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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Is Church Membership for Believers Alone ?

This, in my opinion,  may well be   one of the most crucial issues  facing  the church  of our times. 
Should one  keep the  church doors  wide open for all and sundry, irrespective of  having a credible profession of faith,  or does one  restrict  membership  of the church  to  those  who are able  to  give a credible profession of faith  before the elders and the church?

The  danger  of admitting unconverted people  into  membership  ought to be   evident. When  sheep are replaced by goats, then  it is clear that  the spiritual temperature of the church will be lowered. Goats  will  rule  the flock, and they will rule the flock  not according  to the  Word  of the Great Shepherd, but according to their carnal nature  and desires.They will  soon replace  the  Word and  the authority of the Great Shepherd with their own  wisdom. 

This is exactly what  has happened in many   former evangelical churches  as  and when they  compromised the standard of entrance into the membership of the church.     

A Historical Example

Recently I acquired   the works  of  Jonathan Edwards  and I am  finding this  to be a fascinating  read. The  introductory section includes the Memoirs of Jonathan Edwards [3] in which  his own  experience in his church at Northampton, New England  is described. 
On the 22nd of June  1750  Jonathan Edwards   preached his farewell sermon to   his congregation  in Northampton, New England. This was  not a farewell  sermon  which he  had preached  upon leaving the congregation  because he had received a calling  to another church.  No! This  sermon was preached because the church had  chosen to dismiss  their pastor!  The reason  why  this happened  was that pastor and people ultimately differed  concerning the qualifications  for church membership.

It all started  in  1744 when he was informed that  some young  people who were members of  the church  had “licentious books in their possession which they employed to promote obscene conversation  among the young people  at home“ [4].  Edwards was rightly concerned about this since these young people, being members of the church  were corrupting  others. So,  after preaching a sermon [5]to this effect, a  committee of inquiry  was appointed. The  inquiry  became guilty of procedural error[6] and thus members  of the church at Northampton whose young people  had been  subjected to this inquiry  began to oppose  Edwards and the inquiry.   Edward’s biographer writes :

“This was the occasion   of weakening Mr. Edwards’ hands in the work of the ministry, especially among the young people, with whom, by this means, he greatly lost his influence. It seemed in a great measure  to put an end to his usefulness at Northampton, and doubtless laid a foundation for his removal …” [7]

There  was however  another difficulty  of a far more serious nature. The church  of Northampton, like many  other early churches  was  formed  on the basis of a ‘strict communion’, that is,  only those that had a credible testimony of conversion  would be admitted to the communion table, and only after  due examination  by the pastor and elders.   Rev. Stoddard[8], Jonathan Edwards’  grandfather  and his  predecessor   in  the church at Northampton  however  made a change  to  this  ruling in  1704[9] and in this  he caused a  serious problem for his  successor.  
Stoddard  introduced the notion that,  

“unconverted persons … had a right  in the sight of God… to the sacraments of the Lord’s supper;… it was their duty  to come to that ordinance, though they knew they had  no true goodness or evangelical holiness. He maintained that that  visible Christianity  does not consist in a profession and he encouraged  unbelievers to participate in communion  on the principle  that they regard the sacrament  as a converting  ordinance, and partake of it  with the hope of obtaining conversion.”[10]

Although Solomon Stoddard  had faced initial opposition in  departing from this old rule,  yet  due  to his great influence (he had been their pastor for 32 years by then), his  view  spread and,  by and by, took hold  of  ministers and people  in the  county and other parts of New  England.  When Jonathan Edwards  joined  the pastorate at  Northampton he had some initial  hesitation over this matter, but did not pay  sufficient attention to it until he began to study the Scriptures,  coming to the conclusion that  his grandfather’s position on this matter was wrong .

"He was  fully convinced that to be a visible Christian, was to put on the visibility or appearance of a real Christian … and as to the ordinance of the Lord’s supper  was  instituted for none but visible professing Christians, that  none but those who are real Christians have a right, in the sight of God, to come to that ordinance… that none  ought to be admitted who do not make a  profession of real Christianity…” [11]

When  Edward’s position had become known in the town there was a great outcry against him  and  calls were made to have him dismissed. When he wanted to  defend  his  cause by preaching upon the  subject  he was  opposed  by the  ‘standing committee’[12]. He then proposed to put his argument into writing[13], but in the end it was  read by a very few, and ultimately  Edwards was dismissed  from his pastoral charge.

Observations  and Conclusion

When Jonathan  Edwards had called the young people  to account in 1744 the seeds of  Christian nominalism  had long been sown,  as the church under Stoddard’s long  pastorate had permitted the unconverted   to participate in the full privileges of church membership. It is not easy to undo spiritual knots, once they have been tied. Many  a good pastor has lost his pastorate  due to resisting the  unbiblical traditions of their  predecessors.  We saw that Jonathan Edwards did not survive  this challenge, though we believe he was right  in every way to  ensure that the church be  considered  as a body of  true believers.

I  and our congregation  continue to stand on the basis and foundation of our  biblical confession of faith in this regard .


Our 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith [1] states:

26.2 All people throughout the world who profess the faith of the Gospel and render obedience to God by Christ according to the Gospel, and who do not destroy their own profession by any fundamental errors, or by unholy behaviour, are and may be called visible saints.1 All local2 congregations ought to be constituted of such people.3
(1) 1Co 1:2, Act 11:26 (2) Original: particular (3) Rom 1:7, Eph 1:20-22

And

26.6 The members of these churches are `saints'1 by calling and they visibly demonstrate and give evidence of their obedience to the call of Christ by their profession and walk.2 They willingly consent to walk together according to Christ's instructions, giving themselves to the Lord and to one another by the will of God, affirming their subjection to the directives of the Gospel.3
(1) i.e. holy ones (2) Rom 1:7, 1Co 1:2 (3) Act 2:41-42, 5:13-14, 2Co 9:13

The  Confession leaves us  in no doubt that  our Baptist Churches  ought to be constituted  on the premise  that only   the converted, regenerate or ‘born again’[2]  ought to be admitted as members of the church.


[1] THE BAPTIST CONFESSION OF FAITH OF 1689 Rewritten in modern English by Andrew Kerkham
[2] John 3:1-8
[3] These were compiled by  Sereno Dwight , a later relative of Edwards  in 1830
[4] The works of Jonathan Edwards: Vol 1 , Banner of Truth , p.  cxiv
[5]  For this purpose he preached on Hebrews 12:15,16 ( Works, p. cxiv)
[6]  Edwards appointed the time for  the committee to meet at his house and then read to the church  a list of the names of the young persons  whom he wanted  to come to his house at the same time. Some of the names read were of  the persons accused , and some of them were witnesses. Unfortunately he  did not  tell the church  who was guilty  and  who was merely called upon as a witness. This caused a  big commotion and much anger  in the town of Northhampton.
[7] Ibid, p. cxv
[8]   Rev. Stoddard  had been the minister of this church for  55  years when Jonathan  Edwards was ordained ( p. xxxvii) . He died on  the  11th February  1729 (p.xl)
[9] Ibid . p. xxxvii
[10] Ibid  p. cxv; see also pp  xxvii
[11] Ibid, pp cxv- cxvi
[12] I find it interesting that reference is made here  to a ‘ standing committee’ rather than an ‘eldership’. 
[13] It was entitled : “ An  Humble  Enquiry into the  Rules of the Word of God , concerning the Qualifications requisite to a  Complete Standing and Full Communion in the Visible Christian Church”.  

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