The Nature and Structure of the New Testament Church
By now, we have shown the nakedness of a number of mythologies so dear to modern churchmen. Mandatory “local church membership” and the related to it “vows” and “covenants” are a novelty, it came from the cults and from political pressure on the churches. It contributes nothing to accountability and church discipline; to the contrary, it has destroyed accountability and church discipline. “Submission” to the local church is not Biblical either, it is another mythology designed to rob the faithful of their right and duty of private judgment, a right and duty for which saints in the past have died for.
For anyone who has been influenced by these mythologies, the question now remains: How do we do church then? How do we gather, as commanded in the New Testament? How do we practice church discipline, and especially excommunication, if there is no mandatory “local church membership”?
These are good questions, but they are not answerable within the current paradigm of the church—exactly because the current paradigm was specifically designed to protect the ruling elites in the churches. While I am sure I won’t be able to give here a comprehensive exposition of what the church is supposed to be, some basic principles need to be laid out so that we understand how the church should be organized and where our efforts should be directed to.1
Any study of the nature of the New Testament Church must start with the nature and the promise of the New Covenant. Obviously, if our idea of “church” doesn’t serve the New Covenant as it is declared in the Bible, then our idea of “church” is a fallacious idea, and it will lead to disastrous results—which has been the case in the last one century, obviously.
One of the most important promises of the New Covenant was given to us in Jeremiah 31:33-34:
“But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. “They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”
The same verses are repeated in Hebrews 8:8-12, in the context of the difference between the Old and the New Covenant. The concept of the New Covenant as a Covenant in which every individual is directly taught by God—and therefore doesn’t need human teachers—is repeated in Is. 11:9; 54:13; John 6:45; Gal. 3:1; Phil. 3:15; 1 Thess. 4:9; 1 John 2:20, 27. The very fact of giving the Holy Spirit to all who believe (the priesthood of all believers) should lead us to the conclusion that the New Covenant of God changes the standards for the religious hierarchy in the covenanted community. That hierarchy will have to abide by different rules than the Old Covenant hierarchy (Heb. 8:6), its function will be different than the function of the Old Covenant hierarchy, and its goal and purpose will be different than the goal and purpose of the old priesthood. The difference, obviously, is in the nature of revelation: and this is the very presupposition at the very beginning of Hebrews, that the nature of revelation has changed:
God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world (Heb. 1:1-2).
In this new covenantal context of revelation, clearly, the old systems of revelation by proxy, knowledge by proxy, growth by proxy, maturity by proxy, are all abolished. Men don’t need to go to a special place and to a special class to learn about God, and to grow in knowledge of the Lord. Christ has been revealed clearly to all, including to the “foolish Galatians.” The concept we talked about above, the right and duty of private judgment, was based on two ideas: the Scriptures are plain to all who read them, and the Holy Spirit is given to all who believe. Men don’t need to place themselves “under the care” of other people as immature children; the desired state for men is to be mature, trained to judge between good and evil, and teach and train others to become mature and trained enough to not need teachers and trainers.
Making this Biblical principle the foundation of our understanding of the role and function of the church should produce in us a radical change in the way we view the institutional church. As it is today in our churches, and as it is exhibited in Jeff Durbin’s statement above, the institutional church is viewed as the purpose and end of the Christian life. It is viewed as “magisterial,” that is, as a ruler over the life of its individual members; hence the requirement for “submission.” Any institution that views itself as “magisterial,” views itself as the proper guardian of all those under its magisterial rule—whether the institution itself is capable of being a guardian or not. Jeff Durbin’s call for Christians to gather in churches “under the care of elders” is no different than the call of the bramble in Jotham’s parable (Judges 9:7-15) for the trees to take refuge in its shade: trees who have a history of productive life and maturity, coming “under the care” of “elders” who seldom have anything more to show than their ability to jump through bureaucratic hoops and get picked to be on church sessions. Once the church is considered to be the ruler over men’s lives, the maturity of the individual Christian becomes irrelevant, his gifts and calling and productivity for the Kingdom of God become irrelevant, all that is relevant is whether he serves his new master, the institutional church—even if that master never does anything of any value for the Kingdom of God but is only concerned with its bureaucratic, ceremonial existence.
The true Church of God, however, based on the nature of the New Covenant, on the Holy Spirit abiding in every individual believer, and on the Kingdom of God—not on the institutional church—being the focus of the Gospel, is not concerned with gathering Christians under its shade but to the contrary, with scattering them outside in the world. In the cosmic battle between the Church and the powers of evil, we are not the ones who have walls and gates. We are the ones who are flooding the world and besieging the walls and the gates of the enemy. Our job is not to build small churchdoms, it is to build the Kingdom. Only where there are people still untrained to build and fight, the institutional church must be there to offer training and healing; but for the mature who don’t need training or healing, the institutional church can not and should not be a drain on their energy and resources. They should be left alone to continue their fighting and building, in the world, in the civilization around the church.
Rushdoony saw the problem and wrote extensively on it in ch. 14 of his Institutes:
The training of such mature men is the function of the church. The purpose of the church should not be to bring men into subjection to the church, but rather to train them into a royal priesthood capable of bringing the world into subjection to Christ the King. The church is the recruiting station, the training field, and the armory for Christ’s army of royal priests. It is a functional, not a terminal, institution.
The church has by and large paid lip service to the priesthood of all believers, because it’s hierarchy has distrusted the implications of the doctrine, and because it has seen the church as an end in itself, not as an instrument.2
This is exactly what Jeff Durbin does with his criticism of “facebook prophets”: He is not asking whether these men are mature and Biblical. He automatically accuses them for not being in subjection to an institutional church. But do they need such subjection? Does the institutional church offer any training or armory to be worth the subjection? Jeff doesn’t ask these questions. To him, the institutional church is an end in itself, not a means to training. Rushdoony continued by explaining the meaning of priesthood and the war of the church against it:
The purpose of man’s calling as priest is thus to realize himself as God’s vicegerent and to dedicate himself, his areas of dominion, and his calling to God and to the service of God’s kingdom. Man’s self-realization is possible only when man fulfills his priestly calling.
