Covenant Protestant Reformed Church
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Church Membership and its Implications

Aaron Lim (Singapore)


I. Defining Membership in the Church
II. Understanding the Implications of Membership
III. Answering Common Objections
IV. Conclusion


I. Defining Membership in the Church

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 Christian church:

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 Confession 29).

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, Christ’s 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 steadfastly!"

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 doctrines.

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 truth.

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 Objections

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 church’s doctrine."

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).


IV. Conclusion

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 Word-captive conscience.

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 Word!


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.