The 16th Sunday After Pentecost September 24, 2006
466, 331, 342, 465
If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.
Dear fellow redeemed of the Good Shepherd, who seeks to rescue us from sin’s hold:
Two weeks ago, on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we were reminded once again of the heart-wrenching images of that day. We remembered the many stories of heroism and bravery among the civilians, firemen, and police. Everyone would certainly recognize these individuals as true heroes.
But there are aspects of heroism that do not always look heroic. Those who have had some training in water safety and lifesaving, for instance, may recall that one of the first rules of a water rescue is “don’t put yourself in unnecessary danger.” The best way to rescue a person in a pool is, if at all possible, to not get into the pool! That little truth came to mind as I was reflecting on Paul’s reminder to the Galatians: “brethren, if anyone is overtaken in any trespass…restore such a one…considering yourself, lest you also be tempted.” [6:1] Saving lives is critical, but risky business. Saving souls is likewise critical and also risky in certain ways.
Today, as we continue reviewing aspects of our church constitution and membership in a Christian congregation, we come across an article that describes THE rescue role of membership. This rescue role is meant for those who walk in the Spirit, it often involves a brotherly handoff, it sometimes calls for a rescue effort, and it always seeks to leave a firm testimony to our brethren and to the world.
Paul reminds us that “…we live in the Spirit.” [5:25] God, through the Holy Spirit, has called us out of sin and death to live in eternal life. We, who because of sin did not know God, have become His children. We, who by thought, word, and deed, have sinned and earned God’s wrath, have been cleansed through the blood of Christ and are called saints before Him. The Holy Spirit does this work in each of us bringing us to faith in our Lord Jesus.
Paul urges us that “if we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.” The Spirit active in us bears special and useful fruit in our lives of service to God. He mentions: “…love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). These are especially important gifts as we share in our faith and care for one another.
We walk together as we walk in the Spirit. Whether it is in our confession, our worship and teaching, in our stewardship, or in our organization, the spiritual fruit prompted by the Holy Spirit is invaluable. The main point of membership in a congregation is spiritual care—that we, as a congregation, are interested in helping people grow in their faith and maintain their walk heavenward. We are committed to carrying this out by applying Law and Gospel and by bringing the Word and Sacraments to souls, so that they may gain and maintain eternal life.
Spiritual care also implies that when a person is led to confess his faith with a congregation and becomes a member, he is asking others to admonish, counsel, and instruct him with God’s Word whenever it becomes necessary. That’s why Paul warns us against becoming “…conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.” [5:26] That sort of behavior interferes with the spirit of love and the sense of trust that makes the Gospel ministry such a rich experience. In this way we walk together as we walk in the Spirit.
In this united walk, our membership helps us remember our rescue role for our fellow members. One of the best ways to rescue the endangered is to keep them from the danger in the first place. The church has always had a cautious, almost parental concern about those in its care because Jesus warned us about the wolves in sheep’s clothing that are lurking around to deceive the simple. The process of transferring membership is geared to help with that.
Suppose you ran an orphanage in a backward and wicked society. You were bringing in homeless children who stood a good chance of being exploited and abused. You fed and clothed these children and gave them love and a knowledge of Jesus. But a point comes where you can no longer care for them and they must move to the care of others. Would you not do everything in your power to make sure that their new caregivers believed the same things, valued the same things, and had the very same goals as you? You would do everything you could to avoid releasing them into the care of others who left you in doubt about their methods or motives. The process of peaceable transfer between congregations reflects that sort of sober concern. For that reason, we will only hand off members under our care to those whom we know as brothers.
We are in fellowship with certain congregations with whom we know that we are agreed in the teaching of Scripture. We have a common understanding of what Christianity is and how it is to be brought to others. When one of us finds it necessary to move to a location closer to one of our sister churches, we encourage him to become involved in that church, to worship there, and to transfer membership to that congregation so that the sense of connection will be able to grow and develop.
By the same token, we will not and cannot grant a transfer to a member who wishes to join a church that is not of our fellowship. This is not because we’re jealous and narrow-minded, but because that church is not able to prove that they are in doctrinal agreement with us. It is a standing reminder that Paul does warn us to separate from those who “cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine you have learned” (Roman 16.17).
Unlike Cain who lovelessly reasoned that he was not his brother’s keeper, our congregation’s constitution states that “a member who becomes guilty of open sins shall become the deep concern of the congregation.” In this matter we have Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 18: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother” (Matthew 18:15). This means that in most cases when we, individually, become aware of a fellow Christian’s sin it is our duty to go and address it with that person. None of us has the call to go and tell others about the sin—not even telling the pastor. Jesus sends you first to the individual alone.
