Book Review: Jeremy M. Kimble, 40 Questions about Church Membership and Discipline

Kimble, Jeremy M. 40 Questions about Church Membership and Discipline. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2017. Pb. 272 pp. $23.99.   Link to Kregel

If recent studies are accurate, both church attendance and church membership in America are in decline. This is true for mainline denominations as well as Evangelical churches. While there are any number of reasons for this decline, an often unaddressed factor is simply that people no longer see church membership as important and many find any talk of church discipline distasteful. American Christians are especially independent and see any intrusion on their private life as a violation, even if this comes their voluntary association with a local church.

40 Questions About Church Membership and DisciplineJeremy Kimble’s contribution to the growing 40 Questions series from Kregel Academic covers the two related topics of church membership and discipline both as an academic issue and a pastoral problem. Each are examined through the lens of a biblical theology, but Kimble devotes large sections of the book to how membership and discipline ought to operate in the local church.

The first four chapters form an introduction defining church, church membership and church discipline. Kimble defines the “universal church” as “the people of God who have been saved through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, and have been incorporated into his body through baptism with the Holy Spirit” (21) who then gather locally to “worship, hear the Word of God preached, observe the ordinances, affirm and oversee one another’s membership, exercise discipline when needed, and encourage one another to live faithfully as a Christian” (22). This book is more interested in the local church, so he quickly moves to what membership in a local might look like.

Beginning with Jonathan Leeman’s definition of church membership, Kimble argues membership is a voluntary relationship in which an individual submit themselves to the authority of a local church in order to live out their Christian life. This relationship includes submission to church discipline in order to correct persistent sin. Discipline can be both formative (part of the discipleship process) and corrective of a particular sin. Corrective discipline may include removal from membership and excommunication (36).

The second section of the book covers sixteen questions on church membership divided into three sub-categories (theological, ministry and practical questions). Kimble must deal with the theological problem of grounding modern church membership to the biblical data. In order to do this, he outlines a pattern from covenant relationship of the Old Testament people of God. To be a member of the Covenant people carried rights and responsibilities, which establish a pattern found in the New Testament. Kimble says New Testament church membership is a “formal commitment or covenant between an individual and a local church” (47), citing several passages describing the responsibility we have toward one another in the church. A potential problem for Kimble is many of these texts are universal (love one another in John 13:34-35).

The third section of the book covers another eighteen questions on church discipline divided into the same three categories. After a chapter on Old Testament patterns of disciple, Kimble discusses the two most significant texts for church discipline in the New Testament, Matthew 18:15-18 and 1 Corinthians 5:1-5. Live several chapters in this book, most of this material is taken from Kimble’s monograph That His Spirit May Be Saved: Church Discipline as a Means to Repentance and Perseverance (Wipf & Stock, 2013). Kimble argues Paul’s command to corporately discipline the young man in 1 Corinthians 5 is based on the Old Testament pattern (citing Lev 24:14, Num 15:35 and Deut 19-10). Because of the style of the Forty Questions series, these chapters are frustratingly brief, although Kimble provides excellent references to other literature in the footnotes for those wishing to pursue the exegesis of these two important texts.

Since Paul quoted the Old Testament in 1 Corinthians 5:13 in the context of dealing with heinous sin in the Christian community, Kimble sees the Old Testament pattern of expelling an unrepentant sinner from the community of Israel as a pattern for church discipline. His motivation is his insistence on one “people of God” on both the Old and New Testament. But there are some potential problems with this use of the Law as a pattern or trajectory for church matters. In Deuteronomy 13:5 or 17:7, the verses Paul alludes to in 1 Corinthians 5:13, the unrepentant sinner was not simply excluded from the camp, he was to be executed! Although he fails to mention it in his brief chapter on disciple in Church history, Calvin had the heretic Servetus executed.

Kimble obviously does not think church discipline ought to culminate in execution, but he needs to explain more completely how this method for applying the Jewish Law to Church practice works on an exegetical level. Kimble would not (I assume) use the ritual for determining the guilt of a woman accused of adultery in Numbers 5:11-31 as a “pattern” for dealing with adultery in the church today. He does mention several views on the continuity between the Testaments in his introductory chapters, but this is not a very detailed discussion of how the Law ought to function (or not) in the church. Since the book is designed to only briefly answer particular questions, there is little room for a fully nuanced discussion of how to apply the Law in the contemporary church, so Kimble cannot be faulted for this lack of clarity.

The final two chapters treat the significance of church membership and discipline for both theology and the Christian life. Here Kimble argues both church membership and church discipline are necessary for a more pure church, a spotless bride prepared presented to Christ (262). By voluntarily submitting to the authority of a church body, the believer in Christ is recognizing that their life (both doctrine and behavior) have eternal significance.

A potential problem for any book on these issues is reading the New Testament anachronistically. Church membership as described by Kimble is rather modern, and perhaps could be describes as American Evangelical church membership and discipline. I happen to think he gets most of the details right, but can these details be established from the text of the New Testament? The book of Acts describes the first thirty years of the church, and even when supplemented by the Pauline letters, it hard to develop a clear biblical theology of church membership as it appears in contemporary culture. Nevertheless Kimble avoids pushing too many modern church practices into the world of the New Testament.

NB: Thanks to Kregel Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.