Results tagged “church membership” from Reformation21 Blog

Before You Go...


I have served the same small congregation for over seven years now. I am not one of those who would consider myself to have had phenomenal success in the ministry--by most metrics. We did not grow exponentially and send out a dozen missionaries and pastors. We have grown. We have shrunk. We have grown again.

I have had discontent individuals complain over the fact that our church did not have enough elderly members, not enough programs, an unpaved parking lot, that I did not dress nicely enough, that my wife looks too young, there are too many kids, that there are not enough kids, that we sing too many old hymns, that we do not sing enough old hymns, and so on. There seems to be no shortage of illegitimate reasons why people leave a local church in which they are truly loved, pastored, and held up in prayer.

When members leave for unbiblical reasons, the faithful pastor has to fight the unsanctified tendency to envy the churches around me that appear to be more successful on account of their attendance. The faithful pastor is tempted to sometimes too quickly label other pastors as "wolves," "sellouts," or "ear-itchers." The faithful pastor has to listen to all kinds of suggestions from people in the church about what they think would make the church grow with discernment and the consensus of the eldership without attempting everything or rejecting everything. The faithful pastor has to preach the gospel to himself regularly and remember that it is ultimately God who grows the church. As a dear friend and pastor once told me after a church split, "Chris, God did not call you to be successful; He called you to be faithful."

No matter the size of the church you attend, your pastor is always aware that there are bigger churches. He is assaulted and accused by the evil one, and he struggles with the balance between viewing himself as both the sinner and the child of God. He often wonders whether the church would be better off with another pastor, but loves the congregation too much to leave.

Your pastor probably will never tell you many of the things that he struggles with internally because he doesn't want to discourage you. You need to know he has thought about quitting everything and taking up a secular job. You need to know that he feels the sting of betrayal when someone leaves the church. You need to know that he weeps when the sheep bite and run away.

You need to know these things in order to know how to encourage your pastor. You cannot force people to stay, but you can keep yourself from contributing to the pastor's sorrow. These things will also make you a better servant of the Kingdom of God.

If you are a member of a church, take a good look around at the churches in your area. Talk to pastors, visit services, and focus on the major elements. Is the theology sound? Is the preaching consistent? Are they organized by scriptural principles regarding leadership, church membership, and discipline? Be critical in your search, but be expedient, and set your roots. Here are six things to keep in mind before you decide to leave a local congregation:

1. Be in the church. First, this means to actually attend services. When the doors are open, and it is possible for you to be there, be there. Secondly, it means being in the church, dedicated and emotionally attached. Are there difficult people in the church? That's a wonderful opportunity for you to treat them with the love of Christ! Are there old hymns you do not know? Wonderful! You can examine the theology of those hymns and learn while you try to sing. Are there little children that get bored and distracted during the sermon? Great! You now have tiny souls that you are reminded to pray for and you have opportunity to encourage parents as they raise their children in the faith. Examine yourself with a flood lamp and your pastor with a candle.

2. Do not be concerned with other local churches. This goes two ways. Do not be consumed with how awful some churches in your area appear, and do not be consumed with how great other churches seem to be. While not absolutely the same, there is roughly a parallel between the relationship of the church and that of marriage. Looking around and comparing your spouse to other people you know is fatal. One of the best lessons we can learn from Song of Solomon is the way in which the spouses are instant with songs of praise for the other. God put you in a particular church at this time and it will only be destructive to be "browsing." When other gospel-preaching churches are growing in your area, praise God for working in them, and return to serving the local congregation to which you have committed. Resist the urge to nurture the thought, "Would I be happier if I were there?" The grass only looks greener over there. You almost certainly cannot see the thorns.

3. Bloom where you are planted. God put you there to serve him, to grow, glorify His name, and be an ambassador for His kingdom. Ask not what your church can do for you, but what you can do for your church.

4. Do not idolize the "internet pastor." By all means, listen to the sermons of great men. Read books by gifted theologians and pastors. Find ministries that are doctrinally sound and glean from them. But remember, those men do not know you, they do not pray for you, they will not visit you when you are sick or on the brink of a divorce. Your pastor may not be as brilliant or eloquent, but a big part of it is that he is spending his time tending the flock while the theologian is reading and writing. Your pastor is aware that he is not Charles Spurgeon.

