Should non-attenders be removed from church membership? That’s one way to ask the question, but let’s ask the question more specifically.
Is ongoing non-attendance a kind of unrepentant sin that calls the local church to carry out church discipline?
First, some groundwork:
What is a Local Church?
A local church is not a building or an event. A church is a group of baptized believers in Jesus who have formally “devoted” themselves to the same “fellowship” (Acts 2:42). They self-consciously commit to function together as one body, one family, and one building of interconnected living stones (1 Tim. 5:1-2; 1 Pt. 2:4-5; Eph. 2:19-22; 1 Cor. 12:14-26; Rom. 12:4-8). This mutual devotion is acted upon through assembling together regularly, partaking in the Lord’s Supper, submitting to the same church leaders, and fulfilling the many one-another commands of Scripture, especially the command to hold one another accountable through church discipline.
What is Church Discipline?
Church discipline is the accountability process of the local church. Church members lovingly confront one another’s sin and call one another to repentance. This process is most clearly outlined in Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. If someone stops repenting, and rather embraces sin as a lifestyle, the congregation responds. The final step of church discipline is a congregational decision to revoke someone’s membership. The individual is no longer welcome to partake in the Lord’s Supper, as the congregation can no longer see any fruit of their salvation. For more on what discipline is and why it is important, click here.
What Kind of Sin Calls for Church Discipline?
Everyone is constantly fighting sin, so what kind of sin triggers the church’s responsibility to do church discipline? The three-step process in Matthew 18 shows that it is unrepentant sin that calls the church to action. Unrepentant sin is the kind of sin that an individual gives themselves over to with no intention of turning. Even after being confronted by individuals, small groups, and by the whole church, they choose sin as a lifestyle. They befriend their sin rather than war against it and thus cease to show the fruits of saving faith that submits to Jesus as Lord. In 1 Corinthians 5, it is sexual sin that calls for discipline. In Titus 3, it is divisiveness that calls for discipline. The question of whether someone should be removed from the church’s membership is not a question of subjective severity, but whether there is repentance.
Is Non-Attendance Unrepentant Sin?
The word church comes from the Greek language which means to “assemble.” Without the assembly, there is no visible church. Prolonged forgoing of the assembly is a form of deliberate and perpetual disobedience (Hebrews 10:24-27). But, the sin goes deeper than just the non-attendance. The one-another commands in Scripture were written for church communities. Consider only a few explicit teachings of Scripture that non-attenders must perpetually ignore if they do not gather with the church:
- Sing hymns together (Col 3:16; Eph. 5:19)
- Give sacrificially (Acts 2:45; 4:34; Mt. 6:19-21; Lk. 12:16-21; 2 Cor. 9:6-7; 1 Tim. 5:17-18)
- Remember Christ through the Lord’s Supper (Lk. 22:17-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-26)
- Teach and admonish one another (Col 3:16)
- Serve one another with your unique giftings (Rom. 12:9-13)
- Bear each other’s burdens (Rom 12:15; 1 Cor. 12:26; 2 Cot. 2:3; Gal. 6:2)
- Build each other up (Eph. 4:12-16)
- Seek unity that glorifies Christ (Rom. 12:16; 15:5, 1 Pt. 3:8)
- Participate in the accountability and discipline of others (Mt. 18:15-27; 1 Cor. 5:1-13)
- Submit to one another (Eph. 5:21)
- Follow the leadership and teaching of pastors (Heb. 13:17; 1 Tim. 5:17-20)
- Make disciples (Mt. 28:16-20; Titus 2:1-10).
The above commands are intrinsically tied to living life within the church community. They are just a sampling. Without attending the gatherings of a church, you by necessity are perpetually disobedient to everything represented in the church covenant that our church affirms together. By abandoning the church fellowship you harm yourself by starving yourself of the things God deems necessary for your spiritual health. By abandoning the church fellowship you harm others within the church by withholding your spiritual gifts God gave you to build up your brothers and sisters in Christ. By abandoning the church you harm the church’s gospel witness by modeling to the watching world that the Lord Jesus is not worth your obedience and devotion. So let’s ask again. Is ongoing non-attendance a kind of unrepentant sin that calls the local church to carry out church discipline? The answer is yes.
The answer is yes, but with some important qualifications. There are some obvious situations where gathering with the church is impossible. Illness, old age, and perhaps seasons of a particular kind of job may prohibit attendance. In these cases, discipline should not be pursued, but relationships with the church family should be maintained as much as possible. It is also not a sin to change one’s membership from one church to another. This is certainly a serious decision that you shouldn’t make in isolation, but there are all kinds of good reasons for devoting yourself to a different church fellowship. See good and bad reasons for moving churches here and talk with a church member or leader who can help you process your decision. Church discipline for non-attendees should never be pursued hastily. The path should be marked by patience, gentleness, and truth spoken in love. We seek the non-attender, not because we want to cast judgment, but because it’s what Christ does for us. We leave the 99 to seek out the 1 and we plead with them to come back to the green pastures and still waters of the church community. If they refuse our plea, then there comes a point where we can no longer recognize them as one of the sheep, but until then we pursue them as Jesus pursues us. For an example letter of the kind of letter our church sends to non-attenders click here.