The problem of worldliness is an ever present issue for the church. While it is important to warn individual believers against worldliness, it is also vital for local churches to avoid this danger. Why do local churches so often blend in with the world?
Local churches are too often composed of a mixed company of regenerate and unregenerate members. The problem in these cases is not that believers are living like the world but that the world, in the form of unbelievers, has been granted membership in the church. It may be true at times that the church is like the world because born-again Christians are continuing to live as though they had never been born again. But it is also very likely that the church is like the world because unconverted people have infiltrated the church. The remedy for this problem is to keep the world out of the church by guarding the membership of the local church.
The local church should be a reflection of the body of Christ, which means it should only be composed of regenerate, Spirit-baptized individuals. Though it is impossible to guarantee that all those who are members of a local church are truly regenerate, there are three important means to promote a regenerate membership. These three means were considered the marks of a true church by the Reformers: faithful preaching of the Scripture, proper administration of the ordinances, and consistent practice of church discipline.
Faithful Preaching of the Scripture
The preaching of the Scripture is perhaps the most important and fundamental of the three marks of the church, since it in essence governs the administration of the ordinances and the practice of church discipline. Paul exhorted Timothy to “devote [himself] to the public reading of the Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim 4:13). He charged him “in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: [to] preach the word” (2 Tim 4:1–2a). The preaching of God’s Word must always be central to the life of the church.
Faithfully preaching God’s Word is vital to a regenerated church membership, for “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). Rather than assuming that the current members of the church are truly regenerate and understand the Gospel, pastors should continually explain the true nature of salvation and warn against the danger of false professions. As Mark Dever reminds fellow pastors,
Assumption on our part leads to presumption on theirs. That is, when we assume the Gospel instead of clarifying it, people who profess Christianity but don’t understand or obey the Gospel are cordially allowed to presume their own conversion without examining themselves for evidence of it—which may amount to nothing more than a blissful damnation. (Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel, p. 43)
If the mark of a true church is the faithful preaching of God’s Word, a failure to clearly proclaim salvation by faith through grace will not only lead to unregenerate people in the membership of a church but will ultimately lead to absence of a true church—replaced by an apostate one. God’s Word in all its fullness—especially the truth concerning the Gospel—must be proclaimed every Sunday to help ensure the regenerate membership of the church, for “in so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim 4:16).
Proper Administration of the Ordinances
There are two ordinances which have been entrusted to the care of the local church: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. When properly administered, these ordinances are an effective means of guarding the regenerate membership of the church.
Baptism is a physical symbol, or picture, of spiritual reality. It pictures the believer’s union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection (Rom 6:4). It is a physical display of the invisible act of Spirit baptism that occurs at the point of salvation (1 Cor 12:13). Since Spirit baptism places one into the body of Christ, water baptism rightly serves as the means to joining a local church. It is incumbent upon the church to obtain a credible testimony from all candidates for baptism. Though baptism need not be delayed for an extended period of time to observe the evidences of salvation in a person’s life, no one should be baptized who does not possess a clear understanding of the Gospel or who gives evidence of an unrepentant heart by living in open sin. The requirement that all candidates for membership have received believer’s baptism is vital for guarding a regenerate membership:
This is the primary way that we protect the regeneracy of church membership. That is, by being baptized as a believer, each potential new member is publicly stating that his heart has been circumcised by the Spirit, that he has been crucified, buried, and raised with Christ. He is testifying by his own symbolic actions that he has in fact genuinely repented and believed in the Gospel. In so doing, he identifies himself as one whose heart has truly been regenerated—a new creation in Christ, and as such a member of God’s people. (Dever and Alexander, The Deliberate Church, 106)
The Lord’s Supper
The Lord’s Supper serves several functions for the church, two of which are significant here. It pictures the believer’s individual participation in the body and blood of Christ and the benefits therein (John 6:53–56; cf. Matt 26:26–29), and it also pictures the unity of the church in Christ (1 Cor 10:15–17; 11:17–22).
The Lord’s Supper is only intended for believers. Christ initiated it with his disciples, but not before he had purified the group by Judas’ leaving in the middle of the supper. To protect the Lord’s Supper from unbelievers, there should be three basic requirements for those who wish to partake. They should be regenerate individuals, who have been baptized, and are members in good standing of a Bible-believing church. A mere profession of faith is not sufficient to maintain the purity of the Table. Those who do not wish to follow in obedience in baptism do not have a credible profession of faith and should be excluded from communion. Since the ordinance has been entrusted to the local church and membership is the only way for a church to approve of a person’s profession and conduct, church membership should be a prerequisite for participation in the Lord’s Supper. Those who offer no evidence of regeneration must be excluded to maintain the distinction between the church and the world.
Consistent Practice of Church Discipline
Though often ignored or neglected today, church discipline is a necessary and important aspect of the local church. Jesus instructed that those who refuse to repent of a sin against a brother, after being confronted privately, plurally, and publicly, should be treated as an unbeliever and put out of the church (Matt 18:15–20). False teachers, though they may arise from within the church, must be avoided by believers (Acts 20:28–30; Rom 16:16–17). Paul urged the Corinthians to remove the man who was living in immorality with his father’s wife. When they gathered as a church, they were “to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” (1 Cor 5:1–5). Anyone who refused to obey Paul’s teaching was to be removed from the fellowship of the church with the hope that the resulting shame would bring about repentance (2 Thess 3:14–15).
When a church fails to practice church discipline, it allows unbelievers to remain firmly entrenched within its ranks. Thus the purity of the church is lost and its distinction from the world is blurred. Though discipline is always a difficult step for a church, it must be taken to keep the church from becoming like the world. Those who live like the world—walking in lawlessness and darkness, worshipping false idols of the heart—can have no fellowship with true believers for they have nothing in common (2 Cor 6:14-16).
The neglect of church discipline has been one of the leading causes for the growing worldliness of the church. Since worldliness is not just external action but an issue of the control of the heart, churches must warn those who are not living their lives with Christ at the center that they need to repent or be put out of the fellowship of the church. The world must be removed from the church, for continued worldly practice reveals an unregenerate heart:
Myriads of so-called Christians today think like the world, look like the world, and act like the world. They may appear morally decent, but Christ is not the focus of their lives. They are at home in this world and lack a passionate commitment to Christ and His Great Commission. They forget that when the worldly man thinks he has conquered the world, the world has conquered him. Then he is no longer salt and light in the world, and provides evidence that he is not born again after all. (Joel R. Beeke, Overcoming the World: Grace to Win the Daily Battle, 37)
Many today have accepted the false idea that born-again Christians can continue to live like the world, when the Scripture is clear that regeneration brings about a change. Often, the problem is not that regenerated people continually live like the world but that unregenerate people are allowed to continue to live in the church. The church is distinct from the world because it lives in submission to Christ, seeking to glorify God in everything, while the world continues to pursue its own pleasures and earthly treasures. If the church is to display its distinction from the world, it must guard its regenerate membership by faithfully preaching God’s Word, properly administrating the ordinances, and consistently practicing church discipline.