Church Membership and its Implications
Aaron Lim (Singapore)
I. Defining Membership in the Church
II. Understanding the Implications of Membership
III. Answering Common Objections
I. Defining Membership in the
This article has been written for the purpose of
understanding the nature of church membership and its spiritual
implications. In an age of spiritual ignorance so much is at stake for
Christians and their membership in the church of our Lord Jesus. Serious
consideration is required when one considers membership in any church.
The church is the body of Christ. It is made up of
believers from every nation, tongue and tribe. These believers share
their unity in the faith of their Lord Jesus Christ. He is their saviour
and redeemer, who binds them together in an intimate bond of friendship.
They share their fellowship one with another because of the fellowship
they share in Christ. So intimate is this bond of friendship that the
organism of the church of Christ is provoked to proclaim, with the
psalmist, "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell
together in unity" (Ps. 133:1)!
The Belgic Confession accurately defines the
We believe and profess one catholic or universal
church, which is a holy congregation of true believers, all
expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by His
blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Ghost … Furthermore, this
holy church is not confined, bound, or limited to a certain place or
to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed over the whole
world; and yet is joined and united with heart and will, by the
power of faith, in one and the same Spirit (28).
The church belongs to Jesus Christ. He has purchased
this church by the sacrifice He made on the cross of Calvary. By His
sacrifice He redeemed the church out of her sin and misery, out of
judgment and perdition, and unto eternal glory in heaven. The church is
rightfully His, as He "gathers, defends and preserves to Himself by His
Spirit and Word … a church chosen to everlasting life" (Heidelberg
Catechism, A. 54). The church functions and draws her life out of
the life of Christ.
Of the universal church there is the church invisible
and visible. The church visible consists of local institutions, where
professing believers gather to hear God's pure Word and worship Him. The
church invisible consists only of the elect children of God chosen in
eternity, for Scripture makes clear that there are the reprobate seed
within the church visible (Rom. 9:6; Matt. 13:24-30). Concerning the
church invisible we do not know who are in it, until the Lord reveals
this to us at His appearing.
It remains our duty, nevertheless, to join ourselves
to the true church as manifested in the church visible. So demands the
Belgic Confession: "We believe, since this holy congregation is an
assembly of those who are saved, and 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." Furthermore,
"it is the duty of all believers, according to the Word of God … to join
themselves to this congregation wheresoever God hath established it"
(28). So serious is this command that the believer has a heavy
responsibility to choose a true church in which to be a member.
One question immediately comes to mind: what is a
true church? One cannot but be thankful enough to the Reformed fathers
for providing wise and biblically accurate answers to the question:
The marks by which the true church is known are
these: if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if
she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as
instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing
of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure
Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected (Belgic
The true church stands in distinction from the false
church, which is corrupt and unfaithful to the Word. God’s wrath rests
upon her continually.
When the believer joins himself to be a member of a
visible church, he professes a living faith in Jesus Christ, and
confesses to be part of His body. As part of Christ’s body, this member
is a partaker "of Him and of all His riches and gifts" (Heidelberg
Catechism, A. 55). The church, under the supervision of the elders,
rightfully acknowledges this profession and warmly welcomes the new
member into her fellowship—the fellowship of Christ. This member shares
a common unity with the church, whose unity is found in Christ. He
breaks his fellowship with the evil world, and vows to live a life that
is increasingly Christ-like.
II. Understanding the
Implications of Membership
As one accepted into the fellowship of Christ’s body,
the believer shares a common unity with the other members of the church.
One crucial aspect of this unity is the unity of the truth,
Do we views things in light of God’s Word? Let our
confessions speak. Let Scripture have its authority.
First Implication: A Duty to Assent
The member that joins himself to the church must
profess agreement with all the doctrines of the church.1 He
must know them and sincerely believe that the doctrines of the Three
Forms of Unity are the truth of God's Word. Submitting to the
"doctrine and discipline" of the church (Belgic Confession
28) requires that the member know the doctrines of the church. He may
not plead ignorance, much less neutrality, or a half-hearted agreement.
In becoming a member of the church, the believer has vowed before God
and the congregation to "assent to all the articles of the Christian
religion as they are taught here in this Christian church according to
the Word of God, and purpose steadfastly to continue in the same
doctrine to the end of thy [his] life" ("Public
Confession of Faith," Q. 1). Covenant parents who present their
children for baptism vow that they "acknowledge the doctrine … in the
articles of the Christian faith, and which is taught here in this
Christian church to be the true and perfect doctrine of salvation" ("Form
for the Administration of Baptism"). In keeping this vow, they teach
their children the ways of the Lord. Moreover, covenant youths confess
that they are "resolved by the grace of God to adhere to this doctrine;
to reject all heresies repugnant thereto" ("Public
Confession of Faith," Q. 2).
"Acknowledge!" "Assent!" "Resolved!" "Purpose
Such is the language of our forms that they demand
that members of the church not only to know but also to fully maintain
her doctrines. Their membership in the church requires this. They must
seek to grow in a deeper understanding of the Christ's teachings and
live by them. It is the rule for their faith. After all, Scripture calls
us to "study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth
not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (II Tim. 2:15).
