Is the Reformed Faith a Second Blessing?

In response to Jason Stellman’s monday post the question has arisen as to what should be required for membership in a confessional Reformed (e.g., Three Forms) or Presbyterian (Westminster Standards) congregation. The argument has been made that, in American Presbyterian churches, the tradition has been, since the 19th century, that it is not necessary for lay members to affirm the confessional standards as a condition of membership. The slogan has sometimes been used, “the doors of the church should be as wide open as the doors of the kingdom.” I doubt the wisdom of this approach.

The original British (i.e., English, Scots, Irish, and Welsh) Presbyterian approach to lay membership was no different than that of the Reformed churches on the continent. I doubt that the Old Side churches in the New World practiced two levels of membership (but I am not certain about this). I suspect that the notion that there are two levels of membership, confessional and non-confessional is of relatively recent vintage.

Whatever the historical facts as matter of theology, piety, and practice, I’m a little surprised at how blithely some American Presbyterian (and now some URC) folk accept the notion of two classes of church members: those who confess the Reformed faith and those who do not. I am thankful that, in my experience at least, few NAPARC congregations actually practice two levels of membership, that it remains more theoretical than actual. In practice, it seems to me that where the elders and ministers are committed to being confessional there is at least an unstated assumption that members will also confess the Reformed faith. Where the elders and ministers (or TEs and REs) aren’t much concerned about being confessional then the congregation also tends to have a certain unfortunate uniformity.

We should question the premise of the argument. How wide are the doors of the kingdom? What is necessary to believe in order to enter the kingdom? Well, what do Presbyterians confess? Q. 3 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism says:

Q. 3. What do the scriptures principally teach?

A. The scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.

Where, in a confessional Presbyterian church, would one find a summary of what it is that Scriptures teach “concerning God” and “what duty God requires of man?” Well, since we find the Q & A in the Shorter Catechism, presumably the same document explains what it means by “believe” and “duty.” In other words, from the very beginning of the catechism it is assumed that the catechism is a seamless document. It is not an eclectic document from which we can pick and choose. Each part of the Shorter Catechism is interwoven with the other. Faith (questions 1-38) leads to duty (questions 39-81), which leads back to doctrine (questions 82-87) and these in turn lead to piety and practice (questions 88-107).

It might be objected that it is one thing to be a “mere Christian” and another to be a “Reformed Christian.” Well, this is the question isn’t it? According to the Reformed (including Presbyterian) understanding of the faith is it possible, ordinarily, to be a “mere Christian” but not a Reformed Christian? What would be the creed of the “mere Christian?” Let’s try the Apostles’ Creed. Let’s say that Mary believes the Apostles’ Creed. Fine. What does she believe about the Apostles’ Creed when it says “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth”? What must Mary believe about God? Of course she must believe the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. What must she believe about the Holy Trinity? Is she entitled to believe anything she wants about the Trinity? May she be a modalist? May she say that God takes three different shapes but he’s really just one person? Presumably no. Why not? Because that’s heresy against the catholic faith, i.e., it contradicts the Word of God as understood and confessed by the churches. Where do we find that understanding and confession? In Presbyterian churches it is found in the Westminster Standards.

Okay, perhaps that was a trick? What about Jesus? Yes, Mary believes that Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he was raised from the dead; he ascended to heaven; is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty, whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” But what does that mean? What sort of body did Jesus have? Does he have the same sort of body in heaven that he had on earth or does he have an essentially different body? Perhaps his body was an illusion? After all lots of Christians believe that he walked through a door after his resurrection, before his ascension. Can Mary deny that Jesus’ humanity is of the same substance as ours and still join a confessional Presbyterian church?

You see how this works. We could continue through every article of the Creed and ask similar questions. Does “mere Christianity” really exist? If mere Christianity means “just the Apostles’ Creed” then the answer must be no. Okay, we’ll add the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds and the Definition of Chalcedon. Fine, but doesn’t the addition of those documents, to explain the Creed, illustrate the need for further explanation and definition? If we can expect a member of an American Presbyterian Church to believe the faith as summarized in the catholic creeds then why not the faith as summarized in the Westminster Standards? What is there in the standards about which we would say, as a matter of policy, “Oh well, we don’t expect anyone to believe that?”

What about soteriology? One of the defining doctrines of the Protestant Reformation was the doctrine of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The catholic creeds don’t articulate a particular soteriology in detail but the Shorter Catechism does:

Q. 33. What is justification?

A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.

Let’s say Mary happens to be married to Presbyterian Paul, who married Mary during a lapse from faithful attendance to the means of grace. Let’s say that Mary has a Romanist background. Let’s say that she’s generally orthodox on everything in the catholic creeds but she believes that God does not justify the wicked but rather accepts those who are intrinsically righteous by grace and cooperation with grace. May Mary join an American Presbyterian congregation while denying the Protestant Reformation? After all, she’s arguably a “mere Christian” (at least by some accounts) but she’s not Reformed. It’s not as if we don’t confess an unequivocal doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone.

The real questions here are these: what is the function of the standards? Are they intended only to norm the theology, piety, and practice of an elite few (special officers as distinct from general officers) or are they intended to norm the theology, piety, and practice of all the members of a Presbyterian congregation? The first 38 questions of the Shorter Catechism summarize what it is Christians are to believe. Which of these is accidental to the Christian faith?

Have we been making a gratuitous assumption all along, namely, that Mary is a believer? How do we know if she’s a believer? If she says, “I believe that God will accept me on the basis of grace and my cooperation with grace”? After all, we confess:

Q. 86. What is faith in Jesus Christ?

A. Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.

We’ve defined faith. We’ve defined what constitutes saving faith. If we accept Mary’s profession how have we not utterly repudiated the very thing we confess? Surely it’s not sufficient for a session to hear a profession of faith the substance of which is merely: I believe the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, his death (to what end? for whom?), his resurrection, ascension, and return. The creed also teaches a doctrine of the church and sacraments. We explain what we understand by church and sacraments in our standards. If we believe them (and we say that we do) why don’t we ask Mary to believe them as a condition of membership?

The Shorter Catechism itself defines “repentance unto life:”

Q. 87. What is repentance unto life?

A. Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.

Our definition of repentance precludes Mary’s profession of faith as adequate. When a session is hearing a profession of faith it’s hard to see how they are eligible to use a definition of faith and repentance that contradicts what they confess and to which they’ve sworn fidelity before God and the church. As far as we know, however, sincere Mary is, she lacks true faith and repentance. If she has it, it is extraordinary, i.e., it is contrary to her profession. We’re not called to judge hearts. We’re called to judge professions of faith.

This is one of the greatest weaknesses of the “as wide as the gates of heaven” argument is that it is presumes that we know the secret will of God such that we can judge the extraordinary. It assumes what is not in evidence, that the gates of heaven are wider than the doors of the local NAPARC congregation. Surely they are, but that belongs to God’s secret providence not to the session’s oversight.

By definition we can’t judge the extraordinary workings of God. If Mary is saved it is outside of our knowledge. What we know and can know is the ordained, revealed will of God (Deut 29:29). According to the ordained, revealed will of God it is necessary for Mary to believe and that Jesus’ righteousness is imputed as righteousness and his righteousness is the sole ground of justification and that faith, resting in and receiving Christ alone, is the sole instrument of justification with God.

Most confessional Presbyterians I know have rejected Pentecostalism. One of the criticisms that confessionalist types frequently make of Pentecostals is that the Pentecostal doctrine of the Second Blessing falsely divides the body into two classes: the spiritual elite who have the gifts and the mere “catholics” (to use the language of the Albigensians, who taught the same error in the middle ages). Are there really two classes of Christians in confessional Presbyterian and Reformed churches, those who are obligated actually to believe the Reformed faith and those who are not? I doubt it.

In the Reformation we declared the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer. We returned the cup to the laity. We taught our children the Scriptures and the catechism. We preached catechetical sermons in the afternoon. There were distinctions in office (general/special) and function (minister/laity) but not in the faith. We all believed and confessed the same faith. That faith was summarized in confessions and catechisms constantly in the 16th and 17th centuries. It was the intent of the Westminster Divines to unify the Christians in the British Isles around one faith. The Westminster Shorter Catechism was meant to memorized not merely memorialized. Yes, it was always understood that there would be relative degrees of understanding but the goal was that we would all know the faith from the least of us to the greatest. There was never any intention to create two classes of Christians. There was never any intent to create a circumstance in which the Reformed faith would be confessed by an elite few in the congregation.

