The doctrine of the Belgic Confession, controversial and persecuted from the days of its birth, is still controversial today, not more so than in its doctrine of church membership. This is clear from the editorial comments of Rev. Chris Connors, minister of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia (EPCA) and editor of that church’s official magazine, the Evangelical Presbyterian (EP).¹
In the July 2011 issue of the EP, editor Connors published two book reviews of the recent book by David Engelsma, Bound to Join.² One by Rev. David Higgs of the EPCA is highly favorable; one by Kevin Reed is highly critical.
That there should be two antithetical book reviews is unsurprising. Professor Engelsma’s book involves the matter of church membership and the calling of the believer to join a true instituted church of Christ and not to leave it, as taught in Articles 27—29 of the Belgic Confession. Already in John Calvin’s day, this issue occasioned controversy, as Calvin’s book on the subject, Come Out From Among Them, demonstrates.³ Engelsma’s book has been no different.
Bound to Join is instruction concerning church membership that Professor Engelsma gave in email correspondence to concerned believers scattered throughout Europe. His answers to various questions on the subject led to angry objections and sharp responses from some of the participants in that forum. Since his book has been published, he has received further harsh criticism.
What is surprising is Rev. Connor’s endorsement of Kevin Reed’s book review as a legitimate alternative to the doctrine of the Belgic Confession on church membership, as explained in Bound to Join. Connors says, “When the truth is spoken in love,” the unbeliever will resent and oppose the truth. “But this book is…likely to set believer against believer… [it] will likely divide the Reformed camp.” He assesses the book as “a strident defence of Church membership…packaged in absolutist language.” The book is “well-intentioned but unsuccessful” (EP, 7-8). As evidence for his assertions, Rev. Conners presents the two contrasting book reviews.
He glowingly commends Kevin Reed as “a member of the East Texas Reformed Fellowship in the USA. The ETRF is a body of believers who, for conscientious reasons, are seeking to establish a confessional Reformed Church that will be faithful to Scripture alone in all her doctrine, worship and government in the place where they live.” Rev. Connors also informs us that “the EPC of Australia has encouraged and assisted ETRF with advice and ministry over recent years.”
Kevin Reed’s review is hardly “a caution,” as Connors describes it. Rather, it is a full, frontal assault on the doctrine of church membership that Professor Engelsma presents, in which Reed accuses Professor Engelsma of “(1) distortions regarding Calvin’s treatises (which he [Engelsma] quotes selectively), (2) inaccuracies regarding church history, and (3) neglect of the collective teaching of the Reformation creeds” (EP, 12). Reed caustically refers to “the professor[‘s] tout[ing] his own denomination as a true church” (EP, 15); cites as “an ominous abuse of church power” that “Engelsma’s own denomination imposed restrictions on officebearers regarding home-schooling of their children” (EP, 20); charges Engelsma with the implied assumption “that his denomination is the purest of them all” (EP, 20); characterizes Bound to Join as Engelsma’s “combative, disjointed letters harping on the duty of church membership”; and throws out the possibility of the book’s being used “to brow-beat persons into submission to the Protestant Reformed Church’s[sic] extra-Scriptural impositions in worship and family life.”4
Kevin Reed’s purported book review is not so much a review as it is a prickly, defensive treatment of his idiosyncratic views on church membership about which he has been writing for over ten years, beginning with a treatise published in 1993.5 His review cannot be understood apart from his other writings on the church and church membership.
Reed’s view of church membership rests on his judgment that the church situation in the United States is “extraordinary.”6 He writes, “When the state of the church sinks to its lowest point in a nation, it is incumbent upon heads of homes to see that true religion is transmitted to posterity. Even if we have no one else to join us in worship, let us remain faithful in our own households.”7 Such a situation he believes holds in the United States.
According to Reed, when possible, families should seek affiliation with other faithful families. These family groups can exist without officebearers, but the services of itinerant preachers can be sought, and “Christians in a forming church or extraordinary circumstances are still entitled to the lawful administration of the sacraments…. As we have seen, the sacraments may be administered properly within home meetings, provided there is a plurality of families to impart a public character to the meetings.”8
Mr. Reed can learnedly explain all the principles of church membership, but dismiss them because he claims to live in extraordinary times. The implication is that he is allowed wide latitude from the doctrine of the creeds on church membership, including no membership in a true, instituted church for years, all the while having the sacraments administered within his unorganized group.
