This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
The Value of Membership
Thabiti Anyabwile, author of What Is a Healthy Church Member?, reflects on the value and benefits of local church membership, showing what the Bible really teaches about the idea of formal membership, sharing his heart for those who feel like they've been hurt by the institutional church, and explaining how to work through areas of doctrinal, practical, and political disagreement with other people in the church.
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Thabiti, thank you so much for joining us today on The Crossway Podcast.
It’s a joy to be with you, brother. Thank you for having me.
Personal Experience with Church as a New Believer
Can you briefly share your own story? How was it that you came to saving faith, and what was your first experience of the church like as a new Christian?
Well, I grew up in a nominally Christian household down South where everybody’s a Christian even if they’ve never been to a church, and that was almost my situation. We went to church at Christmas and Easter and things of that sort, but not much in between. For me the most lasting impression of the church in those years was the fact that when my older brothers got into trouble from time to time, they would go to church and kind of “get themselves together,” so to speak. So church was a little bit like rehab. It’s where you went when the trouble was really bad. And that happened to me after my sophomore year in high school. I got into trouble for something. I’d never been into trouble, didn’t quite know what to do, and almost instinctively decided to just go to church, to this little church, full of good, sweet people in my little town there. But the church itself wasn’t particularly clear on the gospel.
I attended there for a couple of months, then went off to college, and at college converted to Islam, and became a fairly zealous Muslim for a number of years until my wife and I miscarried. And in the aftermath of that miscarriage I was in something of a depression at home, and turned on television to watch some rap videos, and this television preacher came on and he was preaching verse-by-verse through 2 Timothy. And it was like someone had rewritten the Bible. God started drawing me by his word.
Long story short, we found out where his church was, visited that church, and that Sunday morning he preached an exposition of Exodus 32, and in God’s kindness, my wife and I both were converted under the preaching of the gospel. And my experience in that church really would lay the pathway for much of my Christian life to follow, because unlike the previous church, they were very careful with the gospel. Not only was it clear in the sermon, but those who responded to the altar call were taken to a room and met with one-on-one and just counseled very patiently, walking through the gospel again. Then they made sure I understood the gospel, and was repentant, and putting my faith in Christ, and exhorted us to find a Bible-preaching church.
When we got back to North Carolina—we were visiting a church here in DC—so when we got back to North Carolina, that’s what we did. And my impressions of the church at that point was that it was absolutely vital to my spiritual life, thanks to the counsel of that church where we were converted. God has been really kind to give me a love for the local church from that moment on.
Advice for Those “Burnt Out” on Church
What would you say to the Christian—someone who grew up in the church, maybe it was an okay church, or maybe it wasn’t a very healthy church—who feels a little bit burnt out on the church? They feel like, I don’t really know why I need this group of people that often feels dysfunctional. They’re often sinning against each other. It kind of feels unnecessary and even maybe holding me back in my walk. Isn’t it enough to come to Scripture, and to God in prayer, and to have good friends, but not really be part of a church? What would you say to that person?
Oh man. First I’d commiserate with them a little bit. I mean, most of us have been there and had some experience like that. We’ve certainly had dry seasons in our spiritual lives and sometimes that’s been connected to the people of God, or at least in our perception of things. And so first I’d just want to commiserate. Been there, feel like I’ve had that experience. Even as a pastor I’m not immune to that, so I want to be empathetic.
But then I’d say a couple of other things. Number one, I’d want to give a direct answer to the question of Can I just go about the Christian life without the church? Well, not if you want to be a biblical Christian. The only plan that God has—Plan A—for our discipleship and for our growth in Christ, according to Ephesians 4, for example, and 1 Corinthians 12, is the local church. And God doesn’t have a Plan B. So we are members of Christ’s body. That spiritual union with him is meant to be reflected physically and practically in our uniting together with other believers. And again, according to Ephesians 4, that’s how God’s grace flows to us—through the exercise of the various gifts in the body, we receive grace and are built up, and are strengthened, and are also sanctified.
