She has taken on the Church. It’s mano-a-mano, two females ready to rumble. In one corner is a lady who is the author of three books and a regular columnist for World magazine. Her manager is World’s editor-in-chief and her cut-person is perhaps a certain senior writer. In the other corner is a lady who has been battered for two milleinia. She has been down many times but always has beat the count to get up and fight again. Her manager...you figure it out.
Mrs. Peterson begins by quoting Paul, "Indeed I Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing" (NKJV), and goes on to equate church membership and church attendance with circumcision. However, let us not rush to her conclusion, but try to follow the logic, such as it is.
She explains why she thinks Paul says that, if the Galatian readers undergo circumcision, they will have no saving profit in Christ and why later he will wish that those who urge circumcision would perform the more drastic operation of emasculation on themselves. She thinks:
What Paul fearedwas the human tendency to place faith in anything other than God for our good and acceptableness. If churches continued to insist on circumcision, Paul knew that people would put their faith in it as a saving rite. Even if you told them a hundred times that Jesus, not circumcision, saves, and even if they said a hundred times “Amen” to your statement, they would unconsciously place some of their trust for salvation in circumcision.
She believes this is a common “psychological” phenomenon. It is similar to the superstitious rituals athletes practice. People will be tempted to treat circumcision in the same way as a batter who always wears his lucky blue socks to the plate.
It is the same with the Christian life. You will think you are putting 100 percent of your faith and trust in Christ and His love and His Word and His promises. But just a teeny-weeny 5 percent of your faith is in your other rites or rituals—circumcision, or blue socks. You will find out the truth of this on the day someone strips your little rite away.
Mrs. Peterson has different view of what Paul is warning against with regard to circumcision, no matter whether you follow N.T. Wright or the Reformers. According to Wright circumcision was a “boundary marker” which Christian Jews were trying to impose on Gentile Christians as a rite necessary to be included among and accepted by the people of God. According to the Reformers, it was a ritual that Jewish Christians were trying to impose on Gentile Christians as a religious good work (one work among other good works) necessary to be saved. But Gentile Christians do not need circumcision, and should not receive it as having any religious significance, no matter whether the issue is justification of one’s claim to a place among God’s people (Wright) or justification of one’s person as righteous in the judgment of God (the Reformers). Circumcision was not a perfectly fine religious rite except that, if it were continued in the church, people might treat is as a lucky charm of sorts.
It is true that some Jews treated circumcision as something that was a righteous work necessary for salvation or as a rite that by itself guaranteed God’s favor. But circumcision was instituted by God as a seal of the righteousness that comes by faith. And, it was commanded by God with the consequence that anyone who was not circumcised must be cut off from God’s people.
Moreover, circumcision, having served its purpose, was replaced by the sacrament of baptism. Christians receive “the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2: 11,12).
Baptism is clearly neither a tradition of man nor an optional rite. It is commanded by our Lord. But Mrs. Peterson’s argument counts as much against baptism as it does against circumcision. Why would our Lord abolish circumcision and replace it with baptism if it, as much as circumcision, can be turned into a pair of blue socks? It is not that a person cannot in effect turn circumcision or baptism into a lucky charm, but to do so with either is a misuse of an ordinance of God. Paul’s argument against the Judaizers is that circumcision cannot be required of the Gentiles as a work to be performed to gain acceptance with God or a mark of one’s inclusion among the people of God. To accept circumcison in response to the teaching of the Judaizers is to cut oneself off from Christ.
I expect that Mrs. Peterson would fear that Martin Luther was guilty of the sin of making baptism into a lucky blue sock. When he was asked how he knew he was a Christian, Luther replied, “I’ve been baptized.” Luther was making a right use of baptism (even as an Old Testament believer could have made a right use of circumcision). Dr. Robert Godfrey explains:
Luther believed that in order to answer the question, "How do I know I'm a Christian?", I need an objective standard. I do not want to be left awash with my feeling in the matter. Feelings are inadequate. God has said something objective, just to me. He has said, "In Baptism, you are mine." So Luther was making a statement of faith: "I know I'm a Christian because when I look to my Baptism, I am reassured in my soul that I'm a Christian; I look to it by faith."
Now, by a logical leap, Mrs. Peterson moves from circumcision, which was commanded by God and then replaced by baptism, to practices she considers to be “harmless seeming religious traditions” and “little biblically extra religious rites.” Mrs. Peterson acknowledges that there is no temptation for Americans to trust in their circumcisions for acceptance with God. But that does not make Paul’s warnings irrelevant.
I believe Paul was telling us to watch out for harmless seeming religious traditions. Anything we put up as a “de rigueur” convention soon takes on the force of obligatory rule…
Whatever it is you may have in your life that you think makes you a good Christian and a shoe-in for heaven, be careful. For if you insist on that little biblically extra religious rite, where your rite is there will your heart be. And Christ will profit you nothing. Let us examine ourselves to see where our real hope lies.
Two of these in particular at (1) church membership and (2) attendance at public worship.
Formal church membership in a local congregation is desirable, but Paul foresaw in the Spirit a danger in confusing belonging to a church with belonging to Christ. Weekly Sunday morning attendance at church may seem like a command right out of the Bible, but it is not, and it too is a human convention that may give some false confidence we are saved. What comes out of the Bible is: Believe in Jesus and follow Him.