The tendency of institutions—church, state, and school—and of callings, is to absolutize themselves and to play god in the lives of men. . . .3
Of course, in the Bible, there is this apparent contradiction between Jer. 31:34, where the New Covenant is described as all the people having enough knowledge to not need teachers, and New Testament verses like Ephesians 4:11 where Paul legitimizes ministries of some authority, like apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Which is it, now? Is everyone knowledgeable enough to not need teachers? Or do we need teachers? The answer is in the view of the institutional church presented here: All these ministries are given as a temporary measure, for the growth of the body and of the individual believers, not for a permanent subjection of all believers under an institution. The very context in Ephesians 4 confirms the temporary character and need for such ministries, for it immediately adds the clause, “until”:
And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:11-13).
Very clearly, then, the individual believers are not there for the institutional church, to serve the institutional church; that would be a gross perversion of the role of the individual believers and of the institutional church. The Biblical view is that the institutional church must be there to serve the individual believers; and if it doesn’t have the capability to serve, no one needs it, and we better not have it. To recall the same text we quoted above from the First Book of Discipline of the Kirk of Scotland (1560), that it is better to not have a church than to have a church of incapable ministers:
We are not ignorant that the rarity of godly and learned men shall seem to some a just reason why that so strait and sharp examination should not be taken universally; for so it shall appear that the most part of kirks shall have no minister at all. But let these men understand that the lack of able men shall not excuse us before God if, by our consent, unable men be placed over the flock of Christ Jesus; as also that, amongst the Gentiles, godly, learned men were also rare as they are now amongst us, when the apostle gave the same rule to try and examine ministers which we now follow. And last, let them understand that it is alike to have no minister at all, and to have an idol in the place of a true minister; yea and in some cases, it is worse. For those that are utterly destitute of ministers will be diligent to search for them; but those that have a vain shadow do commonly, without further care, content themselves with the same, and so they remain continually deceived, thinking that they have a minister, when in very deed they have none.
Institutional church leadership, thus, is only legitimate when it serves that purpose. When it doesn’t serve that purpose, it is illegitimate and deserves no honor whatsoever, no submission whatsoever, but only criticism and judgment through prophetic word, from prophets outside or inside the institutional church. The “membership” of the prophet doesn’t have any covenantal significance; what matters is whether the word he speaks agrees with the Word of God, and whether the leaders deserve the criticism. Thus, any churchman whose first concern is institutional “membership” and not the content of the message, is by default illegitimate and should not be rendered any honor.
Moreover—and this will come as a shocking surprise for many modern Christians in America—church leadership is not necessary for the being and the operation of the Church. Yes, you read that well: church leadership is not necessary for the being and the operation of the Church. It is only necessary for the well-being of the Church, and that only in specific circumstances, where needed. We already saw this concept above in a quote from the First London Baptist Confession, that local churches are not defined by having leadership, but have the power, for their well-being, to choose elders. The churches, apparently, are legitimate churches even before they have elders, and without elders—a concept which the Second London Confession missed, and thus created an unresolvable conundrum. At least one modern Presbyterian denomination has adopted that concept of the leadership as functional but not necessary in their constitution:
The presbyterian form of government seeks to fulfill these scriptural requirements for the glory of Christ, the edification of the church, and the enlargement of that spiritual liberty in which Christ has set us free. Nevertheless, while such scriptural government is necessary for the perfection of church order, it is not essential to the existence of the church visible. (Book of Church Order of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, I.3)
The early church, as described in Acts, operated without the ecclesiastical office of elders most of the time. In many situations, Paul would create many disciples in a place and wouldn’t “plant a church” with elders (see, for example, Acts 14:21). The requirement that the churches have elders can’t be seen anywhere in the New Testament. Sure enough, elders are mentioned, and the requirements for an elder are mentioned, but that is different from a mandatory establishment of elders or local church hierarchy. In all his epistles, Paul speaks to whole congregations without mentioning elders, even where he speaks on issues of church discipline, as in his two epistles to the Corinthians. He sent Titus to Crete to appoint elders, but even in this action, two things are obvious: first, Crete had legitimate churches without elders before the arrival of Titus; and second, there was a very special reason for the necessity of ordaining elders: the immorality of the Cretans and the divisions in their churches (Titus 1:10-16). Logically, even the very instructions Paul gives to Titus for what an elder should be already show that Titus might not be able to ordain elders in every city: There was no guarantee that every city would have at least one believer who fitted the description in Titus 1:6-9.
The modern concept that the universal Church should be becoming more and more visible in the growth of its power and jurisdiction is therefore nonsensical in the light of the Biblical message. The growth of the institutional church in power and influence—as an institution—will be a testimony not to the success but to the failure of the New Covenant. The promise in the Bible is not that the institutional church will grow but that the Kingdom and the knowledge of God will grow, until there is no need for teachers, and therefore no need for an institutional church. The more the institutional church insists on growth and power, the more it declares that it expects its members to remain immature and incompetent. That’s where the American church is today, after over 100 years of dominance of the concept of mandatory “local church membership”: millions of sermons, lectures, conferences, Bible camps, crusades, etc., have produced nothing of value, and the church continues losing the cultural war. Why? Because the churches do not see themselves as servants for the maturity of the people but as rulers over flocks that are expected to remain immature throughout their lives. “Under the care of elders” sounds like something very godly and righteous; the reality is, it is the killer of maturity, and the birthplace of that concept is hell, not heaven.
