We had just passed through Raleigh, Miss. (home of the annual tobacco spitting contest with Men's and Women's divisions), when my friend lost control of the car and we ended up in the woods. Unable to move the car, we hitchhiked back into town where we were delivered to Red Smith's auto dealership. It was the lunch hour and the tow truck man was out, so we were ushered into the office of Red himself. "What do you boys do?" he asked. "I am a Presbyterian minister," was my reply. "Presbuterian," he said, "that's sorta like Cathlic, idn't it?"
Many evangelical Christians may respond the same way to the doctrine of church membership as it is stated in several of the Reformation-era confessions. For instance, the Belgic Confession (1561) teaches: "We believe that since this holy assembly and congregation is the gathering of those who are saved and there is no salvation apart from it, no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, regardless of his status or condition." A century later the Westminster (1647) theologians wrote: "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 do these words that tie salvation to the church sound like strange doctrine to modern evangelical ears? (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."
What are the results? There are many professing but unchurched Christians. Like lovers who see no need for the vows or institution of marriage, they see little necessity for the institutional church or for formal membership.
There are unconnected Christians. Like the fellow with many girlfriends, who appreciates each for her special qualities but will not make a commitment to any one, they attend many churches but join none.
There are uncommitted Christians. Like the couples who marry but minimize the duties of marriage while maximizing individual freedom, they join churches but maintain a personal veto over what they will and won't do as members.
There are unchaste Christians. Like those who go from one marriage to another, enthusiastic at the outset but unable to sustain the relationship for the long term, they drift from church to church.
The amazing thing about the writers of the Reformation-era confessions is that they had been put out of or renounced the Roman Catholic Church, yet they held a high view of the church and of church membership. Why? (1) They believed that the church Jesus died for and promised to build is a visible institution on this earth. (2) They believed that the church is a recognizable institution. In the words of the Belgic Confession: "The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices discipline for the correcting of faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Christ as the only Head." (3) They believed that, when the church faithfully teaches and applies the Word to people, it exercises the keys of the kingdom, including or excluding from the realm of salvation in accord with God's verdict.
The Church is unique. No other organization has the same relationship to Christ, the saving ministries committed to it by him, or the spiritual authority to exercise on his behalf. That is why meaningful membership is mandatory.
What to do? Be careful about which church body you join. The Belgic Confession warns us "to discern diligently and very carefully by the Word of God what is the true church-for all the sects in the world today claim for themselves the name of 'the church.'" Once you've found an expression of the true church join it, enthusiastically support its worship and work, welcome its oversight, and help maintain its purity and unity. Don't expect to receive or grow in salvation outside the church.