A Review of Bound to Join
(This review was first published in the
British Reformed Journal)
Bound to Join: Letters on Church Membership
by David J.
Free Publishing Association, Michigan, USA, 2010
The Lamentable Situation
Bound to Join is unique and badly needed in the
UK, Europe and, as the author indicates in the preface, in America. The
reason for the need is simple: church membership is despised by
many professing Christians. Many love doctrine; many love to read
doctrinal books; many profess to love the church of Jesus Christ; many
can speak abstractly about ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church, but
they are not members of true, instituted churches of Jesus Christ. Some
lament their ecclesiastical misery, the lack of the preaching of the
gospel and of the sacraments for themselves and for their children, but
see no escape from their plight or they are not prepared to make the
necessary sacrifices to improve their circumstances.
It was this lamentable situation that Prof.
David Engelsma addressed at an impromptu meeting organised by many of
the attendees at the British Reformed Fellowship Conference in 2004.
They bemoaned the absence of faithful Reformed churches in the area in
which they lived. Either they were members of no church or reluctant
attendees of churches where they could not worship God in good
conscience. What could, what should, a Christian do in such
situations? Engelsma graciously agreed to address this question in a
series of e-mails, based squarely on the Word of God as summarised in
the Reformed confessions, particularly Belgic Confession 28-29.
Those e-mails, after some necessary editing, now appear in book form and
constitute a stirring call to all believers to join and never leave a
true, instituted church of Jesus Christ, where the three marks of the
pure preaching of the doctrine of the gospel, the faithful
administration of the two sacraments and the proper exercise of
Christian discipline are present.
The Absolute Necessity of Church Membership
Belgic Confession 28 states that it is the duty
of all men to join the true church "wheresoever God hath established it,
even though the magistrates and edicts of princes are against it, yea,
though they should suffer death or any other corporal punishment." This
is not hypothetical. When the Belgic Confession was written,
membership in the true church literally meant arrest, torture and death
for some at the hands of the Romish authorities, who forbade anyone to
confess the Reformed faith. The cost is rarely as high today in the
West, but it does involve financial or social loss, as well as upsetting
family and friends. It does mean inconvenience, sometimes considerable
Following the creeds, Engelsma’s position is clear:
"Church membership is not an option. It is not even required so long as
it does not cause extreme physical hardship. It is demanded by God,
regardless of any and all circumstances of our lives" (4). "House, land,
job and possessions may not stand in the way" (71; cf. Matt.19:29). In
the various chapters, called "Letters," Engelsma provides instruction
about the marks of a true church (what they are and what they are not),
the reality and threat of the false church and the danger of apostasy,
as well as the cost of following Christ by being a member in a true
The Marks of the True Church: Objective, Not
Instruction on the marks of the true church is
necessary today. These marks are objective. Concerning the first,
and primary, mark, Engelsma writes, "The preaching of sound doctrine is
as objective and incontrovertible as the colour of the church building"
(102). Other proposed marks are considered and rejected: the gifts of
the preacher, the friendliness of the members, the size or prominence of
the congregation, the mission-mindedness of the members or
office-bearers and the loving atmosphere. These things are not
unimportant, but they are subjective. Who can measure love or
liveliness? Others neglect membership in a true church because of the
presence of hypocrites or because of the infirmities of the saints. In
those situations, let the minister address such weaknesses by his
preaching and, if necessary, let the elders admonish and discipline, but
do not use these things as a pretext to leave the true church: "No one
may refuse to join a true church, or leave it, because of the sinfulness
of the members or because, as the super-saints today arrogantly put it,
‘The members of those churches are not pious enough, not spiritual
enough, or loving enough ...’" (98).
The reader should not expect Engelsma to name which
churches are true and which are false. The marks are clear. Let the
believer, with good conscience and sanctified wisdom, make application
to his own situation. Some religious groups such as Rome, the Church of
England, Arminian and Charismatic churches are clearly false. "No
believer may be a member of these churches. Every believer who finds
himself in one of these churches is duty bound to leave it. Now!" (133).
However, the reality of many different denominations in various stages
of decline (a church does not become false overnight) makes this
complicated for us today, more complex than in the days of the
Reformation. For this reason, Engelsma will not spoon-feed believers: "I
do not intend to draw the line for members of this forum, or for anyone
else ..." (33). Later, he adds,
I do not attempt to lay down rules prescribing
exactly when godly, Reformed Christians may and must leave their
church or churches for purer churches, or when they should form the
church anew. All of us must stand on our own two feet here, keeping
in view also the welfare of our children and grandchildren ... Many
remain in apostatizing churches far longer than seems right to me.
But I am not their judge. God is (142).
