The Lord's Day Morning
October 15, 2006
“What It Means to Be a Member of FPC: The Five Questions of Membership
(5)”“Do you submit yourself to the government and discipline of the Church,
and promise to study its purity and peace?”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Hebrews 13. We’ll look at two verses in Hebrews today to show the truths underlying this fifth question of membership. We've been working through the five questions of membership over the last month or so. Last week we were looking at that fourth question of membership, which you just heard asked and answered in the service today:
“Do you promise to support the church in its worship and work to the best of your ability?”
And we said as we looked at that question that that entailed at least three things.
First of all, it means that you have a high view of the church and a high commitment to the local church. To ask and answer that question, and understand what's being entailed in that question and to mean it when we say “I do,” means that we would be a congregation of people with a high view of the local church and of this local church, and a high commitment to this local body of believers.
We also said that it would mean that you would have a high view of corporate worship — a high view of what it is to come together and worship the living God together, Lord's Day after Lord's Day, as the people of God gathered; and that we would have a high view of and commitment to worshiping God in all of life, to being those who worship God 24/7, so that in every activity our desire is to glorify Him. In every activity, our desire is for the pleasure of God.
And then, finally, we said in answering that question it would mean that we would also be a congregation of people that are committed to the work of this church; not only the work of this church in the worship of the living God, but the work of this church in discipling Christians and building them up in the faith, in growing them in grace so that they become contributing, discipling Christians themselves, but also in reaching out through missions and evangelism to those who do not know Jesus Christ, and inviting them to enjoy the glory of gospel brotherhood in the bonds of Christ. And so those who are asked that question, and answer it with understanding and mean it when they say it, are people who are characterized by these three things: a high view of the local church; a high view of the worship of the church; and, a high view and a zeal for the work of the church.
Well, this morning we're coming to the end of this series, looking at the last question. And that fifth question is:
“Do you submit yourself to the government and discipline of the church, and promise to strive for its purity and peace?”
Now, that could sound a little bureaucratic, a little mechanical, a little administrative…a little unspiritual…to your ears at first. The second half of the question seems more readily tied to the biblical concept — “striving for the purity and peace of the church” — but what does this submitting yourself to the government and discipline of the church mean?
Well, I want to suggest as we look at this question today, and as we look at the scriptural truths which underlie it, that there are three things that we are affirming when we affirm this question. We are affirming a respect for spiritual authority (and you’re going to see that rooted in Hebrews 13:17); secondly, we are affirming a pursuit of holiness (and you’re going to see that in Hebrews 12:14); and we're also affirming a pursuit of peace (you’ll also see that in Hebrews 12:14, but also again in I Peter 3:8, 9). I'm struck again, as I look at these questions, that underlying each of these questions are summarized biblical truths turned into question form.
I ran a Google search on these questions earlier this week to see where they would pop up on the internet, and it was interesting how many different families of Christians, denominational groupings, use basically these five questions as their basic questions of membership. These questions stretch back for at least 450 or 500 years in the English-speaking world — and maybe they’re older than that. I've not gotten back any further than that. But when you ask and answer these questions, you’re being asked and you’re answering something that Christians in the English-speaking world and various Reformed and Protestant bodies have been answering for almost half a millennium. And it struck me again in looking at the questions how they simply summarize in question form biblical truth, and we’ll see that again today as we look at Hebrews 13 and Hebrews 12, and I Peter 3. Before we read these passages, let's look to God in prayer and ask His help and blessing.
Father, thank You for Your word. It is a lamp to our feet and a light to our way. We ask that as we hear Your word read that we would both understand it and delight in it, hear it and do it, by Your Holy Spirit. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear God's word, first in Hebrews 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.”
And then if you turn back one chapter to Hebrews 12:14, we have this exhortation:
“Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.”
And then finally, if you turn forward to I Peter 3:8, 9, here we find a description of what it means to seek peace in the church:
“To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kind-hearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil, or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing.”
Amen. Thus ends these readings of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He add His blessing to them.
If we rightly understand the question “Do you submit yourself to the government and discipline of the church, and promise to strive for its purity and peace?”…if we rightly understand that question and we intend it when we say “I do,” then we will be a church consisting of members all of whom have three things: We will all have a respect for spiritual authority that will manifest itself practically; we will all have a commitment to pursue holiness (we won't give just lip service to godliness, it will be a real agenda in our lives); and, we will all have a passion for the peace of this church family, as well as peace with our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world.