The visible Church, then, defined as per the Reformed Confessional standards, must be understood to consist of “all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children.”4 “All those” are all individuals, for the requirement is profession of faith. Some may decide to organize themselves in societies with formal membership; others may decide to stay out of all kinds of secondary commitments and retain only membership in the universal Church through baptism. Membership in such societies can’t be considered an automatic proof of membership in the universal church, and non-membership can’t be considered an automatic exclusion from the Church. Some may decide to keep more informal connections to other Christians, others may decide to work alone in areas where there is a need to work alone. While regularly gathering together is important, it is not such a pressing necessity as to be a priority over certain occupations for the Kingdom of Christ which may require certain levels of solitude.
We have a number of faithful Christians in the history of the church who withdrew from commitments to church collectives and still remained faithful to the universal Church and rendered an immense service to the body of Christ. In our most recent history, one such example is Arthur Pink, whose story is probably one of the most radical stories of “lone rangers” ever told. For the last 16 years of his life he never joined any church nor even a local informal fellowship, and devoted all his time to writing his books. And yet, today, no Baptist ever complains of this deliberate choice to remain alone, and there is hardly a Reformed Baptist home in the US today that doesn’t have at least one book by Pink. Examples like Pink are more numerous than most people realize, but what is more important is that Pink’s real ministry of writing books was frustrated and almost ruined by his earlier attempts to fit in a local community. The mandatory commitment of such men to a local congregation, investing effort and time in it, whether it may exist some time down the road or not, is a gigantic waste of spiritual resource. The “democratic” impulse in modern churches—especially in Baptist churches—to test men of strategic calling and ministry by sending them to change diapers in the nursery makes no sense whatsoever. While it is commendable that all men learn to change diapers, such religion of works doesn’t prove anything about the character of a man and really doesn’t teach him anything. All it does is deprive the church of valuable time which could have been used in writing or teaching or training or evangelizing or anything else.
Local communities and gatherings, of course, will always exist. (Probably, as Charles Hodge said.) Some of them will require some sort of a covenant or oath to join: mainly because such organizations will have to deal with questions of church property and monetary decisions, or public declarations of faith, vision, and mission, and such collective decisions must be limited to sworn members who have made a commitment with all rights and responsibilities to the local group. Such organizations, however, are no more representative of the Church universal than any individual who believes in Christ and practices his faith in the world around him. Neither do they have the moral right to exclude from the Church and from fellowship other groups or individuals who profess the same faith but do not have the same structure or the same form of collective commitment or oath. Local congregations may have a system of leadership, or may not—local church government is not necessary for the existence of the church, only for its well-being.
What is more important is that membership in such groups or congregations must not be based on a requirement to “join a church.” Every believer has joined the Church in the moment of his baptism. Nothing more is required of him in terms of oaths or membership. In the words of A.A. Hodge quoted above, “A church has no right to make a condition of membership anything that Christ has not made a condition of salvation.” Any baptized person who professes the faith and practices it is a legitimate member of any congregation anywhere. If a congregation excludes from fellowship and communion Christians only on the basis that they have not taken a particular oath of commitment to a particular group, such congregation declares itself to be schismatic in relation to the Church Universal. In reality, such congregation does not confess together with the rest of the Church that “we believe One Holy Catholic Church.”
The foundation for unity must be the Word of God, not visible organizations. The goal and purpose must be the growth of the Kingdom of God, Christendom, a Christian civilization which expands way beyond any local church or club or family. Local congregations, if they want more people to join them, must do it through offering superior services of training people to expand the Kingdom. If a local congregation can’t offer such services, it is useless, and it’s better if it dissolves; as many local congregations have dissolved throughout history without any visible damage to the growing Kingdom of God. The local congregation can’t be an end in itself; it can’t be a ruler to whom we must submit, it is not and can not be magisterial. A local congregation must be ministerial, a servant who serves Christians to achieve purposes greater than itself. If it is useless as a servant, it must be dismissed. If it exists only for the purposes of ceremonial repetition every Sunday, its members should leave it. It’s better to not have a local congregation than to be a member of a useless one. Where it serves well, and has elders who lead and teach well, it deserves double honor (1 Tim. 5:17), and yet, even then, formal membership in it must be voluntary and conditional. For an individual, membership in any organization must be subject to a number of reasonable limitations, from his personal gifts and calling to the spiritual health and strategic importance of the organization itself.
In other words, “local church membership,” for all it is worth, must be left to Christian liberty. Any preacher or teacher who demands such membership as the condition for membership in the universal Church, is preaching another Gospel, and, in the words of Charles Hodge, “introduces a new method of salvation.”
The Biblical Way of Church Discipline
The last objection we need to take care of is this: “What do we do with church discipline?”, if we don’t have mandatory “local church membership”? In the mind of the modern church-goer, the only way to do church discipline is through the “local church” and through “membership in the local church.” So, how do we do it when such “membership” is not mandatory?
We already saw above that historically, there is absolutely no reason to believe that “local church membership” ever helps with church discipline. To the contrary, we have ample evidence that the rise of this doctrine led only to the destruction of discipline in the churches. And there is a good reason for it: the very idea that church discipline can be maintained through local churches is utterly absurd, and makes no sense whatsoever. It’s not that we have not applied “local church membership” correctly, and that’s why we don’t have the results. It is that the very concept leads to those undesired results. Just like government schools: it’s not that they have failed; they have succeeded in what they were meant to do. In the same way, it’s not that “local church membership” has failed in its task of maintaining discipline. To the contrary, it has succeeded in its task to destroy it.
Three specific and direct examples from my personal experience with “local church discipline” in America will help us see the utter absurdity of the concept.
