Pastors will give an account to God for the people under their care. This is a basic New Testament premise, yet it’s often overlooked when considering the theology and practices of the church. Recognizing a gap in the literature regarding church membership and discipline, the contributors in Those Who Must Give an Account: A Study of Church Membership and Church Discipline seek to demonstrate the importance of consistent application of these doctrines in the local church. If pastors will be held accountable for their actions as shepherds, it’s crucial they know who specifically is under their care (i.e., church membership) and that their churches bear the responsibility to remove someone who refuses to live in obedience to Scripture (i.e., church discipline).
Edited by John Hammett and Benjamin Merkle of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, this collection of essays is intended to guide church leaders—along with church members who are called to hold one another accountable—on how to receive and minister to those for whom they will give an account. After an informative introduction regarding membership, discipline, and the nature of the church, the volume is broken down into three parts. The first section deals with the issue of church membership from a biblical, historical, and practical standpoint, and the second section covers the issue of church discipline using the same format. The final section in the book contains two chapters. The first relates church membership and discipline to the practice of missiology. The last chapter offers a helpful and sobering pastoral reflection regarding accountability to care for the souls in their congregation.
Implicit and Consistent
Regarding church membership, the contributors emphasize that this doctrine, while not taught explicitly in the NT, is implicitly and consistently woven into the fabric of the apostolic witness. Benjamin Merkle notes specifically that the NT teaches the concept of church membership for the purposes of mutual accountability, to ensure biblical discipline, to ensure the biblical use of gifts, and to ensure the advance of God’s kingdom (51). The contributors rightly emphasize that the motivation and purpose of discipline is love. “The goal of discipline is not punishment but rescue from the wrath of God,” Thomas Schreiner writes. “Therefore, ironically enough, those who refuse to discipline are actually guilty of lack of love” (130).
This is a work that one can heartily endorse and commend to pastors, church leaders, and even members of local churches. Thorough biblical and historical warrant are given for these membership and discipline. In Gregory Wills’s chapter on the history of church discipline, for example, we see the church has been healthiest when membership and discipline were most rigorously applied.
Another helpful feature of this volume is its inclusion of the concept of mission. Danny Akin and Bruce Riley Ashford contribute to discussion about the missional church today by linking mission with membership and discipline. They argue, “Church membership and discipline make the gospel visible by fostering a God-centered and supernatural view of salvation, gospel-shaped disciples, a gospel-shaped community, and a clear and unconfused gospel testimony” (203).
Those Who Must Give an Account: A Study of Church Membership and Church Discipline
John S. Hammett and Benjamin L. Merkle
There is a surprising, even dangerous, gap in the literature on the church in the areas of church membership and church discipline. The former sets the boundaries of a leader’s responsibility, and discipline is the last option of a church when members will no longer live in fellowship with their brothers and sisters in the Lord and accept the guidance of their leaders. And so this book is written first to church leaders, offering guidance on how they should receive and minister to those for whom they will have to give an account according to Scripture.
The book may be strongest in the practical chapters written by Mark Dever and Andy Davis. Dever offers 12 practical steps to meaningful membership (96-100), and Davis contributes a “toolbox” for applying discipline in various situations and addresses legal matters.
I should note two small concerns with the book. The chapter covering the practical issues of church membership felt slightly redundant. Much of this chapter addresses the biblical basis for church membership and, while the content is outstanding, much of the same ground was covered by Merkle.
One further question perhaps ought to be raised regarding Davis’s call for potential suspension of a member. He says, “For a scandalous sin that shocks the community and impugns the ability of the church to carry on Christ’s holy mission in that community . . . excommunication may be called for even if the individual says he or she has repented” (175). Davis admits the practice of suspension cannot be found in the Bible but says it may be wise to test the genuineness of repentance. There must be other ways to do this without excommunicating a repentant member. Admittedly the pastoral details are complicated; it just seems we should be wary of going beyond Scripture and instead be ready to go through the disciplinary process again should the person not demonstrate genuine repentance over time.
These minor issues aside, Those Who Must Give an Account is an outstanding work that should be read by pastors, church leaders, and congregations alike. As the contributors rightly remind us—especially pastors—we are stewards called to receive regenerate members into our churches and exhort them toward godliness with all diligence, knowing we will one day give an account for our actions.