Common-Law Members, Part 4

Posted by Matt Postiff February 3, 2012 on Matt Postiff's Blog under Church 

Now, here comes a tough question. What about a common-law member who is errant in doctrine or practice? Can you exercise church discipline on such a person? The common answer I have heard is, "no" because they are not members, have not agreed to be bound by the "terms and conditions," and thus they can sue you if you publicize their sin to the church.

That is a practical answer, but it is not Biblical. I do not see in Matthew 18:15-17 where official membership is part of the equation. "And if he refuses to hear them, and if he has signed a membership application, tell it to the church..." is not what the text says. The text is talking about a brother. If I could be allowed to make a distinction between a member and a believer, I would make it here. Practically there are situations where you have to be able to treat the errant brother as a believer even if he is not a member. Indeed, we share more in common with members of our church than generic believers, but we do share some things with believers, especially those who are attending our church. And one of those things we share is a responsibility to carry out the Biblical command of accountability through discipline, whether the person "signed on the dotted line" or not.

All this was a factor in the origination of my "common-law" concept because I do not think it is appropriate for a person to be loosely joined to a church, not a member, and think that they can walk away any time things get a little sticky. Such situations are all too frequent. For example, person A is a member, and has abandoned any attendance at the meetings of the church. Person B is a non-member, but was attending all along as well, and then stopped. In the church meeting, we "discipline" person A by dropping him/her from the membership roll. Another member asks, "What about person B?" Good question. Person B is guilty of the same behavior, but B is treated differently just because his/her name was not on the list.

But if common-law members are warned ahead of time that they will be treated as members on the discipline side of the equation, that might encourage them to consider the whole package of membership so they can partake of the benefits as well as the accountability aspect of it.

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