Knowing the general level of emotional sensitivity in the modern American church in general, and in the Reformed churches in particular, I need to start this article with a disclaimer: While this article is a commentary on a quote by Jeff Durbin, pastor of Apologia Church, it is not in any way an assessment of the person of Jeff Durbin, and it is not in any way an assessment of his ministry. I know very little about his person (having met him only once), and I know even less about his ministry. I don’t follow it, and what I know, I know it from testimonies of other people. I get the general impression that it is a good and legitimate ministry, rather basic stuff but beneficial to a number of people. I also should say about the specific quote I will be discussing, I don’t know what its specific context is. It is a Facebook status, so one can only guess what the context is. My guess, given some developments of the last couple of years, is that the quote was directed against Abolish Human Abortion (AHA), for some of the specific accusations closely match the accusations Jeff and his associates have been leveling against AHA. I am not trying to defend AHA here, although, I must mention, I have never been able to understand this bitter hostility against them; and neither do I understand the accusations against them. I know Jeff Durbin has his own pro-life organization which he is trying to get off the ground, and I heartily hope and pray he succeeds; but why it has to go with bashing AHA still evades me. As part of this disclaimer, I am indeed partial to AHA for many reasons. One is personal: all of my best friends are Abolitionists. (I know, I know, this cliché again.) Another is missional: They do achieve results, and that at almost zero cost. Another one is ethical: These are courageous folks, and I value courage anywhere I see it. Another one I could call “psychological”: I prefer to work in a setting of equal-in-rank co-workers, each of whom knows what he is doing; I get tired in an environment of “leaders” and “followers.” I reject the “leader-follower” model even in my mission field in Bulgaria, where everyone believes I am a “leader” because I have founded the mission. AHA is exactly that kind of organization of co-workers, which exactly suits my preferences. So I admit, I am partial. But then again, I may be mistaken, and the quote may not be even related to them. Either way, none of the following analysis is personal, and none is addressed at Jeff Durbin’s ministry. So, if any reader is quick to take offense, relax, sit down, and read what I really have to say.
What is more important is that the quote has certain theological and ecclesiological content. And this content is based on certain presuppositions, as well as certain historical origins. And it also leads to certain practical conclusions. What I argue in this article is that Jeff Durbin has adopted the theology behind his quote by inertia, influenced by the dominant paradigm in the modern Reformed churches, but has not stopped to consider either the presuppositions or the conclusions from it. The quote carries an ecclesiology that has been introduced only recently in the Reformed world, it is based on a fallacious ideology, and it has proven destructive to the Reformed churches. So my purpose with this article is to invite Jeff Durbin to consider the fallacious origin and the destructive consequences of that ecclesiology, and change his commitments and beliefs accordingly. I need to add, I would not have paid attention to what he said if it wasn’t brought to my desk by at least a dozen friends who asked me for my opinion. So I guess the quote has gained some popularity—and therefore the dangers of its fallacious theology need to be addressed, to prevent future destruction to the church.
Jeff’s direct words are as follows:
Facebook is filled with “Facebook Prophets”. These are people who aren’t a part of the local church but insist on giving biblical insight and wisdom to those who are actually a part of God’s design for believers: corporate worship, communion, under the care of pastors, etc. The Bible can be a dangerous thing in the hands of those who despise authority, aren’t involved in the life of the body, and act like renegades. We are wise to avoid the “insight” of people who refuse to participate in the most fundamental part of the life of a Christian: the local church. God gave us one another for a reason. If we don’t love the church, we don’t love Jesus.
The sentiment is not something new (although, it is relatively new in church history, as we will see), and it is accepted by inertia by almost every single person today who in one way or another attains to some position of authority in the church—or, rather, to be more precise, some position of legal power in the church.1 This sentiment is based on several assumptions made by the modern churchian faith. First, it assumes that the local church is the same thing as the church—hence the concept of being a “part” of the local church. Second, it assumes that the visible and the invisible church are identical. Third, it assumes that being under formally ordained church government is mandatory—and if one is not, therefore he “despises authority.” And fourth, and the most arrogant and prideful assumption of all, it assumes that God will only correct His Church through formally instituted human bureaucracies within the church, and never through external means.
All these, in the final account, rest on one single concept: the so-called “local church membership.” Or, as it is known in some Reformed churches today, “local church covenant.” Remove that concept, and the above four assumptions disintegrate. So I will focus my analysis on the concept of mandatory “local church membership”—its history, its theology, and its consequences—and then will also cover the above assumptions. And more. So, let’s get started.
Baptist Half-Way Confessionalism
In his insistence on local church membership, or, “being part of the local church,” on the surface, it looks like Jeff Durbin is in accord with the Baptist tradition and Reformed Baptist confessionalism. Mandatory “local church membership” is indeed an integral part of the Baptist tradition. And it’s not just tradition, it is in fact specifically codified in what we can call The Last Great Reformed Baptist Confession, namely, the London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689. As is well known, the 1689 Baptist Confession was based on the Westminster Confession of 1647, and follows it almost word for word, except in the chapter for baptism. And also, in one other chapter: that Of the Church (ch. 25 in the WCF; ch. 26 in the LBCF). The changes in that chapter are enormously significant: Where the WCF speaks in only six articles, and sees nothing more than the universal church, leaving the issue of local congregations to non-confessional standards, the LBCF has 15 articles, of which 11 specifically outline the form, the membership, the government, and many other specific features of local churches. This is a very clear line of separation between Presbyterian/Congregationalist confessionalism on one hand and Baptist confessionalism on the other. Contrary to what many assume, Presbyterianism allows for much more liberty when it comes to ecclesiastical forms—and we will see later that modern Presbyterian denominations differ substantially in their view of church government and membership. As to Baptists, they are confessionally bound to a very specific view of church membership, by their own Confession. The language of the London Confession is particularly strong in this regard:
In the execution of this power wherewith he is so intrusted, the Lord Jesus calleth out of the world unto himself, through the ministry of his word, by his Spirit, those that are given unto him by his Father, that they may walk before him in all the ways of obedience, which he prescribeth to them in his word. Those thus called, he commandeth to walk together in particular societies, or churches, for their mutual edification, and the due performance of that public worship, which he requireth of them in the world (LBCF 26:5).
The Confession doesn’t offer a single Biblical verse which plainly teaches such “command.” Later Baptist theologians admit that there is no such Biblical verse. (Even John Macarthur, for all his insistence on “church membership,” admits that the Bible never speaks of it.) Modern Presbyterian theologians who support the concept of mandatory “local church membership” also admit that there is no verse that explicitly teaches such “local church membership.” The strongest Biblical argument for such “membership” that was used at the time was Acts 2:41-42; but the text clearly does not speak of such local church covenant. (How exactly did they organize a “local church” of thousands of people within the narrow constraints of Jerusalem?) Nowhere else in the Bible is there anything to suggest any form of special covenantal commitment to a local body that is different, separate from, or superadded to the Covenant of Grace made with the universal church in general, in baptism.
And this was written by the same group which rejected infant baptism because they did not see any specific command for it in Scripture. It sounds schizophrenic that they would mandate local church membership without an explicit command in Scripture. Indeed, it is schizophrenic, and we will see later why the English Baptists had to go down this road. For now, let’s remember that Confessions, while important, are not perfectly reliable. They are always a mixture of correct and incorrect interpretations, they often have current pragmatic considerations included in them, and they are often self-contradictory, especially in those parts where they deviate from the Word of God, or try to force an interpretation on it.