We don’t confess two classes of believers. We don’t confess two definitions of faith and repentance. We don’t know the secret will of God. What we know of the revealed will we’ve summarized and sworn to uphold. It’s not really that difficult intellectually even if it is difficult pastorally and practically in a largely Anabaptist country.

UPDATE 24 August (St Bartholomew’s Day)

Thanks to Francis Beckwith (HT: Carl Trueman) for reminding us how C. S. Lewis actually intended for us to understand “mere Christianity” relative to the creeds, confessions, and churches:

I hope no reader will suppose that “mere” Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions-as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable.

It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at. I do not know why there is this difference, but I am sure God keeps no one waiting unless He sees that it is good for him to wait. When you do get into your room you will find that the long wait has done you some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise. But you must regard it as waiting, not as camping.

You must keep on praying for light: and, of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house. And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and paneling.

In plain language, the question should never be: “Do I like that kind of service?” but “Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of this particular door-keeper?”

When you have reached your own room, be kind to those Who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.

Several months back, Mike Horton invoked this metaphor of rooms and hallways helpfully.

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  1. The PCA church I attend does have five questions that must be answered in the affirmative before joining. There is some doctrinal content in those questions.

  2. Dr. Clark,
    But can’t we say that not all points of doctrine in a Reformed confession are of equal importance in assessing one’s salvation? Surely, one cannot rightfully claim to be a Christian if one denies the Trinity or the nature of Christ’s atonement, as you point out. However, to disagree on a matter of church government or the sacraments is not nearly as weighty, I would think. A few years back, I very strongly considered becoming a member of a very fine PCA church. I attended the membership classes and was ready for an interview. I have no doubt that I would have been gladly accepted. However, as things turned out, I felt so strongly about credo-baptism as the correct Biblical position that I believed it would be better for all concerned for me to become a member of a church with like-minded folk on this point, though this matter is not one touching salvation. I declined my interview at the PCA church and am now a member of a “Reformed Baptist” church. So, I guess I pretty much agree with your point about full-subscription, but not for your exact reasons.

    • Dave,

      Does the Shorter Catechism require a particular polity? No.

      Sacraments? You say they’re not “as important.” Well, what do we confess?

      Do we confess that they’re not “as important”?

      Yes, there is a priority of doctrines but do our priorities match those of the Shorter Catechism? The confession of faith seems to say that to deny infant baptism (a disputed interpretation to be sure) is a sin. If the sacraments are the “ordinary means” (meaning those means ordained by God for the Christian life) then aren’t they pretty important?

      The Baptists and the Lutherans think they’re pretty important, don’t they? I think we confess that they’re pretty important, don’t we?

  3. So would you excommunicate a person from your congregation if, for example, he or she came to you saying ”I do not believe the sabbath is a NT institution; it was fulfilled in Christ and it is not based in creation” and that was the only difference he or she had with the confessions/catechisms?

    Would you excommunicate someone for disagreement with the Belgic Confession article 4 when it presumes Paul wrote Hebrews?

    Would you excommunicate someone who is a reformed congregationalist who can submit to the presbyterian system?

    I presume the answers would be no. The point is that we have to have different standards for the leadership as we do with our lay pesons. It is not just for number’s sake, but it is for the spiritual vitality of those lay folk. If they are not members of a church, then they have no accountability and no access to the means of grace in the fullest sense and through preaching and teaching they will be won over.

    The sollution for baptists is not to kick them out of reformed churches but to let them join on the condition that they submit to the doctrine: and if they will not baptize their children in due time, then they will be disciplined; but for older people whose kids are already grown up, their presence is a welcome joy to the body of Christ.

    The mere christianity I would use for church membership is baptism in the trinitarian name and a credible profession of faith + required basic theology course before membership and participation in the Lord’s supper.

    We ought not seek to ignore 200 years of evangelical revivalist/piestic Christianity in the Legacy of Edwards, the Princetonians, (I will throw in the Puritans given they were very ecumenical themselves on the side!), Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones, Mc’Cheyne, Murray, etc… that stream is just as much apart of Reformed and presbyterian Churches as is the theology of Witsius, Owen, Calvin, Knox, Buctzer (sp?), Ursinus. We ought not always try to go back to the 16th and 17th century to try to be Reformed primitivists, but we ought to learn from all of Church history and be willing to change slightly where the tradition needs correction. This is the posistion of most reformed Churches globally (not just liberal) but also NAPARC ones. I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of URC churches even use organs.

  4. Can one be a member of Christ’s body and be wrong about some parts of doctrine? ‘Cause it sounds like you’re advocating that one must have absolute doctrinal purity to even be a member of the Church. So that a new Christian like Mary Magdalene or the thief on the cross could be saved and members of the invisible church, but denied membership in the visible body of Christ until they confessed the standards?

    It sounds like your position is actually creating two classes of Christians Dr. Clark. The initiated, and the uninitiated.

  5. Dr.Clark, would you not agree that without proposing an imaginary “mere Christian” or (generic, undenominated believer) one can rightly acknowledge that someone who is confessionally un-Reformed in some not-strictly-‘soteric’ article (say, the ubiquitous antipedobaptist) may nonetheless have a credible profession of the gospel?

    I think you would agree. And I do not think this detracts one wit from your point here.
    Rather, we can be even more emphatic about this: a credible profession is no second blessing.

    How can so-called Presbyterian pastors and elders be so confused as to say to those with an Arminian profession “your profession of the gospel is credible” ?! To admit them to the Supper is certainly a further aggravation, but the first grievous error was to give a false testimony about the essential truth of salvation; to lie about the gospel. This is serious stuff.

  6. Thank you for once again raising this important issue. This is not an issue that I have resolved in my own thinking, and I live in and struggle with the very presbyterian tradition that you are critiquing.

    I am presently stuck with this very practical dilemma:

    1. On the one hand, there are examples of individuals being admitted to the Church in the New Testament on the same day that they confess faith in Christ, it is fair to assume that they were not examined on, or taught, as comprehensive a system of theology as the three forms of unity. This means that we must make a distinction between officers and initial commnicant members in terms of the thoroughness with which they understand and can articulate the Christian faith. Furthermore, the longstanding tradition of requiring extensive catechism as a condition of becoming a communicant member of the Church is one that I have not been able to square with the pattern that we actually find in the NT.

    2. On the other hand, I believe that the Reformed Confessions teach Biblical Christianity. Therefore when a person refuses to embrace a point of the Confession this refusal leaves that person “delinquent in doctrine”. In the OPC our fourth membership vow states: “Do you agree to submit in the Lord to the government of this church and, in case you should be found delinquent in doctrine or life, to obey its discipline?” Once we admit members without requiring them to embrace our Confession, determining that they have received sufficient instruction on any point of the Confession that they are now culpably delinquent for not confessing it seems rather arbitrary.

    As you know, the URC has a study committee that is looking at the issue of clarifying the expectations about confessional membership. It will be interesting to see what they come up with.

  7. The issue of church membership requirements has been around for a long time. In Acts 15, the Council at Jerusalem debated what should be required of the new Gentile converts. Peter said, “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” After Peter spoke, James offered what became the official position of the Council concerning the new converts: “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.” Although I would never favor anything like two levels of membership, the Jerusalem Council descision indicates that truly sound doctrine understands that those recently born need nourishment from the milk of the word, not its meat. Similarly, many reformed churches with which I am familiar attract Christians recently acquainted with and attracted to the “reformed faith.” Surely there is room to allow them in so that they can be nourished and grown up in the faith – right along with the rest of us who have been there a bit longer.

  8. Dr. Clark,

    I do appreciate much of what you’ve said here. However, I also have some reservations and questions.

    What about Reformed (or given your preference, Particular) Baptist Becky, and Anglican Annie, and Larry the Lutheran? They don’t hold to the Three Forms of Unity (and neither do American Presbyterians btw). What do you do with them? Given your criteria, it sounds like they should be allowed to join the Church.