1. The Abandonment of Luke 12:48.
About ten years ago, a friend of mine invited me to visit his church—a church of good reputation, part of a large Presbyterian denomination—one Sunday morning and “participate in the fellowship.” My displeasure with the “service” must have been written all over my face, so after we got out of the church, he asked me to give him my “brutally honest opinion” about the “service.” We had the following dialogue:
Me: “Well, since you want my brutally honest opinion, this preacher you have there is not qualified to be a preacher or even an elder. His sermon—or whatever passed for a sermon—was full of nonsensical clichés and repetitions. It had nothing whatsoever in it that would be beneficial to even a newly converted Christian. My ten-year-old daughter can make up a better sermon. The man can’t teach, and having him as an elder violates the clear command of 1 Tim. 3:2 and Titus 1:9.”
“Yeah, you are right, and we all know that. It’s just the ruling elders have not been able to find a better teacher yet, and this one has his seminary degrees. But you know, people don’t come to church for the sermon.”
“Yeah? What do they come to church for?”
“For the fellowship.”
“For the fellowship? I didn’t see much fellowship in there. Everyone was sitting quietly and staring at the guys on the podium. You and I can have more fellowship over a glass of bourbon tonight than you can have at 50 of those services.”
“I meant fellowship after church. The potluck and the rest of it.”
“Oh, if everyone comes not for the sermon but for the fellowship, can you be a member and only come for the potluck after church?”
“No, I have to come for the service.”
“What will happen if you only come for the fellowship?”
“They will probably excommunicate me.”
“Let me see if I get this right. You have elders who can’t meet their specific Biblical requirement to be able to teach, and you are willing to excuse them from this requirement and obligation . . . but you have already given them the power to excommunicate you, which is nowhere specifically granted to elders?”
“Huh, I see what you are saying.”
His is not the only church with that same problem. I can’t even count how many times I have heard the phrase, “People don’t go to church for the sermon,” as an excuse for the lack of qualifications of their elders. Even more often I have heard the more general excuse: “You shouldn’t be looking for a perfect church and perfect elders.” Of course. But then, these less than perfect elders want for themselves the power to declare discipline, and even excommunicate, as if they are perfect. That is, we give power to people who, by their own admission, are not qualified to wield it. And we don’t even see the problem in it.
This is a clear violation of the principle in Luke 12:48: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required.” Those who are given the power of discipline and excommunication should be held to a stricter standard, and should be always as near as possible to the ideal set forth in 1 Tim. 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-8. When Paul gave these instructions for elders, he didn’t tell Timothy and Titus, “but if you can’t find such people, just appoint somebody; we are not looking for perfect elders anyway.” To excuse the elders of a church from being held up to these standards, because “we can’t have perfect elders,” and at the same time giving them the ultimate power of excommunication is a clear violation of the principles in Scripture concerning power and discipline.
2. The Abandonment of Deut. 19:18-19 and of Luke 7:8
In the second example from my experience with “church discipline” in the modern “local churches,” I was present at an appeal trial before a presbytery as a higher adjudicatory. The case was the unlawful excommunication of a local church member by his session for alleged “disrespect to authority.” The presbytery found the decisions of the session inconsistent with justice, as well as motivated by personal feelings, and promptly reversed the verdict and restored the man to full membership in his church. It seemed like most of the people in the room were happy with the decision—with the exception of some of the elders in question, of course.
I had the chance afterward to fellowship with two of the judges on the trial, and I used the chance to ask them a question: “So what happens to that session now? Will the Presbytery excommunicate them as a session?”
It turned out they never even considered such an option. But as we continued talking, the two men came to realize that in order for them to be consistent, this would be the only logical thing for them to do. The session had committed injustice. They had testified falsely against the man, and they had judged falsely against him. The session as a collective of power had conspired against an innocent man, using its legal power to inflict on him a punishment he did not deserve. Under the principle of Deut. 19:18-19, there could be no neutral reversal of the verdict. Any reversal of that verdict should be by default a verdict on the false accusers, with the same punishment inflicted on them. These men should have been automatically excommunicated from their church and from the denomination, and not allowed to return until there was public repentance. And certainly not allowed to take leadership positions in the church, on no excuse whatsoever. One such grave injustice should disqualify them forever.
And yet, even as they agreed with me on the ethics of punishing the false accusers with the same punishment they planned for their victim, the two men were reluctant to pursue their actions to their logical Biblical end. The reason? It was not part of their Book of Discipline. And it couldn’t be included either, for under the current ecclesiology, there was no way to include a principle which would subject the sessions to the same sanctions they can mete out to their church members. Which means, the principle of the centurion in Luke 7:8, “a man under authority, with men under his authority,” which Jesus praised so highly as “such faith I haven’t found even in Israel,” has been abandoned in our churches.
3. The Abandonment of Matt. 18:15-20.
In my third example, I was present at a conversation between pastors of two churches. In that conversation, an issue was brought up about a man excommunicated from one of those two churches, who just went down the road and became a “member” of the other. To my amazement, the conversation was quite friendly and rather nonchalant about the whole matter. It was as if I was listening to two employers who just exchanged an employee between them. One just didn’t want the guy, the other was OK to have him. As if the excommunication never happened, as if there weren’t any accusations against the excommunicated person, as if all excommunication involved was sending a person to another “local church.”
After the meeting, I asked the pastor of the “excommunicating” church, “You don’t seem to be taking your own verdict very seriously. I thought you would be consistent with it and either try to convince or excommunicate the other church for taking in a person whom you have delivered to Satan, according to Paul’s words in 1 Tim 1:20.” The pastor simply shrugged, “Nothing can be done about it. All I can do is rid my church of that man.”