Another thing is that the ways in which other Christians may hold you back, or discourage you, or anger you, are actually God’s hands sanctifying you. And you can be sure, and I can be sure, that we’re posing those same problems for other Christians, too. Right? So it’s meeting each other in our rough spots, then we sand off the rough spots and become more polished, smooth, complete, and Christ-like as Christians. God doesn’t have any other plan to achieve that than the local church.
Finally, we are kidding ourselves if we think being out in the world apart from God’s people is somehow better or safer than being inside of God’s people where we experience these difficulties. If you’re in a church that’s clear about the gospel and serious about growth and sanctification, everybody in that church knows that they’re imperfect and are cooperating together to grow in Christ. And again, if it’s a godly church, they’re honest about that. But in the world you don’t find that kind of honesty. You don’t find the same resources in the gospel for healing, and reconciliation, and truth telling, and growth.
So I think it’s a pretty serious mistake to think, Things are bad here inside the church. Let me go outside the church where things are better. They’re not better outside the church and I think many a Christian have pierced themselves with a lot of pain coming to discover that slowly through the allurements of the world.
To Those Afraid of Committing to the Church
Our culture today is pretty skeptical of authority and I could imagine someone listening to us right now who’s maybe had the experience of being hurt by the church, and not just the church broadly—other individual Christians—but by leaders in the church. Perhaps leaders have used God’s word even to justify their actions or to justify the pain they’ve caused people. What word of encouragement would you offer to the person who feels afraid of the idea of committing himself or herself to a church and submitting themselves to the authority of leaders there?
Yeah, what a great question. It’s another situation where we first just want to lament, right? Because those things are not meant to be. They oughtn’t be. They are a consequence of the fall and of sin in the world, and in church members, and in church leaders. Authority, which is meant to be married with love, is in fact often wielded in selfish, abusive, devastating kinds of ways. And so the first thing I would say is, I’m sorry about that. I recognize that that’s a reality and experience for a lot of Christians.
But then I would encourage the person perhaps in a couple of ways. I want to encourage the person to speak more specifically about the source of their hurt. When we say, You know, the church has hurt me, well, we’re generalizing and universalizing in a way that’s likely not true. Actually, it’s probably a particular Christian, or a couple of Christians, or a particular leader, or a couple of leaders that have hurt us. And I think part of the path back to healing is not only declaring the hurt, but also really assigning the culpability and responsibility more specifically. And what that helps us to do is to recognize that no, not everybody who names the name of Christ is against me or attempting to hurt me. In fact, that would not be true of 99.99% of the church world. And realizing that opens us up a little bit to the possibility that maybe what we need to do is find a different church, not be under that leadership, or find different Christian friends. That requires hope, which I want to encourage, and that’s a hope not primarily in other Christians, but in Christ himself that we want to express, believing that Christ has kept his promise not to leave us nor forsake us, and believing that he’s building his church, and believing that he is working in his church by his Spirit, and by small steps, through faith in Christ, expressing that faith by attempting to love and be loved by another set of Christians. And that has real promise and real hope. It doesn’t feel like it in the midst of our pain because if we magnify our pain, rather than grace, then it will be very difficult to think that that’s possible or should be risked. But it is the kind of risk that opens us up to growth and flourishing, and the avoidance of this particular risk actually has a way of constricting our hearts, constricting our relationships, and suffocating us.
If it were a person in my church, I would want to take a long time just walking through those things, helping them to see that in some measure. But Christ is in his church and is at work and we can trust him. And trusting him does not lead to disappointment, even if it leads us through suffering and pain.
Agreement and Unity in the Church
As a pastor, as you think about membership in your church, how important is it for members in the church to have agreement and maybe even uniformity on different issues? So whether those might be theological doctrines that the church would espouse together, or even political leanings, or views on different social issues. What level of agreement on different types of issues are required for maintaining a healthy, unified church body?
