I can remember having a conversation with one of my elders as we were reflecting upon the vows of membership. In my denomination, we have four membership vows, the last of which says something to the effect, “Will you submit to the authority of the session, and if you’re found wanting in life or doctrine, submit to its authority in Christ?” My elder noted, “You know, everyone always says they’ll submit, but when it comes down to it, it seems like few do.” I thought about it for a moment and believed he was and is correct.
All too often it seems like people are all too happy to join a church, and they do so believing (I hope) that they’ve found a good church—one that preaches the gospel, administers the sacraments, and properly administers discipline. When they join I suspect that, for the most part, they do so with a mind that they are in agreement with the doctrine and practice of the church. And everything is peachy until there is some issue of disagreement.
When I write of disagreement, I don’t have in mind the insignificant quibbles, though people in the church, pastor, elder, and church member alike, can and do make mountains out of mole hills. Rather, the challenge often comes when the session has to confront a person with his sin. Over the years I can remember conducting pastoral visits with people in my church and I would normally encourage them to make regular use of the means of grace—to attend worship, heed the preaching of the word. However, there were always some who did not regularly attend worship. Interestingly enough, these are also the same people who had significant spiritual problems. Nevertheless, I would make a visit to their homes and gently encourage them, “You need to come to church. How can a person gain nourishment if he refuses to come to the table and eat, or lift his hand to feed himself?”
If Christ is the manna from heaven, then we regularly, daily, but especially through the preaching of the word in corporate worship on the Lord’s Day, need to hear solid preaching if we hope to grow in our sanctification. I was doing my best to point this out, but such counsel was perceived as “legalism” and “lording authority.” To be honest, I thought such responses were simply a rebellious heart blowing smoke to try and distract the elders from the real issue. What happened in a number of occasions is that this type of person eventually left the church.
One of the reasons many Reformed denominations have a membership vow that includes submission to the session (or consistory) is because, though we are redeemed by Christ and regenerated, we still struggle with sin. And sometimes, in our struggle with sin, we need accountability—we need someone to tell us, “You’re sinning!” We also need godly counsel so we know how to remedy the situation. Would a patient suffering from cancer tell his doctor, “You’re hounding me!” because his physician tells him to take his medication or else he’ll die?
When we join a church, therefore, we should be prepared to be held accountable by the session. True, some sessions and pastors do lord their authority over their churches, but this is not always the case. We should always pray that the Lord would give us all the humility to heed godly counsel, especially when we are sinning, such as the unwillingness, apart from a good reason, of not regularly attending worship.