He explained to me that he had been very meticulous in his application of Matt. 18:15-20. However, when I read the verses to him and asked him if he believed that the verdict of his church was also the verdict of God, he wasn’t so sure about it. May be, may be not. Apparently, he also believed in some sort of neutral stance in God, for in his view, even if his verdict was not the verdict of God—that is, even if his church had committed injustice—God wouldn’t see it as a big issue. Either way, there was no use of trying to convince the church universal in the validity of his church’s verdict. “Tell it to the church” meant nothing to him beyond “tell it to our local church.” In other words, discipline for him was simply banning the person from a particular group, nothing more.
These three examples are not isolated. In the context of our modern churches in the US, “discipline”—no matter how much modern ecclesiocrats beat themselves in the chest over that term—means nothing whatsoever. It has become a joke. No one views it seriously anymore, not even the ecclesiocrats themselves. The majority of Christians laugh at their fake discipline, and the ecclesiocrats laugh at it, too—in private, of course. Any “excommunicated” person just switches “churches,” and can pretty much forget about his old “church.” Given the rate of change and the longevity of “local churches” these days, he can be pretty sure his old “church” will barely exist a few years down the road, and even if it does, it will hardly be the same. Or, if it remains the same, it will hardly be relevant to anything outside it. Inside the churches themselves, “discipline” is simply a tool of control, it is seldom a tool for doctrinal or ethical purity. Any “discipline” is only “discipline” for the ordinary members of the churches. Those who have achieved some “leadership” status are hardly affected by it, except in some very egregious cases. And it certainly never applies to “leaders” in packs, also known as “church sessions” or “presbyteries,” where any injustice or immorality only meets a mild reproach—if that much at all—and a maximum verdict of “reversal of decision.”
Any excuse that “these are a few bad apples but not the whole church” is laughable, at best. If anything, there are a few good apples in this basket full of rottenness, and it’s just a matter of time until they get rotten as well. Any excuse that “the system is good, it’s just we haven’t applied it well” is just as laughable. It is no different than the claim that “Communism is a great idea, it was just applied by bad people.” The truth is, the current state of the church is not an accident; it follows directly from the currently dominant ecclesiology in the churches, that of mandatory “local church membership.” It is because of mandatory “local church membership” that we have “elders” who don’t and can’t meet the requirements for elders. It is because of mandatory “local church membership” that we have church sessions who can’t be held responsible for the injustices they commit. It is because of mandatory “local church membership” that excommunication has become a joke, and nobody really pays attention to it. The self-ghettoization of the Church into little, self-absorbed, fragmented “communities” that seek to suck the energy and the time of their members for trivial tasks and purposes of no lasting significance has led to the situation today. Discipline is not created nor maintained by fragmented ghettos; the whole concept that “local churches” and their “elders” can maintain church discipline is not only seriously flawed, it is outright absurd.
So how is church discipline maintained, then, in a Biblical fashion, without mandatory “local church membership”? Here’s how.
Church Discipline Is Learning, Not Punishments
The first thing we need to understand about church discipline is that the modern obsession with punishments—and especially with excommunication—is not Biblical. While excommunication is mentioned in the Bible, it doesn’t constitute such a great part of the life of the church as it is assumed today. We have only three passages dealing with excommunication, Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5:9-13; and 2 Thess. 3:6-13. The three passages are certainly not exhaustive in detail; to make them the foundation of the modern doctrine of excommunication as “church discipline” means that we need to impose on the text our pre-conceived ideas. When we get to the modern detailed books of church courts and discipline—full of details that can’t be found anywhere in the Bible—the deviation of the modern churches from the Biblical teaching is clearly evident.
The reason for such deviation is that the modern churches have adopted an essentially pagan view of discipline: that discipline is the same as punishment. It is under the secularist “natural law” worldview that a man is considered “disciplined” when he is mindful of the punishments his superiors may impose on him. Paganism has no trust in the self-government of individuals, so individuals are always kept in line through being constantly threatened when they go exploring outside the limits set by the dominant institutional hierarchy. Thus, in paganism, there can be no discipline without institutional control; a person is either under the power (“under the care”) of institutional superiors, or he is “anarchistic” and “undisciplined.” That a person can be disciplined simply based on his self-control under God is an unacceptable notion in any paganism.
Modern churches, having accepted this pagan idea of “discipline,” boast with having “discipline” when they have a system of taking their members to court and punishing them. Take any Book of Church Order and read the chapters on discipline. They always have to do with court procedures and punishments. Outside court procedures and punishments, outside institutional power and control, there is no discipline. Thus, only people who are under such control – “members”—are “disciplined.” Punishments make discipline.
R.J. Rushdoony picked on this pagan nature of the modern notion of discipline and called it “not discipline at all.” He pointed to the problem directly:
Failure to understand this distinction between discipline and punishment is responsible for much of the disorder in the church. In almost every church, where discipline is spoken of, in reality punishment is meant. In the confusion of the two, it is discipline that is usually lost.5
And then he gives the correct, Biblical meaning of “discipline”:
. . . discipline comes from disciple, which is the Latin word discipulus, in turn derived from disco, learn. To be a disciple and to be under discipline is to be a learner in a learning process. If there is no learning, and no growth in learning, there is no discipline.6
He continues by pointing out that “an undisciplined church is a church where there is a failure in the proclamation and teaching of Scripture.” Thus, “membership” in such a church doesn’t lead to discipline; it is destructive to true Biblical discipline. There is more true discipline in a lone man with his Bible and the Holy Spirit than in a church where the Word of God is not preached, or is only preached at a very rudimentary, fundamental level, keeping the hearers fed on milk (Heb. 6:1-2) and constantly immature.
