Church Membership in an Evil Age

Rev. Key is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Randolph, Wisconsin.

The truth of the Scriptures and the love of Christ’s church is the passion of my heart and the burden God has placed upon my soul. From that point of view, I would long for everyone to come and see the truth of Scripture as we Protestant Reformed Churches have been given to understand and rejoice in it. And then I would also long to fellowship with all our readers in the unity of church membership. 

However, I want to state clearly from the start that it is not my intention by this and three following articles to proselytize members and to add to the growing numbers in the Protestant Reformed Churches. To write these articles with the purpose of persuading you to join the PRC would not be to the benefit of anyone. The simple fact is, many of you would need to ask many questions about our churches before even considering such membership. And the motivation for joining another church or denomination of churches ought never be merely to escape the problems in one’s own congregation or churches. 

Church membership must always be positive, with the seeking of God’s glory as its basis. And it must always be based upon your own convictions of the truth of God’s holy inspired Scriptures, as they line up with the confessions of the particular church to which you would join yourself. So I am content in a brief series of articles to open the Scriptures and call your attention to a few scriptural principles, leaving the outcome to the Spirit of Christ and praying only that you will be built up in the most holy faith and exercise your calling as faithful members of Christ’s church. 

In connection with the theme, “Church Membership in a Evil Age,” ‘ it is my intention to call your attention first to the scriptural idea and calling of church membership. In a second article I will call your attention to the corporate responsibility in which that church membership invokes us. It is my purpose in a third article to consider the difficulty God’s people in years past have faced with respect to their membership in apostatizing churches. And in a fourth and final article, the Lord willing, I will call your attention to the marks of the church by which we must determine where we are called to serve God as members of His church. 

Church membership is something that the Christian church has always taken seriously, because the concept is so thoroughly scriptural. But along with the departure from the teaching of the Scriptures in recent years, there has also been a steady decline in the understanding of the importance of church membership. 

Many believe that to be a member of a local congregation is not so important, and that individual believers are at liberty to do as they please. If they want to join, that is fine; and if not, that is fine too. After all, they say, church membership does not make you a Christian. But while we indeed grant that having your name on a church roll will not make you a Christian, there is a confusion in that argument that must be addressed by Scripture. 

The Bible speaks of the church from two perspectives, as does also the Belgic Confession, one of the creeds or confessions of the Reformed churches. 

In the first place, there is the one holy catholic church. And by that word “catholic” we have no reference whatsoever to the Roman Catholic Church. “Catholic” refers to the universal aspect of the church, the one holy universal church of true believers in many denominations and countries, gathered throughout the ages. The truth of Scripture concerning that holy catholic or universal church is concisely summarized in our Heidelberg Catechism, Q & A 54: What believest thou concerning the holy catholic church of Christ? That the Son of God from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves to himself by his Spirit and word, out of the whole human race, a church chosen to everlasting life, agreeing in true faith; and that I am and for ever shall remain, a living member thereof.” Essentially, therefore, the church is the body of Christ, invisible, an object of faith, not sight. 

But besides that truth of the church, Scripture also makes clear that that one holy, universal church comes to manifestation in individual congregations under the leadership of God-appointed officebearers who serve that local body of believers. That is the aspect of church membership and our calling to church membership that we consider in this and subsequent articles. There is a clear relationship between the one who is taken into the church organism, that invisible body of Christ, by regeneration and the bond of faith, and membership in a local church. 

The invisible body of Christ and the visible congregation are not two separate entities, but two important aspects of the one church. Although one can distinguish them, they are inseparably related. So inseparably related are they, that one expresses personal unity with the body of Christ when he joins a faithful congregation, and one forsakes the body of Christ when he leaves or stands outside of a faithful congregation. The believer must find fellowship with the other members of Christ’s body. He is compelledto do such by the Spirit of Christ. 

That truth is well attested scripturally. To the New Testament believer, faith in Christ and participation in His church are inseparable. 

In Matthew 18:15ff., Jesus teaches us the order to follow in calling an erring brother or sister to repentance and restoring fellowship when a breach has developed between individual members of the church. If the guilty person refuses to listen, Jesus instructs us to bring the matter to the church. That clearly points to believers being recognized as members of a local congregation. 

In Acts, chapters 2-5, e.g., many were brought to faith through the preaching of the apostles. However, they were not left hanging on their own. Instead, they are spoken of as being added to that number who were already a part of the church at Jerusalem. 

In Acts 20:28, Paul instructs the elders in the church at Ephesus to take heed to themselves and to all the flock over which God has made them overseers. Those elders were not in doubt as to who were members in their congregation. Taking heed to the flock would be impossible, if there were no recognizable membership. To that same church at Ephesus Paul wrote a letter in which he gave instruction as to the importance of congregational life. Christ blesses His elect through the congregation, to which He gives His Word and Spirit. Out of Christ, that whole body, having been fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth—see how intimate is that fellowship—according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love (Eph. 4:16). 

