Church Membership: A Treatise (3)

In this article, I will discuss the Reformational backgrounds of local church membership. Not only will I cover language from both John Calvin and Francis Turretin, but I will also jump forward to men like Charles Hodge. Bojidar Marinov has openly denied that local church membership is mandated in Scripture, and he has also denied that major Reformation thought has endorsed such an idea. In the previous article, we examined the former and, I believe, Marinov was found to be incorrect concerning what Scripture does (or does not) say about local church membership. In this article, I will analyze Marinov’s latter contention, that major Reformational thought neglected a favorable position on biblically mandated local church membership.


John Calvin

Calvin, in many respects, picked up where Martin Luther left off, albeit in a different area of Europe. He was a contemporary of John Knox, who was known for the development of Scottish Presbyterianism. That said, Calvin would have been deeply influenced by Knox’s thought. This is important because it brings up the very important fact that this debate on local church membership is not original to Baptist ecclesiology. Rather, Reformed Presbyterian and Baptist theology shares the same ecclesial conviction: Scripture necessarily requires local church membership. Calvin wrote:

In this way [the church universal] comprehends single churches, which exist in different towns and villages according to the wants of human society, so that each of them justly obtains the name and authority of the church; and also comprehends single individuals, who by a religious profession are accounted to belong to such churches, although they are in fact aliens from the church, but have not been cut off by a public decision (Institutes, IV.I.IX).

This paragraph is one of the richest expressions of Calvin’s local church ecclesiology, at least in principle. Calvin believed that the universal church was comprised of single local “churches,” each of which were properly said to be a church, possessing the name and authority thereof. Thus, Marinov’s claim, that the idea of local church authority was alien to the thought of the Reformers, is simply not true. Marinov writes:

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.”

There are a few really important points raised here. Remember, first, that Calvin believed single churches arose according to the “wants of society.” The Genevan Reformer didn’t believe the unique ecclesial structure of Geneva was the universal norm for all the churches around the world (cf. Institutes, Book IVb on the application of God’s Moral law to society). Moreover, Calvin recognizes that each local church obtains the name and authority identical of that which was given to the church universal by Christ Himself (Matt. 16:19). Calvin also describes these local churches as comprehending individual people. Another thing Marinov fails to recognize is that Calvin distinguished between the is and the ought. The church may operate differently, to an extent, in other parts of the world. In Geneva, political decisions were circumvented through the church, but Calvin did not believe that this would or should be the case at all times and in all places. The Reformer writes:

For his eternal and immutable will is, that we are all to worship him and mutually love one another… But if it is true that each nation has been left at liberty to enact the laws which it judges to be beneficial, still these are always to be tested by the rule of charity, so that while they vary in form, they must proceed on the same principle… Hence [the moral law] ought to be the aim, the rule, and the end of all laws (Institutes, IV.XX.V-VI).

It can be seen, then, that Calvin recognizes, in both ecclesial and civil government, certain aspects may be left to liberty depending upon the contextual situation. I believe that Marinov really fails to give Calvin his due when presenting his views on both ecclesiology and civil government. But this is to be expected if love for a certain position exceeds one’s love for the truth.

Francis Turretin

Turretin’s line of thought doesn’t appear to depart much, if at all, from that of Calvin’s. In fact, Turretin focuses on other, perhaps more specific, areas of ecclesiology; and so when Turretin and Calvin are synthesized, a neat little body of ecclesiology arises. Turretin writes, at length, about the administration of church discipline, primarily recognized in excommunication. He writes:

The third part of ecclesiastical power has regard to the exercise of discipline, which consists in the spiritual power by which public and scandalous sinners… are kept away from the signs of divine grace by the ministers according to the order and authority of the presbytery. And if they persevere in the same contumacy, are at length declared before the whole church in the name of the Lord to be excluded from the communion of the church, until they shall become reconciled to God and the church by true and serious repentance (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 293).

Thus, Turretin recognizes the need for discipline at the local level. By “according to the order and authority of the presbytery” refers to the derivative of the pastor’s authority. He is not to be read as saying that local church elders need bring the entire presbytery against a single member for confrontation. Rather, Turretin is saying that the Presbytery backs the decision of the elders at that particular church. Nevertheless, this continues to defeat Marinov’s fantasy that Reformers didn’t believe in mandated local church membership, at least in some sense.

First, it’s impossible to deny that the ministers Turretin mentions are ministers of a particular congregation. Not only this, but the church ministers, or elders, of a local congregation are those who directly confront the wayward member. It is rather difficult for a local pastor to bring a charge against a person without any sort of prior commitment between that pastor(s) and that troubled member. Turretin also writes:

Although to pastors a lawmaking power so called does not belong, or the right to enact laws obliging the conscience, still they have the power to make ecclesiastical canons and constitutions for the preservation of good order and decorum which although they are for this reason to be observed, still do not bind beyond the case of scandal and contempt (Elenctic, 290).

Turretin believed that elders had the power, derived from the presbytery, to enact canons and/or constitutions. These constitutions were not like laws added to the Word of God, but were a matter of prudence for the sake of order within the church. Today, a local church may subscribe to a Confession of Faith, with all its particulars, while at the same time allowing non-subscriptional (to an extent) believers to join the church. He continues:

This is our opinion concerning ecclesiastical discipline and its exercise in excommunication which prevails in most of the Reformed and evangelical churches and is profitably exercised (p. 295).

Like Calvin, Turretin mentions particular churches and even makes a distinction between Reformed and evangelical bodies. Turretin, therefore, must have thought that this disciplinary structure ought to be exercised in each individual church, and that is impossible without at least some form of church membership.

Charles Hodge

In one of Marinov’s articles, the words of Charles Hodge are grossly misused. He quotes Hodge as saying:

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 (Systematic Theology, vol. I, pp. 134-139).

What’s interesting about Marinov’s use of Hodge, in this instance, is that he’s completely pulling the man’s words out of context. First, this comes from the prolegomena of Hodge’s monumental three-volume systematic theology, the first volume of which I’ve been immersed in for the last couple months. In this portion of his prolegomena, he’s responding directly to Roman Catholicism. The context of Hodge’s words is the church of Rome and their obvious misuse of ecclesial power. He’s not saying anything about the evangelical understanding of local church membership. Second, Charles Hodge wrote entire book dedicated to Presbyterian church polity. It’s titled, The Church and It’s Polity. Marinov would do well to read that volume. In it, Hodge says things like:

[The session] has no need therefore to go to the General Assembly to ask for power to do what from its very nature as Church court it has the right to do. A session must have the right to say who are church members of the church over which it presides (p. 190).

Hodge, therefore, believes that a local church session has the right, in Christ, to say who are members and who are not members. This power, Hodge notes, is not derived from the presbytery, but from within itself. It’s basic constitution has within it this right to adjudicate on these issues—as it has been instituted by Christ Himself.

Conclusion

In this article, it can now be seen that the earlier Reformers, Calvin and Turretin, held to a form of local church membership as something that is necessarily assumed within the very concept of a universal church made up of smaller churches. Charles Hodge, likewise, assumes this concept of local church membership when he talks about the rights of the session and their responsibility to right judgment insofar of who are and who are not church members.

In these last three articles, it can be seen that Marinov’s claims, that: (1) mandated local church membership isn’t Scriptural, and (2) mandated local church membership is not a part of mainstream, historical Reformational thought, have been undermined by the actual data provided throughout.

In the next article, I will tackle his claims that the Westminster Confession of Faith supports his view of the church and her people.