In many biology textbooks, especially older ones, they speak about “vestigial organs.” The belief was that, as the human body “evolved,” there were left behind remains of previous stages of evolution and we are thus chock full of parts that are no longer needed. Examples if parts that are or were considered vestigial are things like the coccyx (better known as the tail-bone), the eyebrows, the appendix, and the thymus (a gland just under your breast-bone). In many cases, these organs are routinely removed as one can live without them.
Of course, from a Christian worldview, evolution is simply a bunch of rhetoric designed to explain the remarkable design all around us (and in us) without having to bow down to an almighty God who created all things. Further, vestigial organs aren’t. The coccyx exists not because we used to have a tail; it exists because it is a point of attachment for ligaments which connect and support the pelvis. The eyebrows protect and shade the eyes, the appendix is part of the immune system as is the thymus. For a more in-depth discussion of how vestigial organs aren’t vestigial, might I commend the book by Dr. Jerry Bergman and Dr. George Howe, entitled “Vestigial Organs” Are Fully Functional.
The idea of vestigial organs, though, struck me in the terms of how some people approach the church and its membership. The Apostle Paul used the analogy of the church being the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:12-26. Like a human body, Paul writes, the body of Christ has many parts. No single part is more significant than the other, there are no vestigial parts, and each part needs the function worked by the other parts of the body. True, the body can live without some of the parts, but the body was designed by God to have each part to be whole.
The real question that needs to be asked is not so much whether the parts are necessary; all of the parts of the body are necessary for the body to be whole. Instead, we should be asking first, whether certain members really are true members of the body and second, if they are members of the body, are they diseased in such a way that treatment (minor or serious) needs to be applied.
Think about the effect that a foreign body has when it is trapped as part of the human body. It hurts, it causes infection, and it typically does more damage than good. When my wife and I first got married, we bought an old farmhouse with hardwood floors. As a whole the floors were in pretty good shape but they were in need of refinishing, though that was a low priority given the renovations we needed to make. In the summers, I pretty much live in bare feet and one day caught a two-inch-long splinter from the floor into my foot. It was so heavily embedded that my wife had to get me a pair of pliers to pull it out. But, that is the point, I pulled it out. I don’t know which was more painful, getting stabbed by it or removing it, but nevertheless, leaving it in was not an option. It did not belong in my foot, it was not part of my natural body, and even though my body would have likely built up scar tissue around it over time, leaving it in was an invitation for future disease and problems.
The Scriptures are filled with references to anti-christs in our mist. These are people that become part of the visible church for a season but then leave behind the teachings of the one true church and begin making their own way. Sometimes they leave the church but often they remain (especially in our culture where most churches take an “anything goes” approach to membership). Like that splinter, they are a foreign body in the midst of the true body and that does not belong.
The Scriptures are also filled with references as to what a true Christian is to look like. Jesus tells us to judge a tree by its fruit (Matthew 7:15-20) and that we should be careful lest we be led astray (Luke 21:8). John tells us to examine every spirit to see if they are from God (1 John 4:1). Peter reminds us to beware of false prophets that bring in heresies that destroy (2 Peter 2:1). Paul tells us to “test everything” (1 Thessalonians 5:1) and that the children of light seek to discern what is pleasing to God (Ephesians 5:8-10). Solomon warns that those who are prudent examine that which they are told (Proverbs 14:15). Even Moses commands that if there are dreamers and prophets telling the people that they need not fear God or obey his commands, that they should not be listed to, but should be put to death so as that they will not mislead any in the body (Deuteronomy 13:1-5).
It is true that only God knows the heart of man (1 Samuel 16:7), but God gives us many indications as to how a true believer is to live. Shall we not examine the life of someone before we acknowledge them as a true believer? Shall we not take time to instruct rather than rushing people onto the rolls of our church just so that we can brag about numbers? Shall we not intentionally look at the fruit of a person’s life and ask the question as to whether someone walks in the Fruit of the Spirit or in the Works of the Flesh (Galatians 5:16-26)? Shall we not take pains to examine the body before we approach the Sacrament of the Lord’s Table so that harm may not come to both individual and congregation (1 Corinthians 11:27-32)?
