(The following essay is part of a paper I wrote in 2001 as pastor of my first church. I am republishing it here because the issue and importance of church membership and the Lord’s Supper is as important today if not more so than it was then.)
In the PCA, membership vows require a person to not only make a simple profession of faith in Jesus Christ, but to promise to follow Him in a couple of specific ways: serving the Lord in the local church to the best of his ability (time, talents, and treasure), and submitting to the government and discipline of the church, as that is expressed by humble, godly elders of the local congregation.
This oversight responsibility (otherwise known as accountability) is seen in a special way at the Lord’s Table. Scripture, presents elders with the responsibility of excluding those from the Table who are unworthy partakers (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 5), a process called suspension from the Lord’s Supper, or Excommunication.
Yet, if you are a church which does not have or practice membership, in such a case, what is a person excluded from? You would find yourself in the midst of a logical impossibility.
By taking the position that it takes, our denomination is not saying that “church membership” is a requirement for salvation (as if we had to “do” anything besides believe), but only this: church membership is the normal, regular way that a Christian expresses his faith in Christ in a visible way. Like baptism, giving to the poor, and other expected responses to those who have been saved by Grace through Faith alone, joining a church is a central part of what it means to be a thankful and faithful disciple of Christ.
Calvin, quoting Augustine and others, said this: If you will not take the Church as your Mother, you may not take God as your Father. (For more on church eldership and church discipline, read T David Gordon’s article at the PCA website here.)
What Are the Sacraments?
This raises a good question: what are the sacraments, and what do they have to do with a simple profession of faith?
Evangelicals believe that the Sacraments do not save by themselves; a person who never takes the Sacraments may certainly be saved; we see examples of this in Scripture (take, for example, the thief on the cross). But, the Sacraments are visible signs and seals of what has already taken place—invisibly—in a person’s heart. It is the “visible” nature of the Sacraments, and the teaching of Scripture on the visible and invisible church (see above) that forms the basis of the principle at stake here—membership in the visible church is, or should be, a prerequisite for taking the visible Sacraments.
Of course, no one can be prevented from taking Christ, invisibly, by faith. But as a matter of accountability, faithfulness to the call of God as an overseer, and for the sake of the integrity of the Table of the Lord, this arrangement has been established by our denomination from a desire to be faithful to the Word of God.
It is hard to refute this proverb: if you claim to love an invisible God, but do not love your visible brother, then your claim is suspect. Likewise, when it comes to church membership: if you’re committed to an invisible God, you display that commitment by your close connection to a local body of believers.
Why Does This Matter?
You might ask, “Since we agree on the basics (that you need to be a professing Christian before taking communion), why does this matter? Why the big deal?”
As mentioned above, church membership does matter. Many people today, professing Christians included, “spiritually impoverish” themselves and “disobey God” by refusing or neglecting to join a body of believers. Membership is more than a formality; it is a blessing God has given. It is God’s gift. Being connected is the opposite of being transient—an unhealthy feature of modern American life. Church membership is God’s way of working against transience; it is God’s way of building Christian community.
Think about it this way: when a person is saved at an evangelistic meeting (like a Billy Graham Crusade, for example), he is not immediately baptized and served the Lord’s Supper, is he? No—instead, he is urged to become a part of a local church—i.e., become a member. This is because membership in a local, visible church is a blessing from God and the normal way Christians work out their Christian life. Church membership matters to Billy Graham for a reason: it matters to the Lord.