But even if we ignore for now this lack of Biblical proofs, another problem appears, namely, that while Baptist churches today may insist on the membership clause of the Confession, they avoid abiding by another clause, that of leadership. The question is: how does one define such a local congregation? One can become a member of any congregation, but how does one know which congregation is a real congregation? How do we know that Apologia is a real congregation? Obviously, being a “member” of just anything that claims to be a “local congregation” won’t do: can one be a member of a Mormon “congregation”? The LBCF has a definition, and it is a definition based specifically on distinction of classes within the local congregation:
A particular church, gathered and completely organized according to the mind of Christ, consists of officers and members; and the officers appointed by Christ to be chosen and set apart by the church (so called and gathered), for the peculiar administration of ordinances, and execution of power or duty, which he intrusts them with, or calls them to, to be continued to the end of the world, are bishops or elders, and deacons (LBCF 26:8).
The existence of elders in the church makes it legitimate. But how are they chosen? How do we know that certain particular elders are legitimate, and therefore their particular church is legitimate? How do we know that Jeff Durbin is a legitimate elder whose ministry makes the church legitimate? The very next article gives the Baptist answer:
The way appointed by Christ for the calling of any person, fitted and gifted by the Holy Spirit, unto the office of bishop or elder in a church, is, that he be chosen thereunto by the common suffrage of the church itself; and solemnly set apart by fasting and prayer, with imposition of hands of the eldership of the church, if there be any before constituted therein. . . .
Here’s the argument: You must join a local church. You will know it is a local church if it has elders. If it doesn’t have elders, it can appoint to itself elders, and thus will be a local church.
Problem: Before it has elders, is it a church? If it is, why does the Confession say otherwise? If it is not—because it doesn’t have elders—what are you joining, and why? The authors of the London Confession, obviously, deviated from the Bible by placing on their flocks and members a burden that the Bible doesn’t place. But any such deviation from the Bible inevitably creates logical contradictions in thought and practice. Thus, they created a conundrum for future generations of Baptists. The result of that conundrum is that no one really knows whether a group that calls itself a “Baptist church” is really a Baptist church. Is Apologia a real church? If yes, by what standard? Because it has elders? Are these elders legitimate? How do we know? And how does Jeff know that the people he criticizes are “not part of a local church”? In any group of two, if one of them is “chosen thereunto by the common suffrage of the church itself,” such a person is just as much a legitimate elder as is Jeff Durbin. Or just as much an illegitimate elder as is Jeff Durbin. What goes for the goose, goes for the gander as well.
This conundrum is well-known to all Baptist “ministers” who pretend to be “confessional.” No one knows if any of them are really legitimate church ministers. Is John McArthur legitimate? Who knows? Is Franklin Graham legitimate? Well, he is, he was “chosen thereunto” by his father . . . but is his father legitimate? That is why, when it comes to chapter 26, all “confessional” Baptist ministers become half-confessional: confessional only when they need to impose the burden of “membership” on their members, but silent when they must prove their authority is legitimate. In the final account, it is one’s media presence and influence that only “legitimizes” a minister—and this is where the origin of the modern celebrity worship is.
The early Baptists understood this conundrum and sought a solution. Originally, the solution was to return to the Romish and Eastern Orthodox excuse of “apostolic succession.” This is not a joke, yes, for two and half centuries Baptists held to the same view of legitimacy of authority as the Papists: a succession of laying on of hands in Baptist churches from the time of Christ to our own day. (I remember a Baptist missionary in Bulgaria in the early 1990s, arguing with an Eastern Orthodox priest as to who had a greater claim to apostolic succession.) The theory was called “Baptist perpetuity” and was extremely popular among the rank-and-file Baptists in the US. In the second half of the 19th century, a number of Baptist scholars started refuting this myth of Baptist perpetuity. The change was not peaceful, however. In one case, William Whitsitt, professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was forced to resign in 1899, after he proved from historical sources that English Baptists did not practice immersion before 1641. Even after the theory of Baptist perpetuity was thoroughly refuted by scholars, the myth continued to live in the popular Baptist imagination. In 1931, James Milton Carroll, a Baptist pastor from Texas, published a small book which remained popular among many Baptists to this day: The Trail of Blood. In it, he made the case for an unbroken succession of Baptist churches and ministers from the Apostles. His list of Baptists in history included even openly heretical groups like the Cathari, the Albigenses, the Paulicians, etc. As strange as it sounds that a Baptist minister would choose to identify with such groups, remember that in our day, John MacArthur has also made such identifications with heretical groups in the past. There is a good reason for it: Relying on apostolic succession seems to solve the conundrum planted in the Confession. At the cost of losing one’s theological integrity, of course.
But historical evidence against this myth of Baptist perpetuity is too strong to be ignored, and in the 20th century, the majority of Baptists have abandoned it. The Baptist Affirmation of Faith of 1966, a modern re-statement of the LBCF by Reformed Baptists, completely omits the mention of “imposition of hands” by already existing eldership. It’s all election by the congregation now:
The appointment of elders (including pastors) and deacons, for office within the local church, and of preachers and missionaries for the work of evangelism is the responsibility of the local church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Lord’s ordination is recognised both by the experience of the inward conviction, and by the approval of the church observing the possession of those gifts and graces required by Scripture for the office concerned. The one so called should be set apart by the prayer of the whole church (Baptist Affirmation of Faith, 1966 “The Doctrine of the Church,” Art. 5).
This doesn’t solve the logical and theological problem, though. Of course, we first have the issue of ignoring a basic Biblical doctrine, “laying on of hands,” mentioned among the “elementary teachings” in Hebrews 6:1-2. And we also return to the originally stated contradiction: If a local church is validated by having elders, and elders are simply elected by the local church, then there is no way to accuse anyone of being “separated from the body.” All he has to do is have one more person with him, and both elect an “elder” between them. If this is legitimate, then everyone who believes is by default a member of the body, and therefore all accusations are false accusations and sin. And if it is not legitimate, then the accuser first needs to prove the legitimacy of his own “local congregation.” Such proof is not logically possible, under the confessional standards of modern Reformed Baptists. That is, after centuries of trying to make their Confession work through formal legitimacy, they have returned to postulating no legitimacy at all. Either everyone is a legitimate believer, or no Baptist congregation is legitimate at all, and therefore no Baptist is a true believer. This happens when you try to impose non-Biblical burdens on God’s elect.
It is for this reason most so-called “confessional” Baptists today prefer to not talk about this part of their Confession. And, as we saw in the Baptist Affirmation of Faith of 1966, they even feel free to modify it and omit the inconvenient parts of it. Baptist “confessionalism” is only half-way confessional; and the reason, again, is that the authors of the LBCF have gone beyond the Bible and have imposed burdens that the Bible doesn’t impose. To rely on that part of the LBCF to mandate local church membership is to lean on a broken reed. Jeff Durbin’s accusations can easily turn against himself and make him culpable of the same (Matthew 7:2; Mark 4:24; and Luke 6:38). His only defense in this case would be that the legitimacy of his ministry and church is that they have fruit. But this, as we will see later, can turn against him as well, and make him a false accuser.
The Anabaptism of Modern Presbyterians
I said above that the London Confession differs from the Westminster Confession in its view of mandatory “local church membership.” But there’s more to it. The London Confession differs from all other Reformed confessions in this regard. No other Reformed confession includes mandatory “local church membership” as a religious obligation.
In fact, if we need to be even more general, the concept of “local church membership” has never existed in the church before the 17th century. Yes, the concept of “church membership” has existed from the very beginning. The concept of “local congregation” has existed from the very beginning. The theology of “there is no salvation outside the church” has existed from the very beginning; hence, the command for Christians to “join the church” in a covenant, which is the Covenant of Grace. That joining the Church, though, was done through the same means through which man joined the Covenant of Grace: baptism. And through baptism, man joined the universal Church. That is, the same Church mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed, and then the Nicene Creed, and then in all the other great Creeds of Christendom:
We believe also in only One, Universal, Apostolic, and Holy Church; in one baptism in repentance, for the remission, and forgiveness of sins; and in the resurrection of the dead. . . .
