Being a Christian involves being a member of the Church. The Church, and the local congregation as a concrete manifestation of the Church. is inseparable from Christianity. The Savior once said that no one can approach the Father except through the Son. In the Scriptures God’s Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, is presented as the Head of his Church. Therefore, as soon as anyone comes to Christ in faith he also comes to the Church.
Coming to the Church involves traveling a certain road. How does one “get into” the Church? Has this road been laid out in Scripture or has its roadbed been laid out by conservative ecclesiastics? Is the road long or short? These questions have been raised and arc being answered lately within the Christian Reformed Church. These questions must arise as the church answers to her nature and task as outlined in a previous article. (See torch and trumpet, April ‘56). As Christ uses the ministry of his Church to build his Body these questions arise with urgency. In this article I wish to mention a few important matters about the road into the Church which need to be kept in clear focus.
Some Necessary Distinctions
The nature of the road to be traveled is determined by the destination desired by the traveler. He seeks admission into an organized congregation. This immediately raises the matter of the relation of the organized congregation to the Church as the body of Christ.
The Church—note the capitalized letter C—is the body of Christ. It is the company of genuine Christ-confessors. Article XXVII of The Belgic Confession defines the Church as “a holy congregation of true Christian believers, all expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by His blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit.”
That which makes a congregation a Church is its relation to Jesus Christ. The congregation of the faithful are bound to Christ by regeneration and faith. These bonds are basically spiritual, that is, originating in and through the action of the Holy Spirit, and invisible. Since these bonds are not observable by men they are known with absolute certainty only by God. The Lord knows, and only the Lord, those who are his. He alone knows with perfect certainty. This means that there is an aspect of invisibility which belongs to the Church.
Notice that I speak of invisibility as an aspect of the Church. We have no right to speak or think in terms of two churches, one which is invisible and one which is visible. There is only One Church. Yet there is an aspect of the Church which is invisible, which is not completely open to human observation. For example, in the local congregation no human being can say with perfect certainty who are the regenerated ones, the genuine believers. Only God knows this with infallible certainty. John 15 is ample proof that there can be some connection with Christ in terms of external connection and profession which does not necessarily involve a Spirit-born vitality. That which makes a congregation a Church is the spiritual and invisible bond of regeneration and faith.
But this does not mean that the Church is wholly invisible. Those joined to Christ in regeneration and faith give expression to their new life. The good trees bring forth good fruit. Faith demonstrates itself in concrete actions of loving obedience to the Word of God. One important way in which these Christ-connected sinners show obedience is by organizing themselves into churches, local congregations. They elect office-bearers, adopt church constitutions and church orders, formulate confessional standards, engage in liturgical activities on Sunday, exercise mutual discipline. and do many other things. This is done, at least it should be done, under the direction of Christ. He is King of his Church. In his Word he prescribes the basic lines of organization and institutional functioning.
This church—note the lower case c—is not different from the Church. That aspect of the Church which is visible on earth in no way differs from that aspect or part which is invisible in heaven as to its constitutive principle. It is correct to say that the local organization or congregation is the Church organized locally. Within this organization the new life receives nourishment and expresses itself. There is mutual love and the practice of good works (Heb. 10:24). Believers in their several churches encourage and comfort one another ( I Thess. 5: 11). Within this fellowship there is mutual discipline (Matt. 18:17) . All this and much more belongs to the life of the visible organized Church, the local congregation. All is carried on in submission to Christ the King.
Those whom Christ gathers by his Word and Spirit come to this church for admission. This church is a very specific organization, with carefully formulated beliefs in her confessional standards and with traditionally accepted modes of conduct which have been formed under the influence of the Word of God. Since Christ gathers his Church and since he instructs the faithful to organize into churches one would naturally expect him to say something about the standard which must be used in admitting members into this organization.
The Criterion for Membership
Christ gives direction in the matter of admission to his church. By means of his Spirit and Word he makes the sinner a member of his Church by regeneration. And he also has laid out the road which his disciples must travel into the organized church. In the book of Acts we find many concrete examples of the road which ought to be traveled.
Those who heard Peter’s Pentecost sermon sought admission into a new fellowship. The apostle told them, “Repent, and be baptized.” After they “received his word” (Acts 2:41) they were admitted and received the rite of baptism. Simon the sorcerer believed and was baptized (Acts 8:13). The Ethiopian eunuch, having read the Scriptures, having heard Philip’s preaching, believed and was baptized (Acts 8:30ff). Cornelius and the others who had heard Peter preach received the Holy Spirit and demonstrated this new life as they spoke with tongues and magnified God (Acts 10:46). Then they were baptized at the command of Peter. Lydia gave heed to Paul’s preaching as the Lord opened her heart (Acts 16:14) and she was baptized. The Philippian jailer believed Paul’s message, cared for his former prisoners, and rejoiced greatly as his new born faith registered itself in action (Acts 16:33ff.).
All these sinners had faith in Jesus Christ. All of them gave concrete evidence of their new life and faith in terms of appropriate confession and conduct. The eunuch searched the Scriptures, asked questions, and urgently requested baptism. Cornelius prayed, obeyed Christ’s message, sent for the preacher, accepted the message proclaimed, and magnified God. Lydia diligently went to pray, worshipped God, and heeded Paul’s preaching. The jailer listened, repented of his former cruelties, washed Paul’s wounds, fed his prisoners. Their regeneration and faith came to expression in meaningful and life-transforming confession. They bowed beneath the scepter of Christ’s royal authority. They allowed their confession and conduct to be shaped by the revealed Word of God.
