Posted January 22, 2020
In previous posts I’ve introduced the calling of active church membership. Now we begin to spell out concretely what responsibilities are given to us by King Jesus.
Perhaps you’re an adult who’s thinking, “I’ve never given much thought to my church membership. What responsibilities are there?” Perhaps you’re a young person who’s considering making confession of faith and wondering, “What’s all involved with my church membership?” Whatever the case may be, it’s beneficial for us to be reminded of what our church membership ought to look like practically.
I want to begin with the most basic (and perhaps obvious) calling: the necessity of being members of a true, instituted church of Christ. This duty is foundational for all the rest.
This calling is memorably expressed in Art. 28 of the Belgic Confession: “We believe, since this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved, and that out of it there is no salvation, that no person…ought to withdraw himself to live in a separate state from it; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it…”
This is our calling: we are bound to join!
The Belgic Confession goes on in the following article to explain how we decide our church membership. It does so by describing the “marks” or distinguishing characteristics of the true church that guide us in this calling. Those three marks are: the preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the faithful exercise of Christian discipline. The true church bears these marks; the false church does not. In determining which church we must join, we are guided by these marks: “Does this church preach the gospel faithfully? Are the two sacraments administered faithfully? Is there the faithful exercise of Christian discipline here? If so, this is where I must be a member.”
The calling is simple and straightforward, yet there are several dangers that must be avoided.
One danger is the temptation to base our church membership on something other than these marks. Often it’s the case that, rather than being guided by these objective marks, we are guided by our emotions. We base our church membership on how warm and inviting the members are. We base our church membership on how charismatic the minister is or how easygoing the officebearers are. We base our church membership on whether there are other couples or individuals who are the same age as we are. We base our church membership on where our family members attend. We base our church membership on our spouse and where they want to go to church.
As easy as this is to do, something as serious as our church membership may not be based on our fickle feelings. We must be guided by the marks.
Another danger is that someone says that it really doesn’t matter what church they are a member of, so long as they are a member somewhere. However, it is our calling to join the church that most clearly manifests the marks of the true church.
In the past this calling has been illustrated by the figure of a wedge, like the shape of an ax head (cf. Homer Hoeksema, “At the Point of the Wedge,” Standard Bearer vol. 59, no. 18). One end of the wedge is thick and dull. The other end of the wedge is thin and razor-sharp. The wedge represents a broad spectrum of churches that would be considered true churches of Christ (thus giving the lie to the idea that the Protestant Reformed Churches are the only true churches in the world). On the sharp edge of the spectrum is a church where the three marks are clearly seen. In the middle of the spectrum is a church where the three marks are evident, albeit imperfectly. On the dull end of the spectrum is a church where the three marks are scarcely visible. And beyond that a church becomes a false church.
It is our calling to strive to be on the point of the wedge. This is the calling of the church as a whole, meaning that she must strive to manifest ever more clearly the marks of the true church. But this is also a calling for each individual believer. He must see to it that he is a member in a church that is as close to the point of the wedge as possible, a church that most clearly manifests the three marks.
A movement away from the point of the wedge will be judged by God. For the church that moves away from the point, God will judge by causing that church in time to become a false church. For an individual that moves in that direction, God will judge by causing him eventually to be cut off in his generations.
But a movement toward the point of the wedge will be blessed by God. The congregation that moves toward the point will be blessed. And the individual that moves in that direction will be blessed, in his generations also.
If you are a member of such a church, rejoice and be exceeding glad!
If you are not, join a true church, one that most faithfully manifests the marks!
And, so long as she remains faithful, never leave her!
Previous posts in this series:
This post was written by Rev. Joshua Engelsma, pastor of Doon Protestant Reformed Church in Doon, Iowa. If you have a question or comment for Rev. Engelsma, please do so in the comment section.
Should it trouble us that there are so many denominations in the world? Should we express sorrow and even indignation over the fact that Christians have not banded together institutionally to give expression of their unity in Jesus Christ? For many the fragmentation of churches into many denominations is deplorable. It is common for speakers and writers to criticize “denominationalism” sharply and call for churches to band together for the sake of unity (usually by means of ignoring doctrinal differences).
Dr. R. C. Sproul briefly explains in the September issue of Tabletalk why there are so many denominations. His article is entitled “Why a Study Bible?”. Writing about Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into “the German vernacular,” Sproul explains,
This was anathema to the Roman church—Luther was told that if he were to translate the Bible into the common tongue, he would open a floodgate of iniquity. Hundreds of different denominations would arise, each claiming to base their faith on the Bible. Luther agreed that could very well happen. But, he said, if getting the gospel that is plain enough for every child to understand into the hands of the normal person carries with it the risk that some will misinterpret Scripture and open a floodgate of iniquity, then so be it. Luther understood the importance of every person’s knowing Scripture, and he knew that the church had to get it out to the masses even though misuses of the Bible was possible. As long as the church is faithful to this Word, she cannot be held accountable for its misuse.
God used the Reformation to make Bibles available for almost everyone to read and to spread the gospel far and wide! This has resulted in the formation of hundreds of denominations. If institutional unity (that is not based on sound doctrine) is what we really want, we could give up our Bibles and go back to Rome. Then we could have the institutional unity that existed before the Reformation. But that would be truly sad.