5. Do not leave lightly. After someone leaves a congregation on account of discontentment, there is a stall in the growth of the saints--especially for the pastor. Your pastor has been praying for you, preparing spiritual meals for you, and striving to serve you. Even if you leave and another person comes, he will feel the pain of your departure. Keep in mind that when a congregant leaves because of unbiblical discontentment, your pastor will be tempted to start believing that he is unfit for ministry. There is not a scriptural precedence for leaving a true church, and I am convinced that it is sin to leave for reasons other than moving, church-planting, or significant and clear biblical reasons.

6. If you do move on from a particular congregation, leave in peace. It is always a temptation for a departing person or family to try to take the best with them. This is divisiveness and sinful. Unless the church you left is a full-blown cult teaching heresy, do not poach sheep. You sin against Christ's bride by luring others away. If you are leaving for legitimate reasons, be honest with your elders about those reasons, but be tactful and brief if you must explain to others so that you do not sow seeds of discord.

I understand the appeal of reliving that church honeymoon period where everyone is nice to you and whatever work you do is thoroughly applauded. I believe Satan's most effective tactic is often to keep Christians impotent by moving them from church to church. When he does, there is perpetual delay to the work to which they once belonged. Your pastor does his best work when he is encouraged by the spiritual growth and commitment of the saints.

I pray that God presses these things upon your heart in such a way that you can best serve Him in His church. To God be the glory.

Chris Marley is the pastor of Miller Valley Baptist Church in Prescott, AZ. Chris has a M.Div. from Westminster Seminary California (from the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies).

Ecclesiastical Antinomianism

Antinomianism has certainly received its fair share of just criticism in recent years--predominantly on account of its pernicious presence in the pulpits across our land. While the doctrinal forms of Antinomianism are quite pernicious, its practical forms are sometimes even more dangerous; after all, "bad company corrupts good morals." Yet, for all the attention that theologians have given to battling Antinomianism in the realm of individual Christian belief and experience, there is a widespread form of Antinomianism that requires more attention, namely, ecclesiastical Antinomianism. 

Far too many who live within the pale of the church, have little to no respect for the authority of God in the church. Men and women leave local churches over the smallest and seemingly most insignificant of matters (e.g. the music is not what they wanted it to be, the children's ministry is not as fully developed as they would have it, the people in the church do not measure up to their particular standard of social compatibility, the pastor has a conviction about Christian liberty on one point of minutiae with which they differ, the elders will not allow them to oversee a particular ministry, etc). 

The heart of ecclesiastical Antinomianism is that people act as though the Scriptures have nothing to say about church government or about the responsibility of men, women, boys and girls in the church to submit to the authority of the pastor(s)/elders. 

The author of Hebrews, at the end of a letter in which he calls his readers to give heed to the warnings not to depart from Christ, gives the following two admonitions about those whom God has given the church to keep the members of a local congregation close to Christ: 

"Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follows" (Heb. 13:7). 

"Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you" (Heb. 13:17). 

Here are two very clear admonitions for members of local congregations to recognize that God has placed men as shepherds to rule over and to watch out for their souls. There is an important imperative for the people of God attached to the explanation about what elders are to do, namely, obey

This does not mean that congregants are blindly to obey their elders or to submit to them on any matter upon which they may speak. What it does mean is that insofar as ministers are living lives of faith in accord with God's word, and are faithfully ministering God's word, local church members are to obey and be submissive to them as they are to God--in accord with God's word. After all, they are the under-shepherds of the Great Shepherd of the sheep. 

In many cases, when individuals or families leave a church, they do not go to the pastor/elders in humility and seek to work through issues in order to come to a happy resolution. The better part make the decision to leave a local congregation and then inform the pastor(s)/elders that they have done so. Certainly, there are cases in which men and women have biblical grounds to leave a church, have spoken with the elders and have seen no progress. In those cases, it is understandable that a decision to leave a local congregation has been made apart from the advice of the elders. However, deferring to the wisdom of the elders in a biblically sound church is part of what it means to obey those who rule over you. If a church is defunct in doctrinal faithfulness or is promoting wicked practices, people should leave the church after prayer and an attempt to see if change could occur. 