But such are the vast majority of churches in the US today. While the author of Hebrews clearly says in Heb. 5:11-6:2 that we should strive to maturity and not remain on the level of the basic doctrines of the faith, these basic doctrines are almost all that is taught in the churches today. There are 20,000+ sermons on baptism alone, on SermonAudio alone—and new ones are coming out weekly. Whole conferences are put up every year on these same topics. In fact, this is how one attains to celebrity status in the modern evangelical world: repeat the same basic doctrines, the same milk of the faith, in fancier and fancier words, over and over again. Where new churches appear—supposedly to right the wrongs of the established ones—the same things are preached. In all respects, the American church today has not grown an inch in spiritual understanding over the original readers of Hebrews. Thus, it is an undisciplined church to start with. Such church can not practice discipline—and no formal “membership” in it can produce any kind of discipline. All we have today in the churches is collectivist anarchy, and no discipline at all.
Thus, true discipline is in true preaching and teaching the Word of God (John 15:3; 17:17; Eph. 5:26). But such preaching and teaching doesn’t need formal church “membership,” nor can it be restricted to the local congregation and its session. Nor can it be restricted to a handful of churchian bureaucrats and celebrities who have gathered a “congregation” around themselves. It comes from a wide variety of sources, including private study and admonitions from prophets who may not be connected to any visible body. A truly discipline church is focused on learning, not on institutional controls.
Excommunication Is Not a Prerogative of Elders
This may come as a deep surprise to many Christians today, because of the mass of inherited teachings in the churches. But whatever teachings we may have inherited, they all must be judged by Scripture. And when we go to Scripture, we don’t find a single verse that connects excommunication to elders. In the places where the prerogatives of elders are listed, excommunication is not listed. To start with, the main justification for excommunication in Matt. 18:15-20 doesn’t mention elders and sessions and church leadership. The word used there is “the church.” And in verse 20, Jesus declares His presence in His Church even where there are only two or three believers gathered together. We will see below what this means.
In Acts 6:4 the Apostles, acting as elders of the church in Jerusalem (which couldn’t have been a “local church” given that it had thousands of believers at that time), described their duties as “prayer and the ministry of the Word.” Excommunication is not mentioned. The focus is on teaching, in agreement with what was said above that true discipline is in learning, not in punishments.
The section in the Bible, however, which contains the lengthiest and most detailed exposition of the duties and prerogatives of elders are Paul’s two epistles to Timothy and his epistle to Titus. It is common today, when qualifications and duties of eldership are mentioned, to focus only on a few verses in these epistles, where the minimum requirements are listed: 1 Tim. 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-8. What is most of the time missed is that Timothy and Titus were themselves elders, and these three epistles, in their entirety, are instructions to elders. In giving instructions to Timothy and Titus, Paul in fact gave instructions to all the elders and bishops of what their obligations and prerogatives are.
And guess what: In all these thirteen chapters of detailed instructions to these two elders, Paul did not mention excommunication once. Keep in mind, Timothy and Titus were not simply elders, they were rather “super-elders” (bishops?), for they were charged with the task of ordaining elders. Not only were they “super-elders,” they had the claim to true authority: both were appointed and ordained by Paul, and Timothy also had the authority of special prophecies behind him (1 Tim. 1:18; 4:14). If any elder ever in history could claim that his binding and loosing were God’s binding and loosing, it would be these two men. And yet, in all his instructions, Paul mentioned nothing of excommunication.
And these men were sent to their fields to bring discipline to the churches under their supervision (1 Tim. 1:3; Titus 1:5); that was the main purpose of their sending. Under the dominant ecclesiology in the modern churches, Paul would have given them a detailed list of judicial procedures for punishments and excommunication; just look at the book of discipline of any modern denomination, or listen to any sermon on church discipline. But there’s nothing of the sort in Paul’s epistles, not even a mention of it. But what is mentioned over and over again is instruction.
In accordance with what we saw above, Paul saw instruction as the only instrument of discipline given to these “super-elders,” Timothy and Titus. The verses are too many to quote, so I will just give a list of them: 1 Tim. 1:5; 2:6; 3:2; 4:6, 11, 13, 16; 5:1, 7, 17; 6:2, 17; 2 Tim. 2:2, 14-15, 24-26; 4:1-2; Titus 1:9; 2:1, 15; 3:1, 14. Nothing about excommunication. Everything about teaching. All in the context of church discipline.
Thus, there is absolutely no Biblical foundation for the modern concept of excommunication as the prerogative of elders. Such concept is the fruit of extra-Biblical traditions, not of careful exegesis of the Bible. The duty of the elders is to teach, not to punish.
Excommunication Is a Prerogative of the Church
Because the modern view of discipline is so much focused on punishments, and so much revolves around “local church” hierarchy, one very clear Biblical truth is always missing from modern teachings on discipline: excommunication is left in the hands of the Church in general, which means the individual believers, not their elders. In every single place in the New Testament where excommunication is mentioned, the agency responsible for making the decision and enforcing it is not the church leadership but the mass of individual believers.
Starting with that most favorite passage of all advocates of excommunication with discipline, Matt. 18:15-20, here’s what the verse has to say as the final stage of punishment:
If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church. . . . (v. 17)
But what is the church? Is it the elite of church leaders? Not according to the Reformed confessions:
The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children. . . .7
It is tempting, of course, in the modern context, to assume that the “church” must be an official leadership body which issues verdicts and enforces them for the church. But there is no support for such conclusion in the Bible. Besides Matt 18, we have 1 Cor. 5:9-13. In these verses, however, Paul speaks to the gathering of believers, not to their elders or their church session. We need to remember the words of Charles Hodge we quoted above:
The Scriptures are everywhere addressed to the people, and not to the officers of the Church either exclusively, or specially. The prophets were sent to the people, and constantly said, “Hear, O Israel,” “Hearken, O ye people.” Thus, also, the discourses of Christ were addressed to the people, and the people heard him gladly. All the Epistles of the New Testament are addressed to the congregation, to the “called of Jesus Christ;” “to the beloved of God;” to those “called to be saints;” “to the sanctified in Christ Jesus;” “to all who call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord;” “to the saints which are in (Ephesus), and to the faithful in Jesus Christ;” or “to the saints and faithful brethren which are in (Colosse);” and so in every instance. It is the people who are addressed. To them are directed these profound discussions of Christian doctrine, and these comprehensive expositions of Christian duty. They are everywhere assumed to be competent to understand what is written, and are everywhere required to believe and obey what thus came from the inspired messengers of Christ.