What if a believer is in a departing church which has
not completely lost the marks? The Reformed believer may not be
satisfied to belong to a church, which, as Engelsma puts it, is "barely
hanging on to" those marks (69). Is a believer in Sardis (which has a
name that it lives but is dead, as Revelation 3:1 says)? Let him
remember that Sardis was "lifeless" not "doctrinally deviant" (92). By
all means let him work with the members to strengthen those things which
remain (v. 2).
Believing members of such [a Sardis-like church],
or denomination, who work for repentance and renewal but meet with
stubborn impenitence over time, are not required to stay forever in
such a church. Do you want to be a member of a Sardis church when
the Lord Jesus comes on it as a thief [and removes its candlestick]?
"Fruitless protesting [must] not go on indefinitely"
(121). The stay in and fight mentality is only good as long as
the one staying in fights. There is precious little fighting by
the evangelical wings of the major denominations of our day. Let such
take this paragraph to heart:
I suppose that there are still a few Christian
clergymen in the Church of England. They justify themselves by
saying, as does J. I. Packer, the well-known evangelical Anglican,
that they are the faithful adherents to the Thirty-Nine Articles of
Religion of the Church of England (1571), whereas the majority are
unfaithful. But if a J. I. Packer were to go up and down in the
land, like an Amos, preaching the truth sharply and equally as
sharply damning the errors and errorists in the Anglican Church, he
would be disciplined within the year, undoubtedly for being a
disturber of the peace, a schismatic (34).
Strong Medicine for Serious Ecclesiastical Maladies
Some books are doctrinal. Others are practical.
Bound to Join is both. Engelsma gives much valuable teaching on the
nature of the church, especially as she manifests herself in individual,
autonomous, but not independent, congregations of believers and their
children. But the most valuable, and sadly, for many, objectionable
aspect of the book is the application. A man might wholeheartedly
subscribe to the Reformed creeds, and he must if he is Reformed, but
trouble comes when the truth of the creeds is applied.
Calvin addressed the same situation in the sixteenth
century with many French Protestants called Nicodemites. They insisted
in remaining in the apostate Romish Church because of the hardships of
leaving. Calvin insisted that, in following Jesus Christ, they had to
forsake all. "You think the road to heaven is through Geneva," was the
retort of the French Nicodemites. Human nature, even the sinful nature
of Christians, has not changed since the 1500s.
Bound to Join will be received, and has been
received by some, with similar disdain. Engelsma is well aware of this,
of course. He expected opposition, and opposition came. Engelsma, the
pastor, deals patiently with objections by correspondents who, as
Engelsma puts it in the preface, "suffered from a serious
[ecclesiastical] malady, but [found that] the medicine was too strong"
(x). Writes Engelsma,
As long as Calvin taught the doctrines of the
faith, these professing Reformed Christians enthusiastically agreed
with him. But when Calvin told them that they were duty-bound,
regardless of the cost and of the consequences, to confess these
doctrines in and with a true church, they turned on him with
ridicule and anger (77).
It is typically a peculiar characteristic of those
who hanker after practical preaching to be offended when practical
preaching and instruction touch their particular sins and weaknesses!
Feathers are seriously ruffled by "Letter Twelve"
where Engelsma applies the calling of church membership to family
I ask all of you, do you agree that a Reformed
man who is married to an unbeliever must join a true church in the
area where they live, even though his unbelieving wife opposes it
and threatens to leave him, taking the children with her, if he does
join? No one may say that this will never confront a Christian. It
has confronted many Christians. And the Bible warns that this is a
real possibility (81).
But what if one applies this principle even more
strictly and consistently? What if there is no church in the area in
which one lives? A Christian husband must join a true church in the area
in which he lives or move to an area where there is such a church
"regardless of [his] wife’s hostile reaction" (73); he "may not
compromise his faith to save his marriage" (73); a Christian wife must
"join and be a lively, faithful member of a true church in the area,
regardless of her husband’s disapproval, and even his prohibition" (74).
"If the keeping of friendly relations with the blood relative hinders
discipleship after Jesus Christ and results in the silence of his or her
confession of Christ, one is no disciple of Christ at all" (72-73). If
such instruction seems extreme, uncaring, unchristian to the reader, let
him remember that Jesus Christ Himself said that a man must hate and
forsake even family for His name’s sake (Matt. 19:29; Luke 14:26)!
Bound to Join is the most stirring call to church
membership since Calvin’s anti-Nicodemite writings were penned in the
1500s. It deserves to be read widely. Let its arguments be considered
carefully and prayerfully. Let convenience, personal preferences and
family members hinder no believer from joining the true church. For only
there the means of grace and salvation are found.
Where Christ is, there must we be. And where
Christ is not, because He has left in judgment upon the church’s
embrace of false doctrine, high-handed corruption of his sacraments,
and tolerance of public, impenitent sinners, or the cruel
casting-out of the saints for their orthodox confession and
righteous lives, there we had better not be either (116).