A Weighty Responsibility
We continue this week in our study of the nature of the Church of Jesus Christ by turning our attention back to the Belgic Confession (1561). Article 28 of this confession is entitled, “Every One is Bound to Join Himself to the True Church.”
Following a description of the nature of the universal Church of Christ, Guido de Brès, the author, now moves us in a related but slightly different direction: our obligation as Christians to ensure that the local congregation we join is the most biblical
one we can find. Note that during the Reformation it was not enough to be a mere attendee, but Christians were expected to join—become a member of—a local church.
De Brès’ opening salvo cuts to the heart of the matter and contains a number of key elements that we need to examine. First, the Church is defined as the assembly of those who are saved. Surely we need to minister to the lost—that’s biblical—but simultaneously we ought to keep in mind that the essence of the Church is comprised of those who are saved. Here’s the first clause of this article: “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.”
Some of this might sound
shocking and some of it might actually be
shocking to us. Some respond to the words “and out of it there is no salvation” as sounding terribly Roman Catholic. In actuality, however, nothing could be farther from the truth. It is true that Rome taught that outside the Roman Catholic church there was no salvation possible, but that is quite different from saying that outside of the true Church of Jesus Christ there is no salvation.
This is a clear warning to those today who find their “church” in a para-church organization or even in a good, effective Sunday school teacher. A para-church organization—as the prefix “para” makes plain—is not the Church. Some donate to good para-church organizations, but those organizations don’t baptize or administer the sacraments, or where necessary, exercise church discipline. Nonetheless, some today insist that a given para-church entity is a substitute for them going to a local congregation. Dead wrong. Such an attitude manifests how far the modern Church has devolved.
I spoke to a man not long ago who had not had the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper for over five years. His Sunday school teacher, he explained, was a “gifted” teacher so Sunday school was his “church.” Dead wrong again, but as often as not, this type of muddleheaded thinking prevails in the 21st century.
John Calvin calls chapter one of Book four of the Institutes
: “The True Church with which as Mother of All the Godly We must keep Unity.”
In his opening remarks, Calvin informs us that what he is about to say is nothing more than an extension of what he taught in Book Three on faith and salvation.
He states, “As explained in the previous book, it is by the faith in the gospel that Christ becomes ours and we are made partakers of the salvation and eternal blessedness brought by him.”
Moreover, because of our “ignorance and sloth…we need outward helps to beget and increase faith within us, and advance to its goal.” Therefore, “God has also added these aids that he may provide for our weakness. And in order that the preaching of the gospel might flourish, he deposited this treasure in the church.”
In other words, the focus of the true church is upon the preaching of the Word of God.
Calvin continues and articulates that the Church bears a particular stamp. It is Christ’s Church “into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his sons, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry as long as they are infants and children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith.”
Stating his case more strongly and giving a more full-orbed description of the Church as “mother,” Calvin says that it is necessary that each believer be a member of Christ’s Church. “For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels.”
My question to you at this point is simply this: Does any of this describe the lengths to which you went in choosing a church home for yourself or—if you have one—your family? What motivated you to attend where you are currently attending? If you are a male of the species, who made the choice to go to the church you now attend? I ask that because the modern Church bears all the marks of feminization as much as if not more than our society does.
Are we aware today that no person—no matter who they are and how much money they have—ought to withdraw him- or herself from a true church of Jesus Christ and live in a separate state from it?
Second, de Brès opined that regarding the Church of Jesus Christ, “all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it.” There is an obligation/duty enjoined upon true Christians to join a true congregation of our Lord and unite themselves with it. In other words, we are not merely to join and then disappear into the ranks; as true believers we are to “unite” with that local body. We are not to remain aloof or sit on the sidelines, but rather we are to become living and active members, sharing our spiritual gifts and sharing in and nourishing the spiritual gifts of others.
Third, by so living, we are to maintain “the unity of the Church.” This unity, which is precious to congregational life, recognizes that being a member of a local congregation goes hand in glove with being united with Christ in that spiritual, mystical union by which I am conformed more and more to his image.
Fourth, we are reminded that when true Christians join a true church of Jesus Christ that they are then to submit “themselves to the doctrine and the discipline thereof.” This no doubt comes as a huge surprise to many modern, individualistically minded church-goers. It’s a surprise that anyone would even mention the fact that biblical doctrine is important to our church choice. To far too many, the reality of biblical doctrine is one of the farthest things from his mind when modern man is contemplating where he (and his family) might worship. When you couple this with the fact that some pastors openly denigrate doctrine, telling their congregants that they not only don’t need it, but that it’s actually detrimental to their Christian walk to get entangled in doctrine’s pernicious web, is it any wonder that many modern Christians are all but totally bereft of scriptural truth?
As if the concept of doctrine were not surprising enough, however, the concept of church discipline sounds like de Brès was from the planet Zork. There is no such thing as church discipline in the mega-church movement—they don’t even know who their attendees are. Can you imagine Rick Warren or Bill Hybels announcing to their audiences that they were preparing to initiate excommunication on the fornicators and those committing adultery in their midst? And the closest thing to discipline I’ve heard about from the Emergent Tribe is some guy calling Mark Driscoll to tell him that he feels badly because he watched porn and Driscoll telling him not to do it anymore. No, the modern Christian has precious little knowledge of biblical doctrine and none regarding discipline. The stock reply from the 21st century Christian to the possibility of church discipline would be “It’s none of your business, so butt out!” or “You’ll get a call from my lawyer!” Is there any wonder that the level of holiness in the modern Church is so low?