And it’s not that the Corinthian church was a very ordered and organized church. To the contrary, Paul’s admonitions in chapters 12 and 14 clearly show that there was a certain level of disorder which he found necessary to correct. And yet, even in those chapters Paul relies on his words and on the self-control of his readers; he mentions nothing of elders nor of church officers who should step in and institute order and discipline. Same applies to the excommunication case in ch. 5: Paul speaks to every one of those individual believers as the church. He expects everyone one of them to take his words and apply them. Paul doesn’t issue the verdict neither does he take upon himself the administration of that verdict. He only instructs. He expects his readers to judge and to decide for themselves who is it that claims to be a brother but is not.
Paul repeats the same admonition to another church, that in Thessalonika, in 2 Thess. 3:6:
Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us.
Again, elders are not mentioned anywhere in that epistle. The command is to the ordinary believers in the church. They are supposed to exercise judgment, and they are supposed to execute that judgment. Excommunication by professional leaders is not mentioned.
We see an image of this communal excommunication in the requirement for communal execution for some crimes in the Law of God, for example, Lev. 24:14 and Deut. 21:21. The elders of the city or of the community were supposed to act as judges and declare the verdict, but there was no professional class of executors. It was left to the men of the community to stone the offender. This is presented today as some sort of primitive cruelty, but what most commentators fail to see that in this requirement of execution by the community rather by a government-hired hangman, there is a check and balance on judicial arbitrariness and injustice. If the judge was too harsh or corrupt, and if the community believed that the verdict was not just, the verdict would have remained on the books but there would be no execution. Thus, there would be an ultimate check on the judge’s actions, and that would be what would be called today “nullification by community restraint.”
Similarly, in the New Testament church, the elders could be judges and still could issue verdicts concerning the walk and the doctrines of some men. An example would be Paul in 1 Tim. 1:20 “delivering to Satan” certain men for their conduct and teachings. In the final account, however, the real action on excommunication was reserved not for the elders themselves—of which we have not a single verse—but was left to the self-government and private judgment of the individual believers as the Church. Thus, excommunication was not a ceremonial nor an administrative action. It was a responsibility of the community, irrespective of the decisions of the elders.
Rushdoony saw this error in the modern church and wrote about it:
Fifth, in terms of these ministerial powers, we have great authority, of binding and loosing. If two or three gathered together in Christ’s name, either as a church court or as simple believers, agree on something in faithfulness to Scripture, we can bind and loose men. Now normally this is a function of church authorities.8
This concept of excommunication as a responsibility of the community also gives the solution to the question I asked above: “Who excommunicates the excommunicators?” Under the modern system, as we saw, a local church session can’t be excommunicated if it commits injustice. Under the Biblical concept of excommunication, a session can be excommunicated by the community over which it presides, despite of and contrary to the decisions of the session, without the need of any other authority by the private judgment and agreement of the ordinary members. And this is actually happening today in the exodus of so many Christians from the visible institutional churches.9 It is nothing less than a massive excommunication of the modern church leaders by Christians who want to remain faithful to the Word, and are tired of being fed the same basic milk.
Thus, “local church membership” is not only not needed for excommunication, but it is in fact harmful to the process of real Biblical excommunication, because it binds the conscience of individual believers where God has not imposed any burdens.
In addition, we may also point to the fact that where the Word is preached faithfully, the Bible expects the heretics, the teachers of false doctrines, to leave on their own accord, without the need for formal church discipline. In his first epistle, John speaks of the antichrists and their separation from the church:
Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us. But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you all know. I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it, and because no lie is of the truth (1 John 2:18-21).
Notice that, first, these false teachers were not kicked out, they went out on their own accord. And second, their going out is contrasted to the anointing and knowledge of those who remained in the church. As Rushdoony said concerning discipline in the church,
There is a supernatural teaching or disciplining power inherent in the word of the supernatural God which is lacking in the words and actions of men.10
As I said in the beginning of this article, when Jeff Durbin made his statement against his opponents, the “facebook prophets,” he did it not on the basis of a solid understanding of the Bible, or of Reformed theology. All he did is follow a recent tradition popular in the modern ministry-industrial complex, a tradition which seeks to chain individual Christians to obey and submit to men who have no other credit except having achieved the status of celebrities. The same ministry-industrial complex which, for the last 100 years, have made the church in America passive, powerless and retreating on all the fronts of the cultural war. When we, however, rise above the level of the propaganda of this ministry-industrial complex and actually study the Bible, the historic church, and Reformed theology on the issue of “local church membership,” we are forced to come to the following conclusions which clearly show that Jeff is completely wrong, and that he doesn’t know what he is talking about.
First, mandatory “local church membership” can’t be found as a principle in the Bible. A christian becomes a member of the Church in baptism. No other vow or covenant of membership is required of him. A member of the Church is equally a member of all the local congregations. The Biblical principle is that a man’s commitments follow his gifts and purpose before God, not any requirement to join a visible body. A member of a local body and a lone believer are equally legitimate members of the Church.
Second, mandatory “local church membership” has never existed as a concept in the church, nor in Reformed theology, and has only gotten to dominate the Reformed churches in the last one century. During the centuries, it has always been characteristic to non-orthodox cults, never to the Trinitarian churches.