    I don’t ask snidely, but I am curious what you do with conservative Lutherans or Anglicans. With Catholics there may be more clarity, but the issues become more messy with other Protestant Christians.

    • Brandon,

      What is the status of the Reformed confessions?

      Are they a wish? A second blessing or do they actually summarize what God’s Word teaches?

      If I, holding the Reformed faith, asked to join a confessional Lutheran congregation (without renouncing my confession in favor of theirs) what would happen? I can tell you. A confessional Lutheran congregation won’t even allow me to the table, let alone to join.

      A confessional Baptist is bound to regard me as unbaptized. See my response to Mark Dever. Check out the thread on defining “Reformed.”

      If a Baptist regards me as unbaptized and a confessional Lutheran regards me as a “crafty” “sacramentarian” (the language of the Book of Concord) then I know where I stand with them.

      Should we admit to membership those who deny the baptism of our children or who deny the doctrine of perseverance or the ubiquity of Christ’s humanity?

      Once more: what do we confess? Is it a second blessing or is it the Christian faith?

  9. Scott,

    You ask,
    “Once more: what do we confess? Is it a second blessing or is it the Christian faith?”

    If it’s the Christian faith, then it’s only reasonable to say that all those who refuse to confess the Reformed confessions are outside the Christian faith. Is that the conclusion we should come to?

    • @Jesse,

      I think answered this in substance in my reply to David.

      Are we arrogant for claiming that our confession is the Christian faith? I don’t think so. What else are we to say? We believe that what we confess is the Christian faith. We expect officers to confess it. Is that narrow? Sure, but it’s rightly so.

      The real question is why we tolerate two classes of believers, those who confess and those who do not?

  10. The sollution for baptists is not to kick them out of reformed churches but to let them join on the condition that they submit to the doctrine: and if they will not baptize their children in due time, then they will be disciplined; but for older people whose kids are already grown up, their presence is a welcome joy to the body of Christ.

    Would the Reformers have admitted into church membership Anabaptists who just agreed to submit to their doctrine without believing it?

    The mere christianity I would use for church membership is baptism in the trinitarian name and a credible profession of faith + required basic theology course before membership and participation in the Lord’s supper

    This seems rather arbitrary.

    We ought not seek to ignore 200 years of evangelical revivalist/piestic Christianity in the Legacy of Edwards, the Princetonians, (I will throw in the Puritans given they were very ecumenical themselves on the side!), Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones, Mc’Cheyne, Murray, etc… that stream is just as much apart of Reformed and presbyterian Churches as is the theology of Witsius, Owen, Calvin, Knox, Buctzer (sp?), Ursinus.


  11. Dr. Clark

    I understand the dilemma with other churches (specifically baptists). But it is still unclear to me what you do with those Anglicans or Episcopalians… or even Presbyterians who do not subscribe to everything in the Three Forms of Unity. Can one only hold to the WCF and still gain membership in your system, or must they embrace the Three Forms of Unity?

    • Brandon,

      The URCs currently require everyone to confess “the Christian faith as taught in this congregation” (i.e., as summarized in the Three Forms of Unity). In this post I’m arguing that the modern, American Presbyterian practice is defective.

      We don’t confess a particular polity in the Westminster Standards do we? Anglicans helped to draft the Westminster Confession (were any Anglicans on the committees that wrote the catechisms? I don’t know). In this post I focused on the WSC. It doesn’t stipulate a polity. So that seems like a red herring. If someone from an Anglican/Episcopal background agrees with the standards (or at least doesn’t dissent from them) and is willing to place herself under the authority of the session et al then I don’t see a problem.

      What is a Presbyterian who denies the standards? Isn’t that an oxymoron? Isn’t that the definition of “dead orthodoxy”? Isn’t that the definition of nominalism? Wouldn’t that make one an “ex-Presbyterian”?

      From what in the WSC does a faithful Presbyterian dissent?

      If one is, shall we say, a faithless or better perhaps inconsistent Presby then I suppose a session should have to judge the nature of the dissent. The PCA does have language about “striking at the vitals of religion” relative to vow 2 for ministers/TEs so that might provide a pattern.

      I take it that you still haven’t read RRC?

  12. Dr Clark,

    You mean our great temptation is to practice greater catholicity than the Lutherans and the Baptists? Let’s hope so! The members of particular presbyterian congregations must submit to the government of that congregation – and those men have taken vows to teach the standards – as well as ‘study the peace and purity of the church’. This means that while affirming sovereign and unmerited grace in their own membership vows, including thus the solas, they are committing to being disciples – those ready to learn of Christ, his word, and his ways. I grew up Lutheran and the walls of Jerusalem there seemed at times to have no gates rather than narrow gates. Baptists who claim you and our baptized infants are unbaptized are frankly sectarian, dividing themselves from the historic Faith and Church. Should we return the favor by denying them the table and telling them they can’t join us until they agree with us on every point? Or might we be better servants by promising to teach them as they promise to learn in submission to properly constituted authorities in the congregation – and as we all know, it can take a long time to learn some lessons. Might not our ‘patient instruction’ in the end secure their greater blessing and the church’s greater testimony to grace? Its a fascinating discussion.

    • @David,

      I’m glad you raised this question. I thought the post was long enough so I dropped that paragraph. This isn’t about catholicity. Our tradition has always been truly catholic. We’ve always recognized the catholicity of the church but at the same time we’ve not offered to commune everyone and anyone nor have we offered membership to everyone.

      Catholicity is one thing, membership is another.

      On your premise why have a catechism at all? You seem to accept the premise that, yes, the Reformed faith is a thing to be desired, a second blessing, but it isn’t what we understand to be the Christian faith. But it is what we understand to be the Christian faith. If the catechism is wrong then it should be changed but if we’re going to minister in and join a Reformed/Presbyterian communion then we do so in the context of a confession and catechism. We confess the Reformed faith.

      Now, we’re happy to acknowledge that there are Christians outside the Reformed/Presbyterian churches but, as I say, that’s not the same thing as communion and membership.

      Yes, it does take time for people to grow and understand the Reformed faith. I know that quite well. I quite understand the difficulty of establishing and pastoring Reformed congregations in an increasingly hostile land. We need to get over it. We need to teach people, be patient with them, and when they can profess the faith in good conscience, admit them to membership.

      “But what if they leave?” Well, what if they do? It’s sad and disappointing. I can name the names of people whom I thought, in 1988, we’re going to join our congregation. We instructed them, visited them, nurtured them but in the end, for various reasons, they couldn’t do it. It was like losing a family member to death. It left a mark so I don’t mean to sound callous but lo and behold, all these years later, the congregation is still there and more prosperous than when I was its/her pastor (yes, there probably is a causal connection!)

  13. As one only of late (and late in life) coming to the Reformed understanding of the Christian faith, I don’t hear Dr. Clark laying down a harsh rule of ‘believe our way or the highway’. Rather I read him as making the case for a clear adherence to and communication of the Reformed faith to those who seek membership. If one is not able to accept the necessary tenets of the confession then that becomes a point of ministry, love, and shepherding to that individual by the church, specifically the leadership. The mindset is to draw one to Christ, whether unbeliever or believer. In the early church era as much as a year or more of catechism would take place before the church would even baptize an adult convert let alone admit them to the Table. A “slower” time table and mindset adopted by the Lord’s people in these matters would be of great benefit to the work of the Holy Spirit.

    I am reminded of this quote from AB Thomas Cranmer regarding this same issue, though in a different context in the midst of the then ongoing reformation in England: “And if it be a true rule of our Savior Christ to do good for evil, then let such as are not yet come to favor our religion learn to follow the doctrine of the Gospel by our example in using them friendly and charitably.” Truth and virtue are inseparable.


  14. The common usage among Reformed Christians of the term ‘lay people’ is troubling in and of itself. The priesthood of all believers may be a secretly despised doctrine among some people who self-identify as Reformed, but it’s biblical none-the-less.

  15. Scott,

    I see your point that allowing (even implicitly) two tiers of membership is troublesome theologically. I also see (as some commenters seem to miss) that you do acknowledge a catholic, orthodox “mere” Christianity apart from Reformed Christianity that we as Reformed Christians must acknowledge as legitimate Christians… however in the context of worship and sacraments it is better for all orthodox, catholic Christians to be confessionally consistent.