I. A glad and willing respect for the elders, and a joyful acknowledgment and embrace of their spiritual leadership as the appointed shepherds of this flock
I want to look at those three things with you today. If we really understand this question and mean it when we say “I do,” first of all we are going to be a people characterized by respect for spiritual authority. Now, having just said that I've already said something very counter-cultural. We live in a day and age where authority is not respected, and you’re not even used to hearing from leaders using words like obey (twice) and submit in one sentence, like you did in Hebrews 13:17. It wouldn't be a congressman who would last very long who would include obey twice and submit in one sentence in his speech to his constituents, because, you see, we are first and foremost consumers. And we relate to the church as consumers. The church is a goods and services provider. And even in our government, we're king. Our representatives serve us. We don't think of obeying and submitting. But isn't it interesting how the author of Hebrews speaks to this early Christian congregation — we don't know exactly where it was, some people think Rome, some people think Palestine (I think Palestine) — but wherever it was, here is this early Christian author, maybe Apollos or another student of Paul, saying to this local congregation, “Obey your leaders and submit to them.”
What is he saying? He's saying ‘I want you to have a glad and willing respect for your elders. I don't want you to have a grudging acknowledgement and respect for them. I want you to have a glad and willing respect for your elders. I want you to have a joyful acknowledgement and embrace of their spiritual leadership as the appointed shepherds of your flock.’ Notice again what he says. Hebrews 13:17: “Obey your leaders and submit to them.” Do this with joy, so that they will do this with joy. What's he saying? He's saying that we ought to do everything we can to show respect for and follow the shepherding of the elders of the church. We ought to joyfully acknowledge and embrace their spiritual leadership.
Now this is a very significant thing. It's significant in many ways, but I want to mention just a couple. One thing that you need to understand is that our church is not personality-centered, and so many churches in Christendom today are. They’re centered around one particular person, and when he goes, the church falls apart. And that's not First Presbyterian Church. Pastors come and go–but the elders, they are always with us. One hundred seventy years, twelve different ministers — the continuity of the church has been kept for us by the leadership of our elders, and that's something that I rejoice in. Do you rejoice in that?
I was an assistant on a church staff in another Presbyterian church in town when the pastor announced his resignation. At the congregational meeting where his resignation was received and accepted by the congregation, a dear friend of mine said to me, “You know, something happened today that I have never seen happen in a congregational meeting.” I said, “What's that?” He said, “The church didn't split!” He had come from a background where every time a pastor had left the churches that he had grown up in, there had been a church split. And I said, “Well, that's how it's designed. The church isn't built around one man.” The elders together give spiritual oversight and leadership to the church, so that the church is not personality-driven or
—centered. It's not about one man and his particular whims. The leaders of the church together give spiritual oversight. That's the first thing I want to say.
The second thing I want to say is this: How do they do that? Well, they do it primarily through prayer, example, and teaching. Yes, they have the keys to the kingdom. They are the ones who admit into membership and dismiss from membership. They are the ones who administer the discipline of the church, whether it is admonition or whether it is removing someone from the privilege of coming to the Lord's Table. Yes, they do that. But primarily their ministerial authority, their spiritual and pastoral authority, is manifested in prayer, in example, and in teaching.
Now I wish that you could see the elders of the church every month at prayer for you. We had a really long Session meeting this last month, and I thought, “You know, they’ll probably skimp on the prayer time at the end….” Oh! Was I wrong! We went longer than we normally go in prayer! Why? Because the elders take seriously praying for the congregation.
And they take seriously their example. I received a beautiful letter from a congregation member this week who said, “You know, I was looking at the back of the bulletin and I noted in looking at the list of the elders that I know almost every one of them, and some of them I know very well; and to a man, they are a godly example of spiritual maturity and leadership.” I've sent that letter on to the Clerk to share with the elders at our next meeting because it was so encouraging. These are men who lead by example, and they are men who lead by teaching.
They teach themselves, and then they also make sure that the teaching of the church is in accord with what we publicly declare we believe the Bible to teach, and so they attempt to protect the church from false teaching.
