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The Necessity of Membership in a True Church

This article is the shortened version of the recently published booklet by me under the same title. This abridgment necessarily omits much of the booklet, including elements that I consider to be of great importance both to the subject and to the thinking of Reformed persons concerning church membership. I urge the young person to obtain the booklet, which is distributed free of charge, from the consistory or evangelism committee of his church, or, failing this, from the Reformed Witness Committee of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, MI (hoperwc@gmail.com).
Introduction
No one can escape the life-or-death, spiritual force of the subject of this article. Church membership is a life-or-death matter. Outside the church—a true church—is no salvation. The true church identifies herself by distinct, unmistakable marks.
There are false churches, which also are clearly recognizable.
There are also churches that are gradually losing the marks of the true church and taking on the marks of the false church.
The subject, therefore, is urgent for everyone who is called a Christian and who values his or her salvation.
The Necessary Membership
John Calvin wrote that whoever has God for his Father has the church for his mother. He was referring to the local, instituted congregation of believers and their children.
Membership in a true church is necessary, as necessary as it is for a child to have a mother. I know this by experience. I look back over my life and ask, “Where would I, my wife, our children, and our grandchildren be apart from membership in true churches of God? What would be the condition of our spiritual lives? How would it have gone with our family life? Outside of true churches of God, what would even our physical lives be?”
But the necessity of membership in a true church is not only, or even mainly, a matter of experience. It is the clear teaching of the Reformed creeds and of scripture, as will be demonstrated.
What is necessary is membership in a visible, instituted church, a congregation that can be seen, especially as a gathering for worship on Sunday, a congregation that is properly organized, or instituted. No one may evade the admonition to church membership by responding, “I belong to the invisible, holy, catholic church of Jesus Christ, even though I am not a member of a visible institute, or organization—a local congregation.” The church is certainly this universal body of Christ (Matthew 16:18). But this presently invisible body of Christ takes form in true, visible institutes, or congregations (see the Belgic Confession, Articles 27, 28). Therefore, let no one claim to be a member of the universal, invisible body of Christ who holds in contempt membership in this church’s manifestation in the visible church. He is not a member of the universal church of Christ! On the contrary, he despises the universal body of Christ.
Membership in the instituted church—the organized assembly of believers and their children, that is visible and exists in a certain place at a certain time—is necessary. Emphasizing this becomes more necessary than ever with the rising in our day of the so-called “house church” movement. The church institute is formed by God’s appointment of men (not women) to occupy and exercise three offices, or official positions, in the body of believers and their children. These offices are minister of the word, or teaching elder; ruling elder; and deacon (1 Timothy 3; 1 Timothy 5:17). By these offices, Jesus Christ himself performs the work that blesses and saves the members of the church.
Without these offices, there is no instituted church, that is, no church at all. Neither is there the presence and saving work of Jesus Christ. So much for the “house church” movement!
Of the visible church that is instituted in these three offices, it is necessary to be a member.
If and only if this institute is a true church!
The Marks of a True Church
It is not enough to be member of some instituted church or other. There are true churches and false churches. There are churches that once were true, but are now becoming false. What is necessary is membership in a true church.
Because of the necessity of membership in a true church, God identifies true churches with marks. These marks are unmistakably clear. They are three. First and most importantly, the mark of the true church is “the pure doctrine of the gospel” (1 Timothy 3:15, 16). Second, a mark is “the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ.” The third mark is the exercise of “church discipline” in dealing with public sin as it appears in the church (see Article 29 of the Belgic Confession). The marks are not size; a friendly minister; opportunity for the use of the members’ gifts; or enthusiasm for evangelism and missions.
Where these marks are, there is a true church of God, and there must I be a member, and remain a member. Where these marks are lacking, there is a false church, and there I may not be a member.
Since there are false churches, and since membership in a false church is both contrary to the will of God, and damning, there must also be clear, identifying marks of the false church, and there are. The marks of a false church are not only the lack of the marks of the true church. But they are also the perversion of the marks of a true church. The false church preaches, but it preaches a lie, for example, that justification is by faith and by works. It celebrates the sacraments, but it falsifies them, for example, by adding to the two instituted by Christ five more of its own choosing. It exercises discipline, but not upon the wicked. Rather, it punishes the godly, for example, one who objects to the false doctrine or wicked discipline of the church. Membership in such a church is forbidden to the believer. The believer must leave the false church, or a church that is becoming false. Yesterday!
The Necessity of Membership in a True Church
Membership in a true church is necessary. It is not merely recommended, if convenient, but necessary. Since it is necessary, it must be carried out regardless of the cost and consequences.
Outside the true church, that is, apart from membership in a true institute, is no salvation!
At this point, confessing Christians raise furious objection: “Certainly, church membership is not as serious as salvation!”
But it is this serious.
This is the seriousness of church membership on which the Belgic Confession insists, in Article 28: “Out of it [the true instituted church] there is no salvation” (see also the Heidelberg Catechism, Q and A 85). The explanation of this necessity is that the church is the body of Christ. To be separated from the church is to be separated from the head of this body, who is Jesus Christ. In separation from Christ is no salvation. 1 Timothy 3:15 calls the instituted church “the house of God.” In it God dwells. As the Psalter sings, “To live apart from God is death.”
The Calling of the Believer
Obviously, every believer is called by God himself to be and to remain a member of a church that shows itself true by the unmistakable marks. He may not leave for a church that lacks the marks for any reason, including having a wife or a husband. If one finds himself in a church that is departing from the pure word of the gospel, corrupting the sacraments, and failing to use, or abusing, discipline, he must leave for a true church, even though joining a true church may be costly and difficult.
John Calvin confronted a group of Reformed believers in France with this calling. Persecution made membership in a true church impossible in France. Calvin called these French believers to leave everything and move to a country where membership in a true church would be possible. Obviously, this would be costly and very difficult. Imagine that citizens of the United States or of some other country would have to move to Canada, leaving home, job, and relatives behind, in order to worship God rightly in a true church. These French believers, whom Calvin called “Nicodemites,” objected. Because carrying out Calvin’s admonition would likely mean moving to Geneva, Switzerland, where Calvin was preaching and teaching, some of these French mocked Calvin and his admonition by charging that Calvin thought that “the road to heaven led through Geneva.” Likewise today, when we call Reformed Christians in departing churches to join a true church, they respond with the mockery that we think that only members of our denomination are going to heaven. But Calvin continued to insist that membership in a true church is necessary. So do the Protestant Reformed Churches! So do all whose confession is Article 29 of the Belgic Confession of Faith!
2 Thessalonians 2:3 warns that in the last days, in which we are now living, there will be a “falling away” (Greek: apostasy) of churches that once were true churches of Christ. All believers in all churches, including those on behalf of whose members this magazine is published, must be vigilant—concerning doctrine, sacraments, and discipline. Complacency is fatal.
Membership in a true church is necessary!