    However, I’d counter that confessional adherence to the degree you are suggesting is not just pastorally difficult, it’s problematic, unhelpful, and to a certain extent, impossible. Say many churches only accepted for membership (and sacraments) those able to subscribe fully to all of its creeds and confessions — and likewise, most believers only sought membership and sacraments from a church whose confessions they can fully subscribe to. Doesn’t this just blatantly encourage American consumerism when it comes to churches? Obviously if we ever get to the point where American believers choose a church for confessional compatibility instead of a church’s color scheme, musical quality, or coffee flavor we’ll have made an improvement — but, if we take what you’re arguing to its logical conclusion, nobody would consider specific ways they could serve a congregation or help advance its mission in their selection of a church… and that these considerations need to be subordinated to willingness to defend double predestination and eternal security?

    What if you moved to another city (or country) and the only spiritually viable congregations, were, in fact, confessional Lutheran, Anglican, or even “Reformed” Baptist (as Ligon Duncan found when he lived in Washington DC and attended what is now Mark Dever’s church). What if it were even… broadly evangelical? Sure, as WSC faculty you could set out to revitalize the life of an existing Reformed congregation or plant one — but it’s lunacy to have such an expectation for every Reformed believer. Practically and pastorally, there has to be some catholicity when it comes to determining confessional parameters for participation in congregational life — both from the individual believer and the local church.

  16. Dr. Clark,
    Somewhere in these discussions, I have seen the distinction between what would be required of prospective officers (full subscription) versus prospective members (assent to the standards). The latter would require of a prospective member a general agreement with the Reformed confessions, and no conscientious rejection of a particular doctrine (i.e., whether covenant infant baptism or particular redemption). Is that a correct impression, and do you consider that a helpful distinction or no?

  17. Scott,

    This is one of the greatest weaknesses of the “as wide as the gates of heaven” argument is that it is presumes that we know the secret will of God such that we can judge the extraordinary. It assumes what is not in evidence, that the gates of heaven are wider than the doors of the local NAPARC congregation. Surely they are, but that belongs to God’s secret providence not to the session’s oversight.

    I don’t want to scare you, but, I couldn’t agree more other than to state the unstated conclusion, that not only is that is one of the greatest weaknesses of that position, but it is also fatal to it.

  18. Great article and great questions, Scott!
    Another thing to be asked it: who is the church? According to our standards, e.g. Belgic Confession Art. 27-29, it is not merely officers. So, if it is the members (and officers), then how can there be a confessing church without confessing members? Another question: What is the ratio of non-confessing (for example Reformed Baptist) members you allow in any given congregation before it functions, for better or worse, as a Reformed Baptist congregation? 50%? What do you do with a “Reformed” congregation made up of more than 50% Baptists (or “Baptisty”) members who are given votes and all? And how are we to prove and defend – biblically – that officers are to believe & confess more of the Reformed faith than mere members?
    It seems all of these questions (and many more) cannot be answered on the two-classes-of-membership model.
    At the end of the day, any church that adopts a confession, but then admits members on other grounds than this very confession is a house divided against itself. It should either abandon the confession (because it does not function as a summary of THE faith) or require it as the standard for all (because it does function as a summary of THE faith for all).

  19. Would a peasant farmer living on the continent of Europe during the 16th-17th century, not having had the advantage of a university education but professing faith in Christ alone, be received into the membership of the reformed church?

    Today, are covenant infants born to members of a URCNA congregation, having been baptized, considered members of that congregation?

    • @Richard M,

      That’s why the Heidelberg Catechism was written and for whom: to peasant farmers. The first catechism Olevianus wrote was the “Farmer’s Catechism.” It was succeeded by others and finally the Heidelberg. The Reformation was, as they say, “all about” requiring illiterate laity to learn Christian basics as a condition of communion/membership.

  20. I realize these quotes from Calvin don’t directly address the issue of formal membership in a particular church, but I think they’re good food for thought on the subject here.

    “It is possible, moreover, that some fault may insinuate itself into the preaching of the doctrine, or the administration of the sacraments, which ought not to alienate us from its communion. For all the articles of true doctrine are not of the same description. Some are so necessary to be known, that they ought to be universally received as fixed and indubitable principles, as the peculiar maxims of religion ; such as, that there is one God; that Christ is God and the Son of God ; that our salvation depends on the mercy of God; and the like. There are others, which are controverted among the churches, yet without destroying the unity of the faith. For why should there be a division on this point, if one church be of opinion, that souls, at their departure from their bodies, are immediately removed to heaven ; and another church venture to determine nothing respecting their local situation, but be nevertheless firmly convinced, that they live to the Lord ; and if this diversity of sentiment on both sides be free from all fondness for contention and obstinacy of assertion ? The language of the apostle is, ” Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded; and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you.” Does not this sufficiently show, that a diversity of opinion respecting these nonessential points ought not to be a cause of discoid among Christians ? It is of importance, indeed, that we should agree in every thing; but as there is no person who is not enveloped with some cloud of ignorance, either we must allow of no church at all, or we must forgive mistakes in those things, of which persons may be ignorant, without violating the essence of religion, or incurring the loss of salvation.”

    With respect to communing with “others”, he writes:

    “Now, what kind of an age was that of Christ and his apostles ? Yet the desperate impiety of the Pharisees, and the dissolute lives every where led by the people, could not prevent them from using the same sacrifices, and assembling in the same temple with others, foe the public exercises of religion. How did this happen, but from a knowledge that the society of the wicked could not contaminate those who with pure consciences united with them in the same solemnities ? If any one pay no deference to the prophets and apostles, let him at least acquiesce in the authority of Christ. Cyprian has excellently remarked, ‘Although tares, or impure vessels, are found in the Church, yet this is not a reason why we should withdraw from it. It only behoves us to labour that we may be the wheat, and to use our utmost endeavours and exertions, that we may be vessels of gold or of silver. But to break in pieces the vessels of earth belongs to the Lord alone, to whom a rod of iron is clso given. Nor let any one arrogate to himself what is exclusively the province of the Son of God, by pretending to fan the floor, clear away the chaff, and separate all the tares by the judgment of man. This is proud obstinacy and sacrilegious presumption, originating in a corrupt frenzy.’ Let these two points, then, be considered as decided ; first, that he who voluntarily deserts the external communion of the Church where the word of God is preached, and the sacraments are administered, is without any excuse ; secondly, that the faults either of few persons or of many, form no obstacles to a due profession of our faith in the use of the ceremonies instituted by God ; because the pious conscience is not wounded by the unworthiness of any other individual, whether he be a pastor or a private person; nor are the mysteries less pure and salutary to a holy and upright man, because they are received at the same time by the impure.”

    (Institutes, 4.1.12, 19)

    • @Phil,

      I don’t think Calvin was discussing what one must profess in order to join a Genevan congregation. He was arguing with those who required more or less perfection in the visible church.

      Take a look at his catechisms. Children were required to memorize those monsters!

      He preached catechetical sermons weekly.

      No one who rejected the catechism or the confession was allowed membership in the Genevan congregations.

      Asking members to believe the WSC is not perfectionism.

  21. Phil,

    Thank you for the helpful quotes from Pastor Calvin! Calvin’s heart as one who truly cared for his sheep, especially with weak but growing faith, is always wonderfully displayed in his writings.

  22. The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

    As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?”And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. — Acts 8

    Should Philip have waited a few centuries for the Catechism?

  23. @Chris,

    Keep reading the passage. What happened to the Philip?

    Does that fact tell us anything about the nature of the passage?

    Aren’t you assuming a way of reading/applying Acts that has to be proved?

  24. You seem to be able to see two classes of membership in that you understand their are officers and those who hold no office in the church; is that distinction somehow setting up to classes of believers as you state or is that merely a way to distinguish calling and maturity in the one body? Is it that hard to see the logic applied elsewhere without attributing it to some “higher life” mantra concerning the second blessing?