Well, it’s going to depend upon the issue. A few years back our brother Al Mohler wrote an excellent piece on “theological triage.” If someone went to the hospital, for example, the first thing that they do in the emergency room is triage. They want to get the most life-threatening, urgent issues addressed first, then more secondary though serious issues, but not necessarily life-threatening. And then finally, the little boy has got a boo boo on his knee, the nonserious, non-life-threatening issues. We want to do that with theological and biblical issues as well.
There are some issues that are first-order issues and unless we agree on them, we’re not actually talking about historic Christianity. And so that includes God, that he’s triune, that Jesus is the Son of God, fully God and fully man, that he was crucified, buried, and resurrected as atonement for our sins and justification for us. So we want to get those first-order issues in place and agree on those completely. For most churches those are going to be summed up in their statement of faith. And that’s why you want to look for a church that has a good statement of faith and why you want to be sure that they believe, and preach, and practice their statement of faith. Those are the primary issues about which we must be agreed or we’re actually not talking about the same religion.
There are secondary issues that are important, but that Christians of good conscience can actually have different views on. The classic example of that might be baptism. So my Presbyterian brother and I who believe the same gospel, we’re united in the gospel and we’re united in Christ, but now how we understand and how we practice baptism is a secondary matter compared to the gospel, compared to the nature of God, and compared to how we’re saved. But it’s still an important matter. It’s still a biblical matter. We’re both reading our Bibles, we’re arriving at different conclusions, and it’s one of those issues that really kind of necessitates that we be in different churches. You know, one where he practices infant baptism and I practice credo baptism so that we’re not arguing every week about baptism and we can continue to cooperate in the gospel and in the main things. So you’ve got secondary matters like that.
Finally you have matters indifferent, right? Things that two Christians can disagree on. They should receive each other in charity and in love, and the disagreement is of no consequence really to anything important in the faith. So I think the Golden State Warriors are the best team in pro basketball right now. Somebody else may answer the San Antonio Spurs. Well, we can disagree on that with perfectly clean consciences. There’s no matter of sin or major doctrine involved, it’s a matter of opinion. And I think most of the things that divide and create consternation in the church among professing Christians are in that second and most often that third category. And the mistake we make is we treat second and third category issues as if they’re first category issues, right?
Elevating Minor Issues
Why do you think we do that? Why are we so prone to elevate these second- and third-order issues to this primary status and then divide over it?
I think that our primary language, our natural language as fallen human beings, is law. So we’re all prone to legalism. And the new language, the language of Zion, that we have to learn is the language of grace. And that’s a second language for us and we don’t speak it fluently first off, we’ve got to grow in that language and the ability to communicate it. So part of it is simply a sanctification issue. It’s just growth that has to be undergone. The other problem is connected with a lot of our legalisms: power and fear. A lot of times people will justify something that’s a matter of their own personal conscience and conviction, which is not meant to bind the conscience and conviction of others, and they will justify that binding others to their conscience by saying, *Well, I’m afraid that if they did this thing, which they’re perfectly free to do, they’re going to end up over here in this other thing.” And so it’s a kind of fear-based, fear-motivated response to Christian freedom. Other folks like control and they think of unity in the church primarily in terms of uniformity, of conforming to, again, their own sense of how things ought to be in those secondary and tertiary issues. And so they are misunderstanding what unity looks like in the body of Christ and they’re misapplying authority or power in order to coerce others. Sometimes that’s unintentional, sometimes that’s quite intentional. But in either case I think it’s unbiblical according to Romans 14 and 15. We ought to be more careful to preserve freedom even as we are careful to use our freedom, or not to use our freedom, to cause others injury.
Disagreement in the Church
Building on that, as you reflect on the church broadly—so admittedly I’m asking you to generalize here—do you think Christians should be more prone than we are currently to lovingly, graciously discussing these differences of opinions? Or do we need less of that and maybe more just bearing with each other. Are we making too big a deal of these issues and the answer is just to bring them to the floor less often?
I most hear that question on political topics or what some people would call political topics. We don’t even have a common definition of how we define what is or isn’t political. As the prevailing philosophy has been let’s talk less about such things and not really risk any division—however well intended that is—the consequence of that has been a certain deskilling of the church. So we have not, as a consequence of that, grown in our ability to understand, and handle, and practice Christian freedom, for example. And the iron-sharpening benefit that comes from loving, gracious conversation about places where we differ has also been lost in many quarters. So when major things flare up in the culture and the life of the church, we find ourselves unable to talk about these things, lacking an ability even when we want to. And I think that’s actually had its own set of consequences for the church.
People here at the church will hear me say this sometimes: I want us to be the kind of congregation that can have the conversation. And when I say that, I’m not committing us to a particular outcome in the conversation when we’re in those sort of third-order issues in particular. What I’m trying to commit us to is precisely what you spoke to a moment ago. A certain kind of spirit and disposition of generosity, and kindness, and patience, and listening in order to understand, and communicate, and to grow. That process and that ability to communicate is pretty foundational to a deep unity rather than just a uniformity.
The Role of Social Media
It strikes me that maybe part of the problem that we’ve been facing when it comes to discussing these difficult issues has been that so much of it happens online. We think of this social-media sphere as the primary locus of the conversation and when you think about actually discussing these things with a real person, that’s often almost an afterthought. We’ve ripped these conversations out of the context of true, in person, face-to-face, Christian community. Do you feel like that is part of the issue? And how can the local church serve as that place of working on these things together and seeking more, not necessarily uniformity, but true gospel unity?
Yes, I do think that’s part of the issue. It’s funny, social media is ironically named, right? Because it often isn’t very social. And even when you are having “conversations” with people on social media, it’s disembodied. It sort of absents you from your local context. And oftentimes we can walk away from social media thinking, Hey! I’ve had this exchange with X number of people and believe that I’m in this conversation. When in fact, you’re not. Not with anybody of consequence in your local life. And that’s a problem. That’s a significant problem.
So I think that the best place to have these kinds of conversations—and the more contentious they are or more potentially contentious they are—the more important it is that we’re having them across the dinner table, and in our local churches, and with people we actually know and who know us and who can listen to us in context of that knowledge. That’s just really important. Of course, that also requires that we have churches that create spaces to have the conversations. And I don’t know how vicious a sort of cycle this is but I think some people are driven to social media in part because they’re not finding these conversations locally, right? And they are dealing with anything ranging from indifference to hostility in their local gatherings if the gathering has been prizing a certain kind of uniformity and a certain kind of quietude about these things in the name of community. And so people are tacit about looking for that kind of conversation. And so it’s sad when the substitute becomes social media because social media is often a lousy context for doing this very personal discovery and work.
Advice for Pastors
I can imagine there are a lot of pastors who desire to help foster some of these conversations, but feel a significant element of fear, If I open this door and provide some kind of venue for in-person conversation, where might that lead? What might happen? People might get angry. What encouragement or advice would you offer to pastors who want to cultivate a community that is willing to engage each other on hard issues but with love, and with grace, and with the gospel binding them together?
Number one, make it a matter of prayer. Pray about it in the public services, pray about it in your private prayer life, talk to God before you talk to man, right?
Number two, teach and equip the congregation with resources that help them to have the conversation. Just for example, I love the resources of Peacemaker Ministries and Ken Sande’s book The Peacemaker. Wonderful resources for thinking through conflict and how to resolve them biblically.
Teach from the Scriptures. In Philippians, Paul says help Euodia and Synteche to agree together. Take those kinds of texts. Talk about Paul and Barnabas having a sharp split. Make it normal in people’s expectation of the Christian life that there’s going to be conflict, even with brothers and sisters, so they’re not surprised when there’s disagreement or conflict, right? We’re not plastic people. And so we just need to give people a sense of the real life of things. And we’ve done that teaching, and hopefully modeled that yourself as a pastor, have courage. Set up the conversation. You’re leading the people.This is not going to be a train that just runs away from you with the other elders and leaders. Pray and think carefully about Well, how might we structure a panel discussion on a night where we normally have Bible study or a special event or something? And in that panel what questions are we going to ask? Who are we going to tap to be a part of that from our congregation who we can trust in front of the whole congregation to be edifying and spiritually minded? These are things that can be done and I trust most pastors are able to do. It just requires a little forethought and with all things, lead with teaching.
The Importance of Sharing Meals
So I’ve noticed on Twitter you occasionally post pictures of gatherings, it looks like dinner, with guys in your church. What role does sharing meals together play in the life of your community?
Yeah, those are pictures from my Monday night men’s small group. We meet for about two hours. In the first hour, my wife is the chef and we’re all sous chefs. She’s teaching guys how to cook theirs as part of their discipleship and part of our bonding together. So we cook, and then we eat what we cook—and so far nobody’s died of food poisoning—and then we open the Scriptures and read and study the Scriptures together. You know, meals have a way of knitting the heart together. And the act of cooking together is a family-like act. And so from sharing the meal, and preparing the meal, we sort of derive these opportunities to encourage each other, catch up on each other’s day, serve each other, and care for each other in a meaningful way, and all good cooking is done in love. And so there’s a communication of love that goes on in that activity together. And we’re trying to build, as it were, a family that’s not just a metaphor for the local church, that’s what the local church is. It is in fact a family. God’s household. God’s adopted people. And so we want our lives to look not liturgical in a sort of cold, stodgy, scripted sense in which people might hear that word. We want our lives together to look familial. We want it to look like the living room and the kitchen. And so we try to encourage members of the church to do that together in small groups, in hospitality, and so on because we’re meant to be a family.
Results of Time Spent Together
As you think about those times that you’ve spent together with those guys, have there been any surprising results that came from just that amount of time and the quality of that time that you’re spending together?
I don’t know if surprising is the right adjective, but I’ll tell you what I’ve really appreciated, and it goes back to your previous question. In that group, there are people across the political divide. And some folks who could care less. And in that group are people from really different sort of cultural and generational backgrounds. And what’s been really lovely is that time together has fostered friendships across boundaries that, were they sort of left to not have that kind of time together, may never have formed. And so there are friendships that are developing, sort of praying and caring for each other, rejoicing when a brother gets engaged, or when another brother gets a new job, seeing answers to prayer. So family is forming in that time and it’s forming across the kinds of potential differences or divisions that really would trouble churches. And so I think it’s been a seedbed of a lot of unity, and a lot of love, and mutual affirmation, and I pray that it would be more so as the day of Christ approaches.
Church as Family
That resonates with just the simple fact that sometimes the best thing that we can do is just spend time with each other. There’s no substitute for just time spent with another Christian face-to-face, doing something together, not always feeling the pressure to make every moment spent with someone from church this very spiritual, intense time where we’re in prayer or studying the Bible the entire time. But really there’s value in just being together, as a family as you say.
Yeah, that’s so well put. I couldn’t put it better. I think part of our own ministry philosophy here is your most basic sort of ministry as a member is to get to know and to love other members, right? And that’s not normally done best through programs. There are some programs that can help and some strategies that can foster, but we like to just sort of encourage lingering with each other over a meal, in conversation, out exercising, serving in the community. And so just to have unscripted, unhurried time number one, is a real gift from God. But number two, also sort of fosters relationships and family in a way that in an appointed program at this day and hour generally doesn’t.
Well Thabiti, thank you so much for taking some time to talk with us today and share some of your own wisdom and experience as a pastor and as a Christian. We really appreciate you taking the time.
Brother, it was a great joy. Thank you for the opportunity and I pray the Lord blesses your labors.
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