The individual believer (or, “confessor,” in the early centuries of the Church) automatically became in baptism a member of the universal Church, and through it, of all the “local congregations.” He needed no additional oath, or ceremony, or covenant to “join” a local congregation. Most people would stay within the same congregation, and some may even take voluntary vows of loyalty to each other: such is the way the first monasteries in Ireland and Scotland started. But such vows were never required for a believer to be considered a member or part of the church. A person could travel from place to place, join or attend or co-operate or worship with different Christian communities, or decide to remain for a long time alone, in the wilderness, or among heathens, and he was still part of the church. Now, we can have legitimate objections to asceticism, but this historical fact is incontrovertible: the early church highly valued ascetics. There is not a single line in the writings of the Church Fathers where ascetics were rejected because they “didn’t join a local church.” The Father of Orthodoxy, St. Athanasius himself, wrote a high praise of St. Anthony, for example. For all practical purposes, the early church was much more faithful to the principle of “by faith alone” than modern Reformed Baptists. One became a member of the Church by faith and creedal confession. Nothing else was needed. There may have been at times different stages of membership, but there has never been any concept of “local membership.” A member of the church in Jerusalem was also a member of the church in Corinth, and a member of all the churches everywhere. Modern Baptists who claim that they just want to follow the early church, and yet impose church-membership, are simply being schizophrenic.
The Reformation didn’t change anything in this regard. The Reformers worked to Christianize societies but they never mentioned anything about “local church membership.” In Geneva of Calvin, the city had a number of church buildings for church members to gather on Sunday (and every day, for that matter), but there was never a division of which family goes to which church, or any membership in a specific church. When there was a specific complaint against a person for his views (as against Servetus), that was taken before the whole Church, it was not an issue of a “local congregation” or a session. The Netherlands had city councils of elders but nothing remotely similar to “local churches.” In Scotland, the very concept of a “national covenant” (hence the name “Covenanters”) ruled out the idea of independent local congregations. In England, the community of the Independents was rather fluid, with itinerant preachers and “elders” being rather men of influence in the community than ecclesiastical hierarchy of “local churches.” But membership was not assumed as a concept and not practiced by any church.
The universality of the Church was codified in the Confessions as well. As was said above, no other Reformed Confession ever laid this burden on believers, to necessarily join a “local church.” This is not to say that being part of the community of the Church (universal) and working together with other believers was not encouraged or commanded; but such bonding and working together was left to Christian liberty. Which means, all Reformed Confessions acknowledged that there were multiple ways in which a person could be part of the Church and work for and with other brethren, without necessarily binding him to “join a local congregation.” So does the Westminster Confession, and so does the Savoy Declaration of 1658, a Congregationalist re-make of the WCF. As a matter of fact, the most detailed of all, the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), specifically declared that the true Church extends beyond the visible Church, and therefore there may be members of the Church who are not part of the visible Church:
Nevertheless, by the signs [of the true Church] mentioned above, we do not so narrowly restrict the Church as to teach that all those are outside the Church who either do not participate in the sacraments, at least not willingly and through contempt, but rather, being forced by necessity, unwillingly abstain from them or are deprived of them; or in whom faith sometimes fails, though it is not entirely extinguished and does not wholly cease; or in whom imperfections and errors due to weakness are found (Second Helvetic Confession, 1566, ch. 17).
The Confession continues covering the other end of the spectrum, namely, that not all who are in the visible churches are true members of the Church, and finally, ends with the warning, which Jeff Durbin should heed before he makes his accusations:
Hence we must be very careful not to judge before the time, nor undertake to exclude, reject or cut off those whom the Lord does not want to have excluded or rejected, and those whom we cannot eliminate without loss to the Church. On the other hand, we must be vigilant lest while the pious snore the wicked gain ground and do harm to the Church.
Furthermore, we diligently teach that care is to be taken wherein the truth and unity of the Church chiefly lies, lest we rashly provoke and foster schisms in the Church. Unity consists not in outward rites and ceremonies, but rather in the truth and unity of the catholic faith. The catholic faith is not given to us by human laws, but by Holy Scriptures, of which the Apostles’ Creed is a compendium. And, therefore, we read in the ancient writers that there was a manifold diversity of rites, but that they were free, and no one ever thought that the unity of the Church was thereby dissolved. So we teach that the true harmony of the Church consists in doctrines and in the true and harmonious preaching of the Gospel of Christ, and in rites that have been expressly delivered by the Lord. And here we especially urge that saying of the apostle: “Let those of us who are perfect have this mind; and if in any thing you are otherwise minded, God will reveal that also to you. Nevertheless let us walk by the same rule according to what we have attained, and let us be of the same mind” (Phil. 3:15 f.).
The background of this Confession—which was originally written as the personal confession of Heinrich Bullinger—is important to our understanding whence the concept of mandatory “local church membership” came from. It obviously didn’t come from the early church. It obviously didn’t come from the other Reformed traditions. In 1566, when Bullinger wrote the above lines, his main opponents were two groups, coming from two opposite ends of the spectrum. At one end were the Papists. At the other end were the Anabaptists. On the surface, they were opposed to each other. In reality, however, Papists and Anabaptists has similar views on the question of membership: and it was that a true Christian must be part of the visible church. And while for the papists the visible Church was the Roman priestocratic bureaucracy, for the Anabaptists, it was their local “brotherhoods.” Only membership in the local brotherhood made a person a true Anabaptist.
Now, I know that my Reformed Baptist brethren would respond that the real origin of modern Baptists is with the English Separatists. Fair enough, I don’t disagree with this, when it comes to theology. But when it comes to ecclesiology, and especially to the question of “local church membership,” modern Baptists—and even modern Reformed Baptists—are closer to the Anabaptists, and to other cultic sects.
The first historical examples of making a covenant with a local community were indeed the Anabaptists in Germany and Switzerland. Membership in the community was the central characteristic, and the life of an Anabaptist had to revolve almost entirely around the local congregation. As early as 1527 the Hutterites, an early Anabaptist sect in Moravia, had an Order of the Community: How a Christian Should Live (Ordnung der Gemein, wie ein Christ leben soll) which tied the life of every believer to his local group. The Ordnung required that they met four or five times a week, and commit to the local congregation their lives and possessions, for the needs of the congregation. The commitment was so severe that a special clause in the Ordnung required secrecy in relation to outsiders:
What is officially judged among the brothers and sisters in the brotherhood shall not be made public before the world. The kind-hearted [an interested but not yet converted or committed] person shall be taught before he comes to the brothers in the brotherhood. When he has learned and has an earnest desire for it, and if he agrees to the essence of the Gospel, he shall be received by the Christian brotherhood as a brother or a sister, that is, as a fellow member of Christ. But this shall not be made public before the world to spare the conscience and for the sake of the purpose.
Mennonites practiced “local church membership” long before the English Baptists, and to this day, different modern Anabaptist groups do not acknowledge anyone to be one of them unless he has some sort of membership in a local congregation. The Membership Guidelines (2001) of the Mennonite Church USA, specifically acknowledge the right of the local congregation to strictly control local membership:
Congregations have the authority to determine the criteria and the responsibility to implement the process for membership of persons joining their congregation, as well as leaving. They do so in consultation with their area conference and in consideration of expectations for membership in Mennonite Church USA (“Membership Guidelines,” II:2).
The rules for local membership are even stricter when we go into the realm of the cults. The Mormon Church has their strict rules for local church membership, as well as other quasi-Christian sects. For the sake of space, I will refrain from delving deeper into their ecclesiology.