From those references, which are only a few, it ought to be clear that we may not think of the church institute, that which is visible, as something disassociated from the one invisible body of Christ. You may not put asunder what God has joined together! 

Dr. Abraham Kuyper used a fitting illustration (The Implications of Public Confession, p. 84), when he spoke of the peas in a pod. If you raise peas in a garden, it is impossible that you tend the peas, but ignore the pod. “True, when the peas are ripe, and picking time has come, you shell the peas and throw the pod away. Similarly, you remove a scaffolding when once the building has been completed within it. Just so, the Lord God will sometime come to throw away the visible Church. But the present is not yet the season of harvest. The scaffolding is necessary still, and the pod must needs be. Hence, you may not be indifferent about the visible Church, wrongly supposing that the invisible, spiritual Church can mature without her.” 

For that reason, whoever is indifferent to the church membership or who remains outside the membership of the local church, gives expression to the sin of supposing to be wiser than God. Such a person acts in rebellion against the ordinances of God. For the love of his soul we call him to repentance. Every child of God, by his confession of being a Christian, is obligated to join the true church of God as it comes to expression in a local congregation. 

But church membership involves more than being on the membership list of some church and attending the worship services on Sunday. 

There are responsibilities connected with that church membership. Those responsibilities are spelled out throughout the Bible, and the Word of God that I preach comes to me and to His people every Lord’s day with a “thus saith the Lord,” that places before us responsibilities that are inescapable. Those responsibilities that are yours as a member of Christ’s church in whatever place may all be summed up by the calling to glorify the Lord your God by loving Him with all your heart and mind and soul, and loving your neighbor as yourself. That sums it all. 

That implies many things, of course. 

In the first place, the necessity of church membership and the calling to glorify God in your church membership immediately places you under the calling to evaluate today’s churches, including the one in which you currently have your membership. Only a true church is a proper body to join and in which to remain. As a member of that church, i.e., of a local congregation of believers and their children, you have the calling before the face of God to submit to the teaching ministry and to the discipline of that church. 

You are obligated, according to Scripture (I Cor. 9, and many other passages), to care for the poor and to support the ministry of the Word, in its broadest sense, with your money, reflective of what God has given you. You are obligated to support the work of Christ with the various gifts and talents God has given you (Rom. 12Eph. 4, and many, many other passages)—with your time and prayers, your fellowship and upbuilding words, even your admonitions for the love of the brother or sister who is departing from the way of the Lord. And for the glory of God, we are also obligated to live lives of separation and holiness. That means that we find no fellowship with the ungodly and unbelievers and, as in times of apostasy and reformation, that we come out from among those who manifest themselves as belonging to the false church. 

Exercising that responsibility of church membership becomes increasingly difficult in the advancing apostasy in the church today. What a disastrous departure from the truth of God’s Word is seen in most denominations today! We live in an evil age. I am assuming, and I hope my assumption is not incorrect, that you have enough spiritual sensitivity to sin to see the evil that has engulfed also the church world today. I only call your attention to the inspired words Paul wrote to Timothy in II Timothy 3, and ask you: Don’t you see this today? 

“This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, . . . lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God, . . . ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Those sins do not merely characterize theworld! Paul speaks about the church! For they are also characterized by this: “Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.” The ungodly are not concerned with having a form of godliness. Paul speaks of those who call themselves Christian, who are church members, who may even be ministers and elders and deacons, who may teach in the schools, and so on. But for all their form of godliness, they deny the power thereof. And as Paul goes on to point out in that chapter, that power of godliness is the power of the Scriptures.

Where there is a departure from the truth of the Scriptures in the pulpit ministry or in the teaching of the church, in the evangelistic outreach of the church or in the lives of its members, there is the increase of apostasy and all the evil characteristics against which Paul warns us. 

And then he writes these profound words: “Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof:from such turn away!” Now, he does not mean by that that we immediately run away from those problems as they arise in the church. The church on this earth is filled with sin and imperfections. To our shame some of these sins and imperfections are evident also in our own churches. We may not run away from our problems. Under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, Paul writes clearly and explicitly about the church’s calling and the calling of you as an individual member to follow the God-honoring way of exercising Christian discipline—both for love of the church and for the love of those who have departed from the faith. We must seek their salvation. The church must exercise the key power of Christian discipline. 

But, having followed the scriptural way and the church orderly way of the exercise of Christian discipline, when we have followed the scriptural, God-ordained way in attempting to defend the faith once delivered to the saints, and when it becomes evident that that scriptural, God-ordained way works not salvation in those who have departed, it is not our calling to play politics in the church in the attempt to wrest control from those heretics and evil men and women! Christ says, “From such turn away!” There is a reason for that exhortation and calling. That mason is for your own spiritual welfare and salvation as well as the salvation of your children and grandchildren.