    Also, you mention the catechisms of Calvin as “monsters” needing to be memorized. They weren’t always so, as I am sure you know (Old’s, “Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite” makes this plain). If the original children’s catechisms were thirty or so questions, that has to have some bearing on the discussion. I one were merely talking about thirty questions that must be affirmed that might change the tenor of the American Presbyterian practice. That said, I have met plenty of “confessional Reformed members” (and I do not doubt you have too) who by no means know the confession much less confess it fully. So if the American Presbyterian practice is defective in word, the American Reformed practice is defective in deed (maybe even “indeed!”).

    I think the American Presbyterian practice is in accordance with her own confession when it states, “This sanctification is throughout in the whole man, yet imperfect in this life: there abideth still some remnants of corruption in every part…” Our hope as ministers is to see that growth throughout their life, including their theological knowledge, not as a “second blessing” but the outworking of the one blessing of Christ and all His benefits.

    I do think the question must be answered if our infants are members of Christ church or if they only become members at their public profession. I would think that has to come into play in this discussion, seeing as you must admit they are hardly confessing members in their infancy. It seems to either make the position on children and the covenant inconsistent or the position on confessional membership inconsistent. It doesn’t seem, at least to me, that you can have it both ways. Perhaps there is a good answer to this that I have yet to hear.

    • @Jesse,

      I’m thinking of the two catechisms Calvin wrote. The latter, which was used after his return, is huge. I’ve read it many times. It dwarfs the WSC. Children were expected to memorize it.

      We baptize our children. We catechize them (or we’re supposed to do) and we admit them to the Lord’s Table.

      With adult converts the bar is no lower. They should be instructed before being admitted to the table. Baptism is initiation into the visible covenant community. The supper is covenant renewal. If a baptized member is unable to make profession then he is subject to discipline just like a covenant child.

      To admit to (communicant as distinct from baptismal) membership those who, given that they are not otherwise incapacitated, do not confess the faith implicitly marginalizes the confession. It says, “Well, officers need to have explicit faith formed by the confession but laity do not” and that necessarily marginalizes the standards. It necessarily creates two tiers. It necessarily makes the confession/catechisms a second blessing for an elite corps in the visible church.

      How can one avoid this conclusion?

  25. I should have been clearer in connecting my thoughts about “two classes” of believers. I am sure you at least have communing and non-communing members. Is a young person’s profession “a second blessing”? Doesn’t that knife cut both ways?

    • @Jesse,

      Yes, all Reformed churches have baptized members and communicant members. We’re busy catechizing those members, aren’t we? Yes!

      How is that the same thing as saying to new members: “Only officers need to confess the Reformed faith”? It’s not the same thing at all.

      Now, if our covenant children aren’t being catechized, then you have a point but shame on those congregations that refuse to catechize their children, who rob them of the riches of God’s Word!

      I did address the latter problem in my brief comment, in the post, about the wrong kind of non-confessional uniformity.

  26. @Dr. Clark,
    I am not sure I am following you regarding “the Philip”. So, he was taken away by the Holy Spirit. The Ethiopian went on his way rejoicing. What should I conclude that is relevant to the question posed in your thesis?

    I read Acts as an historical account of the early church and the practices of Her members. Should I read it otherwise? Is the witness of the early church something we should imitate or ignore? Was Philip wrong to baptize the Ethiopian so quickly? What do you conclude?

    My point in quoting Acts 8 is that perhaps the arguments you are presenting are more restrictive and limiting than the example of the early church, and the apostolic witness.

    Peter baptized Simon the Sorcerer on his profession of faith. Was Peter mistaken, or is this just an example of the tares among the wheat?

  27. Are not presbyterian ministers members of presbytery and not their local congregations? The two-teired membership is implicit in the polity, before any ratiocination of the confessions is even an issue. The elite corps, as you put it, begins with the very structure of membership.

  28. Dr. Clark,

    Thanks for your response.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think you understand my second question. As a presbyterian, I don’t have to subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity. Of course if I reject everything in the Three Forms of Unity, then I will implicitly reject things in the WCF and Catechisms.

    My question is, given your criteria it seems that in a URC congregation they would not be able to welcome presbyterians who would take exception to the Three Forms of Unity. I’m pretty certain you don’t mean this so I’m looking for clarification.

    • Brandon,

      We in the URCs are in ecclesiastical fellowship with the OPC and the PCA for example. By these relations we have recognized them as true churches (not that there aren’t other true churches) so we have a degree of obligation to them that we do not have to Lutherans or Anglicans or Baptists.

      It is not the job of the Oceanside consistory to be the consistory of the world. It’s their job to supervise the life and faith of the congregation entrusted to their care. Since the URCs have ecumenical relations with the OPC and PCA we receive them (and others) to the table. We understand that OPs and the PCA admit to membership those that we might not. It’s a fallen world. Perfect consistency would be an over-realized (Baptist) eschatology/ecclesiology. The fact hat perfect consistency isn’t possible in this life doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to be faithful to our confession.

  29. It seems either way you end up with a Second blessing, two-tier system (though I don’t approve of the language).

    You either have one that says, “we believe sanctification is all life long and are willing to work with folks who desire to join this particular church and, with full knowledge of what this church confesses, have humbly vowed to submit themselves to the officers thereof.” Scott, you might call this two-tiers in the particular visible church.

    Or you have the two-tiers and second blessing applied to the rest of Christendom. We, the Reformed, have the one true faith because the Spirit opened our eyes. There are other “Christians out there with the Spirit and presumably going to heaven” but they haven’t yet come to this understanding so they can’t come to our table…that is, until they receive the second blessing. Alas, two-tiers in the church universal.

    I, for one, think folks are more likely to receive that sort of sanctification (or second blessing as you seem want to call it) if they are under Reformed preaching and partaking of the Lord’s table since they are means of grace that feed even the weakest faith.

    Again, as our confession states, “This faith is different in degrees, weak or strong; may be often and many ways assailed and weakened, but gets the victory; growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith.”

    • @Jesse,

      Isn’t there a distinction between being in the hallway and being in the room? We’re taking about admitting to the room people who don’t share our confession. That’s different from denying them access to the hallway.

      In the catholic creeds we have a hallway, a place to talk about the faith.

      We have a similar relationship to the evangelicals. If “evangelicalism” = a village green (once again, Mike Horton’s metaphor; as distinct from Roger Olson’s inherently minimalist “big tent”) then we have a place to meet and discuss common interests and issues.

      A hallway and a village green are not “the church.” The latter is the Christ-confessing covenant community organized around God’s Word as confessed by that community. We confess the Christian faith in the Westminster Standards (as we’re discussing American Presbyterianism).

      Hallways and greens are not “them” and “us” or two tiers. They are two distinct kinds of relationships.

      In the case of church membership we’re talking about admitting to the room people who have fundamental disagreements with that which constitutes the room!

  30. People should agree on all doctrines of Scripture before they should practice church fellowship together, if someone is unsure or troubled about a specific view they should not openly disagree with the church but educate themselves until they come to a understanding. After-which if their view is contrary, they should find a congregation that they can be in fellowship. I know of a Lutheran apologist who lives nearby who drives 2 hours to a church because of disagreements with practice.

  31. Scott,

    I think you’re touching on the fundamental problem of course – membership locally and membership in the Catholic Church. I’m right with you on our catechizing being based on a belief that what we teach *is* the Christian Faith – Rome approaches their Catechism the same way; indeed, as you note in your book Recovering the Reformed Confession, if the Confession/Catechism is incorrect, change it, renew it, etc., but lets not have this menu approach to the thing. So IF we catechize at all we are responsible to make sure as best as God gives us grace to understand that what we teach is in conformity with his word and rightly summarizes the matters at hand. The question is *where* the mark is with regard to sufficient catechizing prior to local membership (at least in terms of adults), and whether or not – as in the Lutheran communions – one can refuse to share the Table with those who do not affirm all you affirm, or even deny certain aspects of what one holds. Many years ago when I was first encountering the Reformed congregations and Faith, I was astonished to learn that they allowed people to be members who do not hold to infant baptism. In a way, I still am. That said, I would not confine the fellowship of the Lord’s Table – which is regarded as larger than the local congregation – to non-members who nonetheless held to the catholic credal affirmations (even if they didn’t employ those creeds in their churches) and an evangelical faith. I appreciate you raising the issue which asks us all to consider our ecclesiology, our view of sacraments, and the role of the minister in catechizing. As I see it, Wittenberg is a high wall with too narrow a gate to the Table and some Reformed congregations may have broken down their walls altogether. We should be prepared to stand for both catholicity rooted in God’s grace and the sacrament of baptism, and for high standards of membership which should not be taken lightly or watered down. In that regard, one need only think about the exit rather than the entrance; our officers take discipline very seriously – are we more committed to BCO process in judicial cases than to Standards that are to be taught? I trust that we would be committed to the latter with at least as much dedication as our dedication to good process.