One thing is perfectly clear: The more we move in the direction of traditional, confessional, orthodox, creedal Christianity, the more the universal nature of the Church is emphasized (as in the Creeds), and the lower the standards for membership and participation in it. At the general level, baptism and public profession of faith are sufficient to make one a member of the Church—and by default, a member of any and every professing creedal orthodox congregation anywhere. There is no need for additional commitment to local bodies; such commitment is not sinful, but it is superfluous, and making it a requirement is anti-Biblical and anti-Confessional. On the other hand, the more we move in the direction of heterodoxy, heresies, and cults, the more the requirement for “local church membership” becomes mandatory, and the higher the standards for being a “member” of the church. In this, our Baptist brethren are straddling the fence: their theology is orthodox, but their ecclesiology rather matches that of the Anabaptist sects and the cults.
However, despite their ecclesiology being un-Biblical, non-orthodox, self-contradictory, originating from the Anabaptist sects and peculiar to all the pseudo-Christian cults, our Baptist brethren can feel triumphant and claim victory in one thing: today, most Reformed denominations and groups in the US have adopted the same Anabaptist ecclesiology, and the same non-Confessional standard of mandatory “local church membership.” This Anabaptist ecclesiology is embedded in all the Books of Church Order of all the Presbyterian denominations in the US, contrary to their professed “subscriptionism” to the Westminster Confession, and contrary to the historical theology of Presbyterianism. The most schizophrenic of all, of course, is the Confederation of Reformed Evangelicals (CRE, or also known under its older acronym, CREC), where an official theology of high-churchism and “Protestant catholicity” (also known as Federal Vision theology) is combined with extreme Anabaptist practices of mandatory “local church membership” and almost unlimited power for the local sessions over membership and over their flocks. There are elaborate rituals of “local church covenant” and “admission into the local body.” At the other end of the pipe, leaving a local church or transferring to another local church is always a huge issue of “authority” and power play, and such transfer of “membership” always involves special “permission” by the elders. There are dozens of cases within the Presbyterian denominations in the US where members of good standing have been excommunicated for daring move to another church, even within the same denomination, without permission from the local session. Presbyterian churches have all basically adopted the Mafia principle: “No one leaves us in good standing.” Or, to stick to a theological interpretation, as far as ecclesiology is concerned, modern Presbyterians are nothing more than Anabaptists.
In none of the cases I have studied do modern Presbyterian leaders try to explain this departure from their own Confessional standards. In the few cases I have tried to engage some on this issue, their excuses have been two: first, that “without local church membership there will be no church discipline,” and second, that mandatory “local church membership” falls under the “good and necessary consequence” clause in chapter 1, article 6 of the WCF. Of the former, I will talk below, when we get to the issue of church government and discipline. Of the latter, the “good and necessary consequence” clause has become to modern Presbyterian churchmen what the “general welfare” of the US Constitution has become to modern liberals: an excuse to force onto the Confession a number of non-Confessional burdens. But to make this point clear, and to see whether mandatory “local church membership” is really a “good and necessary consequence,” the best course would be to check its validity against historical Presbyterian theology. If it is really a “good and necessary consequence,” then early Presbyterian theologians would have taught it.
Presbyterian Theology Rejects Mandatory Membership
A study of historic Presbyterian theology, however, reveals that not only have Presbyterian theologians never taught such a thing, but they vehemently opposed the concept of mandatory “local church membership” whenever they encountered it—and in fact, as we will see, some even opposed mandatory church membership (not just local) as false worship.
Calvin, of course, spoke very strongly in favor of organized church communities; but not so strongly as to require that everyone be a member of one, no matter what its purity was. In his “anti-Nicodemite writings” he made it very clear that in the case where the churches in an area were all impure, the best course for a true Christian was to leave them and worship in private. Yes, worship in private! Here are Calvin’s words:
Some one will therefore ask me what counsel I would like to give to a believer who thus dwells in some Egypt or Babylon where he may not worship God purely, but is forced by the common practice to accommodate himself to bad things. The first advice would be to leave if he could. . . . If someone has no way to depart, I would counsel him to consider whether it would be possible for him to abstain from all idolatry in order to preserve himself pure and spotless toward God in both body and soul. Then let him worship God in private, praying him to restore his poor church to its right estate . . . .2
The early Presbyterian experience in Scotland in the second half of the 16th and the first half of the 17th centuries was rather chaotic. This was the time when the concept of the “national covenant” (hence the name Covenanters) was opposed to the prelacy. In their strives against the prelacy, Covenanters sometimes took self-contradictory positions on different issues of ecclesiology. Some defended church hierarchy, others rejected it. Most operated (prophesied and taught) outside the visible institutional church. Some even rejected the necessity and the validity of ordination, even by their own fellow Covenanter elders, and yet were held in great esteem and some even moderated General Assemblies (yes, while unordained). While a more detailed study of the Covenanters’ ecclesiology in those early days of their work and doctrine should be a topic for another article, we can summarize their views as a healthy balance between serving the visible Church and acknowledging the service of the invisible Church. Serving the visible church was mandatory; the forms were left to Christian liberty. Joining a local congregation was highly desirable but not mandatory. Prophets should be under the discipline of the church, but when the visible church rejected them (like today’s cessationist churches would do), they were free to operate outside her, and bring judgment on her. The majority of the early Scottish divines worked, for certain periods of their lives, outside any established church or congregation.
They could do that because in their view, the Church was not the local churches but the universal body. And it was this view of the Church that was encoded in the Westminster Confession. Not the local churches, but the universal Church.
Presbyterians first encountered the concept of mandatory “local church membership” in the 1630s, when Congregationalist preachers tried to establish a foothold in Scotland. And to respond to it fell not to some minor Presbyterian preacher but to the Big Bertha of Covenanter theology, Samuel Rutherford. During the 1630s, Rutherford had been banished and cut off from the Church for his Presbyterian convictions; his only connection to the visible church at the time was his writing desk. If anyone fits the description of a “prophet outside the visible Church,” or a “writing-desk prophet” (“facebook prophet”?) it would be Samuel Rutherford before 1638. He could have remained in the visible church during that time and obeyed the lawful authorities, but he refused. He could have organized his own local congregation, but he didn’t. When Presbyterianism was re-established in 1638, Rutherford returned to his ministry, and took upon himself to defend the ecclesiology of the Covenanters. He produced several books within the next decade. Specifically on ecclesiology, his greatest contributions were The Due Rights of Presbyteries (1644) and The Divine Right of Church Government and Excommunication (1646). It is in The Due Rights of Presbyteries where he included his response against the localist ecclesiology of the Congregationalists.
The Congregationalist authors he took on had exactly the same views as modern Presbyterians and Baptists: That a person is not a real believer unless he is a member of a local church, and unless he goes through what they called a “church covenant,” that is, a specific commitment to a local body in addition to the general membership in the church through baptism. Rutherford strongly rejected the concept. He devoted 60-plus pages (pp. 76-138) in a book of 450 pages total to oppose this error. His arguments are at times a bit windy and hard to follow for a modern reader—he was, after all, trained in scholasticism—but we can mention his main points and conclusions.
First, Rutherford starts from the classical Calvinist affirmation of the superiority of the invisible Church over the visible Church. Which means, not all who are outside the visible Church are necessarily unbelievers. (This would make himself and most of his predecessors and co-workers unbelievers for at least some periods of their lives, if it was true.) While joining a church is desirable, it is not mandatory, and has nothing to do with the covenantal status of a man before God. In his own words, quoting also from Augustine:
There is a necessity of joyning our selves to a visible Church, but it is not necessitas medii, but necessitas praecepti, it is not such a necessity, as all are damned who are not within some visible Church, for Augustine is approved in this, “there be many Wolves within the Church, and many sheepe without”; but if God offer opportunity, all are obliged by God his Commandment of confessing Christ before men, to joyne themselves to the true visible Church.
