Thursday, August 4, 2011

Heaven without Church Membership?

Can You Go to Heaven without Being a Church Member?

(Or, The Curious Case of A. W. Pink)

The following is a quotation from a Blog by iMonk, a “reformed” Baptist:

The short story is this: After years of speaking, teaching and preaching, A.W. Pink eventually gave up on trying to find a church where he could worship as a member. He came to believe that there were no churches where he could participate or minister in complete support and good conscience. So he stayed home, with his wife, and typed his magazine. He gave up on the church, and while his gift of teaching was magnificent (in the opinion of most Calvinists,) he couldn’t find a single pastor he could support or a single church he could even attend the last two decades of his life. He withdrew and stayed home, writing those books your reformed Baptist church is selling at the book table.

We know the argument against the social institution of marriage:  “Marriage is about love and relationship, and commitment between two people. It doesn’t need society’s recognition or blessing.  What does a ceremony or legal piece of paper add?  If we think of ourselves as married, we’re married.”

Then, as marriages fail and people become disillusioned, we hear a new argument: “I’ve tried marriage, and I’ve experienced failure and pain.  I’m not sure I’ll ever get over it.  I won’t go through it again.”  Of course, many such people don’t mean they intend never to have a marriage-like relationship again.  They just mean they feel justified in rejecting the institution of marriage.

It’s striking how similar are the arguments we sometimes hear regarding church membership.  Some say, “Being a Christian is between God and me.  The church isn’t an institution; it’s just a way of referring to God’s people in the world.  I’m in the real church and I don’t need my name on the roll of some congregation.”  Others, who have had a bad experience might say, “I was a member of the church and something bad happened (the preacher ran off with the organist, someone betrayed a confidence, people hurt my feelings), and I don’t want to go through it again.  So, I’ll attend church, but I won’t join.”

This “modern” view of the church and church membership contrasts with the view at the time of the Reformation.  (We go back to the Reformation, not because we believe the Reformers were infallible nor because we idealize the Reformation as though it were a golden age, but because the Reformers purposely and self-consciously examined the Bible in order to reform their views of theology, worship and government in accord with the Apostolic pattern.)

The Belgic Confession (1561) teaches:

We believe, since this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved, and outside of it there is no salvation, that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw himself to live in a separate state from it; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it . . . (Article 28).

Similarly the Second Helvetic Confession (1566) asserts: 

But as for communicating with the  true church of Christ, we so highly esteem it that we say plainly that none can live before God who do not communicate with the true Church of God, but separate themselves from the same.  For as without the ark of Noah there was no escaping when the world perished in the flood; even so do we believe that without Christ, who in the Church offers Himself to be enjoyed of the elect, there can be no certain salvation; and therefore we teach that such as would be saved must in no wise separate themselves from the true Church of Christ. (Chapter XVII: 11).

Then there is the clear teaching of the Westminster Confession:

The visible church which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation as under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, and of their children, and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.  (Chapter XXV: 2)

How different this reformational view is from that of so many who claim to be Christians and yet who insist their relationship to God is a purely personal and private matter, and who sincerely believe that the Church is of little consequence, surely not  so consequential as to have anything to do with the matter of one’s salvation.

Even within denominations, which hold to one above quoted confessional statements, there are those who are not so clear as the Reformation Confessions on the matter of membership.  Some in the Presbyterian Church in America believe it overly restrictive to invite to the Lord’s Table only those who are baptized and communing members in good standing in some evangelical church (surely a very broad invitation).  Rather they believe they should invite those who consider themselves to be Christians and qualified to come to the Table -- leaving it entirely to the individual’s judgment.

But does the Bible teach church membership?  If you mean, “Does the Bible teach that a church should keep an official roll or that members should be received by taking vows?” the answer is, “No, the Bible does not teach these particulars.”  But if you mean, “Does the Bible teach that the church itself distinguishes between those who are its members and those who are not?” the answer is definitely, “Yes.”

Jesus teaching on church discipline assumes that the church can be identified and that the church knows who its members are.  Jesus said that when your brother sins against you the final step is to “tell it to the church” (Mt. 18:17).  The one offended must know to whom he must go – not just a group of Christians standing on a street corner but the church. The hoped for response is that the offending brother will “listen to the church” -- which makes no sense unless the church has a recognized authority to instruct the brother.  But what if he does not listen to the church?  “Let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  That is, “Let him be to you as an unbeliever -- as one no longer in the church but outside.”  The passage (as the similar one in I Corinthians 5:1 - 5) cannot be understood apart from the underlying assumption that the church is a defined and recognized assembly (2 Cor. 5:4) and that it is able to distinguish between those who are its members and those who are not.

Church membership matters.  There is no other society on earth of which it is more important to be a member and no one of which it is a higher privilege to be a member.  Christ died for the Church and He is her Savior, Husband, and King.  The Church is His body and bride.  And to the Church He has given the wonderful privilege of dispensing His grace by the ministry of Word and Sacrament.

