We've been speaking about the challenges facing those responsible for admitting people into the church. We noted that some sort of standard and procedure for church membership are necessary: without a standard you could find everyone claiming membership; without a procedure no one could claim membership. We know that membership is a Biblical concept because the Bible provides for being put out of the church: you can't put out what was never in.
As believers in the covenant we hold that our children are members of Christ and his church. Heidelberg Catechism, Q74, asks: Are infants also to be baptized? The answer; Yes, for since they, as well as their parents, belong to the covenant and people of God, and through the blood of Christ both redemption from sin and the Holy Ghost, -who works faith, are promised to them no less than to their parents, they are also by Baptism, as a sign of the covenant, to he ingrafted into the Christian Church, and distinguished from the children of unbelievers, as was done in the Old Testament by circumcision, in place of which in the New Testament Baptism is appointed.
My concern, therefore, is not with children of church members in good standing, but rather with how those who were never members of a true church might become such.
“That's easy,” you say. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
“Well,” I respond, “that's certainly a good starting place, but it doesn't quite cover all the bases.” Especially on the mission field and in evangelistically active churches, the matter is keenly felt. Do you admit into membership everyone and anyone who says “I believe”? But beyond that lies a second question: is it fitting to admit anyone as a full member into a Reformed church solely on the basis of a credible Christian profession?
To the first question I trust most would answer, “No!” We should not reckon as church members drunks who were led to a profession in a stupor, or heretics whose profession is less than Trinitarian, or emotionalists who were merely manipulated at a “tent meeting.”
In this column I once mentioned a “missionary” in Brooklyn who claimed over 300 converts among the Russians in Southern Brooklyn. I've yet to see these converts and I suspect I will not. Mark Twain could have extended his famous list: lies, damned lies, statistics, and evangelistic numbers. Missionaries who take seriously their task as servants of the reigning Messiah should not employ Arminian methodologies nor tabulate conversions by counting hands. To believe, to profess faith, involves more than the lip.
Thus, it is appropriate for the doorkeepers of Reformed churches to examine candidates for admission as to the soundness of their faith and life. This may sound like a simple thing to do, but on the field it is rarely a black-and-white matter. Missionaries, being human, are anxious to see fruit from their endeavors and so are inclined to be generous in evaluating professions. Those whom missionaries work with are often eager to please the Lord's servant and so might be willing to “tell him what he wants to hear.” Certainly, any church can accommodate a few of these superficial professors without much damage being done to anyone, certainly not the kingdom. But when this sort of professor makes up the majority, that's another story. And the pressure on modern missionaries for “results,” for numbers, has, in too many cases, resulted in just such situations: churches made up of superficial professors who desire superficial worship and “covenant lite” living. It is important, therefore, for the doorkeepers to be mindful that it is not themselves they are serving in their position, and not fat-cat bureaucrats, but the Lord Christ and his church.
But let's move on to the second question. Let us suppose that we have before us a sincere convert seeking membership in a Reformed church, but this convert is not Reformed. Should he be admitted to membership in that church? To this question there have been two more or less distinct traditions among the sons of Calvin: that of the Presbyterian churches, who require only that their elders be Reformed, and that of the Continental Reformed, who expect both officers and members to be Reformed.
Clearly, the Presbyterian practice is easier. Full membership upon profession makes things simple. But I wonder if we might be missing something valuable from the Reformed tradition if we rush too quickly without considering its reasoning.
The Reformed tradition, it could be said, is more honest with the facts of history. While upholding the Reformed faith as “Christianity come into its own,” it sincerely recognizes that there are many churches and communions which embrace faiths which, while certainly Christian, are less mature, even less faithful, than that system of doctrine expressed in our Creeds and Confessions. Recognizing them does not mean that Reformed churches must take steps to become like them.
Further, the Reformed tradition recognizes that the church's officers are both representatives and servants of Christ and his church. They do not constitute the church in its entirety, as some Presbyterians tend to think, but they are officers of local churches. Reformed ministers are members of the churches they serve, but Presbyterian ministers have their church membership in a presbytery.
In the best Reformed tradition, the entire church is a covenanted community, and the terms of that covenant are not least-common-denominator, whatever-might-barely-pass-as-Christian terms, but explicitly Reformed terms. Thus, in the form for profession of faith in Reformed churches, candidates for full membership profess that they “heartily believe the doctrine . . . taught in this Christian church. . . .”
This is the key: Presbyterians are structured around a concern to have Presbyterian presbyteries while Reformed churches are structured around a concern to have Reformed churches.