But if the person refuses to listen to our individual counsel, or if the person’s sin is so public that it is already a concern of the church, the group of believers becomes involved. We are to go on a rescue mission for someone who is in danger and apparently unaware of the severe consequences of unrepented sin. It is impossible to willingly, consciously live with some sinful deed, or continue in some sinful activity, and not grieve and drive away the Spirit who works repentance in our hearts.
Every time we hear of a natural disaster—a hurricane, or tornado, or volcanic eruption, there are those who will listen to no warning and will not join the evacuees. They feel they have too much to lose in leaving. They seriously would rather die than depart. You can, if necessary, force them to leave with threats or at gunpoint. But we can’t operate that way with the “brother who is caught in any trespass.” This is more like a rescue mission that must be undertaken with care. Paul warns us that we should “consider ourselves.” Why? Because we too are poor miserable sinners. Who of us is not attracted by one sin or another? Who of us is not somehow tempted by pride, coldness, self-righteousness. If we aren’t mindful of the grace by which we have been saved, we will easily mess things up with the one who has been “caught up” in his own weakness. Too many would-be heroes have drowned alongside the victims they wanted to save.
The rescue effort on which we’re sent is one of bringing God’s Word to bear on the stubborn, sinful heart. We know that only the Law of God is really able to break through the deception of sin. But we are ready and eager to bring the Gospel of forgiveness—won for us all by the blood of Christ—to the broken and penitent heart.
If the heart remains unwilling to repent, if the outward life shows no change in heart, if a person loves sin more than the Savior, the last act of the church is to put that person out of the communion—excommunicate him—as a testimony that he no longer shows true Christian faith. Paul had the case with the Corinthians when a member was guilty of living with his father’s wife. Paul ordered the congregation not to tolerate the situation but to “deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:5).
The congregation followed Paul’s counsel. They were awakened out of their own spiritual complacency and acted in firm love for this man. Their action bore fruit because the man repented. Paul wrote back to the Corinthians later and showed that the objective of the church discipline had been met: “This punishment which was inflicted by the majority is sufficient for such a man, so that, on the contrary, you ought rather to forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow. Therefore I urge you to reaffirm your love to him” (2 Corinthians 2.6-8). The rescue had been accomplished.
Our constitution also recognizes that there are cases of middle ground when the basis for fellowship seems to be lacking but it can’t be said that the member is living in impenitence. In some cases, a person comes to adopt an unscriptural viewpoint, errs in doctrine, defends the error, and is unwilling to be corrected. In other cases, because we are weak and constantly touched by the flesh, some people are not living in open rebellion against the commandments but fail to show any fruits of living faith. Even in these cases, the congregation must give a firm testimony to the truth.
For example: If a person teaches or embraces an error and decides to attend a church out of our fellowship we have a responsibility to warn that person against the influence of those who do not teach the true doctrine. Finally, we must terminate their membership to give evidence that it cannot be pleasing to the Lord for them to confuse their testimony of the truth.
In other cases, there are those who claim to be believers but simply fail to produce the fruits of faith that one would expect to see in the Christian life. This may show itself in an unwillingness to come and worship with fellow believers whenever possible. Jesus warned that the branch that bears no fruit will be cut off and burned (cf. John 15:6). So, without judging the weak heart, the termination of membership gives notice that the person should take a serious inward look at whether he has the Christian faith or if he is just deceiving himself.
Many people disagree with membership actions such as those we’ve mentioned, but we have a responsibility to act according to God’s Word and that is the most comforting, reassuring facet of this matter. We, in the end, are really not the rescuers any more than we rescued ourselves. Jesus, who laid down His life for the brethren is our rescuer. “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Salvation does not depend on any of us living the perfect life. It does not depend on holding church membership anywhere. It only requires that the sinner turn from his way and believe the Savior’s gift is his. And while we are sometimes called upon to act firmly and urgently in bringing God’s counsel to others, we are not in the end, the Judge. God has put that judgment into the most capable hands: the hands of the One who died and rose again, and who invites all to the feast table of salvation. May He lead us to cherish His Word of salvation for ourselves, and cause us to act faithfully in our membership affairs. Amen
Editor’s Note: This week’s sermon is a continuation of the a series exploring what God’s Word teaches concerning membership in a Christian congregation.
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