The church: Don’t try to go  to heaven without it.


Dave Sarafolean said...

Great post.

I learned from D.G. Hart that Abraham Kuyper spent the final years of his life not attending church. Apparently he was so busy with his 'kingdom' activities that he couldn't find time for the means of grace.

Rod said...

I've heard the argument that we don't need to join a church because the thief on the cross was saved and wasn't a church member. But I've heard it said (I don't have the source) that the thief on the cross was surely saved, to show that we are never without hope, even on our deathbed; but there was only one such example in Scripture, to show that we must not presume on such a condition but that it is truly an exception.

We must not make the exception into the rule.

montani semper liberi said...

This pew-sitter sympathizes with Mr. Pink. I know nothing about where he spent his last years, but perhaps there were no churches nearby that he could join with a clear conscience. As with this pew-sitter, perhaps he was surrounded by liberal, main-line denominations, word-faith congregations, mega-churches, prosperity preachers, pentecostals and charismatic groups with a few neo-Calvinist congregations extremely busy running around redeeming stuff. What is a confessionally leaning, word and sacrament desiring, two-kingdom Christian to do? Does one join one of the above then reap condemnation on the last day because of your church's errors or does one abstain from joining and reap condemnation on the last day for not being a member of a church? This is a VERY REAL, PRACTICAL problem many of us in rural areas are facing. I'd like an answer.

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

@ Monatani: I think you go to the best of the churches you can find, join, receive the means of grace. The church is our mother, however deficient a mother she may be, and we must have her as our mother if we would have God as our Father. I say that, knowing it is very easy to say that and very hard to do it, and that, were I in your situation you my instinctive and intuitive response would be to stay home. But, I also know it would be bad for me. And, regarding being condemned, God will not condemn you for the errors of the church. Were you one of her officers, you would be held responsible, though not condemned, unless the error opposes the gospel. As a member, you would not be held responsible. If memory serves re Pink, there was a Presbyterian church not too far away where Pink could have worshiped.

Montani Semper Liberi said...

Thank you for your comment. My second questions would be how far should I go in accomodating practices that I consider "extra-Biblical?" Do I follow the crowd and join a small group? Do I "work for social justice," celebrate the liturgical year, read Henri Nouwen, applaud every N.T. Wright quote? Am I allowed to comment on any of the above by referring to scripture or do I just pretend that all is well?

Isbell said...

I've read both of the biographies of Pink (Murray and Belcher) and he was definitely a weird cat. And his wife was from Kentucky! He did in fact die in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, Scotland where there was a Free Kirk in the neigborhood. He was a big-time sabbath keeper and you'd think he might have fallen in with the Wee Frees....but, no.

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

Yes, I believe Kenneth Mcrae was the minister there when Pink was in residence.

Vicki said...

You can be a Christian and be alone and pray and God will hear your prayers just the same as he would hear you in church. He knows what's in each one of our hearts as long as we genuinely believe in him. I believe the Lord judges us by how we love and treat each other not by what church we belong to. I know quite a few people who go to church regularly but treat people badly outside of church. This is one of the reasons I myself have not gone to church for some time now but have in the past. I was baptized Catholic and have gone to both Catholic and Presbyterian churches. My grandfather was a minister. I've found that if you don't regularly belong to a church and you decide to visit, those who are regular members are sometimes not accepting to you. I've become tired of seeing those in church leave church for the day and do everything outside of church that God would not want us to do. A true Christian would know that God is not going to judge you by the building you choose to worship but by the way you live your life and what you believe in your heart.

Jason A. Van Bemmel said...

Thanks for a great article on the importance of the church. It is much-needed. Pink's options were limited at the end of his life. He was a Baptist and would not have worshipped in a church where babies were being baptized. I know some Baptists who would rather not join any church than have to join a Presbyterian Church. It is a sad case, to be sure. I really don't think this means that Pink isn't in heaven, though. Yet it should serve as a reminder to all of us not to get too narrow and hardened in our theology that we forget the bigger picture of the core essentials of the Christian life.

Jason A. Van Bemmel said...

The feature article on the OPC web site deals well with this issue:

Charlie J. Ray said...

It would be wonderful if there were a Reformed church near the truth someplace geographically near one's home. Unfortunately even the PCA has gone the way of compromise with Federal Vision, Auburn Avenue, and Arminianism in general. And any PCA minister who would recommend joining an Arminian congregation should be excommunicated and defrocked.

Charlie J. Ray said...

The comment by the Catholic lady says it all. Even Catholics go to heaven by good works, right?

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

Well, Charlie, the defrocking I could handle ok, but since excommunication means being denied the means of grace, put out of the visible church, and delivered into the realm of the devil, recommending that someone join the best church they can find must be worthy of damnation, unless, that is, one may go to heaven while exommunicant from the visible church outside which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. And, no one goes to heaven by good works but a lot of believers who err in doctrine or life do.