And the Apostle Paul says to us, and our question of membership says to us, and the Book of Hebrews says to us that we are to honor and respect that spiritual leadership in the church. We’ll do everything we can to respect and show respect for, and to follow the shepherding of those elders that God has appointed as shepherds over our flock.
And the author of Hebrews adds something very solemn and very sobering, doesn't he? He says remember that these keep watch over your souls, and one day they will give an account.
The great Baptist minister, John Gill, was writing to a young man in London who had just gotten his first pastorate. He had been an assistant on a church staff, and now he had gotten his first pastorate, and he was going to pastor a very small Baptist church. John Gill wrote him a letter and he said:
“I know that you are somewhat embarrassed that you have been called to pastor so small a flock.
But I will assure you that on that great Day when you stand before the Judge of heaven and earth
and you give account for how you have shepherded their souls, you will say ‘This has been enough for me.’”
I want you to remember your elders, because there will be a day when we will stand before God and we will give an account for how we have or have not faithfully shepherded this flock, and that is a tremendous burden, even as it is a tremendous privilege to serve you and minister. Respect your elders.
II. A glad and willing self-exertion for the purity of the church
Secondly, answering the question, “Do you submit yourself to the government and discipline of the church, and promise to strive for its purity and peace?” means a glad and willing self-exertion for the purity of the church.
Turn back again to Hebrews 12:14. Notice that the author of Hebrews says, “Pursue sanctification, without which no one will see the Lord.” What's he saying there? He's urging us to pursue growth in godliness, to pursue holiness. Many of you know Jerry Bridges’ great book The Pursuit of Holiness, and he's urging that on every Christian: pursue holiness. But when we ask it and answer it in the context of the congregation, we are especially understanding that our individual lives have a bearing on the whole congregation.
Do you remember in the Old Testament that when Achan sinned by the stealing of items that had been put under the ban as the children of Israel went into the land of Canaan, what happened? Almost the whole nation was cursed. Why? Because of his sin. The spiritual principle still obtains: My private behavior when I am off by my own has a direct impact on the well-being of this congregation. And you know what? So does yours. Our personal pursuit of holiness is not just a private matter. It's a matter of the well-being of the whole congregational family, and so when we say “I do” to the question “Do you promise to strive for the purity of the church?” we're saying that we will do everything in our power to make sure that we do not bring sin and judgment into the camp of God's people, and that is a solemn thing.
And it's interesting, isn't it, that purity is put before peace…that we’ll strive for the purity of the church even before we strive for the peace of the church? Why? Because there is no peace where there is not purity. Why? Because one of the things that you strive for when you strive for growth in godliness is the ability to forgive. And because we're sinners, there's going to be sin, and there's going to be a need for forgiveness in the congregation. But if you’re not growing in your ability to forgive, there will never be peace in the congregation–because there's always going to be sin, I can tell you that! We’re always going to let one another down. We’re going to say things that hurt other people; we're going to do things that hurt other people; and if we're not growing in the ability to forgive that, there will never be any peace here. That's why Jesus would say
“Seek first the kingdom and its righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
And I've quoted it to you fifty times in the last year, but Martin Luther, commenting on that passage, says
“It is due to the perversity of men that they seek peace first, and only then righteousness; and consequently they find no peace.”
And that's true here. If we don't seek holiness, we’ll never have peace in the congregation, and our individual lives have a bearing on the well-being of this whole church. So when we say “I do” to this question, we're saying ‘Yes, Lord. I understand that what I do when I'm away at school, what I do when I'm at work, what I do when I am at home, has a bearing on the well-being of this congregation; and I will do everything in my power not to bring sin and judgment into this camp of God's people, but I will pursue growth in godliness.’
III. A glad and willing self-exertion for the peace of the church
And, thirdly, when we ask and answer this question “I do” we are committing ourselves to a glad and willing self-exertion for the peace of the church. We’re saying that we will do everything in our personal power to make sure that this is a harmonious, happy, safe and secure family and fellowship of believers. And that passage that we read from I Peter 3:8, 9 gives us such a beautiful description of what it means to strive for the peace of the church. Listen to the words again. Peter says,
“To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, humble in spirit, not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead.”
