The title of this post may not elicit the most excitement from my readers, but I think it is an important one. What we say about who gets counted in the church says a lot about what we think about the Gospel and the way that human beings can and should connect with God.
Here are some “theses” or “thoughts” that I wrote in 2012 after some serious prayer and consideration of this issue. My view has not substantially changed.
- Church membership must be based on our definition of a Christian, since all Christians are members of the true church invisible and should be members of the visible church.
- A Christian is someone who has repented of their sins and believes in Jesus Christ for salvation.
- Consequently, the test for church membership should be a credible profession of faith in Christ with a promise of repentance as well as a desire to do this in the context of a particular local church (as the questions for membership indicate in the Presbyterian Church in America’s Book of Church Order).
- This simple test is confirmed by the Scriptural examples of the Apostles who welcomed 3,000 members on the very day (Pentecost) they professed faith in Christ. Similarly, the Philippian jailer was baptized on the very same day in which he heard and believed in the Gospel (Acts 16:31–34). If our test for membership does not approximate this, then our view of membership is defective from the apostolic example.
- If we desire to see God’s blessing on our ministry, then we should follow the example of the Apostles in the way we welcome members.
- We must also not give the impression that such members are not Christians or view them with skepticism until they become mature. There are adults as well as children in the faith and in the church as the Apostle John says, “I write to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for His name’s sake” (1 Jn. 2:11).
- Obviously, such a standard for membership will bring many erroneous opinions into the church, and there will be problems in the church as the example of the churches of the Apostles indicates. We must deal with these differences with patience, gentleness, and humility, following the examples of the Apostles and this rule: “Now we exhort you, brethren, warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all” (1 Thess. 5:14).
- Our view of what constitutes the true church should be commensurate with what we consider a Christian to be. Any church that teaches that the Scriptures are the very Word of God, calls sinners to come to Jesus Christ freely for salvation, and teaches repentance should be regarded as a true church. Their members may be welcomed as long as they are willing to submit to the particularity of our church because the basis for membership in such churches is fundamentally the same as ours.
- While our relations with particular true churches of Jesus Christ may be less or more involved based on the opportunities provided in God’s providence and the wisdom of the elders of the church, they must have our Christian sympathy for their ministry, and we must love them as brothers and sisters in Christ. We should not view their professions skeptically simply because they disagree with us on certain matters that we believe are Scriptural. As we have opportunity, we should speak to them as brothers following the example of the Apostle Paul, “Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you” (Phil. 3:15).
- In sum, we should regard all evangelical churches as true churches and all evangelical Christians with the expectation that they are true Christians, welcoming them as our members when they so desire, even if they disagree with some truths that we believe are Scriptural.
- Stonewall Jackson is a good illustration of how this worked out in the Presbyterian Church. When he applied for membership in the Presbyterian Church, his views were Arminian. Nevertheless, they cordially accepted him as a brother in Christ. Eventually, Jackson embraced the Presbyterian system of doctrine. This would probably not have happened if the church had required an understanding and assent to the whole counsel of God before allowing him to join.
- This does not mean that there is no place to maintain the boundaries of what we consider to be the whole counsel of God. That place is in the ordination of elders. We must examine elders to see if they are sound in the faith. In regards to the membership, we accept a credible profession of faith and do not wait to bring them into membership. In regard to the ministry, we do not “lay hands on anyone hastily” (1 Tim. 5:22). Paul also tells Timothy, “And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2). The elders of the church is the place to preserve the truths we believe are biblical and are confessed in our confessions.
- I believe that these measures will preserve a church that is properly centered on the gospel and that is both broadly evangelical and truly Reformed in practice and teaching. It will also lend itself to evangelism as it follows the Apostolic pattern of welcoming converts who confess their sin, profess their faith in Jesus Christ, and promise to live the life of the Christian. We should expect the blessing of God on such endeavors.