To church hop every time you find something with which you are unhappy is a form of ecclesiastical Antinomianism. It shows a lack of unwillingness to submit to those whom God has put in authority over you--as well as to the brethren in that particular congregation. When men and women leave a congregation because they have rubbed shoulders with the leadership over adiaphora in worship or congregational life, they often think that they can keep their friendships with those in that congregation without inflicting any harm or incurring any loss. However, when an individual or family leaves a church because of their discontent with leadership, they are also walking away from the congregation that they may have vowed to love and support. They can no longer fulfill the "one another" imperatives of the New Testament in that particular local congregation. The body suffers as it loses one of its necessary members (Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12-14; Eph. 4). 

There is, however, another form of ecclesiastical Antinomianism--namely, that which has to do with congregants and ministers who have fled to another church or denomination while under discipline. A congregant under discipline usually gains the sympathetic ear of a pastor in a nearby congregation. Most pastors are susceptible to believe the first defense of someone who is coming with interest in joining the congregation they pastor. Here, the best course of action is for ministers in a geographical area to pick up the phone and have a conversation with the minister of the congregation from which a former member is seeking to make a change. Much spiritual damage would be avoided if we viewed the church in its Catholic (i.e. universal) nature here. 

In addition to members fleeing from discipline, the number of times that ministers have fled the discipline of the church or denomination of which they were a part is far more than one could wish. Rather than submitting to the brothers to whom they took vows to submit, certain men have acted as "fugitives of discipline" in order to move somewhere that they can continue holding office. The North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPRC)--of which the PCA, ARP, OPC, URCNA et al are a part--has an "Agreement on Transfer of Members and Congregations" from one denomination to another. NAPRC denominations agree upon the following: 

"That a 'fugitive from discipline' who no longer is a member of a church or who is no longer on the roll of a presbytery shall not be received until the former judicatory/assembly has been contacted to determine if proper restitution has been made and/or reconciliation has been attempted."1 

On rare occasions, small denominations have been established to serve as places of ecclesiastical refuge for "fugitives of discipline"--i.e. for ministers who have fled the jurisdiction of their Presbyteries or denominations. This is an ecclesiastical Antinomianism of the worst kind. Instead of submitting to the courts of the church, these men make themselves a renegade denomination. 

Church discipline is essential to the governance of the Kingdom of Christ. John Calvin, reflecting on the important role that discipline plays in the preservation of the true church, wrote: 

"Because some persons, in their hatred of discipline, recoil from its very name, let them understand this: if no society, indeed, no house which has even a small family, can be kept in proper condition without discipline, it is much more necessary in the church, whose condition should be as ordered as possible. Accordingly, as the saving doctrine of Christ is the soul of the church, so does discipline serve as its sinews, through which the members of the body hold together, each in its own place. Therefore, all who desire to remove discipline or to hinder its restoration--whether they do this deliberately or out of ignorance--are surely contributing to the ultimate dissolution of the church."2 

In a day when the court of public opinion is viewed as the highest civil and ecclesiastical court by many in our land and in our churches, we must be on guard against embracing an ecclesiastical Antinomianism. We all have the enemy of self within telling us to do what we want, when we want and in whatever way we want. When we come to Christ we surrender our imagined right to do so. We, who have died with Christ and have been raised with Him, are to live as slaves of righteousness and members of His body (Rom. 6:5-11; Eph. 5:30), submitting to His rule through His ministers in His church. May God give us grace to do so for His glory, our joy and the well-being of His church in the world. 

1. An excerpt from the PCA Handbook for Presbyteries Clerks, under the section on the "Agreement on Transfer of Members and Congregations." p. 013 

2. John Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.12.1

Nobody Wants Jesus to Offend


Hi everyone.  Thanks to Carl for inviting me, the Top Men at Ref21 for allowing a menace like me to cause my brand of mayhem here in this part of the mostly-respectable blogosphere, and to my wife for her always-generous approach to my one-line life (which looks a lot like "don't ask, don't tell.").

Let's get to it.  In Matthew 16, Jesus declares the following:

Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! [He says] For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.  And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

That's quite a declaration from Jesus.  He started with what looked like some sort of opinion poll or a survey of ideas about what it is that was happening as he was going around with these fellows teaching, and he changes the discussion from what everyone is expecting from Jesus to what God Himself is doing, and is about to do, through Jesus.

