Both the main topic, upon which we propose to write a few articles, and our sub-topic for this issue could, of course, have been formulated in question form. And yet the introduction of a question mark would have changed the formulation somewhat. To ask, “Is Church Membership a Matter of the Fear of the Lord?” and to write on that question, is not quite the same as writing on the topic “Church Membership in His Fear.” The former leaves the matter open to doubt, and such a formulation would require a demonstration. The latter formulation, however, proceeds from the assumption that Church Membership, properly conceived, is a matter of the fear of the Lord, does not require or seek a demonstration of that fact, but desires to know the meaning of and implications of Church Membership in the Fear of the Lord. And that is, of course, the stand of the believer. He proceeds from the believing presupposition that all things are a matter of the fear of the Lord, and as a faithful child of God desires to know the way of the fear of the Lord, that he may walk therein. Nor can the believer properly ask the question really, “Is church membership in His fear an important matter?” Faith rules out any question here, but proceeds certainly from the viewpoint that it is certainly a matter of the utmost importance, rightly considered, a matter of life or death. And proceeding from the basis that it is important, faith desires more and more to understand and see its importance, that it may walk in the proper way. Hence, faith takes warning here against any skeptical or cynical attitude over against this matter.
When we speak here of “church membership”, it is to be understood, of course, that we do not mean directly membership in the holy catholic church, as that expression is sometimes vaguely and with a certain false piety employed. Certainly, also membership in the holy catholic church is a matter in the highest sense of the fear of the Lord, and, as we hope to see, principally it is also very closely related to and involved in the subject at hand. But the subject we now are taking up is the matter of formal and official membership in a certain communion of churches not only, but of such membership in a particular congregation within those churches, and that, too, in the fear of the Lord.
And that is an important matter.
Important it is, from the practical viewpoint, first of all for the very simple and obvious reason that we, as a rule, are members of a certain church. I do not have the statistics at hand, but it is unquestionably true to a large extent of our nation in general that if they are not a church-going nation, they are a church-belonging people. Even in thoroughly modem circles membership in some church is the accepted thing,—though often it amounts only to having one’s name on the roll. And the closer home we come, ecclesiastically speaking, the more church membership is a rule. In such a sphere the believer nowadays moves. And we often move in a sphere in which church membership, though it be from the viewpoint of faith lacking in interest and activity and even empty and formal, is yet in a certain sense very rabid. People who are otherwise not interested either in the truth or in what their own church stands for will often flare up when their church and their membership in that church is attacked in some way or other. And far from being rabid with respect to his own church and his membership therein, far from defending it purely from the motive of partisanship and a possessive feeling, the believer must be able to give a positive, well-grounded account of his membership in a given church.
Resides, we ought to be able to give account of our church membership for ourselves, as well as directly before our God. Especially is that true in the light of the fact that usually we are born and grow up in a certain church, and because the danger is that we stay there simply because we were born there, and because our membership becomes something almost automatic. That can very well be the case, for example, with those who belong to the next generation after 1924. Those who experienced the struggle of our churches, who were faced with the question whether they would remain faithful to the Reformed faith or not, were almost forced to give account to themselves of their position. But the generation that grows up afterwards, even though under faithful preaching and teaching they cannot fail to be reminded of the battle for the truth which took place in 1924, can very easily fall into the error of simply “going along” and assuming an entirely passive attitude over against the church to which they belong, so that finally when the need arises they are not even able to give account to themselves or to those that oppose them why they are in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
Also because of present circumstances and prevalent misconceptions in regard to the church both in the church at large and in Reformed circles and even in our own churches, one cannot fail to note that a proper understanding of the subject in hand is of the utmost significance.
We live at a time when church membership and the question of the true and the false church is with many a “ticklish” subject, at a time when people are hesitant to take a stand and according to the Reformed manner declare definitely what is true and what is false. We have come to move in the sphere of a false tolerance-philosophy. And as a result many become “soft” in respect to the truth, are afraid, as they say, to offend others, and forget all about the stern and strict stand of our Reformed confessions. Resides, under the guise of assuming a scientific and open-minded attitude there are those in our times who really assume an attitude of skepticism over against the truth, and who refuse to take a stand and to proceed from that stand with regard to other churches when it comes to the question, “Where is the truth proclaimed?”
And, sad to say,—although that has always been the ease in the church of Jesus Christ,—there are those too who purposely and willfully refuse to take a proper stand with regard to the church, those even in our own churches who while they are members in the Protestant Reformed Churches deliberately run down all that is Protestant Reformed, openly defend the opposition, hold them up as an ideal of broadmindedness and piety, depreciate the differences between us and those that cast us out. And over against them it is necessary that the church shall take a stand, and that the people of God in the church take a definite and uncompromising stand, in order that as much as possible the church may be kept pure in the midst of the world, and in order that she may be able to defend herself over against the false doctrines and the false teachers that eat like a canker from within.
But there is still another class of members often, whom we may call the laggards. They are those who will go along with you as far as the principle is concerned, but who do not practice their stand in various ways, who in their life in the church and in relation to other churches, give the lie to the principle which they profess. They act as a weight, as a drag, upon the life of the church.
And with a view to all these circumstances it becomes increasingly evident that the believer’s membership in the church in the fear of the Lord is a matter of the utmost import.
Besides, there are a number of misconceptions prevalent against which we must guard. Possibly one of the chief errors committed in our times is the error of those who always are seeking unity, who strive for unity at the expense of the truth. In the Protestant church world of late years that movement has made great strides. How often nowadays one hears of a merger between these two groups or of a proposed merger between those two large denominations. How beautifully men can paint the picture of a large and powerful and united church which can be a force for good in the world, and which might be able to combat the powers of the united Romish Church. And always, of course, the cause of all the dissension and division in the church is found in the fact that there is too much doctrine, too many creeds that are specific in their doctrinal declarations. The denominational walls must be broken down, the confessions must be broadened, generalized, the church must agree on certain general principles, and thus the ideal of “‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism” must be realized in the church on earth. The church must be reduced to her lowest common denominator. Against that error we must beware!
And its cousin is known by the name of undenominationalism, which is prevalent in so-called fundamentalist circles. Also it despises the narrow limitations of creeds, and with false piety calls for a return to the simple scriptures and to the gospel and creed of Christ. And sadly enough, even Reformed people are ensnared by this cunning craftiness at times.
Other movements and conceptions might be mentioned. There is, for example, a false idea of the multiformity of the church which has crept into Reformed circles, which in essence also denies the possibility of distinction between the true and the false church. There are movements in our time which call themselves “inter-denominational”, movements that arrogate to themselves the duties and privileges and calling of the Church unlawfully.
And we must not make the mistake that we cannot be touched by all these factors. We live in that world. We see these things all around us, and sometimes among us. And we must be warned against them, must be founded in the truth concerning the church, in order that we may be able to call things by their correct name. We must know what the church is. We must know the relation between the “holy, catholic church” and the church institute in the world. We must know where and how that faith concerning the holy catholic church and the communion of saints may be experienced as a matter of living faith, and that as a matter of the experience of faith. We must know what we say when we confess in the language of the Heidelberg Catechism that we are and forever shall remain living members of that holy catholic church.
In the light of all this, and especially in the light of the fact that there is an intrinsic relation between our faith concerning the holy, catholic church and our membership in a given church in the world, as we hope to point out more fully, the subject becomes one that calls for the extreme of seriousness and earnestness, does it not?