How else are they to be sanctified by the truth (John 17:17) other than
the truth which the church proclaims?
Reformed theologian Herman Hoeksema writes,
Is it a great sin to unite oneself with a church
other than that which is, according to one’s conviction, the purest
manifestation of the true church? It is; for, by doing so one knowingly
cooperates with those forces that always tend to the development of the
false church. A church need not be wholly false and corrupt to justify
separation from its fellowship. Every church is false in the measure
that it departs from the Word of God, corrupts the sacraments, and
becomes lax or perverse in the exercise of Christian discipline (Herman
Hoeksema and Herman Hanko,
Ready to Give an Answer [Grandville, MI: RFPA,
1997], p. 37).
Second Implication: A Duty to Defend
Not only must the member of the church know and agree
with the church’s doctrine. He has a sacred duty to maintain and defend
all her teachings. Since the member of the church has "diligently and
circumspectly … discern[ed] from the Word of God which is the true
church" (Belgic Confession 29), it must follow that the church of
which he is a member is a true church, according to his conscience. The
church’s teachings are the member’s convicted beliefs. He then carries a
heavy responsibility to proclaim, maintain and defend these truths
against the church’s enemies.
Pastor Steven Key is correct:
Your membership in a particular congregation, and
your membership in a particular denomination, marks you as
responsible for the doctrines taught and for that which goes on
where you have your membership ("Church
Membership in an Evil Age," p. 10).
The member has vowed before God to "reject all
heresies repugnant" to the doctrines of the church. Doctrines in
contrast with his church must be considered false and condemned. He
promises to defend against all things contrary to the Word of God and
the doctrines of his church. Such is the implication of the divine
command to "earnestly contend for the faith" (Jude 3) that God has
delivered to him. So serious is this vow that a member who expresses
disagreement with the church’s doctrine ought to be subjected to
discipline. Again Pastor Key writes, "As a member of that church, you
have the calling before the face of God to submit to the teaching
ministry and to the discipline of that church" ("Church
Membership in an Evil Age," p. 7).
It becomes clear that only by submission to the
church’s doctrine may the member be able to maintain and defend it.
Surely one cannot defend his doctrinal beliefs if he cannot submit to
the church’s teachings.
If the church is to be the "pillar and ground of the
truth" (I Tim. 3:15), how may it tolerate members—much less
office-bearers—who disagree with her doctrines? Her walls quiver and
shake with the very existence of members who profess differing
Third Implication: A Duty to Greater Unity
The believer that joins himself to the church
expresses unity with it, insofar as the confession and life of the
church are concerned. The member seeks to "keep the unity of the Spirit"
(Eph. 4:3), "maintaining the unity of the church" (Belgic Confession
28). This unity is found in the unity of Christ and His truth.
As a member standing publicly in unity with the
church, he seeks to grow in greater "communion [with] the body of
Christ" (I Cor 10:16). He finds his joy, his "bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3),
his contentment in this fellowship which shares a common belief in the
God that he believes in. Only by sharing a similar conviction with all
the other members of the church may the believer achieve a true and
greater unity with them. They grow in the grace and knowledge of their
Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (II Peter 3:18), "From whom the whole body
fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth,
according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh
increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love" (Eph. 4:16).
Each and every member contributes by his talents to
pursue this greater unity. A true member seeks in every way to edify the
body of Christ. How is it possible, therefore, for the member "readily
and cheerfully to employ his gifts, for the advantage and salvation of
other members" (Heidelberg Catechism, A. 55) if he cannot agree
with them in the truth of Christ?
This unity, however, must be carefully sought after.
It has been well said that unity without the truth is the devil’s unity.
Rev. Ronald Hanko cautions,
Believers may not, however, seek unity at the
expense of the truth. They are to buy the truth and sell it not
(Prov. 23:23). That is where ecumenism goes wrong. It sells the
truth for a mess of ecclesiastical pottage that is without value and
does not produce true unity (Doctrine
According to Godliness [Grand Rapids: RFPA, 2004], p. 237).
True unity, therefore, is always found in the truth.
What great joy there is for a new member who exclaims, "I am united in
the truth that my church proclaims!" What exhilaration must fill his
soul to know and understand this. Excitement overwhelms this member as
he becomes a soldier of Christ defending the truths of His church.
On the other hand, what comfort is there for the new
member whose doctrinal beliefs stand in conflict with the church? Surely
there is nothing but dread, worry and confusion. Sorrow is likely to
engulf this member if he cannot stand united with his church in the
There is an inseparable relationship between
corporate responsibility and individual church membership. The
individual member always remains a part of, and responsible for, his
church (cf. Rom. 5:12-19; Josh. 7; Dan. 9:13-19).
God will surely bless the church that stands united
in His truth. Judgment, however, falls upon the whole church that is
flippant about handling God’s truth or promotes a unity that is not
founded in the truth.
