In this post I would like to open a discussion about the authority of the church as it pertains to its members.
It is important to point out first what I mean by "member". A member is someone who does not merely attend a church every week. Any Christian that regularly attends a specific church I respectfully suggest that they prayerfully consider becoming a member of the church they attend. Becoming a member may be called different things depending on the denomination your church belongs to. Some churches use the term "Communicant Member", others use the term "Professing Member", still others use the term "Voting Member". Regardless of the term used a member basically takes on certain responsibilities, which are generally laid out in the by-laws of the church. Those responsibilities may include, without limitation, voting in prospective elders or deacons, voting in a prospective pastor, major decision involving the direction of the church, or voting on which missionary organizations the church will support. Were you aware that, as a member, you have those responsibilities, among others?
In contrast are you aware that when you become a member you are willingly and voluntarily placing yourself, and possibly your family, under the authority of the leadership of that church? For many this is common knowledge as many churches are very articulate and forthright about this, yet others are not. It would not be surprising to find out that Christians who have become members of some of the more liberal denominations are somewhat, to completely, unaware of this fact. But what does it mean to be under the authority of the church? For some of the less informed this may conjure up visions from medieval Europe of torture or execution because of heresy, but the modern church is nowhere even close to being that intense or intrusive.
It is important to point out that, all authority comes from God, but unfortunately it is up to man to use it as He intended. Simply put the responsibility of the elders of the church include, without limitation, interviewing prospective pastors being considered to lead the church, to make sure what is being taught both from the pulpit and in the Sunday School classroom is in line with Biblical Doctrine and Theology, to routinely be in contact with the members and address or delegate any concerns a member might have, to be spiritual leaders within the church, to identify potential church leaders and provide guidance in that regard, to admonish and/or confront a member in regard to any obvious transgression that they have committed. This last one has been the subject of many controversies which have led many times to splits within the church for various reasons.
Divisions in the church is a much larger topic so I will not go into it now. Though I will say, most of the time it comes down to a few key elements, but they all have the same common denominator. Sin.
What this all comes down to is making sure, when you are considering becoming a member of a church, that you are aware of what it truly means. As mentioned, there are denominations that are very clear as to what this means, but if you are joining one of those Mega-Churches realize that they have very loose requirements for their members, much less who becomes an elder or deacon. It is very important for every Christian to be very discerning when considering to become a member of a specific church. Be sure to have an opportunity to meet with the Pastor and at least some of the Elders before coming to your decision. Also, take a close look at the church's confession and make sure you understand and agree with everything that is stated therein.
A confession is literally an explanation of what the church believes and can usually be found on the church's website, or can be obtained from one of the Elders or the Pastor himself.
Here is some additional information regarding church government:
Westminster Confession of Faith - Chapter 31 - Of Synods and Councils
1. For the better government, and further edification of the church, there ought to be such assemblies as are commonly called synods or councils: and it belongeth to the overseers and other rulers of the particular churches, by virtue of their office, and the power which Christ hath given them for edification and not for destruction, to appoint such assemblies; and to convene together in them, as often as they shall judge it expedient for the good of the church.
2. It belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions of His church; to received complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same: which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in His Word.
3. All synods or councils, since the apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both.
4. Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.