Two summers ago, a young boy nearly drowned at a waterpark in St. Holmen, Wisconsin. What made this incident particularly tragic was that there were several lifeguards on duty at the time. Two mothers, who witnessed what went wrong, said the lifeguards completely dropped the ball—not just once, but twice.
The first botched rescue occurred when the lifeguards failed to help a four-year-old boy who was struggling to stay afloat. Fortunately, one of the mothers saw the boy in distress, sprung into action, and rescued him. About an hour later the same thing happened, except this second young boy lost consciousness. Again, one of the moms helped pull him out of the water and began performing CPR. She did this while the lifeguards just watched. The boy was rushed to the hospital and thankfully survived.
This true story reinforces what we already know by experience—failing to carry out an important responsibility can and often does lead to disaster. If a lifeguard abdicates his or her assigned task, people can drown.
I recently preached a sermon entitled, “The Importance of Congregational Church Polity.” In it I explained what congregationalism is and where we see it in Scripture. Congregationalism asserts that Jesus has entrusted the entire congregation—not just certain leaders—with the responsibility of protecting, propagating, and preserving the gospel. This means that if a local body fails to carry out their given assignment, spiritual disaster will eventually occur. The message of the gospel will eventually be diluted. The meaning of the term “Christian” will eventually be distorted. And the mission of the church will eventually be derailed.
I don’t intend to defend the biblical merits of congregationalism in this post. Instead, I want to list and briefly explain seven ways a congregation can fulfill its Christ-commissioned responsibility. Some of these action steps are directed specifically at the individual church member, while others focus on the congregation as a whole.
1) Take church membership seriously.
Congregationalism can only work properly if a congregation believes and practices regenerate church membership. Regenerate church membership is the biblical notion that a church should be comprised only of those who give a credible profession of faith and are baptized (Matt. 28:19; Acts 2:38). This means a local church should not affirm just anyone as a member, but only those who demonstrate that the Spirit of God has done a genuine work of salvation in their heart as a result of believing the gospel.
Here’s why: If a church affirms someone as a member who does not know God and does not have his Spirit, the church has just given that individual a measure of authority in determining important matters within the church. This, of course, is a recipe for disaster, and many congregational churches have suffered for failing to take regenerate church membership seriously.
2) Regularly participate in weekly worship gatherings to learn and rehearse the gospel.
If one of your responsibilities involves protecting and defending the gospel, then you need to know the gospel, and know it well. This means you must study it, understand it, be able to articulate it, and apply it. And God has determined that the primary way to learn and rehearse the gospel is by participating in the weekly worship gatherings of the church. This is where the body sings the gospel, hears the gospel preached and applied, and sees the gospel acted out in the ordinances.
3) Invest in and cultivate discipling relationships within the local church.
When you join a local church, you’re committing to helping other covenant members faithfully follow Jesus. Therefore it’s essential that you get to know them in order to do them spiritual good. You could do this by joining a small group or by meeting weekly with a few other members to read a Christian book, memorize Scripture, provide each other with accountability, or pray together.
4) Be present at and engage in members’ meetings.
Members’ meetings are one of the main contexts in which a church exercises the authority Jesus has entrusted to it. This is where most churches receive and affirm new members. This is where they release unrepentant members into the world via church discipline. This is where they affirm new leaders and consider how they will spend their accumulated resources to advance the gospel.
However, church members shouldn’t insist on getting their way in a members’ meeting. They shouldn’t nitpick or debate every decision, especially the small ones.
5) With the help of the Holy Spirit, trust and follow the leaders that the congregation affirms.
When it comes to the relationship between a church and its leaders, there are only two options: Either follow and submit to the leaders you have (Heb. 13:17) or replace them. But what a church cannot do is affirm leaders and then not trust them. That’s unhealthy and unhelpful. If the congregation did their job correctly, the men they recognized as leaders are called, competent, and characterized by godliness. So follow their lead.
6) Remove leaders who teach or act contrary to the gospel.
If one of the pastors starts acting in a way (either by his lips or life) that contradicts or undermines the gospel, you have a responsibility to intervene. Your impulse should not be to run away from the church, but rather your love for sound doctrine and personal holiness should prompt you to confront and, if needed, remove him. One of the worst things a church can do is leave an unqualified leader in his position.
7) Dismiss members who advocate a false gospel or give a false gospel profession.
If a church member begins to stray away from Jesus into open, unrepentant sin, other members must restore him or her in a spirit of gentleness (see Matt. 18:15–20; Gal. 6:1). Failing to do this is not only dereliction of duty, it’s unloving. When we witness a fellow Christian drowning in sin, love prompts us to attempt a rescue.
Of course, if they refuse to repent, we have another obligation: to announce this publicly to the church and treat them as someone outside of God’s covenant people.
Christian, you have an assigned task from Jesus and it involves—by God’s grace—helping fellow church members make it to heaven and getting the gospel into the next generation. Please do not neglect this eternally important responsibility.
Editor's Note: This originally published at 9Marks.