Rutherford himself is rather ambiguous as to when and how this “opportunity” arises. He advises wisdom in leaving a church for being an unlawful assembly, or not fulfilling its obligations of a church, but in the final account, leaves it to Christian liberty, without any specific word of judgment.
Second, the manner of entering membership in the Church (universal) is through baptism and profession of faith. Nothing else is needed, no other commitments whatsoever. Commitment or covenant to a local church is allowed, not sinful, but requiring such covenant is unlawful. Rutherford’s words:
1. Distinct. There is a covenant of free grace, betwixt God and sinners, founded upon the surety Christ Iesus; laid hold on by us, when we believe in Christ, but a Church Covenant differenced from this is in question, & sub judice lis est.
2. Distinct. There is a covenant of baptisme, made by all, and a covenant vertuall and implicite renewed, when we are to receive the Lords Supper, but an explicite positive professed Church covenant, by oath in-churching a person, or a society, to a State-church is now questioned.
3. Distinct. An explicite vocall Covenant whereby we bind our selves to the first three Articles in a tacite way, by entring in a new relation to such a Pastor, and to such a Flocke, we deny not, as if the thing were unlawfull for we may sweare to performe Gods comman∣dements, observing all things requisite in a lawfull oath. 2. But that such a covenant is required by divine institution, as the essentiall forme of a Church and Church-membership, as though without this none were entered members of the visible Churches of the Apostles, nor can now be entered in Church-state, nor can have right unto the seales of the covenant, we utterly deny.3
He continues by showing that once a person has received baptism, he was by default a member of any congregation anywhere. There was no need for an additional covenant; if there was such a need, this would nullify the covenant in baptism.
Thus, third, he sees the requirement for local church covenant as an additional burden imposed on the believer’s conscience, and therefore calls it “will-worship,” or, in our modern language, “false worship.” That is, any Presbyterian church today which practices such a requirement is in a direct violation of the Regulative Principle of Worship. Rutherford’s words:
All will-worship laying a band on the Conscience, where God hath layed none, is damnable; but to tye the oath of God to one particular duty rather then another, so as you cannot, without such an oath, enter into such a state, nor have title and right to the seales of grace and Gods Ordinances, is will-worship, and that by vertue of a divine Law, and is a binding of the Conscience where God hath not bound it.
And fourth, while the arguments came from Congregationalist authors, Rutherford correctly identified the real origin of these arguments: the views of the Arminians and the Socinians, that is, the unorthodox sects. There is nothing Reformed in mandatory “local church membership.”
Was Rutherford alone in these views? Hardly. As I pointed out above, none of the Reformed Confessions required external membership in any particular body, and at least one emphasized the fact that believers not associated with any particular body are still members of the Church. A multitude of other Protestant divines could be cited here, but this would make this article too long and unreadable. Thus, I will simply fast forward to the second half of the 19th century, to another big gun of Presbyterian theology, Charles Hodge. Now, Charles Hodge has never lived through the trials and tribulations of Samuel Rutherford; he has never had to operate outside the visible church; he has never had to be a “writing-desk prophet” with no congregation. He was the model Presbyterian theologian. He surely would have been much less willing to acknowledge the existence of Christians without a visible body, and he would be much stricter in the requirement of church membership, right?
In describing the church in his Systematic Theology (vol. I, pp. 134-139), he goes even farther than Samuel Rutherford, not only openly declaring that the Church includes those who are not connected to any visible body, but also that this is the very defining characteristic of Protestant theology: the invisible Church over the visible Church. He makes sure he repeats the same concept several times; obviously, he considered it very important. Here are Hodge’s own words, when he comes to describe “The Protestant Doctrine of the Church”:
(1.) That the Church as such, or in its essential nature, is not an external organization.
What follows from it is that membership in an external organization is not necessary:
(2.) All true believers, in whom the Spirit of God dwells, are members of that Church which is the body of Christ, no matter with what ecclesiastical organization they may be connected, and even although they have no such connection. [emphasis mine—B.M.]
In case someone didn’t get the message:
(3.) Therefore, that the attributes, prerogatives, and promises of the Church do not belong to any external society as such, but to the true people of God collectively considered;
And what does this mean in practice when membership in the Church is concerned?
(4.) That the condition of membership in the true Church is not union with any organized society, but faith in Jesus Christ.
He is not done yet. Consider the following paragraph (emphasis mine):
Protestants do not deny that there is a visible Church Catholic on earth, consisting of all those who profess the true religion, together with their children. But they are not all included in any one external society. They also admit that it is the duty of Christians to unite for the purpose of worship and mutual watch and care. They admit that to such associations and societies certain prerogatives and promises belong; that they have, or ought to have the officers whose qualifications and duties are prescribed in the Scriptures; that there always have been, and probably always will be, such Christian organizations, or visible churches. But they deny that any one of these societies, or all of them collectively, constitute the Church for which Christ died; in which He dwells by his Spirit; to which He has promised perpetuity, catholicity, unity, and divine guidance into the knowledge of the truth.
Notice how Charles Hodge is not even sure if such organized visible societies will always exist; he uses the word “probably”: “. . . there always have been, and probably always will be, such . . . visible churches.” Why “probably”? There’s a deeper eschatology behind it, and we will talk about it later. He continues in the same vein for several pages, supporting his case from the Reformed Confessions and from Reformed theologians, including Turretin. And he comes to the conclusion about church membership:
The doctrine that a man becomes a child of God and an heir of eternal life by membership in any external society, overturns the very foundations of the gospel, and introduces a new method of salvation.
That is, for Charles Hodge, Jeff Durbin’s claim that the local church is “the most fundamental part of the life of a Christian,” and the modern Presbyterian requirement of joining a local church, are nothing more than plain Pelagian heresy. Charles Hodge argues against the Romish church in these pages. But given that the same applied to the Anabaptists, he argues against all the heresies of salvation through works.
Between John Calvin, Samuel Rutherford and Charles Hodge, it should be very clear to any true Presbyterian deserving of the name which way Presbyterian theology goes. To this we can add A.A. Hodge and his statement that “A church has no right to make a condition of membership anything that Christ has not made a condition of salvation.”4 To this we can add a number of other Presbyterian theologians who made the difference between the invisible and the visible church a mark of Reformed theology, and therefore rejected the idea of mandatory connection to a visible body. Mandatory membership in the local church—or membership in any church whatsoever—is not a Biblical requirement, and is a heretical notion. Membership in a visible body was prescribed but not mandatory. If anything, it was an obligation of the church ministers to provide an opportunity by setting up churches, it was not the obligation of the individual member to actively seek out a church to join.
To close the circle of the true Presbyterian position, we only need to follow the practice of Presbyterian churches in the 19th century, in the same period when Charles Hodge taught and wrote his Systematic Theology.
We have evidence of those Presbyterian practices in the History of the Presbyterian Church in America by William Melanchton Glasgow, written in 1888. It’s a rather long and detailed document, close to 800 pages, but what we are interested in is whether the Presbyterian church required membership in a visible body. There are multiple examples in the book that there was no such requirement, and a person was considered a member of the church even without being a member of a local body. Two quotes from the book will suffice, for the sake of brevity:
A few members have lived in the city of Chicago, and other localities, but no societies were ever organized.
Waupaca. This city and vicinity were cultivated as a mission station by the Rev. James L. Pinkerton, in 1876, but no congregation was organized, as there were but a few families of Covenanters in that locality.
