. Thomas Schreiner provides the biblical basis for church discipline by centralizing his argument around the exegesis of Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. He also references and offers brief commentary on other key texts along the way (Gal 6:1; 2 Cor 2:5-11; 12:20-13:2; 2 Thess 3:14-15; 1 Tim 5:20). Schreiner repeatedly emphasizes that the motive for church discipline is invariably love, and that the goal of church discipline is the restoration of the one who has fallen (105, 118, 120, 125, 130). He argues, “Discipline is a shock treatment designed to provoke those who are rebellious to return to the Lord. Hence, the goal and aim of discipline are not punishment or criticism but the health and salvation of the one who has strayed from the truth” (127). The chapter would have been strengthened by a more thorough exegesis of Matthew 18:18-20. The binding and loosing language is unclear and difficult to interpret. Especially with the Roman Catholic interpretation of these verses, a deeper more concentrated look at this text would have been helpful. Schreiner’s brief assessment of this text feels a bit presuppositional and could have been strengthened by anticipating objections and responding to those anticipated objections accordingly. The chapter could have also been strengthened with a section that highlights the consistency of God’s dealings with the Old Testament people of God and the new covenant community. God has always been a God who expects his people to carry out discipline.
Gregory Wills contributes to the discussion with historical analysis of church discipline. He shows, similarly to Nathan Finn’s description of membership, that church discipline was taken seriously in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd centuries and became corrupted in the rise of medieval penance (140). The reformation saw a renewal of discipline and the Baptist maintained active church discipline from the seventeenth century until the late nineteenth century (144).
Like Dever’s chapter on practical issues, Andrew Davis’ chapter on the practical issues of church discipline is like a breath of fresh air to the overwhelmed reader. He is so incredibly helpful for both the church planter and the church revitalizer who may be struggling with how to put feet to the concepts learned in previous chapters. With pastoral tone and obvious awareness of the cultural moment in various churches, Davis offers six steps to establishing church discipline. Furthermore, he addresses key issues including polity, how to relate to and restore an expelled person, as well as, legal concerns surrounding church discipline. As a church planter who is in close connection with other planters and revitalizers, I found myself sending bits of encouragement and wisdom from Davis’ chapter particularly.
The conclusion of Those Who Must Give an Account ties a nice bow on top of the already well-packaged argument. Bruce Ashford and Danny Akin flesh out the missional implications of membership and discipline. They rightly argue that Ecclesiology and missiology are intrinsically related to one another (189). The church is a window for the outside world to look into the regenerating power of the gospel. Church discipline and membership clean the window for the outside world to look through and see a more accurate picture of the power of the gospel in our churches(200). Finally, Andrew Davis closes with another tremendous chapter, this time with a pastoral reflection on all that has been said. Membership and discipline are only doctrines to be debated until real faces and real souls are considered your own responsibility. Davis brings the doctrine to life and makes it personal. He writes,
“I want to kneel down every morning and speak the names of the sheep Christ has entrusted to me and plead over specific things going on in their lives so that their faith will not fail. I want to be faithful” (218).
Those Who Must Give an Account is a strong contribution to the study of church membership and discipline in a historical and cultural moment where too few church leaders are taking seriously the account that they must give for the blood-bought bride of Christ. As a survey of the topic, it is a perfect starting point for anyone interested in diving deeper into the study of church membership and discipline. The outline itself is helpful to launch the reader down the right paths of study from the biblical, to the historical, to the practical. Those Who Must Give an Account should not only be read but should be applied a fresh in the North American Church by both church members and leaders alike. In its pages, all will feel a renewed sense of responsibility to their brothers and sisters in Christ and will be encouraged to pursue a clearer representation of the Gospel through their local churches. “Christian proclamation might make the gospel audible, but Christians living together in local congregations make the gospel visible. The church is the gospel made visible” (203).