While this idea may be less well-understood in our day of “loose connections” (people are often moving in and out of communities today in ways that would be unusual in previous generations), still, God has given us more than an “invisible church.” It is more than “me and my Bible.” It is the visible church that is to serve as the “home base” for our Christian growth. This is why historically Christians have always taught that without the Church as mother (Galatians 4), we may not claim God as Father. Far from being a mere “obligation” thought, we should see it as a privilege to be attached to a church of the Lord
The Marks of the Church
But which church should you join? Historically, such local churches have been distinguished into two categories: those that are “true” and those which are not. The marks by which true churches have been identified are explained below (again) by the New Geneva Study Bible (p. 2011):
- The faithful preaching of the Word of God: This means that the church teaches the Christian gospel according to the Scripture. Any group that denies the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the sin-bearing Atonement, or justification by faith alone, is like the separatists of earlier times whose denials of the Incarnation (1 John 4:1-3) caused John to say, “they were not of us” (1 John 2:19).
- The right use of the Sacraments: This criterion means that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are used and explained as setting forth this gospel of faith found in Christ. Turning these Sacraments into superstitions that take away the sufficiency of faith in Christ undercuts the identity of the church, like anything else that obstructs faith in Christ. One purpose of baptism is to mark those who are received into the visible church. The Lord’s Supper confirms for the faithful their membership in the church and their community with each other and with Christ.
Christians have found other marks of identity alongside these minimal two. Luther specified the keys of discipline (Mat. 16:19), and authorized ministry (Acts 14:23; 20:28), and “suffering under the cross” (Acts 14:22; 20:29). The Reformed churches specified a functioning system of discipline, often calling discipline a third mark of the visible church (Titus 1:13; 2:15; 3:10)…
So, church membership is initiated in the sacrament of Baptism, and confirmed and strengthened in the Lord’s Supper. If you are not a member, then the Lord’s Supper (visible sign of membership in Christ’s Body, the Church) doesn’t confirm anything visible. Actually, taking the Lord’s Supper, on this line of thinking, doesn’t make sense unless you’re a part of the visible church. You don’t need it! If you’re part of the invisible church, why do you need the Lord’s Supper? It is no more “needed” than “church membership” is needed. The two are tied together like a hand in a glove.
Interestingly, some denominations like the Salvation Army and others have done away with the Sacraments on this line of thinking—the Sacraments don’t save, therefore they’re not needed. But we believe differently. We believe that the Lord’s Supper is a blessing from God, a strengthening gift of His grace. Thus, it is the ongoing testimony that the oath before God and the visible people of God that was taken is indeed the promise of your life and heart.
An Example of Marriage
If you are married (or once were married) think back to when your “man” proposed to you (or, if you are a man, think back to when you “popped the question” to your bride-to-be). When did you become “married”?
In a very important sense, when your bride-to-be said, “I do,” you were married. Historically, this consent has been at the heart of Christian marriage. But were you really married? Or, did something else still need to take place?
What was lacking is what has become a tradition among Christians, namely, a public ceremony of oaths and vows—the solemnization of marriage. During this time, you made promises “in the presence of many witnesses” and oaths. It is at this time that you “plighted your troth” (to use an old phrase) and pledged yourself “till death do we part.”
This ceremony is not “necessary” in order for a marriage to exist; notice it is called the “solemnization” for a reason. It merely “solemnizes” what is (in fact) already true. But do we dispense with it? Not by the looks of it!
For in a marriage, more than two people are coming together. Two families are being joined—two people groups, two traditions, two different miniature societies. The ceremony helps to bring them into relationship with one another by using public promises. And of course, the bride and groom exchange rings. The ring doesn’t “make” a couple married any more than the ceremony. But we still exchange them, knowing that this “symbol” points to an invisible reality: “Whom God hath joined, let no man put asunder.”
Well, this metaphor of marriage is a good one for understanding why joining the church is important. In both, visible signs are used to portray invisible realities. And while it is possible to partake of the invisible (i.e. marriage, or “salvation”) without the visible (i.e., a wedding ceremony, or “the Lord’s Supper”), it is by all means not “regular.”
It is unlikely that, at the conclusion of this study, we will all be “in agreement” about every point of doctrine—unless the Lord returns first! But this is a significant enough issue to warrant our careful attention. It is my hope that this brief essay will have been of some use to you as you seek to conform to His Will revealed in His Word.