The History contains many more such examples, but the main point is obvious even from these two: One could be a Covenanter and a member of the church even without a local congregation. Reading more of the book, it becomes clear that the ministers of the Reformed Presbyterian Church considered it their obligation to create congregations, but there was no mandatory joining those congregations. In fact, according to the very founding documents of the Kirk of Scotland, it was much better to not have a church at all than to have a church lead by defective ministers:
We are not ignorant that the rarity of godly and learned men shall seem to some a just reason why that so strait and sharp examination should not be taken universally; for so it shall appear that the most part of kirks shall have no minister at all. But let these men understand that the lack of able men shall not excuse us before God if, by our consent, unable men be placed over the flock of Christ Jesus; as also that, amongst the Gentiles, godly, learned men were also rare as they are now amongst us, when the apostle gave the same rule to try and examine ministers which we now follow. And last, let them understand that it is alike to have no minister at all, and to have an idol in the place of a true minister; yea and in some cases, it is worse. For those that are utterly destitute of ministers will be diligent to search for them; but those that have a vain shadow do commonly, without further care, content themselves with the same, and so they remain continually deceived, thinking that they have a minister, when in very deed they have none.5
Obviously, then, for Presbyterians in the past, being a member of a local church was not a priority. The priority was to have able men as ministers. In case there were no such men, it was better to not have a local church, and therefore no local church membership.
A few modern Presbyterians have tried to tell me that their churches had “membership rolls” that went back 150 years, trying to prove that mandatory membership existed back then. The truth is, the “membership rolls” only prove that people joined those churches; they don’t prove that such joining was mandatory as a condition for membership. To the contrary, Glasgow’s History clearly proves that the Presbyterian church in the 19th century agreed with Samuel Rutherford and Charles Hodge, that faith and public confession were the only necessary condition for being a member of the Church. Anything else was false worship and heresy.
Mandatory “local church membership” has never been part of the doctrine and the practices of the early church; it was never part of the Reformed doctrines; it was specifically rejected by Reformed Confessions and Reformed theologians. It came originally from the Anabaptist and other non-orthodox sects. So the question is: Why did Reformed Baptists decided to differ from all the other Reformed groups? Why did they have to go against the testimony of the Reformed faith and impose on their followers an un-Biblical burden, and why did they have to create a logical conundrum?
Some would say, “Well, this is just Baptist theology and tradition, it separates us from everyone else.”
Not really. This “Baptist theology and tradition” appeared in 1689. The Confession of 1689 was the Second London Baptist Confession. There was a First London Baptist Confession, now largely ignored by the majority of Baptists. It was completed and adopted in 1644, two years before the Westminster Confession was completed and adopted. In theology, it didn’t differ from the Second London Confession: it was Calvinist and Puritan to the core. In ecclesiology, however, it had some significant differences.
First, it mentioned no mandatory “local church membership” in any form. Local churches were mentioned, but no requirement for joining them. The focus was on the universal church.
Second, and more important, a church was not defined by having a government. That is, a church government was not necessary for the being of the church, only for its well-being. Here are the relevant lines in the Confession:
And all His servants are called thither, to present their bodies and souls, and to bring their gifts God has given them; so being come, they are here by Himself bestowed in their several order, peculiar place, due use, being fitly compact and knit together, according to the effectual working of every part, to the edification of itself in love.
That being thus joined, every Church has power given them from Christ for their better well-being, to choose to themselves fitting persons into the office of Pastors, Teachers, Elders, Deacons, being qualified according to the Word, as those which Christ has appointed in His Testament, for the feeding, governing, serving, and building up of His Church, and that none other have to power to impose them, either these or any other.
Notice how the local church is expected to gather naturally, not by mandatory membership, and not needing any leadership for its existence. Only when it is gathered, for its well-being, it has the power to choose leaders, but it is not defined by having elders. Compare this to the 1689 Confession where the church itself is defined by a separation of classes between ministers and members.
Third, these church leaders, amazingly enough, are stripped of the monopoly of administering baptism, opposite to the 1689 Confession, where the ministers are entrusted the “peculiar administration of ordinances.” The 1644 Confession says that this administration is not limited to officers:
The persons designed by Christ, to dispense this ordinance, the Scriptures hold forth to a preaching Disciple, it being no where tied to a particular church, officer, or person extraordinarily sent, the commission enjoining the administration, being given to them under no other consideration, but as considered Disciples.
Obviously, then, 1689 Baptists differed in their view of the Church not only from Presbyterians and Puritans and other Reformed. They also differed from the 1644 Baptists. Something changed between 1644 and 1689 to make Baptists switch from Reformed to Anabaptist ecclesiology. That something wasn’t Reformed theology: as we saw, Reformed theology remained the same for another two centuries, at least. What changed it was a legislative shift in government policies.
It was a 501(c)3 law. Or, a law that was similar to the modern 501(c)3 regulations in the US.
The return of Charles II to England in 1660 saw not only the restoration of the monarchy in England but also the re-establishment of the Church of England in a series of laws known as The Clarendon Code; the most important part of it being the Act of Uniformity of 1662. This Act of Uniformity regulated the relations between the government and the religious establishment, but it did it in a principally new way, different from everything so far. Prior to 1662, monarchs either tolerated different religious sects without any particular formal laws, at whim, or forced a form of religion on them. The Act of 1662 didn’t force uniformity, it only precluded Non-Conformists from taking government positions, being teachers in schools, and earning degrees at Royal universities and colleges. They were also banned from having public meetings, although, private meetings were not banned. For this reason it was also called the Non-Conformist Disabilities Act. The “uniformity” in the Act was defensive, not offensive. Baptist churches could exist now, it’s just their members suffered some civil disabilities. After the Glorious Revolution in 1688, William and Mary replaced the Act of Uniformity with a new act: the Act of Toleration of 1688. That act is very important to our study here.6
The Act of Toleration gave all dissenting Protestants (Non-Conformists) the right to free public worship, provided they took the oath of loyalty to the new sovereigns, King William and Queen Mary. The disabilities of the previous act were not repealed; Non-Conformists could still not take government positions, nor be teachers, nor go to royal colleges. These disabilities would remain for another two centuries; Charles Spurgeon labored under those disabilities, and his support for the Liberals was based on their platform of repealing those disabilities. But in all other respects, they were left alone, provided they took the oath of loyalty.
But there were Protestant Dissenters who didn’t want to take that oath either, and Baptists were among them. The Act had provided for these too: It required for every such minister who was a Protestant Dissenter at least two witnesses and six members of his congregation that he is indeed a Protestant Dissenter (and not, for example, Roman Catholic or non-trinitarian). Here’s the relevant text of the Act:
XIV. Provided always, and be it enacted by the authority aforesaid, That in case any person shall refuse to take the said oaths, when tendered to them, which every justice of the peace is hereby empowered to do, such person shall not be admitted to make and subscribe the two declarations aforesaid, though required thereunto either before any justice of the peace, or at the general or quarter-sessions, before or after any conviction of popish recusancy, as aforesaid, unless such person can, within thirty one days after such tender of the declarations to him, produce two sufficient Protestant witnesses, to testify upon oath, that they believe him to be a Protestant dissenter, or a certificate under the hands of four Protestants, who are conformable to the Church of England, or have taken the oaths and subscribed the declaration above mentioned, and shall also produce a certificate under the hands and seals of six or more sufficient men of the congregation to which he belongs, owning him for one of them.
That is, the Act granted toleration only where there was social visibility.
This is a very important point in any study of the relations between the civil government and the church: Rulers are afraid of the doctrine of the invisible Church, and of its practical applications. Before 1688, most rulers in history had tried to suppress the invisible Church through persecutions and forced uniformity. The Toleration Act of 1688 was the first formal law passed by a European sovereign which tried to suppress the invisible Church through granting toleration for visibility. Or, as we call it today in our modern language, incorporation, that is, “in a [visible] body.”