As grounds that this is entirely acceptable, warranted, and necessary, Reed cites the history of the extraordinary times during the Reformation in France, the Lowlands, and Scotland. But in this he errs.
First, those times are not his times. The extraordinary times of the Reformation involved not only the deplorable and intolerable doctrinal condition of the church, but also the added burden of fierce persecution from the Roman church and state. Where is the persecution that has forced him to meet at night, in barns, in fields, and that threatens to take away his life and that of his family?
Second, he may not claim the Reformation history as ground for his practice because not even in those times did the reformers allow, nor themselves practice, what he proposes. This is clear from J. A. Wylie’s explanation of the situation in France:
It was forty years since Lefevre had opened the door of France to the Gospel. All these years there had been disciples, confessors, martyrs, but no congregations in our sense of the term. The little companies of believing men and women, scattered over the country, were cared for and fed only by the Great Shepherd…. But this was an incomplete and defective condition…. In 1555 congregations began to be formed on the Genevan model…. The work of organizing went on vigorously, and in 1560 from one to two thousand Protestant congregations existed in France.
The first French National Synod met in 1559, the same time as the king was avowing “his purpose of pursuing the Reformed with fire and sword till he had exterminated them.” 9 It was an “incomplete and defective condition,” a condition that within a short time was remedied by the formation of thousands of congregations.
About the teachers who ministered to these as yet unformed groups, Wylie writes, “They did not dispense the Sacraments, for Calvin, who was consulted on the point, gave it as his opinion that, till they had obtained the services of a regularly ordained ministry, they should forego celebrating the Lord’s Supper.”10
During these extraordinary times the reformers wrote the creeds, summarizing Scripture’s teaching regarding the church and church membership. In these extraordinary times they labored tirelessly not promoting the exceptions, but busily organizing congregations, classes, and synods. The situation was similar in the Lowlands.
Third, Reed’s appeal to extraordinary times in the United States is illegitimate. What of the Protestant Reformed Churches? In his review, Reed has not one kind word for these churches. What about them stirs up such vitriol, even though he must admit that these churches teach the gospel?11 This denomination of faithful, true churches, that upholds the truth of God’s Word in doctrine, worship, and life is not even acknowledged as possibly being a denomination of true churches, but they are acerbically mentioned and thrown in with the problem of the extraordinary situation of the church in the United States. In that attitude Mr. Reed despises the presence of Christ and the work of the Spirit in these churches.
Reed, in his resistance to the creedal calling to be a member of an instituted church and his stormy defense of his own house-church, changes the teaching of the creeds, including his own Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). He does not believe that the phrase in the Belgic Confession “out of it there is no salvation” applies to the instituted church: “Engelsma applies this passage in the Belgic Confession to the church institute.” In explaining his position Reed cites the Scottish Confession, chapter 16, and glosses that this confession asserts “that no one is saved who is outside of Christ, and thus outside the church of the elect (that is, the invisible church).”12 Reed allows the possibility that “if the Belgic Confession bears the construction Professor Engelsma places on it, then the Belgic Confession stands in contrast or contradiction to other Reformed creeds.”13
In this Mr. Reed errs. It is not only possible, but beyond doubt that in the Belgic Confession the phrase refers to the instituted church. This, too, is not the eccentric opinion of the Belgic Confession, of Professor Engelsma, or even of the Protestant Reformed Churches, but with them of Reed’s own confession, the WCF. The WCF does not apply the phrase to the “invisible church” as Reed would like, but to the “visible Church…out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.”14 That this refers to the church institute is clear because the WCF adds the word “ordinary.” There is no need to add this word if the phrase refers to the church of the elect, because out of that church there is absolutely no possibility of salvation. That this “visible church” refers to the institute and not to some collection of individual families is clear because the Westminster goes on to explain in the next paragraph that “unto this catholic visible Church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinance of God.”15
Indeed it is in harmony with the idea that to the church institute alone belong the means of grace and that, therefore, salvation is bound up in her, that the creeds use the phrase “out of it there is no salvation,” a truth that Mr. Reed rejects.
Because he does not believe that, he disparages the institute, allowing that the functions committed by Christ to the institute alone—the means of grace, especially the administration of the sacraments—belong in the power of a group of families that is not a church to demand, and to an itinerant minister to administer.