Third, it was introduced as a confessional standard among Reformed Baptists very late in their history, and that as a concession to political pressure, not based on any specific Biblical example or command. Laying such un-Biblical burden on the consciences of their followers, however, the authors of the Second London Baptist Confession created a contradiction that has created problems for their churches ever since.
Fourth, such fragmentation of the Church was the product of a pessimistic ideology which sees the Church as a permanent ghetto in a world which is a permanent den of evil. When the Church is optimistic about the Kingdom of God and its expansion into a Christian civilization, such focus on the local congregations is a waste of resources.
Fifth, contrary to the claims of the modern ministry-industrial complex, mandatory “local church membership” can not be an effective tool for church discipline. To the contrary, it only encourages an undisciplined church because it elevates the power of the local sessions to the status of lack of accountability for the very leaders who are supposed to enforce the discipline. The history of the last one century—when the concept of mandatory “local church membership” became dominant—is an abundant evidence that the concept not only didn’t work, but also can’t work for the purposes it was supposedly introduced.
Sixth, the true Church is universal, and its bond of unity is the Word of God, not some visible institutional organization, global or local. It may include local congregations, it also includes lone individuals who, for one reason or another, have chosen to remain separate from visible organizations. Membership in a visible body can’t be taken to be membership in the Church, and non-membership in a visible body doesn’t automatically exclude a person from the Church. Making membership in a local visible body a standard for all believers is, according to Reformed theology, a Pelagian heresy and false worship. Any church teacher who teaches such requirement is a false teacher, and as such must be ignored and abandoned by his listeners. The standard for membership in a visible body or gathering with other Christians is left to Christian liberty; no burden can be laid on the conscience of the believer. And where there is some form of membership, the right and duty of private judgment must always trump any vow or oath or covenant to a visible body. The local church is not the Church, and it is not a “fundamental part” of the life of a Christian.
And seventh, church discipline is teaching and training, not punishments. Where there is no teaching or training, or where the people have been fed only the fundamental milk of the faith, there is no discipline. Excommunication is a very minuscule part of discipline, and it is not given as a prerogative to elders. It is a responsibility and a privilege of the whole church, of all the individuals in it; and subject to it must be first and foremost the very teachers and leaders in the church.
The specific conclusion for the “facebook prophets” is this:
Your duty and obligation before God is to continue harassing the churchian leaders of our day, using all the means available. Do not be intimidated by Jeff Durbin’s complaints; he doesn’t know what he is talking about. Without you, all these ecclesiocrats won’t ever experience any real church discipline; for in the small churchdoms they have built for themselves, there is no way for them to be truly disciplined. You are their only check and balance. Only make sure your criticism and correction are in accordance with the Biblical message, and your theology is sound and solid. As long as your opponents are complaining only about your “local church membership,” you are safe, and they are in opposition to God, for He never asks His prophets who their elders are. So first make sure you are in agreement with the Word of God, and then . . . continue doing what you are doing.
The specific conclusion for Jeff Durbin can be given in the words of the great Dutch Reformed theologian, Herman Bavinck:
It is not unbelievers primarily but the devout who have always experienced this power of the hierarchy as a galling bond to their consciences. Throughout the centuries there has not only been scientific, societal, and political resistance but also deeply religious and moral opposition to the hierarchical power of the church. It simply will not do to explain this opposition in terms of unbelief and disobedience and intentionally to misconstrue the religious motives underlying the opposition of various sects and movements. No one has been bold enough to damn all these sects because they were moved to resist the church and its tradition. Even Rome shrinks from this conclusion. The extra ecclesiam nulla salus (no salvation outside the church) is a confession that is too harsh for even the most robust believer. Accordingly, the “law” we see at work in every area of life is operative also in religion and morality. On the one hand, there is a revolutionary spirit that seeks to level all that has taken shape historically in order to start rebuilding things from the ground up. There is, however, also a false conservatism that takes pleasure in leaving the existing situation untouched simply because it exists and—in accordance with Calvin’s familiar saying—not to attempt to change a well-positioned evil (malum bene positum non movere). At the proper time everywhere and in every sphere of life, a certain radicalism is needed to restore balance, to make further development possible, and not let the stream of ongoing life bog down. In art and science, state and society, similarly in religion and morality, there gradually develops a mindless routine that oppresses and does violence to the rights of personality, genius, invention, inspiration, freedom, and conscience. But in due time there always arises a man or woman who cannot bear that pressure, casts off the yoke of bondage and again takes up the cause of human freedom and that of Christian Liberty. These are turning points in history. Thus Christ himself rose up against the tradition of the elders and returned to the law and the prophets. Thus one day the Reformation had the courage, not in the interest of some scientific, social or political goal, but in the name of Christian humanity, to protest against Rome’s hierarchy. . . .11
This quote should be enough, but if Jeff needs a Biblical warning, here it is:
So in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God (Acts 5:38-39).
And in general, Jeff, keep this in mind: every time you are defending an institutional system against prophets, you are at risk before God. Especially if it’s like the one you are defending. You better get out of it before it’s too late.
- For more comprehensive studies in the Biblical nature of the church as opposed to the modern concept of the church, see R.J. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, Ch. 14; Stephen Perks, The Nature, Government, and Function of the Church: A Reassessment; The Christian Passover: Agape Feast or Ritual Abuse; and The Problem of the Gifted Speaker. All of Stephen Perks’s books are available at The Kuyper Foundation.
- R.J. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, Vol. I, p. 764.
- Ibid., p. 765.
- WCF 25:2.
- R.J. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, p. 766.
- WCF 25:2; cf. Belgic Confession 27; Second Helvetic Confession 17:1.
- R.J. Rushdoony, Systematic Theology, Vol. II, pp. 758-59.
- See my article, “Kevin DeYoung’s Gorbachevian Perestruvka Will Fail.”
- R.J. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, p. 767.
- Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. I, pp. 80-82.