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.