Ronald L. Cammenga is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.
There is much misunderstanding and many misconceptions today regarding the church. By the vast majority the church is looked upon as a purely human institution. Others view the church as a Divine institution all right, but a Divine institution on a par with other Divine institutions as, for example, the Christian home, the Christian school, the Christian labor union, and the Christian political party. Others raise the question, in apparent seriousness, whether the church has really not outlived its usefulness, whether it is not out-dated and ought to make room for a more modern institution of more practical benefit to mankind. There are many people who consider themselves to be saved Christians, although they want nothing to do with the church and openly disparage membership in the church. There are others who show their ignorance of what church membership is by the fact that they slight the church. These people do not take their church membership seriously. They do not fulfill the responsibilities of church membership. They are irregular and infrequent in church attendance.
We ought to be clear on our responsibility as Christians to be members of the church of Jesus Christ. We ought to be clear on our calling to be living, in contrast to dead, church members.
The first thing that we must be clear about is that living church membership means membership in a local congregation. The importance and necessity of church membership is the importance and necessity of membership in the visible, instituted church.
Here we reject the notion, widespread today, that for church membership it is sufficient that one be a member simply of the “invisible” church. It is quite sufficient to call oneself a Christian and to identify in a general sort of way with others around the world who call themselves Christians, without ever joining a local congregation.
This is mistaken thinking. This kind of thinking involves separating what God has joined together. This kind of thinking fails to do justice to the close relationship that God Himself has established between the “invisible” church and the church “visible.”
The importance of membership in the visible church is easily proved. The fact of the matter is that the Holy Spirit gathers the church in such a way that the invisible church of Jesus Christ comes to visible manifestation in the world. So closely are the invisible body of Jesus Christ and the visible congregation related, so much are they one, that one joins the Body of Christ in the local congregation when he affiliates with a faithful congregation. And when one leaves a faithful congregation, he is guilty of forsaking the Body of Christ. One’s attitude toward the instituted church is his attitude toward Christ’s body; one’s actions with regard to it are his actions over against Christ’s body.
Scripture itself indicates this close relationship between the invisible body of Jesus Christ and the local congregation by calling both “the church.” Not only does Scripture refer to the universal body of Jesus Christ, the church invisible as the church. But again and again this is also Scripture’s designation of the local congregation. The Apostle Paul addresses his epistles to “the church” in a certain place. In I Cor. 12 he addresses himself to “the church of God which is at Corinth.” To that local gathering of believers and their children Paul gives the name “church.”
This close relationship between the invisible church and the visible church is brought out by the apostle in I Cor. 12. This is the great passage in Scripture that deals with the unit and the diversity of the church. On reading the chapter we might at first suppose that everything written here pertains only to the invisible church, the universal body of Jesus Christ. This would be a serious misunderstanding of the passage. The apostle himself makes plain that this would be a serious misunderstanding. When he has finished expounding the unity of the church, he says in I Cor. 12:27, “Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.” In clear language the apostle identifies the local congregation at Corinth with the body of Christ—”ye are the body of Christ.”
When it comes down to it, the church is the handiwork of God. God has ordained and God has gathered the church. And God is no fool! He hasn’t instituted the church for no good reason. He hasn’t instituted the church and now leaves it up to you and me whether or not we want to become members of the church. The very fact that God has instituted the church implies the calling that we have to be members of the church.
Other considerations enforce this. Scripture makes plain that the Christian is to hear the preaching of the, Word. Christ preached, the apostles preached, and the faithful church today preaches. The believer is called to hear the preaching of the Word for his salvation and his preservation in salvation. Romans lo:14 says, “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” Since the preaching is to be heard in the church, since God has entrusted the preaching of His Word to the church, membership in the church is clearly implied.
The same may be said of the sacraments. The believer is to use the sacraments. But who has been entrusted by God with the duty of dispensing the sacraments? Where are the sacraments to be found and enjoyed? Again, the answer is, “In the church.” Our calling to partake of the sacraments clearly implies our calling to be members of the church.
It is also the will of God that we submit ourselves to the authority of the office of elder. “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine,” I Tim. 5:17. In Hebrews 13:17 we read, “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.” Since we are called to submit to the rule of the elders, and since the office of elder resides in the local congregation, it is clearly implied that we are to be members of a local congregation, the church institute.
This is also true of the office of deacon. We are called to support this office which Christ has instituted in the church. We are called to contribute regularly so that the deacons may have good means at their disposal to relieve the poor of the church. This is why the apostle enjoins in I Cor. 16:2, “Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come.” Our calling to support the office of deacon carries with it the implied calling that we be members of the instituted church in which this office resides.
The Belgic Confession in Article 28 teaches the responsibility of church membership in the strongest possible terms. It would be worth your while to read and study that article in its entirety. The article addresses itself to the actual existing situation at the time that the Belgic Confession was written. Reformed believers, especially in France and the Lowlands, were prohibited by the government on pain of death from leaving the apostate Roman Catholic Church institute and joining the Reformed Church. Some of these hard-pressed believers argued that they might under these circumstances remain members of Rome and not become members of the Reformed Church. TheConfession takes a strong stand against this position. We must be members of the faithful church of Jesus Christ in the world. Concerning the instituted church the article states:
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 of whatsoever state or condition he may be, 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.
The article goes on:
And that this may be the more effectually observed, it is the duty of all believers, according to the word of God, to separate themselves from all those who do not belong to the Church, and to join themselves to this congregation, wheresoever God hath established it, even though the magistrates and edicts of princes were against it, yea, though they should suffer death or any other corporal punishment. Therefore all those, who separate themselves from the same, or do not join themselves to it, act contrary to the ordinance of God.
Calvin’s position agrees with that of the Belgic Confession. In The Institutes, IV, I, 4, Calvin defends the proposition that the visible church is the mother of believers. Calvin writes:
But because it is now our intention to discuss the visible church, let us learn even from the simple title ‘mother’ how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels….
Calvin concludes by saying:
. . . God’s fatherly favor and the especial witness of spiritual life are limited to His flock (the instituted church), hence the abandonment of the church is always fatal.
The Scriptures certainly bear out Calvin’s teaching.Hebrews 10:25-31 warns against the forsaking of the visible congregation as an act so serious that it constitutes a despising of the Son of God.
In this article we treated our calling as believers to be members of the visible, instituted church, the local congregation. Next time, we’ll consider what this membership involves. It’s not enough that we are members of the church, but we must be living church members.