Fifth, when seeking out, finding, and joining a church, we are to be willing and prepared to bow our “necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ.” What does de Brès mean by that? Quite simply it implies that we are to submit to the Word of God. It means that we will comply with what is found in Scripture even if or especially if it cuts against the grain of what we want or expect. We must, therefore, understand that there is a difference between what I might encounter in my secular job and what God prescribes for Christ’s Church.
If we would but pay attention to this truth the modern Church could benefit greatly from its instruction. For example, this would entail that a CEO or CFO might not be at all suited to serve as an Elder in Christ’s Church. The biblical instruction is not that the congregation looks for a “high roller” or “power player,” but rather a biblically qualified man. This also has great advantages for women as well. As they comprehend that even though they might be on a “career track” in the world—that’s allowed, but certainly not the biblical prescription—that there is not a one-to-one correlation between the world and the Church, so that God forbids them to be Elders.
Positively, bowing our necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ entails being conformed to his image. It also means that the Word of God has pre-eminence in our lives.
Finally, once we have sought out, found, and attached ourselves to this congregation, we are not to sit back and be entertained. There is something required of us. Here is how the B.C. explains that obligation: we Christians are to serve for the edification of our their fellow-brothers and –sisters in Christ, “according to the talents God has given them.” In short, we are duty bound to locate this true church and then to become living, active members of it. It is not enough to be a member and to stay out on the fringes of church life. Since the Holy Spirit has given us spiritual gifts, we are to employ them for the good of the whole. You cannot worship God at home (The Church of the Innerspring) or somewhere out in nature (The Church of the Canyon), but should maintain constant attendance with your local (true) church. In the subsequence subsequent article, we will be informed about how to judge a true church from a false one, but for the present the B.C. is concerned that we understand that we are to use our gifts and to receive the benefits of the spiritual gifts of the others in the congregation.
It is easy to see that this description is quite different from that of a para-church organization, even though biblical para-church organizations can serve a very good function. I’ll mention just one such organization to give you a flavor of what I mean. Ligonier Ministries is a para-church organization that has done enormous, incalculable good in the Christian community. There are numerous very helpful books on a wide variety of Christian topics to aid the Christian in his or her walk of faith. They sponsor a number of conferences that provide solid biblical teaching. Their monthly periodical, Tabletalk
, contains highly helpful articles as well as devotions for each respective month. In short—and I’ve only scratched the surface of what Ligonier Ministries provides—, Christians can make good use of their material. But what L.M. will emphasize to you repeatedly is that they are not the Church. This is an essential distinction to keep in mind as you seek out, find, and attach yourself to the purest biblical congregation you can find.
I understand that this might very well sound very unusual to the modern Christian. Yet, it’s the old dead guys, like de Brès, who were in the midst of the battle, who thought through the issues clearly, and who can still guide us today. You really don’t have to revise the confessional statements to have them be relevant. There are some voices today who cry out that our confessions are badly outdated and need to be revised to bring them into line with the “findings” of the Federal Vision, the (so-called) New Perspective on Paul, and the place of women in modern society. If we started down this road, we would eventually end up with a monstrosity that was ungainly, unreadable, un-learnable, and subject to every whim and fad that came along.Isn’t it biblically true that there really is nothing new under the sun; that what is being done has been done before? Those today who are constantly insisting on revision of the confessions would, in all likelihood, be incensed if someone like, say, Al Gore and Hillary Clinton said that the Constitution is a “living document” and needs to be under constant alteration. The Constitution is a fallible document that still serves us very well in America. Analogously, our Presbyterian and Reformed documents are also fallible, but have both stemmed the tide of error and heresy as well as positively edified God’s people throughout the ages. Why don’t the detractors to the Constitution and the Presbyterian and Reformed confessions simply go elsewhere and leave us to appreciate the dead guys?
This is the heading given by Joel Beeke & Sinclair Ferguson (eds.), Reformed Confessions Harmonized
, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), p. 190. Others use “Of the Communion of the Saints in the True Church,” “Everyone’s Duty to Join the Church,” or words to that effect.
John T. McNeill & Ford Lewis Battles (eds.), Institutes of the Christian Religion
, Vol. 2, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), p. 1011.
An example of connecting the doctrine of salvation with the doctrine of the Church is also found in the writings of the Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck. He opens his section on the doctrine of the Church with these words, “But this benefit of glorification is one which we cannot yet discuss, because we have first to pay some attention to the way in which, or the route along which, Christ brings the benefits of calling and regeneration, faith and repentance, justification and adoption as children, renewal and sanctification, into being in His believers on earth, and sustains and reinforces them. We have already noted that He grants all those benefits by means of His Word and His Spirit, but have still to see that He also grants them also only in the fellowship which binds all the believers together…. The believer is born from above, out of God, but he receives the new life only in the fellowship of the covenant of grace of which Christ is the Head and at the same time the content…. From the first moment of his regeneration, therefore, the believer is, apart from his will and apart from his own doing, incorporated in a great whole, taken up into a rich fellowship; he is member of a new nation and citizen of a spiritual kingdom whose king is glorious in the multitude of his subjects (Prov. 14:28).” (Our Reasonable Faith
, [Henry Zylstra (trans.)], [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1956), p. 514.) Inst
Ibid., 4.1.4, 1016.
See Mark Noll, America’s God
, From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture
, (NY: The Noonday Press, 19982); Mary Kassian, The Feminist Gospel
, (Wheaton: Crossway, 1992); & Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth
, Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004), especially chapter 12, “How Women Started the Culture War.”