This meaningful confession registering itself in a changed life was the criterion for membership. This was the road they all traveled. The heart of this confession was that Jesus was the Sent One, the Son of God, the Lord. In conclusion it is clear that a meaningful and consistent profession of faith in Jesus Christ and of obedience to him as Lord is the standard for admission into the visible organization of the Church of Jesus Christ. This profession carries within itself extensive implications for what one believes and for what one does, for faith and conduct. This brings us face to face with a further essential factor.
Confession must be Concrete
A meaningful and consistent profession of faith and obedience is never made in a vacuum. It is made in a very specific historical situation and for the purpose of entering the fellowship of a very specific ecclesiastical institution. In this discussion the inquirer desires admission into a Reformed church group. Before his admission is made a fact both the inquirer and the church council demand a meaningful, concretely intelligible profession.
The Spirit-born inquirer demands this. He wants to know the angles. He wants to know why he is traveling the road which leads to a Reformed church in distinction from other churches. In his community there are other organizations which propagate different beliefs. In genuine concern for the will of Christ he wants to know the “whys and wherefores” of this perplexing situation. His self-respect as an intelligent human being demands this and his obedience to God’s revealed will requires such a concrete confession. As a Spirit-directed inquirer he asks for a well marked road illumined by the Word of God.
This has been my experience as well as that of others with such inquirers. Those seeking admission into the church were far more patient, thorough. and persistent than I was at first prepared to expect. All of them felt that it was quite unfair to take a short cut and ignore the implications of their profession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. They wanted to know what they were doing.
The church council ought to insist upon a concrete confession. They are office-bearers in a specific confessional institution. They believe in their right of existence as a specific ecclesiastical organization. They registered this belief when they Signed the formula of subscription. They are conscience bound to do everything within the range of their abilities and opportunities to vitalize their Reformed tradition both for themselves and for those who come to them from without. If their profession of the Reformed faith is more than a historical accident, more than a pious relic and other than traditional lore, these men will work patiently with the inquirer until he can articulate a concrete confession of faith.
This means that many who sit in the seats of church councils will have to do much more reading and studying than they are doing now. In their meetings they win have to do vastly more significant things than argue sixty minutes whether they. should paint the church interior pastel green or rose. These men must discipline themselves so that they know what they believe in terms of Scriptural knowledge and confessional commitment rather than in terms of pious cliches. As the council members of Reformed churches apply the criterion of a meaningful profession of faith they will be reassessing constantly their own beliefs in terms of God’s revelation. Such believing reassessment will involve everyone in the constant purifying process of self reformation. Such diligent office-bearers will learn to confess their church loyalty in terms of appropriate tears and joy. No one would care to deny the urgency of such action.
Just how much or how little must be intelligently confessed can only be deter· mined in the concrete situation. The length of the road varies. Factors such as native ability, spiritual attitude, religious background, age, and other equally important factors will modify the length of the road. There are no cut and dried formulae which can be applied with ease to each and every case. As both the council and the inquirer work under obligation to Jesus Christ the King of the Church, the exact length of the road will soon become apparent. As the inquirer enters the church his confession will be concrete.
Confession and Conduct
A meaningfully concrete confession demonstrates itself in appropriate conduct. For this reason the liturgical formulary for Public Profession of Faith asks this question: “Do you declare that you love the Lord, and that it is your heartfelt desire to serve him according to his word, to forsake the world, to mortify your old nature, and to lead a godly life?” To this question every inquirer must answer unambiguously and unreservedly, “I do.”
In determining the specific form which a godly life assumes, every church council must do two things. On the one hand it possesses the right to insist that the inquirer break with such forms of conduct which obviously conflict with the specific teaching of Scripture. What counts at this point is the inquirer’s desire to implement his love of Christ in the way of genuine obedience. Obviously an inquirer’s sensitivity to the sinfulness of various forms of conduct will not be as keen as that of a spiritually mature Christian. Here again the council must make its decision as to the credibility of a person’s confession in the specific situation. During the course of diligent, not necessarily protracted, pastoral counseling it becomes apparent whether or not the inquirer displays such a desire for genuine obedience.
On the other hand the council may not attempt to take God’s place and judge the heart. It may and must test the inquirer’s conduct by the one standard of God’s Word, and not by the secondary authorities of experience and reason. It may never go beyond Scripture and compile a list of specific actions, in themselves indifferent, which it judges to be injurious to a godly life, and exalt these regulations as standards for admission. At times church councils take to themselves the right to lord it over men’s consciences. This takes place when a council insists that standards for admission must include such regulations as no smoking, no drinking, no theater attendance, etc. Such legislation by a church council is unqualifiedly wrong because it denies the church’s ministerial authority, depreciates the sufficiency of Holy Scripture, and takes God’s place in attempting to judge the heart. In the light of what has taken place in obtain isolated instances in various church councils by action of elders whose zeal exceeded knowledge, this matter deserves serious consideration. Let us be as fearful of improving on Scripture as we are of diluting Scripture.
This whole matter needs further discussion. What I have mentioned briefly arc only the obvious principles which are an too often neglected in practice. As the discussion continues we must become more specific. We must assess certain practices in the light of these principles. It is gratifying to see this taking place in the matters of lodge membership and marriage and divorce. Instead of using such ambiguous slogans as “whom Christ accepts the church must accept” we ought to look at specific practices which seem to disregard this principle. Obviously the church must accept the sinner accepted by Christ, but the point in question concerns the attempt of the church council to determine whether or not Christ has really ingrafted the inquirer into his body. And in assessing this fact we may not exceed our ministerial authority as stewards of the Word of God.
Only as the discussion focuses on concrete practices can the church on the one hand remain true to God’s revealed will without lording it over the conscience of men in things indifferent and on the other hand continue to vitalize herself as a Reformed church whose character is clearly expressed in her corporate testimony. As every church council does this in loyalty to Christ her King it will stand on the frontier of an alien and estranged world as a redemptive agency in the hand of Christ