He's just written you out a program for how to strive for the peace of the church. When we say, “Yes, I do; I will strive for the peace of the church,” you’re saying ‘Lord, I'm committed to being harmonious, to doing whatever I can to promote harmony in my congregation, and to do nothing, if I am able to avoid it, that would promote disharmony in my congregation. I want to be sympathetic, I want to be brotherly, I want to be kind-hearted, I want to be humble in spirit. And when those show evil and insult to me, I will not return in kind, but instead I will be concerned to bless.’
You understand that when we say that we're going to pursue the peace of the church we don't just mean that we're not going to break out into a fisticuff over every kind of conflict. It's not just a cessation of hostilities. In the Bible, peace means the total well-being of God's people. When the minister pronounces peace on you at the benediction, he is calling down God's fullest blessings on you so that the total well-being of your person is advanced by the favor and grace of God. And so when we say that we are pursuing and striving for the peace of the church, we mean that we want our brothers and sisters in Christ in this congregation…we want their best interests in everything. We’re looking out for the total well-being of the congregation. Isn't it interesting that while we submit to the leadership of the elders, we ourselves pledge ourselves to pursue the purity and peace of the church? We’re going to pursue godliness for the welfare of the whole church. We’re going to pursue peace for the well-being of the whole church.
All three of these things we vow when we answer this question of membership. We've said all along that these things have practical ramifications for us as the people of God. If we are people who respect our elders, then we’ll be people that pray for them. We’ll pray for their godliness, we’ll pray for their decisions; we’ll gladly follow their leadership.
You know, in the church today so often people say, “Well, I believe in every-member ministry.” What they really mean is they believe in every-member ministry, because they want every member to make the decisions for the church–and they resent it a little bit that the elders of the church give leadership in certain areas. We shouldn't resent that, friends. That's both a privilege and a burden that they bear for us. And we should not only pray for them, but we should respect them and follow their leadership as they do it.
And when we say that we're going to pursue the purity of the church, it means that we're going to be characterized as people who want to grow in Christ-like behavior. You know, one of the things that the world looks at the church and then dismisses the church for is that in our lives we look no different than the world. And if we're really answering this question “I do” and we mean it, then we're going to look different than the world. There are going to be things that the world does that are perfectly accepted in our culture, but we're just not going to do them. There are going to be things that the world loves and strives for, puts a premium on, has as a priority in life, that we are just not going to strive for and long for and pursue. Our lives, individually and collectively, are going to look different.
And we're going to pursue peace. You know, the world knows a lot about discord. We see it at every level. We see it internationally. Were you like me? Wondering, when the Berlin Wall fell during the George H. W. Bush presidency, if we would experience a period of relative peace in the world in the next 20-25 years? Boy, have I been changed of that particular persuasion! We've seen more conflicts today than we did during the Cold War. Makes you yearn for the days of the good ol’ Soviet Union. The world knows about discord. And when the world looks at the church and it sees discord, it sees a lack of peace, it says “Aha! They’re phonies. They’re hypocrites.”
But when the world looks at a church and it sees harmony…not a fake harmony, not a pretended harmony…but a harmony that exists because we do sin against one another, we do let one another down, we do hurt one another; but we do something really strange: we forgive one another. We’re reconciled to one another. We accept one another. When the world sees that, the world says, “Something's going on there. Is that the gospel thing?” That only happens because of the gospel. That only happens because of God. That only happens because of grace.
And so when we really answer these questions and mean it, you understand how radical, how revolutionary, how important this is for our witness to the world. Yes, it's for God's glory. Yes, it's for our good. But, boy, is it important for our witness! Maybe you’ll pray with me over the weeks to come that we would live out in our fellowship more of the realities that we have all professed that we believe in answer to those five questions.
Our Lord and our God, when we acknowledge in a few moments that the Lord Jesus Christ is the one and only foundation of the church, we ask that we would do so with the realization of just how precious the church is. But we would also do it acknowledging that we have so often looked like the world that it has left the church almost invisible in the eyes of the world, and we don't want to live that way. We want to be a city on a hill, a beacon of the grace of Christ, a witness to the gospel, open disciples of the one true God; and we want the world to see that not for our glory, but for Christ's. In His name we pray. Amen.