Every professing member of a faithful Reformed church has agreed in principle that the children of that church belong to Jehovah in virtue of the covenant. Church order requires that the “covenant of God . . . be sealed to children of believers by holy baptism,” and that the elders “see to it that baptism is requested and administered as soon as feasible.” In a Reformed church, members may be lawfully put out for willfully failing to baptize their offspring, whereas Presbyterian churches could, theoretically, be made up of Baptist members.
Further, when a person joins a Reformed church he is entering a realm where the members have all vowed “to do all in [their] power to instruct [their children] in the Christian faith” they profess. This has ordinarily meant that Reformed churches reject civil government's or secular education for their covenant children. The elders are required to “diligently promote the cause of Christian education”; they are bound to “diligently encourage the members of the congregation to establish and maintain good Christian schools, and [to] urge parents to have their children instructed in these schools according to the demands of the covenant.”
Moreover, members of Reformed churches, officers included, covenant together that the youth will be instructed “in the teaching of the Scriptures as formulated in the creeds of the church” to prepare them “to assume their Christian responsibilities in the church and in the world.”
Of course, many faithful Presbyterian (and other!) churches do these very things, and some Reformed churches fail to do them at all. The point is that some do so as a chosen option, whereas Reformed churches have a self-identification which makes these things (in principle) no option at all. Reformed churches seek Reformed members who make a Reformed profession and follow through in raising Reformed children.
Which leads us back to the Doorkeeper Blues. We asked: Is it fitting to admit anyone as a full member into a Reformed church solely on the basis of a credible Christian profession? While it may at first have seemed like a no-brainer to say “Yes,” I hope you can see now that it's not that simple. Reformed churches, to be such, require actual Reformed members, including children.
Therefore, Reformed churches which seek to be faithful to Christ's command to aggressively reach the lost with the gospel without compromising fidelity to their precious Reformed, covenantal legacy, face a unique challenge. It is a challenge which can, by grace, be met.
May I suggest that an effective cure for the Doorkeeper Blues might involve the following threefold “adjustment”?
ONE, that we have tiered memberships: Admission to the Lord's Table would be granted to any lawfully baptized church member, whether of our communion or another orthodox body. There is far too much sacramental superstition, I fear, governing the practices of that terrified bunch who don't merely fence the Table, but virtually circle the wagons and shoot at anyone who dares to approach it!
Beyond recognition of all who belong to Christ generally, a church could recognize those who belong to it particularly as occupying two membership levels. The first—call it associate membership or whatever you will—could be granted to any who make a credible evangelical profession but are clearly not Reformed, not covenantal. Perhaps “associates” would be distinguished in a Reformed church by not having a vote on certain matters in church administration, such as votes for officers. (The alternative—allowing non-Reformed members to vote for officers—could have results even more disastrous than those currently seen in Reformed churches today.) Full voting membership would be reserved for those professing the Reformed Faith and attempting to live out its covenantal implications.
Two, practice pragmatic ecumenism. Freely refer inquirers and converts who do not wish to be Reformed to other believing churches. This is related to One, above. Reformed churches should always seek, above all things, to honor Christ. But to do that we must recognize that Reformed churches—for all their glorious distinctions—are most often not the only players in town. It is no crime to refer a committed Baptist to a good Baptist church! It is no crime to refer a “smells & bells” devotee to the most faithful of those churches in town which share that sensual bent.
THREE, discipleship into the Reformed Faith is more than just desirable. Each convert, each person transferring from a non-Reformed (or non-Presbyterian) church ought to be instructed in the mature expression of the Faith once for all received. A great tool for this, on the introductory level, is a little gem by Hylkema and Tuuk, A First Book of Christian Doctrine (we have copies available: request one when sending your donation). There are many other outstanding resources, for example, Calvin's The Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life.
Enough for now. This series was intended to provoke consideration and discussion of a serious problem faced daily by missionaries seeking to be faithful to their Reformed calling, and by elders seeking to be faithful to theirs: by what standard are people to be admitted into church membership? Knowing what we know of the Bible and of history, how can we best serve Christ and those whom he is calling and the cause of Reformed truth?
By thinking covenantally we can step back and recognize the covenant of Christ in its broader sphere of operation (“the church universal and orthodox”). Then we can step forward to honor the distinctives we've inherited as Reformed believers: First, keeping covenant with God in all areas of life. Second, keeping covenant with our Fathers by learning and teaching the doctrines of the Reformed Faith both at home and within our churches. Third, keeping covenant with the children of our churches, baptizing them and educating them in a covenantally faithful manner.
It makes missions a little tougher, to be sure, but hey!—who ever said curing the Doorkeeper Blues would be easy?
- Steve M. Schlissel
Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.