The Act did something else as well: it fragmented the Christian community through incorporation. The established Church of England was treated as a corporation without any special procedures for individual ministers. That is, any local Anglican vicar was officially acknowledged by the virtue of being part of the Church of England, whether he had any members of his congregation or not. The Act of Toleration required incorporation for every individual Non-Conformist minister, on the testimony of conformist Protestants, and six or more members of his congregation. The churches now were allowed to exist only if, for government purposes, they registered separately of each other, and claimed each “member” separately for a specific individual church. There was to be no officially recognized universal body for Non-Conformists; only the state church had this privilege. The government would tolerate any free churches only as separate entities. And to register as separate entities, membership had to be membership in separate entities, “local churches.” Ordination between churches didn’t count. The testimony of ministers from other Baptist churches didn’t count. Denominations didn’t count. Toleration was only granted where there was “local church membership.”
The principle was the same as behind today’s 501(c)3 regulations; the only difference was that instead of tax exemption, the ministers got toleration. For all practical purposes, the Act of Toleration was a 501(c)3 regulation. Or, for all practical purposes, the 501(c)3 regulation today is an Act of Toleration.
Baptist churches had been seeking such visibility and toleration under the restoration of Charles II, and they finally got it in 1688 in the Glorious Revolution. So now that they had it, they were prepared to have a Confession which encoded this fragmented visibility. No more universal Church, and no more theology of the “invisible Church.” From now on, being a Baptist would mean participating visibly in the process of legitimizing your local Baptist community; if you didn’t, your pastor was in trouble with the authorities. This was an incentive which warranted including un-Biblical burdens in the Confession. And this was the reason why the Baptists in 1689 had to deviate so much in their ecclesiology from all the other groups, and from the Baptists in 1644.
While a study of the influence of 501(c)3 on modern ecclesiology doesn’t fall into the topic of this article, it would still be relevant here to point out that the dominance of this Anabaptist ecclesiology in modern America coincided with the new Tolerance Act of 501(c)3. Just like in 1689, today, it pays for the individual churches to forsake the Reformation doctrine of the invisible church, and to go full visible, mandating “local church membership.” The same practice of offering perks for visibility, incorporation, registration, etc., have been used by governments throughout history every time they had to deal with movements under the government’s radar. Gun registration in the US is one example of this practice; government aid to homeschooling families is another. In Eastern Europe in the 1980s, the Communist government started offering registration and legalizing of different dissident movements, with the purpose of drawing them in open. In the 1970s and the 1980s, even Protestant churches were tolerated under Communism if they were incorporated (visible), while a simple prayer meeting behind locked doors could easily land the participants in prison. In all these cases, taking the government’s bait has led to compromise and even betrayal of the ideology and the purpose of the movement. The Toleration Act of 1689 was such a bait. And Reformed Baptists fell for it hook, line, and sinker. For the next 200 years, they continued to exist in England but their cultural influence waned. This influence had a short culmination in the ministry of Charles Spurgeon—who actually had to compromise on the question of membership in order to attract new attendees. After the removal of the disabilities, English Baptists never again played a notable part in the history of England.
The Eschatology of Self-Encapsulation
It is still true, though, that while the Reformed Baptists and a few more Non-Conformist groups surrendered and abandoned the Reformed doctrine of the importance of the invisible Church, other Reformed groups did not. Presbyterians and others continued registering membership automatically upon baptism, with no requirement of additional commitment to a local body. As I pointed above, from William Glasgow’s History of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian ministers considered as “members” people who had no local congregation to be members of. They were obviously not so concerned about “submission to elders” and “church discipline.” The concept of mandatory “local church membership” remained a characteristic only of the Baptist churches. While the political pressure for visibility of the local congregations broke the Baptists, it didn’t break the others. This means that some other factor was at work as well.
That other factor was eschatology. Specifically, pessimistic eschatology.
In his major treatise on the rise and fall of civilizations, the British historian Arnold Toynbee made an interesting observation about civilizations: that while a civilization has faith in the future and is expanding, it keeps open borders and builds its roads in a radial shape, from the center to the borders. Once it loses its optimism, it starts to encapsulate and focuses on building walls along the borders. The Roman Empire is a good example, for in its years of expansion and optimism it built very few defensive facilities—only walls of a few strategic cities. Once it reached what was considered the farthest possible limit of expansion, and once pessimism became the ruling sentiment about the future, the Empire poured huge amounts of money into building gigantic defensive structures. Two still exist today in Britain, there are remains of around 10 walls and dykes in Romania only, of lengths between 30 and 100 miles, etc. Once a civilization or culture turn to fear of the future, it begins to encapsulate itself, even if previously it had no identifiable borders at all.
The same principle can be seen at work in the history of the United States. It is not a simple coincidence that the first anti-immigration laws were passed only after dispensationalism became the dominant eschatology in the American churches. Before 1921, Americans may have complained about this or that immigrant group, but the common perception was that the nation didn’t need closed borders. Obviously, an optimistic culture sees expansion as an inevitable destiny and a mandate, so borders are seen as an impediment. That’s why the Declaration of Independence listed closed borders as one of the grievances against the King. That’s why the US Constitution did not allow the Federal government to control immigration. And that’s why for four generations the US had open borders for individuals who wanted to travel or to immigrate to it. Optimism needs no border control. It was only when a pessimistic eschatology was accepted in the churches, and a pessimistic ideology followed suit in the society and in politics, that a call for closed borders could be accepted as legitimate and supported by the population. In one of his lectures, R.J. Rushdoony also mentions the willingness of the Puritans and the Pilgrims in the colonies in New England to open their communities for outsiders, even criminals. Their optimism and faith in the power of Redemption to change people and societies gave them assurance that no danger of outsiders can be greater than the benefits that would flow from accepting and converting the newcomers. Reformed Netherlands in the 16th and the 17th century had the same optimism and the same open borders for refugees from war-torn Germany, France, and Spain; in fact, during the 17th century, more than one-third of the population of the Netherlands was foreign-born.
The church followed the same policy of openness throughout the centuries. When we today, in our populated world, have a baptism service for 30 people, we think it is a big event. Baptisms for hundreds and even thousands of people were a normal thing in the age of early missions in Europe. From our modern perspective this sounds strange: How did they know every person, and how did they know he was a real convert? The truth is, they didn’t. They didn’t need to know. From the perspective of those early missionaries, people were not baptized into a local church—such a concept would mean absolutely nothing to the early church. These people were baptized into Jesus Christ, and thus into His universal Church. And through the universal Church, they were baptized into Christendom, that is, a comprehensive civilization that included everyone, including the false converts, and even the unbelievers. Yes, many of these baptized people would know nothing of their new faith, and not all of them would be attending church. But the optimism of the early church told those early missionaries that no matter what happened after baptism, things were going to get better, and the society and the individuals in it would be growing in the faith, with or without churches or teachers. Yes, they worked to establish centers of learning and churches. But the Church was greater than the local congregations, and included all those who were baptized; and the Kingdom was even greater than the Church. So the churches kept their doors opened, and acknowledged as members of the Church all those who believed and professed Christ. For many centuries, a significant share of all Christians in the world were not under the direct “care” of ecclesiastical ministers. A growing civilization needs no encapsulation.
It was only the cults who kept their ranks closed, and demanded strict rules for church membership and an exorbitant focus on submission to human authorities. The reason, again, was eschatological. Unlike the historic Church, cults and heresies never understood themselves to be bearers of a civilization the way the Church understood itself to be the bearer of Christendom. A cult is always busy separating itself from the world, it always views that separation from the world as so radical as to make it its defining characteristic. Cults and heresies, by denying one or another tenet of trinitarianism, are by default dualistic. And a dualistic religion is by default pessimistic about history and the world, because it doesn’t have presuppositional foundation to apply spiritual principles to the material world. Cults and heresies do not see the world as conquerable; and therefore they do not expect to conquer it. They expect to remain small ghettos of the “true faith” against a world of growing darkness. Thus, building walls around those ghettos is mandatory. They need to clearly separate the insiders from the outsiders, through a specific “covenant” of belonging, not just to a faith but also to a specific visible body.