    • David,

      The older Reformed practice, prior to the 18th and 19th centuries, was to limit communion to Reformed believers. The way we fence the table would shock most of the Reformed churches from the classical period. The Dort Church Order permitted only those who “profess the Reformed religion” to the table.

  32. In the original post Dr Clark writes:

    “The original British (i.e., English, Scots, Irish, and Welsh) Presbyterian approach to lay membership was no different than that of the Reformed churches on the continent.”

    Does anyone know of any sources for this (either British or continental)? As I understand it Irish Presbyterianism only brought in subscription for ministers (never mind members) in the early 19c, as a response to the Arian controversy.

    But my history could be sketchy.

  33. I’m a communicant in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America. Covenanters (Reformed Presbyterians) world-wide used to require adherence to the Westminster Standards, the RP Testimony (whichever one used by that church), Presbyterian worship and church government, and whatever Covenants were maintained by the church in question at that time. The RPCNA only dropped these requirements in 1977.

    This was the historic belief and practice of not only Covenanters, but Seceders (Associate Presbyterians), Associate Reformed Presbyterians, and United Presbyterians (UPCNA). No one was allowed to communicant membership in any of these denominations without adherence to at least the Westminster Standards, and usually other denominational testimonies and distinctive principles. In other words, what everyone is calling “the Presbyterian practice” (as distinguished from “the Dutch Reformed practice”) might be that set forth by Dabney, Charles Hodge, and A.A. Hodge — descending from what we called the “General Assembly Presbyterians” — but “Dissenting Presbyterians” (generally the stricter, Scotch or Scotch-Irish Presbyterians) always required individuals to adhere to and believe the subordinate standards of the church.

    Members of our churches ought to be “those that profess the true Reformed religion” (Confession of Faith, 24.3). How do you define that? Does that mean “those that profess broad-based evangelical Protestantism, who happen to attend a Reformed church”? Or does that mean that, as we identify a church to be “Reformed” by its profession (i.e. by its subordinate standards), so also we identify individuals as “Reformed” by their profession of those same subordinate standards? Consider also that “the church” is nothing more nor less than its members; so that it is a contradiction in terms to speak of the Westminster Standards as being “the church’s subordinate standards,” if they are not in fact the confession/profession of the adult, confessing/professing members thereof.

    Or one can look at it negatively: Believing false doctrine is sin, according to the Larger Catechism, Q. 105, 113. Individuals cannot be received as church members (or remain as church members, undisciplined) while continuing in the practice of unrepentant sin. Therefore, church sessions cannot, without great inconsistency, receive individuals to membership while maintaining beliefs that the church itself has declared to be false, or while opposing beliefs that the church itself has declared to be true (through our subordinate standards).

    All this is plainly implied in the words of Jude, verse 3: “Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” All the saints, the “beloved,” are required to contend earnestly for “the faith” — not one or two articles deemed essential, but “the faith” in general, in total, in all its articles. And this faith is not the special trust and property of church officers, in distinction from church members, but “was once delivered unto the saints” — it is as much the right and ownership of the recently-catechized six year old, as the octogenarian ruling elder or minister.

  34. I am wide-door presbyterian. Reading this post, I was reminded of Charles Hodge’s comment about of Schleiermacher, “Can we doubt that he is singing the praises of Christ now?”

    • David,

      Have you read Schleiermacher? I have and I wouldn’t bear nearly as confident as Hodge but whether Schleiermacher is in heaven is beside the point.

      Your (admitted brief) comment seems to concede that the standards really are a second blessing and immaterial to the theology, piety, and practice of the church.

      The question is is: would you admit to membership in a Presbyterian church someone who reduced the Christian faith to the search for or replication of Christ’s religious experience? What hath Schleiermacher to do with the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

      Let’s say that the Am. Presbyterians did admit Schleiermachers as members look what happened? Where is the PCUSA now? Isn’t it the definition of insanity to do the same thing and expect a different or better outcome?

  35. I am a wide-door Christian pastor.

    The doors should be as wide for professing believers today as they were for them in the early church. Baptism, coupled with a credible profession of faith, brought them into the church. Their names “were added” to the list. Any questions?

    We will always be able to argue that “today is different.” Of course it is! But God did not in His word give us instructions for how to do membership in a a “different day.” Faithful Christians do their frail best to take their leadership from infallible Scripture, not from their fallible view of history.

    • Ted,

      Would you distinguish between baptismal members and communicant members?

      What do you make of the early Christian, post-apostolic, practice of delaying communion until (sometimes extensive) catechesis was completed?

  36. Though I disagree with Scott about membership, I’m pretty sure neither Schleiermacher nor Baxter would pass our membership exam.

  37. I should clarify that I don’t think Hodge would have permitted him to join his local congregation but the men of old Princeton didn’t have these sorts of conversations either so we are left to guess.

    My standard of admittance for anyone into membership is their ability to take our membership vows in good conscience and with a credibility discerned by the elders. Our vows contain basic evangelical beliefs (trinity, sin, salvation by grace alone, sanctification by the Spirit, and submission to elders). We are a reformed presbyterian congregation. Our officers take vows that no other member is required to take regarding the Westminster Confession.

    I’m not sure my door is wide enough for Schleiermacher. I do think the Hodge quote reveals that “Old School” presbyterians weren’t as old school as some might think.

  38. On the history of subscription, I’ll have to read Scott’s book, and bow for now to his better knowledge.

    However, it does seem very odd to me that one can find all sorts of controversy about ministerial subscription (e.g. the adopting act of 1727), if all the while ordinary members were expected to subscribe.

    Perhaps, though, the question is the degree of detail one is expected to assent to. I would be happy to assent to ‘the Reformed faith’. However, I would not, for example, affirm that the traditional Sunday dinner is sinful, as per the unhappy phrasing of WCOF 21.8.

  39. As per the previous “andrew”, Clark would be placed in the (seemingly) awkward position of denying membership to Calvin himself based on his views on the Sabbath … even if he agreed to submit in practice to elders who hold to “crass and carnal Sabbatarian superstition” (Inst II.VIII.34)

  40. Our confessions are both the Christian faith and second blessing. You could strip away a great deal from our confessions and still have the Christian faith, and you could add more to them and call it a blessing. It’s all faith, and it’s all blessing, but if a confession doesn’t require more than God requires to be a Christian, is any non-Reformed believer . . . really a believer?

  41. J.Kru said:

    “if a confession doesn’t require more than God requires to be a Christian, is any non-Reformed believer . . . really a believer?”

    But you already stated,

    “You could strip away a great deal from our confessions and still have the Christian faith”

    So, do Reformed folks believe the confession is more than Christianity? If so, then why place that yolk on those whom God, who is holy, has fully accepted in the Beloved?

  42. Mr. Bigelow – I agree. If you place more on people than the Bible requires, it becomes a yolk and a burden which ought not to be there. If you use it to teach and shape Christians in need of instruction, it becomes a helpful tool.

    The very real danger is that we become like the Pharisees, of whom the Lord said, “So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.”

    So a Christian is not Reformed, or not Totally Reformed – does that mean he is not a Christian, or that he is weak in faith? Maybe there is another description. I challenge anyone to answer this question, remembering that Paul warned us about this very thing:

    Romans 14:1-3
    As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. 2 One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.

    • JK,

      The question is what are the conditions for membership in a Reformed congregation. We admit that people may and are saved extraordinarily but in the ordinary providence of God, in the due use of ordinary means, how should the church administer those treasures entrusted to her?

      What do we have a right to expect for communicant membership?

      Do we have a right to expect, as a condition of communicant membership, that someone substantially agrees with our understanding of God’s Word?