Fourth Implication: The Church’s Duty to Shepherd
A new member comes under the supervision of the local
church. The duties of the individual member work hand in hand with the
church’s duty to care for Christ’s flock, unto the greater edification
of His body. Christ shepherds His flock through His appointed
office-bearers: the ministers, elders and deacons. "Feed my sheep" (John
21:16) was Christ’s instruction to His beloved apostles. Accordingly,
the leaders of the church must obey this command to feed God’s people
with the Word of God according to her convictions. The faithful church
may never slight this duty, as she observes the calling to preach the
whole counsel of God by declaring His testimony.
One of the characteristics required of an elder is
that he is "apt to teach" (I Tim. 3:2). He must be able to teach the
Word of God, to instruct the members accordingly. He may not simply
share his personal convictions. To teach the Word is to proclaim and
declare it freely, whether privately or publicly. How then is it
possible for an elder to perform his duties faithfully if his conscience
conflicts with the church’s doctrine? How can he "feed the flock of God"
and be an "ensample" (I Peter 5:2-3) to them if he disagrees with the
church’s belief in Christ’s truth?
In sum, how is "purity of doctrine and godliness of
life [to] be maintained in the church of God" if she is filled with
office-bearers of opposing doctrinal beliefs? How do its leaders
discharge their respective offices if they cannot "promise" to labour
"agreeably to said doctrine" that the church confesses ("Form
for Ordination of Elders and Deacons")?
One of the reasons that God sends controversies into
the church is that He demands her acknowledgement of His truth. The
church, along with all her members and office-bearers, must study it,
rightly dividing it. God’s blessing and judgment follow accordingly.
If a church allows members and office-bearers of
opposing doctrinal beliefs, the church's divisions will multiply. One
division inevitably tends towards another. Always a faithful church
guards her walls and maintains her unity by insisting on a common
subscription to her doctrines.
III. Answering Common
Various arguments have been raised regarding the
issue of church membership; here just two are covered.
Objection 1: "I can agree to disagree with the
Answer: The consequences for staying in a church
whose doctrine one cannot agree with are severe. It is equal to being
unfaithful, for faithful believers must follow wherever the truth is
preached. God threatens to send those unfaithful to His Word a "strong
delusion, that they should believe a lie," because "they receive not the
love of the truth, that they might be saved" (II Thess. 2:10-11). Those
who remain in a church that they consider not to be the purest
manifestation of the truth church will probably see their posterity
perish. It is well nigh inevitable that their children will be raised up
according to the church’s doctrine, and soon learn to embrace her
teachings in their years of discretion. A member and his family who are
in disagreement with the church’s doctrine will be like those "tossed to
and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine" (Eph. 4:14).
Evidently, God punishes the iniquity of the fathers upon the children.
The unfaithful member’s children will scarcely see the light of truth
that their father believes in or tries to uphold.
One who is sincerely convicted of the truth has the
duty to ensure that this truth is maintained in his church. He must also
insist that this important truth of the gospel be preached and taught to
him and to his family. Scripture instructs us not to be "carried about
with divers and strange doctrines" (Heb. 13:9). To remain in a church
which has gone astray in an aspect of the truth is unfaithfulness,
however insignificant this aspect may seem.
Objection 2: "I have grown up in the church
all my life. The bonds that I share with the people in the church are
very strong. The emotional ties and fellowship that I have with the
people here cannot allow me to leave."
This is a natural reaction. I personally have similar
feelings. But my fellowship with God’s people and the unity that I share
with them must always be guided by His truth. We ought to desire nothing
more than to be faithful to it. Christ has warned that to love our
friends or family more than Him is to be an unworthy disciple: "He that
loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me" (Matt. 10:37).
We ought always to deny ourselves and our comforts and take up the cross
and follow Christ.
I understand the heart-breaking consequences for one
to leave a church in which he has grown up. The emotional ties that one
has to break! It is painful; it is agonizing. But God demands our
faithfulness. He will "render to every man … [for] his faithfulness" (I
Sam. 26:23). God will honour those who honour Him (I Sam. 2:30).
Service in the church of God must always be guided by
truth. We must "serve him in truth" (I Sam. 12:24). We love Him because
He has delivered to us the truth concerning Himself. How is God properly
to be served and loved if His truth is not maintained in the church of
which one is a member? One must inevitably compromise in his conscience
if he cannot agree with the church’s doctrine. And yet how many decide
to stay on! It is dangerous, Luther warns, to go against the
Church membership is a serious obligation for every
child of God. It is his sacred duty to join himself to the true church
where every aspect of the truth is preached, maintained and defended. A
church that tries to minimize the importance of doctrine is a wavering,
unfaithful church that does harm to herself and the saints of God.
In the providence of God many have been placed in the
church of their parents and raised and instructed in it. However, it
remains their duty to join themselves to the purest manifestation of the
true church in their years of discretion. I sincerely implore these
young people (and older people) to study the doctrines of the faith in
the light of God’s Word and the church’s confessions and join themselves
to a church clearly manifesting the three marks, which marks indicate
the presence of Jesus Christ. May our consciences be captive to His
1However, Reformed churches
also hold that if someone has doubts regarding some aspect(s) of the
church's doctrine, he may still be/become a member if he promises not to
militate but to submit to further instruction.