EVERY believer in the Lord Jesus Christ is a member of His mystical body. That is the unmistakable teaching of Holy Scripture. His very faith constitutes the believer a member of Christ’s body. And since that body is identical with what theologians call the invisible church, it may be put down as an indisputable fact that every true believer is a member of the invisible church.
However, saving faith alone does not constitute one a member of the church as an organization. For instance, if some one who was not received into the church by infant baptism becomes a believer, he must make profession of his faith before the church and be baptized in the midst of the church before he can properly be enrolled as a church member. But conceivably those matters might he neglected. In that case he would remain outside the organized church.
That raises a question of great practical import: Is membership in the organized church a duty?
On that question there are various opinions within what is commonly called Christendom. Let us first lend our ears to some of those opinions and then attend to the reply of God’s infallible Word.
The Romanist View
In spite of recent debate on the matter within the Roman Catholic Church, the Romanist answer to our query is clear. Rome has always claimed to be the one and only true church and maintained that apart from her there is no salvation. Granted that different degrees of connection with the church are possible, it is held that for him who has no connection salvation is out of the question. And since Rome insists that she is infallible, she never changes her mind. While she does from time to time set forth new doctrines, she never retracts old ones. Once the church has spoken, all contradiction is ruled out. Therefore let no one think that Rome has recently altered her position on the matter at hand.
For many decades there has been a strong ecumenical movement among Protestant churches. Occasionally Rome has been invited to participate in that movement. But in 1928 Pius Xl issued an encyclical in which he finally declined the invitation and, instead, invited all Protestants to return to the Church of Rome. Said the pope: “No one belongs to the one Church of Christ, and no one continues in it, unless he obediently recognizes and accepts the authority and power of Peter and his rightful successors.” He concluded with the following quotation from Lactantius, a Latin Father of the fourth century: “Only the Catholic Church is the bearer of true religion. She is the source of truth, she is the dwelling of faith; if anyone does not enter here, or if anyone leaves here, he is with out hope of life and salvation.”
That position is the inevitable consequence of what is known as Roman Catholic sacerdotalism. The Romish Church regards herself as a mediator between the Savior and the sinner; and not merely as a mediator who proclaims salvation, but as one who actually conveys salvation. The church is represented as a depository, so to speak, in fact as the sole depository,of saving grace. God is said to have committed saving grace to her and to have ordained that it is obtainable from her alone. And she dispenses the blessings of salvation through the clergy, particularly by the administration of the holy sacraments.
So Rome has a clear-cut answer for the question whether membership in the organized church is a duty. She avers most emphatically that it is necessary for salvation. And at the same time she insists that, since she herself is the only true church, membership in the Roman Catholic Church is requisite for salvation.
The Modernist View
The famous German theologian F. D. E. Schleiermacher (1768–1834) is known as the father of present-day Modernism. While he was not at all an extreme modernist by today’s standards, yet he did lay the foundations of what is now known as religious liberalism. What interests us for our present purpose is his view of the church as an organization.
SignificantIy, Schleiermacher did not regard the organized church as a divine institution, but only as a voluntary compact of free men. As a golf club is a voluntary association for the playing of golf, and as a civic improvement association is a voluntary association for the physical and perhaps moral improvement of a community, so, according to Schleiermacher, the church is a voluntary association for religious purposes. That view is prevalent among Modernists today. They generally regard the church as just one of many actual and possible societies of human origin. Now it is not difficult to see that this low view of the organized church can only result in a low view of membership in it. If the organized church is divinely ordained, then affiliation With it may well be one’s solemn duty. If, on the other hand, it is merely one of several human societies, it is difficult to see why one should be obliged to join it.