See: Jesus did not come to appeal to flesh and blood, or to fulfill the desires of our flesh and blood: Jesus came to do what God Himself wants accomplished.  Those who see it, says Jesus, will be "like a Rock" - like Simon who is the first to say it out loud.  This is why he calls him "Peter."  He's like a rock.  This is plainly a reference back to the parable in Matthew 7 -- the wise man and the foolish man, yes?  The foolish man built his house upon the sand; the wise man built his house upon the rock - and the rain came tumbling down.  Right? This is the end of the sermon on the mount -- "the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock."  So on the same rock which caused Peter to declare Jesus to be the Christ and not merely a prophet, Christ himself will build what he calls "my church" - and the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.

Consider this carefully:  Jesus wants to set up or expose the priority of things, contrasting what "everyone" thinks against what the Disciples think - and in doing so, as I said earlier, he starts with Himself.  "Who do you say that I am?"  It's clear: Peter's answer is God's answer to the question, because Peter got this answer from God.  But as soon as He gets the right answer, Jesus draws a conclusion: Since I am the Messiah, the Christ, I will build my church on the rock of faith which God has given.  The first conclusion Jesus draws about the priority of things - in this passage anyway - is that if there is a Christ, there is a Church.

Now, look: the hang-up that will appear immediately is this - some people will say, "Jesus is here speaking about the universal church, or the invisible church - the set of people from Adam to the last person saved in Revelation - and that is as broad as the scope of the cross-work of Christ."  The reason they do this is simple: they read Jesus here to be saying, "I will build a church in general, with an indeterminate number in it."

The reasons to read this in that way are simple: nobody wants Jesus to do anything which offends.  We want Jesus to be saying things which are inviting only, and not in any way intimidating or putting demands on us.  And let's face it: it is easier on us if we think the church is merely an indeterminate and disembodied set of people because that means there's nobody in particular in that church.

I think Jesus is making a different point here.

When the apostle Paul reflects on those consequences, he says this to the Corinthians (1Cor 1):

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord."

In Paul's view of it, the idea that Christ builds a church is not a theoretical idea which we can sort of modestly ponder in its ineffable wisdom.  Look: in Paul's view, he can write a letter to the church.  You can't write a letter to a theoretical group of people.  In Paul's view of it, the church is nothing if it is not a real gathering of people.  But they are not together not because of who they are.  Who they are is stupid and foolish.  They are brought together because of who Christ is - and look at this: they are not together in theory but together in fact.  As we read 1 Cor 1-3 with Paul, that's his point - it's even an insult to God to say things like, "well, I follow MacArthur, and you follow John Wesley, and you follow Paul Washer, and you follow Rick Warren."  

We must see this in Christ's declaration that he will build his church - because he's not saying that to the wind, or writing it in a manifesto as a claim for the ages to people not yet in evidence.  He's saying it to the disciples who are right here, right now, in front of him.  This fellow here here? He is Simon Peter.  He's standing on the rock of faith Jesus was talking about back on the hillside.  And what he's got is what Jesus will build his church on.

This gets buried behind that word "church."  In Greek, it is the word "ecclesia."  Most of you have heard that before, I am sure.  The word means "an assembly," or "a group called together for a common purpose."  It is not a word like "citizen" - although Christians are called "citizens" elsewhere in the Bible.  A "citizen" can be in a place but not of a place - or at the same time, they can be an American, but present in Canada or Mexico or China.  To be a "citizen" is to be a class of person without regard to your current whereabouts.  "ecclesia" is not like being a "member" - because I can be a member of a political party and never vote and never meet another soul who believes what I believe.

But an "assembly", a "church" as we translate it: it's not an association in theory.  It's an association in person, a coming together in one place.  In an "ecclesia," everyone is present.   When the Greeks used this word, they used it to describe a body of people which is called out in public for a purpose of ruling, or doing the things required for government.  I'm working this over for you only to say this: for us to misread Christ here to mean some kind of invisible body where the people are vitually linked together merely by a mark or a quality entirely misses Jesus'  point.

He's saying that as the Christ, he's going to bring a real body of believers together, starting with this fellow Simon Peter.

Christ will build his church - it is the first necessary consequence Jesus tells his Disciples.  This is interesting because Jesus had what we might call a target-rich environment in Judea and Caesarea.  The Romans occupied the land; the religious rulers were corrupt and hypocritical; the standard of living, let's face is, was, to say the least, impoverished - and Jesus was the Messiah.  He could have said anything as the first order of business:

"Flesh and Blood did not declare this to you Peter, and because of your faith I will rain my wrath down on Caesar, after whom Caesarea Phillipi is blasphemously named."

"Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah - and to show you my power as Messiah, bring the Scribes and Pharisees as my enemies before me so that they I may lay them under my footstool!"

"Upon your faith, Simon, I claim healing upon the whole land, and wealth, and prosperity, and good marriages!"

No: the first order of business was to declare that as Christ, he must have the Church.  He must have people who have faith in Him, built upon the rock which cannot be shaken.  Since that is the case, let me propose something to you when we think about this fallen world which we live in which is full of trouble: our first order of business, if we believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, ought to be to have the church, that is "that which Christ builds on the basis of real faith in him in real people like Peter."  

Results tagged “church membership” from Through the Westminster Confession

Chapter 31

i. For the better government, and further edification of the church, there ought to be such assemblies as are commonly called synods or councils; and it belongeth to the overseers and other rulers of the particular churches, by virtue of their office, and the power which Christ hath given them for edification and not for destruction, to appoint such assemblies; and to convene in them, as often as they shall judge it expedient for the good of the church.(1)

ii. It belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same: which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in his Word.

iii. All synods or councils, since the Apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both.

iv. Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate. 

Does the doctrine of the church really matter? Isn't it of far less importance than the gospel, personal piety, or mission? So what if your congregation is independent, congregationalist, presbyterian, or episcopalian? What difference does it make? Our confession is that God's Word provides answers to these questions. 

When it is faithfully lived in coherence  with the Word of God, the doctrine of the church is not some dry, arcane, or at best third-tier thing. It is a living testimony of the fruit of the Spirit, a living witness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It brings glory, honor, and delight to him, just as much as showing mercy to orphans or singing his praises does. The scripturally revealed doctrine of the church is Christ's mandate for the shape and function of the kingdom of heaven in its earthly manifestation. Chapter 31 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, building on previous chapters (cf. 25, 30), summarizes the teaching of Christ by his Word on the church, in this case focusing particularly on "synods and councils".

Synods and councils are scripturally warranted (cf. Acts 6:2-3; 11:27-30; 15:2-6, 23-25; 21:15-25) and should be called to meet together by teaching and ruling elders of local church bodies, "as often as they judge it expedient for the good of the church". The book of Acts testifies to this pattern with regular occurrences of gatherings of the apostles, ministers, and elders to deliberate on and address issues of importance for both local congregations and the broader church as a whole. Local church bodies are to be connected with others in a meaningful mutual accountability, particularly through (and including) their ministers and elders. Our confession notes that this is a part of the delegated and derivative authority, the "power"  given by Christ to the overseers of the church, "by virtue of their office".

The Confession next addresses the nature and extent of the work engaged in by synods and councils. Following the paradigm of the book of Acts, the role of synods and councils is (1) "to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience", (2) "to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his church", (3) "to receive complaints of maladministration, and authoritatively determine the same." Following Scripture's pattern, we are to maintain a high view of these actions and decisions of synods and councils when their actions and decisions are consistent with God's Word. Our confession is that "they are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in his Word." Like Paul in his challenge to an erring Peter (Galatians 2:14), in love for Christ, his church, and fellow overseers, we are called to make use of the means God has given in ordaining synods and councils in dealing with needs and problems in the life of the church.

Section three of this chapter reminds us that synods and councils do not possess infallibility. They "may err, and many have erred." Our confession reminded us in the previous section that the Word of God is the rule of life and practice; it now reaffirms this by reminding us that synods and councils "are not to be made the rule of life and practice". They are "to be used as a help in both" life and practice of the church and her members (2 Corinthians 1:24), but remain subordinate to the Word of God (1 Corinthians 2:5). 

