Thursday, May 17, 2012

Is Church Membership Important? (Part 3)

In part two we set out the historic Protestant view of the three marks of the visible church, namely the Word, the sacraments, and church discipline. We also saw that while each mark is essential to the being of the church, there is a functional hierarchy among them. The Word is primary. The sacraments are secondary. Church discipline is tertiary. These are ordinary means whereby God creates and confirms saving faith in the hearts of his elect unto eternal life. Visible church membership is vitally important because the church is the place of the means of grace.

But couldn't a person just attend the church's worship services and get the same benefits without actually becoming a member? Is official membership really necessary?

One could indeed receive the benefit of the Word preached for a time without becoming a member. I say for a time because if he was truly benefiting from the Word preached he would recognize his obligation to receive the sacraments and church discipline, neither of which can be received apart from membership. Let's begin with the sacraments. What does the Bible teach about the sacraments and church membership? 

Westminster Larger Catechism Q/A. 162 offers this fine definition of a sacrament: "A sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ in his church, to signify, seal, and exhibit unto those that are within the covenant of grace, the benefits of his mediation; to strengthen and increase their faith, and all other graces; to oblige them to obedience; to testify and cherish their love and communion one with another; and to distinguish them from those that are without." 

Notice that it says a sacrament is an ordinance "instituted by Christ in his church" for the benefit of "those that are within the covenant of grace... to strengthen and increase their faith, and all other graces; to oblige them to obedience; to testify and cherish their love and communion one with another, and to distinguish them from those that are without." In other words, the sacraments are NOT given to individual believers, but to all those within the visible church.

The LORD gave the OT sacrament of circumcision not just to Abraham but to his children throughout their generations (Gen. 17:9-14). He gave the OT sacrament of Passover not just to Moses but to all Israel (Ex. 12). When Jesus instituted the NT sacrament of baptism, which replaces and perfects OT circumcision, he not only gave it to the disciples but to those who would become disciples in all nations (Matt. 28:19), because as Peter preaches to Israel, "the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the LORD our God calls to himself" (Acts 2:39). And when the Lord Jesus instituted the NT sacrament of the Lord's Supper in Matt. 26:26-28, he not only gave it to the disciples but he said of the cup, "this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." So the Apostle Paul will later write to the church in Corinth, "For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you" (1 Cor. 11:23a).   

Clearly the sacraments belong to the visible church for the benefit of all those that are within the covenant of grace. They do not belong to any individual. Therefore by definition one must join the membership of the visible church in order to enjoy the benefits of the sacraments. 

Jesus has instituted two sacraments in the NT church: (1) Baptism and (2) The Lord's Supper (WLC 164).

Baptism is a rite of solemn admission into the membership of the visible church (WLC 165). Therefore if one is to receive it he must become a member, which happens by being born to believing parents or by conversion.

With respect to the Lord's Supper, the issue is a little more complex. While one must undoubtedly be a member of the visible church to partake, the necessary proximity of that membership is debated. Some churches practice closed communion, meaning only those who are members of that local church can receive the Supper there. In the branch of the visible church in which I minister, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, one need not be a member of the local church in order to receive the Supper there. But one must be a communing member in good standing of some local church where the gospel is preached in order to receive it.       

Jesus has instituted the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper in his church. They belong to the visible church as a whole, not to any individual. One must be a member in order to receive the sacraments by which God so graciously nourishes and strengthens us in the faith. Therefore visible church membership is vitally important. 

In part four we will take a look at membership and church discipline.     


Huisvrou said...

sorry to just "fall in" here, but I am reading on Matthew Bradley's blog about why he left the Baptist Church and in a comment over there you mentioned a post you did refuting Piper's argument for "believer's only baptism". I suppose it might be on an older blog, cause the history here only goes to 2010 and that comment was made in 2008.

Does the post still exist and where can I access it?

Thank you

M. Jay Bennett said...


Thanks for visiting my blog. Matt's Five Smooth Stones post (which I imagine is what led you to his blog) is an excellent short defense of paedo-baptism. Matt and I shared the experience of transitioning from the baptist church to Presbyterianism back in 2006.

I did post a rebuttal to Piper's teaching on baptism in 2007. The reason you can't find it on my blog now is because I recently took down older posts in order to start fresh. I've decided to specifically focus on the Westminster Standards on this blog.

I do still have the post in my archives, and I would be happy to email it to you. Send me an email at jybnntt (at) gmail (dot) com, and I'll send it over.