Reed’s divorce of the institute from the means of grace explains his curious reading of Calvin’s anti-Nicodemite writings and his claim that Engelsma distorts “the reformer’s ‘Anti-Nicodemite’ writings as if they were a diatribe on church membership” and misses “the reformer’s main emphasis on genuine piety, sincere confession, and right worship.”16
The reformer by contrast took it for granted that genuine piety, sincere confession, and right worship were intimately connected with the institute and membership in her.
Reed’s error in these other areas leads him to a wrong view of what characterizes church membership. He warns of “reading modern concepts of church membership back into the creeds and the writings of the Reformers.”17 The concept of church membership in the PRC goes back at least to the Synod of Dordt and before that. It is hardly modern. The same can be said for Presbyterians. But then failing to heed his own warning, Reed chides Engelsma for “cit[ing] sixteenth-century sources to discuss the duty of church membership in the twenty-first century, without adequately exploring ways that the nature of church membership has changed in the intervening centuries.”18
Should we deal with modern concepts or sixteenth-century ones? Has church membership remained essentially the same or has it so changed through the centuries that the calling of church membership changes with the centuries, and God’s truth is not forever sure? What for Mr. Reed constitutes church membership and what makes the simple definition of membership in an instituted church as it has long been understood so odious?
Mr. Reed is a modern-day Labidist, who in his dream for the pure church ends up with no church. He is also a modern-day iconoclast, who in his zeal for purity of worship causes confusion and casts out true churches of Jesus Christ. He decries individualism and independentism and rushes headlong into both. Fleeing ecclesiastical imperiousness, he ends up with the tyranny of the individual, which Rev. Connors himself calls “impious.”
Kevin Reed’s book review is the latest evasion to the doctrine of church membership taught by the Belgic Confession and other Reformed creeds, a view that he is able to dismiss with a verbal flip of the hand: “we live in an extraordinary situation.”
It is amazing, therefore, that the editor of the Evangelical Presbyterian accuses Engelsma of extremism, but endorses the book review of Kevin Reed. Reed’s review is not the evidence of division among believers caused by the style, tone, or approach of Professor Engelsma in Bound to Join. Reed’s review is evidence of the hostility that the Belgic Confession’s doctrine of church membership stirs up—as Calvin’s did—among those unwilling to bend to it.
I encourage every reader to obtain a copy of Professor Engelsma’s excellent defense of church membership and of the issue of the Evangelical Presbyterian in which these things are discussed.
¹ The magazine can be obtained from the editorial office at PO Box 103, Sumner BC, Queensland 4074, Australia. (SB Editors’ note: Although the Evangelical Presbyterian is published “with the authorization of the Presbytery of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia,” the magazine’s masthead also says, “It is understood that the views expressed by writers in this paper may not necessarily be the official views of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia.”)
² David J. Engelsma, Bound to Join: Letters on Church Membership (Jenison, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2010).
³ John Calvin, Come Out from Among Them: ‘Anti-Nicodemite’ Writings of John Calvin, trans. Seth Skolnitsky (Dallas, TX: Protestant Heritage Press, 2001).
4 The July, 2011 issue of the Evangelical Presbyterian contains only the first part of Reed’s review. The reader can find the full review at the website of the Trinity Foundation (Kevin Reed, “Church Membership in an Age of Idolatry and Confusion,” Trinity Foundation, http://www.trinityfoundation.org/PDF/Special%20Issue%20Reed%20Review%20of%20Bound%20to%20Join.pdf [accessed Nov. 1, 2011]).
5 Kevin Reed, “Presbyterian Government in Extraordinary Times,” Still Waters Revival Books, http://www.swrb.com/newslett/actualNLs/PGET_ch1.htm (accessed Nov. 1, 2011).
9 J. A. Wylie, History of Protestantism, vol. 2 (London: Cassell & Company Limited, 1899), 528—30.
10 Ibid., 525.
11 Reed, “Church Membership,” Trinity Foundation, 17.
12 Trinity Review, 13.
13 TR, 14.
14 Westminster Confession of Faith, 25.2, in Philip Schaff, ed., Creeds of Christendom with a History and Critical Notes, 6th ed., 3 vols. (New York: Harper and Row, 1931; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 3:657.
15 Westminster Confession of Faith, 25.3, in ibid., 3:658.
16 TR, 2.
17 Ibid., 15.