Taking hold of these concepts does great good in promoting the prosperity of the church in peace, unity, and truth in Christ. Is there an unresolved problem in your local congregation despite all attempts to resolve it locally with the church session or consistory? Bring it by appeal to the broader and higher courts (presbytery, synod, and/or assembly) of the church, seeking resolution according to and in harmony with God's Word. Do you find that you disagree with part of the church's confession on scriptural grounds? Bring it to the higher court of the church--the presbytery. Do so prayerfully looking to God and His Word, and honoring the means the ascended Christ, the head and governor of the church, has given to address the issue. If outstanding disagreement remains and you cannot submit in good conscience before God to what you believe is an erring court, then appeal to a yet  broader and higher court--the synod or assembly. By scriptural paradigm (cf. Gal. 2:14; Acts 15), the Confession indicates that broadest and highest court of the church, in its entirety, ought to be the place of final appeal; where denominations have judiciary committees or commissions at the synod or assembly level, these committees and commissions ought to report in a manner open to review and reconsideration by, and requiring the ratification of, the entire body of the synod or council. If you believe that a synod or council of final appeal errs in its deliberation and determination, and you are convicted you cannot acquiesce or remain in fellowship, then tell them, and prayerfully determine together with them (if possible) what to do.

The final section further addresses the limitation of the scope of the work of synods and councils: "they are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth." (Luke 12:13-14; John 18:36) The responsibility of synods and councils is restricted to issues of the life of the church: controversies of faith; cases of conscience; public worship; church government; and complaints of maladministration of these. At its broadest definition this includes the ecclesiastical church as an entire body, with its courts, particular congregations, and their agencies of ministry. Synods and councils are only to make comment on "civil affairs which concern the commonwealth" in "extraordinary cases", and then by "humble petition" to the secular government. They are to provide advice and counsel to the magistrate when required or requested to do so. 

Our confession provides great wisdom as it summarizes Scripture's teaching, given by Christ to and for his church. We confess that the doctrine of the church, including her form and function of government, matters. It matters because Christ has displayed in his Word how the church is to be shaped and governed for her good and His glory. 

Dr. William VanDoodewaard is an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, and serves as Associate Professor of Church History at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.

1. This version of the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 31, is that which is held by the Presbyterian Church in America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. It is an American modification of the original chapter, rewording the role given to the civil magistrate in the calling of synods and councils in response to concerns in the late 1700's that the original version allowed for interference by the civil magistrate in the life of the church. The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church's version of the Westminster Confession of Faith retains a closer form to the original, though its revision also narrows the potential role of the civil magistrate in calling synods and councils to "extraordinary cases" in which it is "the duty of the church to comply." This is further qualified by an annotation on the relationship of church and state, noting that the church "does not accept the principle of ecclesiastical subordination to the civil authority, nor does it accept the principle of ecclesiastical authority over the State." The Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America maintains the original wording of the Westminster Confession of Faith but amends its meaning through its Declaration and Testimony, with results similar to the revisions of the PCA, OPC, and ARP. To see an explanation of the original version consult David Dickson, Truth's Victory over Error: A Commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith (Banner of Truth, 2007), 253-254.

Chapter 30.1, 2

i. The Lord Jesus, as King and Head of His Church, hath therein appointed government, in the hand of Church officers, distinct from the civil magistrate.

ii. To these officers the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed, by virtue whereof, they have power, respectively, to retain, and remit sins; to shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the Word, and censures; and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the Gospel; and by absolution from censures, as occasion shall require.

The Government of the Church

The first port of call for a chapter on church censures is the subject of church government. Thus the first paragraph of chapter thirty begins by identifying the governor himself: the Lord, whose name is Jesus. 

In his verses about the coming servant king, Isaiah wrote about one who would carry on his shoulders a government, the increase of which would know no end (Isa. 9:6-7). This governor is the king and head of his church, the one with 'all authority in heaven and on earth'. He issues the commands, as he did in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20). He is the one who appointed New Testament governors and government under himself. It should not need to be said that no mere mortal should seek for himself the title of head of the church, when the actions of our Lord, and the praise of his apostles, give this title to him alone (Eph. 1:22; 5:23; Col. 1:18).

The governors that Jesus Christ appoints under him are called 'elders' (1 Tim. 5:17; Acts 20:17-18) or 'leaders' (Heb. 13:7, 17, 24). Here they are simply called 'church officers'. They have the gift of 'governing' or 'administering' (1 Cor. 12:28). The Christian church knows them as those who 'labour among' us and 'over' us. They are the people who sometimes 'admonish' us (1 Thess. 5:12). These are the hands used by the head of the church.

Christ's government is administered by church officers, distinct from civil magistrates. Historically, the very fact of the independence of church government was resisted by both king and parliament, for leaders in the state did not want to be accountable to a leadership in the church. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that in the New Testament Christ established a government that was churchly, or ecclesiastical, over Christians, and that government was separate from the civil government. 