But what of a diseased body part? Indeed, in many cases, parts of the human body are removed due to infection and disease. And, in some ways, the Christian church works that through the process of church discipline. Jesus lays out very clearly the manner in which the church is to discipline its members (Matthew 18:15-20). At times, this is more minor. One person goes to speak with someone engaged in a sinful practice, the person repents, and fellowship is restored. The loving admonition of a faithful brother or sister in faith is the penicillin of the church body.
Sometimes, though, the disease of sin is more persistent and is not constrained to a localized area. When the first admonition is rejected, another admonition is given (again in love and seeking repentance and reconciliation), and this time with one or two witnesses. Here is the presence of a stronger dose of antibiotics or perhaps the hands of a skilled surgeon working to restore function in a body part. And, if the person repents, the disease can be either killed or driven into permanent remission.
Yet, sometimes the disease is more deeply rooted still like a stubborn cancer that is seeking to spread. Thus, the appeal is made to the church. In the case of most Reformed circles, that is understood to be an outworking of the role of the Pastor and Elders. Where again the sin is confronted with the authority of the Word of God and the authority of the Overseers of the congregation. If sin (again) is not repented of, the person is to be put out of the body, just as one would remove a cancerous tumor. It would be hoped that the absence of the body will drive a person to repent, though very often, because it needed to go this far in the process, it became clear that the person was never a true member of the body — one who genuinely feared the Lord and sought to be obedient to the Word. Here is the dreaded word, “excommunication,” which is simply the pronouncement by the authorities of the church that a person is not a genuine believer and thus is not in communion with the body.
Yet, even still, such members are not truly “vestigial.” To be vestigial, they would have to have once been a part of the body. Yet, they weren’t truly ever a part of the body (1 John 2:19). They might have departed from the visible church, but they were never part of the invisible church — they were never actually a part of the body.
“Yahweh makes a record in writing of his people;
‘This one was born there.’ Selah!”
Yahweh makes a record in writing of his people. Indeed. Such is language that anticipates what we know better as the Lamb’s Book of Life (Philippians 4:3; Revelation 3:5; 13:8;17:8; 20:12,15; 21:27). Yet, do not think of this book as something that is entirely a New Testament concept, for we find this language not only in this psalm, but in places like Psalm 56:8 and Daniel 12:1. In fact, an argument can be made that this language extends back as far as Genesis 5:1, where it speaks of the book of the Generations of Adam — a book that follows the line of God’s promise from Adam to Noah and his sons. No other children of Adam and his descendants are mentioned, just those who preserve the line that will eventually lead to the Messiah…a line of faithful fathers.
Here lies the heart of the practice behind churches establishing “rolls” or membership lists. Yes, they are practical and useful for things like accountability, church discipline, and knowing who might be given the privilege of voting on a church decision, but practical does not always mean that there is a Biblical basis for something, and if a church is going to establish a precedent like this, like taking vows of membership, then one must ground that in the Bible, not pragmatism (of course, that concept opens a whole new can of worms for many churches!).
Thus, we look back and see that God lists names in his book…names of those who he will redeem across the course of time (remember, this book was written before the foundation of the earth — Revelation 13:8; 17:8). Further, you see the people of Israel constantly making lists of names every time God renews his covenant with them. While names listed on a set of human rolls are not synonymous with the names God lists on his rolls of the elect, the human rolls are meant to anticipate and reflect the divine rolls. Thus, before someone enters into church membership, we expect them to make a credible profession of faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. If the profession is not made, the person’s name has no business being on the rolls. Further, when someone, by the manner of their lifestyle, demonstrates that their profession is not genuine, their names are removed from the rolls as a part of church discipline, thus handing them over to Satan (to use the language of the Apostle Paul).
There is a trend today to move away from formal church membership. People like being able to preserve their anonymity and they don’t like binding commitments or accountability. Further, many pastors do not like giving the folks in their churches a vote in matters is significance — many pastors seeing themselves as the president of CEO of an organization and not as the shepherd of a church (and there is a world of difference). Paul speaks of the church appointing leadership by the raising of their hand (Titus 1:5); that is voting. But who votes? If you do not have a formal membership process where confessing Christians covenant with the other believers in the local body around them, how do you preserve the vote as one made by believers? Plus, how does one justify walking away from the Biblical precedent that we find throughout the Old Testament? God indeed makes a written record of his people; we ought to do the same in our churches.