      Which parts of the Westminster Shorter Catechism are optional? If we may (and should) expect our young children to memorize the WSC and if we KNOW that adults routinely learn extremely difficult things (they do it at work daily) then why can’t they read the WSC and give assent to it as a condition of membership? Why is that asking too much?

  43. Dr. Clark
    (First, sorry – I know you are “Dr.” but I don’t know if you prefer Pastor)

    The conditions for membership in a Reformed congregation ought to be the requirements that the Bible puts on people to be recognized as brothers and joint heirs of grace.

    Not sure what you mean about administering those entrusted, but (if this gets at the question) the church should use and teach the confessions.

    We have a right to expect that a communicant member will believe in the Triune God, the Resurrection of the Dead, the firstfruits of which being the Lord Jesus Christ; that Christ saves by His finished work alone, and this is obtained by faith, all by God’s grace to undeserved sinners. There may be more, I don’t know offhand.

    We may or may not expect that someone “substantially” agrees with our understanding of God’s Word, it depends on “substantially” compared-to-what. (As my old Physics teacher said, “is an elephant is large?” We all said yes. He drew a giant circle and labelled it “Jupiter,” then a tiny dot labelled “elephant.” “Now, is an elephant large?”) Yes, they must agree substantially in relation to Roman Catholics. No, they must not agree substantially with us in relation to John MacArthur.

    I don’t have a checklist of what one must agree with or not agree with in the WSC to be a Christian. If I had that, God would have given us checklists, and elders would be lawyers making sure that they have your initials next to every item. I would be pastorally concerned if someone rejected almost anything in the WSC. I would hardly worry if they just didn’t agree with WCF XXX or XXXI.

    I don’t believe you ever suggested that assent to the WSC would suffice. You said the Westminster Standards.

    But all the same, it’s asking too much because a church cannot refuse the one God has welcomed, even if they are weak in faith.

    Imagine that a young lady comes for membership as a new Christian and wants to join, but she says that she disagrees with WSC 83, because when Jesus said “greater sin” in John 19:11, he meant “according to the Pharisees’ definition”, and that she was convinced that really, all sin is equally bad because all sin is death. She hears your argument but politely defers, because she knows that all sin is worthy of death, and therefore equally heinous. “After all, I didn’t do horrible things as a non-Christian. I was generally nice. But if all sin isn’t the same, then I wasn’t as bad as the drunk party girls. But I was convinced that my sin was as bad as anyone’s.” Convinced of her own sin, she just can’t imagine that any sin is “less bad” than another. You may have a nuanced argument, but she just doesn’t get it, and insists that all sin is equally heinous.

    Now, do you want to have her join your church, and learn, hear, worship, pray, and be discipled? Or tell her to go down to road, because the New Super-Meglo-Worshiplex will certainly allow her to enjoy the sacraments?

    May it never be. God has accepted her, don’t reject her.

    How far do you want to push that? What if she rejects infant baptism? God has still welcomed her, so you welcome her, too. She needs your pastoral care, obviously.

    It’s up to the wise and Godly elders, not a 350 year old checklist, to determine whether God has welcomed her. It’s not Luther’s church, it’s not Calvin’s church, it’s Christ’s church.

  44. Dr. Clark, you have alluded several times that you think it sufficient for membership in a Reformed congregation if someone will confess the Shorter Catechism. In the post you even singled out the first 38 questions as aptly summarizing “what it is Christians are to believe.” Yet the officers of many Reformed/Presbyterian churches (e.g. the PCA) are required to subscribe to the Standard as a whole (WSC, WLC, WCF). I agree that there is no substantial contradiction within these three documents, but the latter two certainly address many issues that the SC doesn’t, and even puts many explanatory modifiers on the issues that the SC states very simply. Doesn’t this scheme of subscription effectively create another version of two-tiered membership (members vs. officers), or second-blessing thinking as you have defined it? I am sincerely trying to work some of these issues out in my own mind, so thanks in advance for your reply.

    • Phil,

      The differences between the documents are pedagogical, not substantial. If one confesses the WSC one substantially confesses the standards. Pragmatically, if we can agree that all Presbyterian laity must adhere to the WSC we would be light years ahead of where we are now.

  45. I’m sorry, Dr. Clark, Phil just wrote that you’ve suggested that the WSC is sufficient for membership. Although my point that membership is governed by elders, not checklists, I stated that you claimed the entirety of the Westminster Standards, and it appears I was inaccurate when I said so. I hadn’t caught what Phil has just pointed out, so I apologize.

    • JK,

      I don’t think there’s any discrepancy between the WSC and the rest of the Standards but the WSC was aimed at the laity specifically. This is why it was created.

  46. Surely, one cannot rightfully claim to be a Christian if one denies the Trinity or the nature of Christ’s atonement, as you point out. However, to disagree on a matter of church government or the sacraments is not nearly as weighty, I would think…I felt so strongly about credo-baptism as the correct Biblical position that I believed it would be better for all concerned for me to become a member of a church with like-minded folk on this point, though this matter is not one touching salvation.

    This is the sort of reasoning I never grasp. For some reason, sacramentology is “not nearly as weighty” as to bar someone from membership. And yet, it’s weighty enough to compel one to seek membership elsewhere. Evidently, the paedobaptist is unduly divisive when he requires a certain sacramental belief and practice, but the credo-baptist can actually keep from fellowship. Why is consistent sacramentology a problem when it’s paedo, but admirable when it’s credo? And, then, why is it rendered as “not touching on salvation” when it was the one theological issue that compelled you to away from one church and to another?

    The mind boggles.

  47. The conditions for membership in a Reformed congregation ought to be the requirements that the Bible puts on people to be recognized as brothers and joint heirs of grace.

    Basically, no creed but Christ, right? Substantially, that’s what the rest of your essay boils down to. Danny Hyde’s book, “The Good Confession” as well as RRC deal with your arguments.

    If this hypothetical young lady comes to the church and decides she’d rather pick her own own vain theological understanding over that of the true church to which she’s attempting to subscribe, should she really be considered for membership? It seems to me her own vanity is then her priority, not communing Biblically with other believers and submitting to the authority of the elders God is seeking to establish over her.

    Also, your Romans 14 argument doesn’t hold water because the context was very narrow: abstaining from certain foods.

    Can you imagine a new believer telling one of the disciples, “Whoa there, Paul! I’ll be baptized, but not the rest of my household! I’ve gotta do more research to see if I agree that this practice is Biblical.”

    You don’t sound like you even understand the purpose of confessional standards.

  48. Walt wrote:
    “You don’t sound like you even understand the purpose of confessional standards.”

    Walt, I think J.Kru’s point was to look to Scripture first. In that, he found a principle from Romans 14:1 on accepting believers in spite of debatable matters.

    I thought his approach was sound, since he looked to Scripture, and to Scripture that appealed to the heart of the matter at hand. Many folks I know, including myself, believe that in Scripture the mind of God may be discerned on all matters of faith and practice. That would include His standards for membership in the covenant community.

    The same cannot be said for the WSC. We can search it, at best, for the mind of godly men on some matters of faith and practice. Add to that our penchant for our emotions, and myopic view of history to infiltrate our judgments, and, well, we are all a pretty sorry lot.

    Perhaps you would be so kind as to explain to us, from Scripture, “the purpose of confessional standards.”

    • Ted,

      The problem with this approach is that someone has to READ scripture. Who is reading Scripture? An individual or the churches coming together in an assembly, submitting themselves to God’s Word, led by God’s Spirit?

      The Reformed churches have read (and continue to read) God’s Word, led by his Spirit. We’ve come to certain conclusions and confessed those conclusions in documents which summarize our understanding of God’s Word.

      The program you and JK seem to be advocating is a tradition, it’s the tradition of biblicism and individualism. It’s not the Reformation program but the Anabaptist program.

      Take a look at RRC.

  49. Scott,

    I got my undergraduate education at Boston College, a Jesuit school. I took from them many theology and philosophy courses. Would you be surprised to know their view on this matter of who gets to read Scripture authoritatively is essentially the same as yours?