In his book, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace,7 the Mennonite scholar John Paul Lederach offers an extensive praise of pessimism as an attitude to life. In it, he relates pessimism to localism and insulation, to what he calls “proxemics,” that is, “the study of the actual physical space that people view as necessary to set between themselves and others in order to feel comfortable.” Pessimism makes people build walls around their communities and insulate themselves in small localities because the only positive change they can possibly perceive is local, limited to what their direct sense can perceive, in Lederach’s words, to “what can be felt and touched [emphasis in the original].” Pessimism thus makes people lose their global perspective, for any global perspective is by default impossible to influence; only local processes and changes can be influenced, and therefore only local processes and changes are worth paying attention to. And following from it, only people who make the local community the focus of their work and service are true public servants. A pessimist doesn’t perceive any global processes; he can’t even allow for their existence. When confronted with the reality of the universal church in the Confessions, he ignores the Confessions (even while he claims he subscribes to them) and asks his pessimistic question, “When is the last time you saw the universal church?” When shown the work and the service of men to the universal Church, he wants to see what they have done for some obscure small community—even if that obscure small community has never left any legacy of service to the universal Church. When given the facts about the historical growth of Christianity, his reply is always local: “Where can you see, with your own eyes, such growth?” A pessimist is always local. And therefore a pessimist always builds walls of separation between his community and the world. He doesn’t expect his community to conquer the world; so the battle is how to prevent the world from conquering his community, how to separate between the “faithful” and the “outsiders.” This is where “local church membership” comes in as a convenient legal and psychological technique of building walls of separation against the world. All the faithful must come within these walls and remain there. Anyone who leaves the enclosure is leaving the faith.
The Bible, to the contrary, teaches optimism in history. And with its optimism, it teaches a universal view which breaks all walls and encourages the faithful to break out of the mold and go out in the world. This teaching is everywhere in Scripture; in fact, one of the Old Testament promises about the New Covenant is that “Jerusalem will be inhabited without walls because of the multitude of men and cattle within it” (Zech. 2:4). The protection will be left to God, not to human devices, be they walls or “memberships.” In the Bible, when the Kingdom of God operates, veils are torn, gates are broken and opened, and worship is freed from geographical and institutional constraints (John 4:21). Global events being subject to God, the Biblical optimist sees no reason to separate himself from them. The universal Church is more real to him than the supposed “local community,” and wherever he joins a local group, it is only in the context of the greater purpose and work of the universal Church. He works locally but he is not limited to local “membership.” The very concept of “local church membership” means nothing to him. The local church is not an independent covenantal agent to start with; it can’t make separate covenants for any kind of “membership.” Given that the Biblical optimist expects victory in every area of life, he doesn’t limit nor focus his gifts on one single area, local ecclesiastics. Such focus is a waste of resources to him, because the Kingdom is much larger than the Church, and certainly much larger than a local group which may or may not exist within a few years. His operational motto is, “Local churches come and go, the Kingdom remains forever.” Or, to put it in the words of the Westminster Confession,
V. The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a Church on earth to worship God according to His will. (WCF 25:5)
Thus, the Biblical optimist knows, reasonably deducted from his Bible and from the Confessions, his involvement with a local congregation must be reasonably limited. Many factors can influence such limitation of involvement: the significance of that local congregation in the larger picture of the Kingdom of God, the faithfulness of the people and the leadership of that local congregation to the Word of God, the nature and scope of his own gifts and calling, the realistic expectations for the future of that local gathering, etc. Long-term relational and economic investment, for example, in the church in Jerusalem before AD 70 would have been unreasonable, as would be the same in a local church in some mining town of declining population and no future. Also, for someone of the gifts and calling of Apostle Paul, undue commitment of time and effort and resources to some local gathering of Christians as over against commitment to the broader church community would be a gigantic waste of resources; imagine Paul in our modern “local churches” today, forced to change diapers to prove he is a “true” Christian. For the pessimist, such consideration of the future and accounting of resources are useless; no effort of man has any meaning in the greater picture, because there is no greater picture to start with. An optimist first sees the greater picture; he first sees the future, not the current static conditions; and therefore his strategy is from the greater to the smaller, not the other way around.
Thus, it is not a surprise that mandatory “local church membership” became a dominant principle in the church in the 20th century, when pessimistic eschatologies like premillennialism and amillennialism made the Church abandon its commitment to building the Kingdom of Christ, and replaced it with withdrawal from the world. But Reformed Baptists lost that commitment as early as 1689. During the English Commonwealth, they were still carried along in the optimism of all the other Reformed groups. After the Restoration, Reformed Baptists never again thought of themselves as conquerors who would create a new world order for Christ, or would mandate the moral, ideological, and social terms of the society. Even for the most optimistic of them, “victory” was not in changing history, but only in remaining faithful in their isolated communities against a hostile and powerful world. Even today, in any Baptist church, the history of the Baptists is told in terms of survival against all odds, not in terms of conquest against all odds. Even where Baptists were able to achieve numerical superiority against all the other faiths—as in the American South in the 20th century—they still did not create a dominant Christian culture.
It was puzzling to many of us in 2012 how and why Southern Baptists failed to support the only candidate who was professedly Baptist, had his profession of faith on the home page of his campaign website, and specifically related his political platform to the Bible: Ron Paul. They instead were trying to decide between one Roman Catholic and another Roman Catholic, both of whom supported, at one time or another Planned Parenthood. It is just as puzzling today how and why a judge in Alabama can be removed from his position for opposing abortion by a panel of judges, most of whom are “members in good standing” of Baptist churches, and their churches do nothing about it. The answer is that these churches have that same pessimistic eschatology we talked about above, and therefore they can not see anything in the world outside their small ghettos. It is that same pessimism that has brought about the concept of “local church membership”: Whatever a man does outside the walls of the ghetto has no consequence at all. All that matters is what he does inside the ghetto. Because the world outside the ghetto is unconquerable anyway, and there is no hope of building a Christian civilization or culture.
And when the same ghetto eschatology was adopted by the other branches of the Reformed family, the same concept of mandatory “local church membership” was adopted as well. Where the eschatology of the church is optimistic, there are no walls of self-encapsulation.8
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- As I argue in my article on “Modern Presbyterianism and the Destruction of the Principle of Plurality of Elders,” there is a difference between authority and legal power, and modern churches have replaced authority with power. [↩]
- John Calvin, Come Out From Among Them: The Anti-Nicodemite Writings of John Calvin (Protestant Heritage Press, 2001), pp. 93, 94, emphasis added. [↩]
- To avoid confusion with the modern use of the words, under the terms “Church-state” and “State-church,” Rutherford doesn’t mean a “government church,” but the “state of being in-churched,” that is, the individual’s position (state) of being a member of the church. [↩]
- A.A. Hodge, A Short History of Creeds and Confessions. [↩]
- The First Book of Discipline (1560). This book has been largely the work of John Knox, “the Prophet and Apostle” of the Scottish nation, according to James Melville. [↩]
- For the sake of brevity, I have only taken for analysis the main Reformed Baptist Confessions here. There were several General (that is, Arminian) Baptist Confessions, in 1611, 1655, etc., and there was a Statement of Orthodoxy (Reformed) in 1678, which was a precursor to the 1689 Confession. Very little in their content is relevant to this study, so I decided to leave them out, and keep them for future reference. [↩]
- Oxford University Press, 2005, Chapter 6, “On the Gift of Pessimism.” [↩]
- The same eschatological principle is at work in the conflict between the Christian culture of nuclear families and the pagan clan cultures: “Christian Culture vs. Clan Culture.” [↩]