Mrs. Peterson sees “formal church membership” a good thing but not Biblically necessary. It is potentially dangerous as, Paul “foresaw in the Spirit,” for it is possible to confuse “belonging to a church with belonging to Christ.”
No doubt “formal membership” does not itself assure salvation. But does membership have no connection to salvation? Here Mrs. Peterson has an argument with the confessions of her own Reformed tradition. It is important to remember that these confessions were written in a time when the Reformers were protesting the very kind of works salvation and extra-Biblical traditions about which Mrs. Peterson is concerned.
The Second Helvetic Confession says about church membership:
OUTSIDE THE CHURCH OF GOD THERE IS NO SALVATION. But we esteem fellowship with the true Church of Christ so highly that we deny that those can live before God who do not stand in fellowship with the true Church of God, but separate themselves from it. For as there was no salvation outside Noah's ark when the world perished in flood; so we believe that there is no certain salvation outside Christ, who offers himself to be enjoyed by the elect in the Church; and hence we teach that those who wish to live ought not to be separated from the true Church of Christ.
The Belgic Confession:
We believe, since this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved, and that out 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; maintaining the unity of the Church; submitting themselves to the doctrine and discipline thereof; bowing their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ; and as mutual members of the same body, serving to the edification of the brethren, according to the talents God has given them...Therefore all those, who separate themselves from the same, or do not join themselves to it, act contrary to the ordinance of God.
The Westminster Confession:
The visible church...is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.”
Why is this so? Because….
Unto this catholic visible church Christ has given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints…
Christ has committed the ministry (offices and their functions), oracles (the Holy Scriptures), and ordinances (the means of grace - preaching, sacraments, prayer) to the visible (or as some would say “the organized”) church, not to an ethereal invisible body, nor to individuals. If you want salvation, don’t expect to find it anywhere but in the church. Noah was saved by God, but not apart from the ark. Had he stayed outside he surely would have drowned.
What about church attendance?
The Second Helvetic Confession:
MEETINGS FOR WORSHIP NOT TO BE NEGLECTED. As many as spurn such meetings and stay away from them, despise true religion, and are to be urged by the pastors... to abstain from stubbornly absenting themselves from sacred assemblies.
THE TIME NECESSARY FOR WORSHIP. Although religion is not bound to time, yet it cannot be cultivated and exercised without a proper distribution and arrangement of time. Every Church, therefore, chooses for itself a certain time for public prayers, and for the preaching of the Gospel, and for the celebration of the sacraments; and no one is permitted to overthrow this appointment of the Church at his own pleasure. For unless some due time and leisure is given for the outward exercise of religion, without doubt men would be drawn away from it by their own affairs.
THE LORD'S DAY. Hence we see that in the ancient churches there were not only certain set hours in the week appointed for meetings, but that also the Lord's Day itself, ever since the apostles' time, was set aside for them and for a holy rest, a practice now rightly preserved by our Churches for the sake of worship and love.
The Heidelberg Catechism teaches what is required by the Fourth Commandment:
First, that the ministry of the gospel and the schools be maintained; and that I, especially on the sabbath, that is, on the day of rest, diligently frequent the church of God,to hear his word, to use the sacraments, publicly to call upon the Lord, and contribute to the relief of the poor.
The Westminster Confession teaches that attendance upon worship is a duty of Christian fellowship:
Saints by profession are bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God…
Years ago, a writer for World, whom modesty keeps me from identifying, wrote of views about membership and worship attendance such as Mrs. Peterson expresses:
(1) We think of our relationship to Christ in an extremely individualistic way: "What counts is my personal relationship with Christ; the church may be helpful, but it's not necessary." (2) We define the word church in an extremely loose way: "The church is all the Christians in the world and comes to concrete expression in any association of Christians." (3) We view church membership in an extremely voluntary way: "Church membership is a personal decision about a voluntary relationship; it may be good but it's not obligatory." (4) We approach church involvement in an extremely independent way: "I have a right to join the church of my choice, but also the right to make my personal decisions about participation in worship, fellowship, and service."
Mrs. Peterson does not understand Paul’s message to the Galatians. By denying the Biblical necessities of church membership and church attendance, she fails to appreciate the mother whom John Calvin acknowledged when he quoted with approval Cyprian who said that “he who would have God for his Father must have the Church for his mother.”
Mrs. Peterson has before maintained her confidence in her own interpretation of Scripture as she is led by what she perceives as the guidance of the Holy Spirit, so we are not surprised by her views. But, she is a writer for World, a magazine that was founded by and continues to be run by members and officers of Reformed churches. She appears to have the role of the designated writer of devotional columns which instruct and encourage in Christian living. So, perhaps the time has come when it needs to be asked, “Why? Why in the World? Why do the editors allow it?” If it is to be said that Mrs. Peterson is an ordinary Christian, not a theologian, and not holding teaching office in the church, we will reply, “Of course.” We respect Mrs. Peterson. Her life story is inspiring. We ourselves have profited from some or her writing and on occasion recommend her columns for repbulication. But, none of this justifies the publication of such errors as this column contains.