In this connection it may not be forgotten that Schleiermacher was a universalist. He was convinced that in the end all human beings are going to be saved. That view too is extremely prevalent among today’s Modernists. The universal Fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man are exalted as the central teachings of the Christian religion. A God who would sentence any of His creatures to eternal punishment is likened to an arrogant and cruel oriental despot. Recently a prominent Modernist flung at Him the epithet “bully.” Hell is laughed out of court. One of the most outspoken Liberals of our day is Wm. E. Hocking of Harvard University. In a book entitled Living Religions and a World Faith he has this to say about hell: “I had supposed prior to my visit to the Far East that the preaching of Hell had vanished from the modern mission field. It has not in all quarters. In a mission in Burma, a vigorous young missionary was warned by a friend not to dwell so much on Hell, because the Buddhists have eight hells, whereas the Christians have only one. His response was to change his preaching to this effect: ‘You have eight hells, we have but one; but we have a God who sees that you get there’” (p. 170). The gist of Hocking’s book is that the missionary should not aim at replacing the so-called ethnic religions with Christianity, but should rather seek to combine the true and good elements in all religions, Christianity included, into one world faith. It is clear that according to Modernism there is little, if indeed any, connection between membership in the Christian church and salvation.
It may not be supposed, however, that Modernism regards the church as an utterly useless institution. Contrariwise, it leaches that the church has potentialities for good. For instance, it may help build the characters of its members, elevate the moral tone of a community, check the rising tide of lawlessness, and bring the blessings of civilization to backward nations. In the February, 1952, issue of McCall’s the question was asked: “Do you think it possible to be a good Christian without being a regular churchgoer?” Eleanor Roosevelt replied: “Of course it is possible to be a good Christian without being a regular churchgoer. Nevertheless, going to church has two considerations in its favor. One is the personal satisfaction and benefit derived from the services; the other is the value of the example in the community which shows that a citizen is a Christian. There is value in showing publicly where one’s allegiance lies.” Modernists speak in the same vein concerning church membership.
In short. Modernism tells us that, while it is foolish to regard membership in the organized church as imperative, yet there are good arguments for it.
The Fundamentalist View
Admittedly, Fundamentalism is difficult to define. Among those who call themselves Fundamentalists there exist several differences of opinion, and some of those differences concern the question whether or not membership in the organized church is a duty.
That present-day Fundamentalism has its roots in the past goes without saying. American Fundamentalism in particular has fallen heir to numerous contents of thought, some good and some perverted , that have asserted themselves in Protestant churches since the Reformation. It is correctly appraised as a rather curious mixture of truth and error. It manifests not only a strong strain of orthodoxy, but also a decided strain of such aberrations from orthodoxy as Anabaptism and Arminianism. Likely a majority of American Fundamentalists, regardless of their denominational or undenominational affiliations, are at once Baptists and Methodists.
Among the movements of the past which have put their stamp on American Fundamental ism are several which belittled the importance of the organized church. Without an attempt at completeness, mention may be made of Pietism, Methodism, Darbyism and Dispensationalism.
The Pietist awakening originated in Lutheran circles on the European continent during the later decades of the seventeenth century. Its most prominent leaders were Philipp Jakob Spener and August Hermann Francke. It stressed inward piety of soul and subjective religious experience over against formal orthodoxy and church order. Instead of bending all their efforts to reform the church in orderly fashion, the Pietists frequently withdrew from the church and gathered informally in groups for such activities as prayer and the giving of testimonies.
Closely related, and in many respects strikingly similar, to continental Pietism was eighteenth-century Methodism. It was originated by the Wesleys in England and soon spread to America. While Methodists did establish their own churches, yet according to Herman Bavinck the Salvation Army, which has no interest in claiming to be a church, must be regarded as a logical consequence of Methodism (Gerefonneerde Dogmatiek, IV, 316).
John Nelson Darby withdrew from the Church of lreland because of scruples about the scriptural ness of ecclesiastical establishments. He became the founder of the Plymouth Brethren, who refuse to recognize any form of church government or any office of the ministry. Darby died in 1882, but his soul goes marching on, not only among the Brethren but far beyond that communion.