We know this, historically, because the Roman civil government that was over Christians was opposed to the church, its message, and its work; and biblically, because only the government of the church would do the kind of work God commends elders to do: not just ruling, but preaching and teaching, speaking to us the word of God, and 'keeping watch over' our souls (1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:7, 17). The church is not the religious arm of the state; it is an institution distinct from the state and has its own unique purpose.

The Keys of the Kingdom

The focal point of church government is the power and exercise of what Jesus called 'the keys of the kingdom of heaven'. Here the Confession is picking up language used in Matthew 16, where the keys of the Kingdom are mentioned in the context of the pre-eminence of Christ. Before all the disciples Peter confessed Jesus as 'the Christ, the Son of the living God'. Our Lord commended him, and with a word play on Peter's name (which means 'rock') he promised that 'on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it' (Matt. 16:13-18).

It is a passage that underlines the government of Christ, his power, and rule over the church. Famously it is also the passage where Jesus goes on to declare to his disciples that they would be given 'the keys of the kingdom of heaven': 'whatever you bind on earth', Jesus said, 'will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven' (Matt. 16:19). Jesus gave these keys in Matthew 16 to his disciples, and in them to the governors or officers who rule his church. Church officers are given the task of binding and loosing, or retaining and remitting sins - making judgements as to whether sinners are impenitent, unrepentant, and bound by Satan, or penitent, repentant, and freed for Christ. 

The same truth was taught again by our Lord, recorded only two chapters distant, in Matthew 18. There Jesus was again speaking with his disciples, this time giving instruction about church discipline. At the end of the discussion Jesus announced, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven' (Matt. 18:17-18). On yet another occasion, this one recorded in John 20:23, Jesus told his disciples, 'If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld' (John 20:23). 

The message of these three passages is astonishing. It seems to be the plain point of these pronouncements in Matthew 16, 18, and John 20 that it is the responsibility of church officers to judge by the word of God, as far as is possible, who is going to heaven and who is not. Church governors have power from Christ, 'respectively, to retain, and remit sins'. The elders of the church guide the body of Christ in determining if someone is to be treated as a brother, as an erring brother, or as what Jesus called a Gentile or a tax collector. The elders 'shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the Word, and censures; and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the Gospel'. Sometimes, 'as occasion shall require', we leaders must preach stern words, and exercise real discipline. Sometimes, 'as occasion shall require', we must open wide the kingdom by preaching the gospel and offering release from correction. Officers offer what the Westminster assembly calls 'absolution from censures', and what the Apostle Paul calls a turning 'to forgive and comfort' (2 Cor. 2:7; cf., vv. 6-8). Even the most godly church officers are by no means perfect, as we all know, but they are appointed as gate-keepers who, 'as occasion shall require', sometimes shut the kingdom on Christ's behalf. 

They do this by the Word, and by censures. The preaching of the Word alone lets some people know where they stand before God. The reading and preaching of the word is the most commonly applied tool of discipline, for it convicts us of sin and drives us to repentance. Usually this is enough for us. Sometimes we need the censures of the church to have matter further clarified for us. Practically, this means that when the officers of a church examine a person for membership in the church, they are making an awesome decision. They need to decide if they will give someone the assurance that the leaders of the church think that all is well with their soul - or not. And when your elders travel a long way down the road of church discipline, they are forced to ask hard questions: does this person's life and testimony so contradict the Word of God that they must be put outside of the church, and a present hope of heaven? 

This should carry real significance for the members of the church. If you are a member in good standing in the church of Christ, this is material for encouragement. Those whom Christ appointed to look after your eternal welfare think there is sufficient reason to think that you are on the narrow road of the kingdom. And if, on the other hand, the eldership of a church is admonishing a member, or suspending him, disciplining him, or excommunicates him, that member should consider these things with the utmost gravity, and once the matter is made public, every other member must be in prayer for that person incessantly.

Dr. Chad B. Van Dixhoorn is Professor of Church History at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. and associate pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. This article is taken from his forthcoming commentary on the Confession, published by the Banner of Truth Trust.

Chapter 25.1

i. The catholic or universal Church which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of Him that fills all in all.

After Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Lord makes this remarkable pronouncement: "I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18). The Greek word translated "church" means a number of persons called together in a public assembly (Acts 19:32, 39, 41). When the Jews translated the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek, this word was used for the congregation of Israel at Mt. Sinai (Deut. 4:10; 9:10), and later assemblies, especially for worship (2 Chron. 6:3, 12, 13; Ps. 22:22, 25; Joel 2:16). 

Christ seized this word with a rich history in Israel and claimed it as His own: My church. He is the Lord of the congregation of God's worshipers, the King of the true Israel (Phil. 3:3). Christ builds the church by His power, and He promises that Satan will never overthrow it.

This church transcends each local congregation of worshipers. A local church can die spiritually (Rev. 3:1). Christ Himself may remove its light (Rev. 2:5). There are many sad sights of empty buildings where a church once met, or where formerly faithful churches have fallen into heresy. But Christ said that His church cannot fail.

Therefore Christ spoke of what the Westminster Confession calls "the catholic or universal church," both the church worldwide and the church in heaven and on earth. The word "catholic" comes from a Greek word meaning universal or international, and does not necessarily or exclusively refer to Roman Catholicism. Some of the church's members are already in glory (the church triumphant). Some still fight the good fight of the faith on earth (the church militant). But all are one people called out of the world into holy union with Christ (1 Cor. 1:2). When we meet in local congregations, we join with saints in heaven and throughout the earth to worship God through Christ as one great assembly (Heb. 12:22-24). The Confession has a number of things to say about the universal church.

First, this church is invisible. That does not mean its members are ghosts that meet in phantom buildings. It means that the universal church is defined in ways that are spiritually discerned and not physically seen. The church is not a building, but a people who worship in spirit and truth, a temple built with living, personal stones (John 4:20-24; 1 Peter 2:5). It is not a particular denomination and cannot be defined by allegiance to any mere man such as the Pope of Rome (1 Cor. 1:12-13). At certain times and places, the true church may exist as hidden gatherings of believers fiercely persecuted by leaders of the visible church (Rev. 13:11-15). 

We cannot produce a complete list of the church's members, for some whom we thought to be saved fall away and show that they never really belonged (1 John 2:19). Not everyone who confesses Jesus as Lord is known to Him or saved by Him (Matt. 7:21-23). The church's membership is not defined by participation in baptism and the Lord's Supper, for some who receive the sacraments are not in Christ (Acts 8:13, 18-24; 1 Cor. 10:1-8), and some true believers do not have the opportunity to receive them (Luke 23:39-43). 

The true church is defined by invisible factors. The qualifications for membership are the secret election of God and the internal work of the Holy Spirit to produce faith. We can see evidence of these divine operations in the fruit of the Spirit, but the true identity of the church is invisible. Yet it is visible or known to God: "The Lord knoweth them that are his" (2 Tim. 2:19).

Second, the church consists of the elect. God elected or chose individuals in order to save them from their sins, adopt them as His children and heirs, and make them holy by union with Christ (Eph. 1:4). The church is "a chosen generation," joined to Christ who is Himself "chosen of God, and precious" (1 Peter 2:4, 9). The Bible says, "Christ died for the church" (Eph. 5:25), that is, He decreed to redeem the elect long before any of them were born. Their names were "written in the book of life from the foundation of the world," and when they believe in the Lamb they overcome the world because by God's grace they are "called, and chosen, and faithful" (Rev. 17:8, 14).

Third, the church is in union with Christ as the bride or spouse of the Lord. The church was promised to Christ in God's eternal counsels (2 Tim. 1:9), and is betrothed to Christ by the Spirit in effectual calling (1 Cor. 1:9; 6:17). As Christ's spouse, the church is the object of Christ's redeeming love and His nourishing and cherishing affection (Eph. 5:25, 28-29). 

Fourth, the members of the church are joined to Christ in a living, organic, and personal union, knit to Him as closely as the members or parts of a man's body (Eph. 5:30-31). Since Christ is the church's head, he rules over it as Lord and the true members of the church submit to His Word as it washes them clean (Eph. 5:23, 24, 26). 

This unspeakable privilege of union with Christ makes the church the recipient of the fullness of Christ's graces, "his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all" (Eph. 1:23). There is no station in life higher or more privileged than to be a member of the true church!

Dr. Joel Beeke is the President and Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and pastor of Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan.