The ‘Inactive Roll’ and Biblical Shepherding and Discipline in the ARP Church

The concept of an inactive roll violates the clear intent of Biblical church discipline and shepherding

The concept of an inactive roll violates the clear intent of Biblical church discipline and shepherding. Even our definition of an active member is disgracefully lenient. A member of the Rotary Club has higher attendance requirements placed on him or her than in an ARP church! We are called to a far higher and holy participation in Christ through His Church, and our membership rolls, shepherding and discipline ought to reflect this.

 
The revised Form of Government coming for a vote at the 2013 General Synod of the ARP Church proposes eliminating the ‘inactive roll’ which has been a part of our church government for some time (though not forever). This was not an accident or oversight. As the committee discussed the various types of rolls in the life of the church, the consensus was that there is neither Biblical basis nor warrant for an ‘inactive’ roll in any denomination.

A memorial has been sent from Virginia Presbytery to restore the inactive roll to the FOG. This memorial begins by stating:

Whereas, the proposed Form of Government chapter on church membership makes no provision for faithful members who have moved away or who, for various reasons, are not in regular attendance at worship,

Therefore, Virginia Presbytery memorializes Synod to retain the categories of ‘Active, Inactive, Non-communicant and Associate member’ in our new Form of Government along with the prescribed guidelines for dealing with Inactive members.

The first part of the assertion that the new FOG “makes no provision for faithful members who have moved away” is false. The new FOG 4.17 states:

Those who have previously been active in the life of the congregation but are prevented from activity by infirmity, or who are temporarily away in academic study, military service, or for other valid reasons, shall be maintained on the roll.

This language is basically identical to the current FOG. If you are going to present a Memorial, at least be accurate with the facts of the issue. I am assuming what the movers of the motion had in mind though was what I call the ‘church cemetery’ rationale. First Somewhere ARP Church has a cemetery, and the rules for being buried there are that one must be a church member. Thus an ‘inactive roll’ is needed to forever park a person on the church roll even though they moved from Virginia to California fifty years ago, but wish to be buried with the rest of their family. I am all for family togetherness, but issues with your cemetery policies should not drive how our FOG is structured, but rather the structure of our FOG should in turn shape your local policies. Find another way to write your cemetery rules instead of using the FOG as the means to an unbiblical end. Another problem with this is that the current inactive roll only allows someone to remain on it for 3 years, and then they must be removed; such churches are already in violation of the FOG.

To be quite clear, the new FOG retains the Associate Member status as an option, though frankly I can find no biblical warrant for that either. Yet this status is meant to be a temporary option, for example with visiting college students, military members stationed somewhere short term, or perhaps someone whose employer has temporarily moved them to another place. It is also optional – a local congregation need not have an associate roll. It is meant to foster at least some local accountability to a church session while the person is away from their home church. It is meant as a short term status.

Let us get to the heart of the issue of church membership though. Church membership and church discipline are inextricably linked in Scripture. In Matthew 18:15-17 we have the most detailed description of the process of church discipline:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (ESV)

First, note that the parties involved are assumed at the start to be brothers or sisters. While this passage alone is not sufficient to argue for the idea of some form of church membership as we now practice it, it certainly assumes a clear delineation between those who are in the church and those who are not. If a person who is unrepentant in their sin through this process, they are ‘put out of communion’ – excommunicated.

Second, there is an assumption that all the parties are a part of a local body of believers, or how else would each be aware of the sinful practices of the one coming under discipline? One member in a local congregation has sinned against another in a specific way which requires reconciliation. If the offending believer persists in their sin, then it is to be taken as if they were not even believers – such is the gravity of sin in the midst of the church.

These unrepentant sinners are to be treated as unbelievers and removed. Paul likens such sin as leaven which corrupts the whole body (1 Cor. 5:6-7). He goes on to say, “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you.’” (1 Cor. 5:12-13) This is a local process from start to finish.

A third observation from the Matthew 18 passage is an absence of anything resembling the membership purgatory of an inactive roll. The person who has sinned is to either be urged to immediate repentance, or else pursued by the active shepherding of the church until they either repent or are excommunicated. Flagrant sin which affects others is not to be tolerated in the church (1 Cor. 5:1-2; Gal. 6:1; 2 Cor. 13:1-3). All through scripture there is a clear expectation of observable growth in holiness in every believer within the context of the local body of believers.
Some might object, “Well, we keep up with the person who moved away through their family or by e-mail” or some other means. We find no example outside of the apostles of anyone exercising any sort of long-distance shepherding of God’s flock, and the apostolic age has long ceased. Peter himself urged the faithful to active shepherding by the elders:

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:1-3)

Is it that those who wish to retain an inactive roll have forgotten or perhaps have never fully grasped the nature of what a church roll represents as it relates to the elders of the church? Another term for the ‘active’ roll is the ‘communicant roll,’ which is to say all those who are members are able to partake fully in the sacraments of the church, particularly the Lord’s Supper. To be admitted to the sacrament one should not be living in unrepentant patterns of sin with no consequence. One step that a session should take if a member resists church discipline is suspension from the Lord’s Supper. Yes, that is a severe step, but it is meant to help the stubborn sinner realize the danger in which they are placing themselves if they fail to take their sin seriously and seek reconciliation with God and man.

If a member in good standing moves away, exhort them to find another church to which they can transfer as soon as possible, even if the options are not ideal. If they fail to do so within a year, remove them from your roll, as they can no longer be shepherded by your session. Neither can you provide a letter of transfer with full integrity, since you cannot effectively observe their walk with Christ from afar after the passage of that much time.

I could write much more about church discipline, but let me simply exhort those who want an inactive roll: man up and do the job of elders instead of casting people off into three years of neglect during which you may be placing their souls in eternal jeopardy. Are we really okay with ignoring someone who fails to be active in worship or is living in other sinful ways for three years? What sort of shepherds are we? If they have committed serious enough sin against their brethren in the church, they ought to come under the prompt discipline of the session until they repent or are excommunicated.

The concept of an inactive roll violates the clear intent of Biblical church discipline and shepherding. Even our definition of an active member is disgracefully lenient. A member of the Rotary Club has higher attendance requirements placed on him or her than in an ARP church! We are called to a far higher and holy participation in Christ through His Church, and our membership rolls, shepherding and discipline ought to reflect this.

Kenneth J McMullen is a minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP) and is Library Director & Associate Professor of Theological Bibliography at Reformed Seminary in Charlotte, N.C. This article appeared on his blog and is used with permission.