Modern Dispensationalism honors the so-called Scofield Bible as its textbook. Many of the notes in that Bible are reminiscent of the teachings of the Dutch theologian Johannes Cocceius (1603–1669) Dallas Theological Seminary of Dallas, Texas, is a Dispensational stronghold. It is held that Christ purposed at His first coming to establish a kingdom, with the Jewish people as its core and Jerusalem as its capital. However, when the nation rejected Him as king, He postponed the kingdom until His second coming. In the meantime, to fill in the gap, He established the church on earth. But the church-age is said to be only an interlude, a parenthesis, as Oswald T. Allis has aptly put it, “time-out in the divine chronology.”
Influences like these account for it· that American Fundamentalism sometimes fails to direct new converts into Christ’s church, not infrequently contrasts Christianity with “churchianity,” often raises the slogan, “No creed but Christ,” by and large fails to take seriously the truth that the preaching of the gospel is a prerogative of the organized church, and generally shows too little respect for the offices which Christ has instituted in His church.
The sum of the matter is that, while some of our Fundamentalist brethren, no doubt, deem membership in the organized church a duty, a number of them have no use whatever for the organized church and many more do not regard membership in it as particularly important.
The Spiritual View
It is high time that we should attend to the answer of God’s Word to our inquiry.
Scripture certainly does not make salvation dependent on membership in the organized church. When the Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas what he had to do to be saved, they only commanded him to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and assured him that as soon as he did that he would be saved (Acts 16:30,31). To be sure, he was baptized the same night, which meant among other things that he was received into the body of Christ. He had to believe before he could be baptized, but his baptism, instead of saving him, signified and scaled to him that he was saved. Repeatedly the New Testament tells us that we are saved by faith alone and that saving faith is a prerequisite for membership in the organized church. Did not the Evangelist Philip make the Ethiopian’s baptism contingent on his faith in Christ (Acts 8:36–38)? We conclude that it is the teaching of the Word of God, not that one must be a member of the church in order to be saved, but that one must be saved in order to qualify for membership.
The bearing of this truth on the baptism of covenant children will be discussed, the Lord willing, at a later date. But even now it may be asserted that their salvation is not dependent on their baptism and the writing of their names on the roll of the church. And if an adult who is outside the church receives Christ in faith and dies before he has had opportunity to unite with the church, his salvation is assured just the same.
From the premise that membership in the organized church is not necessary for salvation a great many Protestants jump to the conclusion that such membership is insignificant. But that is an extremely vicious error. It is an evidence of man-centered thinking. To suppose that what will not keep a man out of heaven cannot be very bad and what is not required for man’s going to heaven cannot be very important, is to make man the measure of things. Yet, sad to say, how extremely common that error is! Let it be said without hesitation, there is something more important than man’s salvation. It is God’s glorification. The great question is not whether mall can gel to heaven without being a church member but whether God requires church membership. And the truth is that He does.
The organized church is a divine institution. When the Son of God said: “Upon this rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:15), He had in mind the church as an organization, particularly in its New Testament form. His servants Paul and Barnabas, on their missionary journey, “ordained them elders in every church” (Acts 14:23). In his pastoral epistles Paul laid down specific requirements for elders and deacons, church officers (e.g., 1 Tim. 3). The evidence could easily be multiplied tenfold. The doctrine of an organized church pervades the New Testament. It follows that God wants believers to be members or that organization. For what is an organization without members? If all believers deserted the organized church, it would pass out of existence, and that divine creation would be destroyed.
The church as the mystical body of Christ and the church as an organization are not two churches. They are two aspects of the one church and as such are inseparable. The organized church is nothing else than a manifestation of the body of Christ. How utterly illogical, nay how perverse, for a member of that body to hold himself aloof from its manifestation!
When Christ commanded His apostles to make disciples of all nations, He forthwith added: “baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matt. 28:19). He would have believers received by baptism into the membership of His church. The apostles obeyed their Lord. In the apostolic age believers were invariably baptized. For example, when Peter had finished his Pentecostal sermon, “they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41).
The concluding verse of the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles contains a most significant statement. We read: “And the Lord added to the church daily such as were being saved.” The Lord Jesus Christ Himself brought those who believed into the organized the church. The will of the divine Head of the church is unmistakable. To resist His will is sin.
Let not man presume to be wiser than God.
R.B. Kuiper is professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, PA.