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Membership Is Submission

Monday, January 21, 2013 | Comments (10)

by John MacArthur

As a pastor, I know I will have to give an account for the people under my leadership (Hebrews 13:17). Every pastor faces the same burden for the men and women under his care. But what good is a shepherd if the sheep won’t submit to his authority? In an age of unprecedented ecclesiastical consumerism, how can a pastor lead, serve, or even know an inconsistent, fluctuating flock?

Active involvement in and submission to a local church body is crucial if we’re going to live up to God’s plan and pattern for the church. As we’ve already seen, the idea of Christians floating free between multiple congregations and never committing to one church body is completely foreign to the New Testament. That kind of untethered independence cuts you off from the authority the Lord established through His church.

Just what that authority looks like is the cause of much controversy in the church today. Some pastors exercise illegitimate authority over their churches, with a level of involvement in their members’ lives that borders on abusive or dictatorial. It’s not the pastor’s role to tell his people where they should live, where they should work, whom they should marry, or exert that kind of control in other areas of their lives.

The only biblical authority a pastor has comes from the Word of God and the Holy Spirit working through his teaching in the lives of his flock. In effect, he’s not a source of authority himself, but a vessel of it from the Lord to His people. That’s the authority God’s people need to submit to—the work of the Spirit through the faithful, consistent teaching of God’s Word.

And how should believers respond to that kind of authority? That’s the question the writer of Hebrews was addressing in 13:17. “Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.”

It’s a tremendous grief to try to shepherd a rebellious flock. Watching over the people of God is no easy task to begin with. We’re called to train, disciple, support, and serve you. We’re called to guard your purity, and to lend insight and exercise oversight with you. We’re also called to exhort, warn, admonish, reprove, rebuke, and discipline in the application of God’s Word in your lives—all for the sake of your spiritual growth.

That’s hard enough with believers who are eager and engaged in the process. It’s virtually impossible with people who won’t be faithful to the flock and who want nothing to do with your leadership.

If you have a faithful pastor or church leader who exemplifies the qualities of a shepherd, let him know how much you appreciate his labor on your behalf (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:12). It will be a great encouragement to him to know he’s making a spiritual difference in your life.

And if you’re a believer who rejects the biblical authority of the local church and won’t submit to your pastor or church leaders, you need to do a careful, thorough examination of your heart. What’s behind your rebellious spirit? What sin are you harboring that’s keeping you from submitting to godly authority? Are you sure you’re truly saved at all?

The authority of the church isn’t harsh, personal, or oppressive. It’s parental, building you up and working for your benefit (1 Thessalonians 2:7-12). Don’t be foolish enough to reject that kind of biblical influence and authority in your life. Seek it out and submit to it in church membership.


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#1  Posted by Randy Carlson  |  Monday, January 21, 2013at 9:23 AM

“IF YOU’RE NOT A MEMBER, I’M NOT YOUR PASTOR”. Last year I started attending a local church and enjoyed the messages. Then, one Sunday the pastor spent the whole sermon talking about the “legal” ramifications of membership. He seemed more concerned about potential court actions rather than member commitment and ended the sermon with the above quote . . . I haven’t been back to that church since and have heard of several others that left. Membership as a spiritual commitment is good . . . do it for God, not man.

#2  Posted by Greg Tegman  |  Monday, January 21, 2013at 6:43 PM

I have been confused about accountabilty in the church. So,I have a question?. I fell into a one time sin many months ago. I have prayed to the Lord for forgiveness,yet,still feel guilty because I have not gone to a person in the church as well. What should I do?

#3  Posted by Brad Kennedy  |  Monday, January 21, 2013at 7:09 PM

John (author), Thank you for the refreshing words. Both those in authority and those in submission can benefit from these solid truths. Praise the Lord!

#4  Posted by Roger Burns  |  Tuesday, January 22, 2013at 9:49 AM

Randy, that is unfortunate that you sat under what may have appeared to be an unloving description about church membership. Pastors should show love and concern for all that darken the doors of the church. Those that enter in, are there because they are ordained so by God.

Let's put the legalities aside, even though there are very real concerns here because of the litigious nature of our culture, and let's examine the issue with a view towards covenant relationship.

Would you have the same view towards marriage? Would a woman be your wife because you spend time together, or would she be your wife because you have made a mutual commitment to one another? Should we look at church membership in a similar fashion? If a person is unwilling to make a vow of membership to a church body, should the church body make the commitment to that person? It seems that the person unwilling to make the formal commitment desires to have all the benefits of membership without making the commitment. I trust you see how the analogy to marriage would be fitting and instructive.

Can you see how difficult it may be to disciple a person that is unwilling to make a commitment to the church? Aren't they basically using the church?

Have you read "Stop Dating the Church"?

Your thoughts?

#5  Posted by Brad Kennedy  |  Tuesday, January 22, 2013at 10:01 AM

Greg (2), "Fellowship, Forgiveness, and You", Part 1 and Part 2 can be downloaded from John's sermons. (TMC 268,269). I encourage you to take the time to listen to them.

#6  Posted by Rachel Osborn  |  Tuesday, January 22, 2013at 10:33 AM

Good afternoon,

I am wanting to read Stop Dating the Church, where do I find it? I thank you in advance, but I am a new subscriber and I am getting used to this site.

Thank you!

#7  Posted by Roger Burns  |  Tuesday, January 22, 2013at 10:51 AM

You can purchase, "Stop Dating the Church" by Joshua Harris, on Amazon. It has an endorsement by John MacArthur.

http://www.amazon.com/Stop-Dating-Church-Family-Lifechange/dp/1590523652

#8  Posted by Rachel Osborn  |  Wednesday, January 23, 2013at 8:31 AM

Thank you very much! I appreciate the help.

#9  Posted by Leslie Allebach  |  Wednesday, January 23, 2013at 1:09 PM

Amen, amen, amen! This is one of those things about which so many of us are being deceived by being told it doesn't matter.

Interestingly enough, I have noticed that those most against church membership are often the most rebellious in other areas of their lives. The two things seem to go hand in hand. It is definitely about submission.

Thank you for such a concise and well stated blog post about this issue.

#10  Posted by Jerry Mallonee  |  Monday, January 28, 2013at 2:57 AM

I would agree that a mutual commitment is essential to the local church similar to the marriage relationship, but is my wife my wife because we mutually signed a piece of paper to show such or is she my wife because of our mutual vow toward one another before our Father in heaven? Legally our marriage to one another is bound on paper. Hypothetically, if we divorced and I remarried, there is no "legal" problem. Functionally (or spiritually?) we are bound by our oath before God. Hypothetically, if we divorced and I remarried, I am an adulterer- and if she remarries, I have made her one as well.

What I am getting at is my commitment to the local church ought not to be based upon whether or not I signed a piece of paper stating such (though there is not anything inherently wrong with a church that requires such, for it is their decision whether to do so or not).

A former church my wife and I attended asked a family to leave if they did not become members. Another local fellowship which my wife and I could not submit to membership because of doctrinal (Covenental/Dispensational) differences, said we could attend and they would still treat us as brothers and sisters in Christ, we just could not serve in any teaching capacity. Could not a church follow this example and still remain effective? Could not this church still disciple and practice church discipline regardless of "official" membership?