    They just go back 400 years earlier. I took a graduate course on Aquinas taught by Peter Kreeft. Aquinas used an analogy of comparing Scripture to a horse. Someone must ride the horse to guide it rightly: i.e., someone must read Scripture to interpret properly. Of course, the one who reads Scripture rightly is the Church in the RCC. But in the case of other folks, the Fathers read it right, or in the case of others, those who wrote the great Protestant confessions read it right. Pick your readers. In principle, its all the same.

    If we say that churches coming together as an assembly are the right ones to read, interpret, and apply Scripture, then we are all wasting our time on the internet doing this. For Scripture has nothing to say to us since we are out of bounds, and will only be able to truly understand Scripture on these points while in General Assembly. Let’s do away with this discussion of Scripture and move on to discussions appropriate to this venue.

    I hope, however, that smacks of something quite foreign to Scripture in your ears (Acts 17:11).

    My own paradigm is not individualism, but I always want to prize the immediacy of Scripture to correct/inform my thinking on any matter at any time.

    I serve in the context of a a group of qualified elders who have been tasked by God to “hold fast the faithful word,” not the faithful confession (or Church, or fathers) (Titus 1:9). This is in the context of the local church under the direct authority of Scripture.

    It may sound like individualism, but it isn’t. It ecclesiological.

    When folks have differences with our teaching, we handle it on a case by case basis. Perhaps we are wrong? Or, perhaps they are wrong. Each case is different according to its particulars.

    When folks join our membership, they are required to read through our teachings commitments (which is about 50 times more detailed than a doctrinal statement). They know what we teach, but most folks come in as lambs, seeking to be taught Scripture and led to “green pastures.”

    Those who have differences are loved and honored and shepherded. We really don’t have problems.

    • Ted,

      Re-read my post. I anticipated your criticism. The fellows who wrote our confessions were Protestants. Biblicism is not Protestantism. We confess the perspicuity of the Word (contra Rome) and we confess that the Word forms the church (contra Rome). We confess what we do because of what the Word says. The Word norms the church (contra Rome) but we’ve never said that the Word doesn’t have to be read. It does.

      There’s a third way between Anabaptist individualism and Romanism: Reformation confessionalism.,

  50. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for the thought provoking blog. Much is to be gained by serious thought about the concerns you expressed through numerous examples of how we “confess” faith as we “profess” faith. It would be good to dwell for a while upon that issue alone, as you demonstrated. Secondly, it was particularly useful to renew the conversation about unity/confessional unity among members in Reformed churches, especially the focus and attention on what you call tiered membership. Finally, I am thankful that you brought these issues to mind in terms of our obligation (the officers of the church) to consider very carefully how we identify a “credible profession” of faith in terms of its relationship to our respective confessions and creeds. You have certainly changed my approach to considering a credible profession of faith.

    While at present I disagree (together with my brothers in the OPC) that there exists a biblical mandate for persons to confess and subscribe to our Reformed confessions in order to gain entrance as communicant members in the visible church (except implicitly by membership vows) and to receive the administration of the sacrament of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, you raised some excellent points and questions I’ve determined I need to consider to remain satisfied in my understanding.

    That said, allow me to make a comment and ask a brief question. The blog initially poses the question, “How wide are the gates of heaven?” The question is a springboard for your discussion, and refers to an oft stated and oft abused principle which can lead to laxity and irresponsibility by some churches in admitting persons to communicant membership. While the blog entry ostensibly intended to focus mainly on communicant membership in confessing, Reformed churches, it quickly moved beyond that limited scope to include defining what legitimately constitutes true faith required for communicant membership anywhere. This is seen early on, as the use of confessional statements/catechetical questions and answers is increasingly expanded upon to demonstrate that assessing one’s profession of faith must entail determining a certain level of understanding, and further asserts that this required minimum level is inherent in the doctrinal constituency of the numerous statements, questions, and answers in the confessions and creeds. Not only so, but a fairly deep and thorough understanding is asserted as being necessary.

    However, I find myself wondering if you went beyond the scope of your focus. Using as a springboard the statement regarding the broad gates of heaven (which, in reality, we know are actually narrow), or the kingdom of heaven,
    to launch into a discussion of legitimate membership in confessional churches is fine; but the discussion appears to move into what consititutes minimal biblical requirements for communicant entrance into the visible church, not only confessional, Reformed churches.

    The question, then, is whether your assertions (in terms of the depth and breadth of understanding required as cited in your numerous, expanded examples) are intended to demonstrate the criteria for communicant membership in general, or for the confessing, Reformed churches.

    Finally, and this was barely touched on, can you please spend a few moments to explain how you understand what were clearly lesser requirements for intelligent and credible profession of faith by both Christ himself and all the apostles given to us for our instruction and edification, given the confession states that the Word of God is our only rule of faith and practice? The typical argument is always that this time, the first ninety years, or less, was an exception, not a norm, and does not carry necessary weight in terms of our present practice, since the church in its formative state was not normative. Quickly (perhaps too quickly), many want to agree that while the ubiquitous examples of legitimate, intelligent faith are quite different than what confessional communicant membership requires, we must instead go to much later ancient church examples as instead being our rule of faith and practice. With it comes the implication that the gates of heaven have since narrowed, and biblical criteria for true faith has expanded, to where we no longer can speak of entrance into the visible body of Christ and his church, but entrance into the confessional, Reformed church. The arguments for and against tiered membership in confessional churches notwithstanding, can we say that the requirements are the same?

    If I have drawn unwarranted conclusions about your line of thinking or your assertions, please forgive me. It is my intention to be careful and give much deference to your office and your years of faithful devotion to the study of Christ’s church and its history. Or, to put it another way, “…just sayin'” 🙂

    • Brad,

      This is a “brief question”? 🙂

      I’m responding to the “gates of heaven” analogy by denying it or at least bringing it into question. I’m saying that “who is getting into heaven” is a poor basis for deciding communicant membership. The standard we should use is: what does one confess?

  51. I think I took a very confessional position. I went to the Scriptures (WCF I) to see what they say about fellowship among believers. Romans 14 is a great chapter to this effect, but all over the Bible you will see a move toward unity whenever possible. All of the divisions of fellowship are based on very serious matters (1 John 2:19).

    The problem with your argument “Many Reformed churches read and continue to read God’s word . . . ” is that you’re right. They read the Scriptures, and they came to the conclusion that you don’t need to fully subscribe to the WCF to join as a member of the church. If I’m on an Anabaptist (you reached for that label pretty quickly) program for that, I’m on there with the the rest of the PCA.

  52. Well, no Creed but Christ, my banjo, and the US Constitution! Plus my American Rifleman subscription, God’s Other Document. Yee-haw!

  53. Romans 14 is a great chapter to this effect, but all over the Bible you will see a move toward unity whenever possible. All of the divisions of fellowship are based on very serious matters (1 John 2:19).

    Right, you just managed to omit what Paul considered “debatable,” choosing instead to read your anti-confessional PCA liberalism into a passage that does not make your point. The stuff in the confessions isn’t debatable. Paul goes on to gives examples of what “debatable” matters are.

    Everything you’re saying here is addressed in numerous books on the topic of confessionalism.

    It’s no wonder most of us in SoCal are forced to drive past numerous PCA churches every morning to find a church that takes Protestant confessionalism – and thus, the Christian religion – seriously.

    I think you’d be better off in the PCUSA. They’re even interested in transforming the city for Christ just like you guys are.

  54. Walt – if the stuff in the confessions isn’t debatable, how ever did WCF XXXI get changed? They probably debated it, right? What, are you like the 1611 King James only people, only with the Confession? We dont’ want these updated versions, they’re uninspired.

    I read my anti-confessional PCA liberalism? No, my boyfriend does that. Ha. Seriously, Walt, I think somebody needs to go back to his WCF XIX.3, which states that all ceremonial laws are now abrogated. Like food laws. And it’s not hard to imagine, for a fellow who has traveled a bit, that your church could be visited by, say, a Messianic Jew, who believes that Jesus is Messiah and alone is salvation, but who also holds OT food laws. Now, Walter:

    Do you let him join your church even though he is weak, and has a faulty view of his obligation to food laws, or do you make him subscribe to the un-debatable WCF XIX.3?

    It’s too bad that you’re forced by the all those SoCal PCA churches to drive right on by, since they don’t take the Christian religion seriously. I’m sure they would be delighted to have you join them. All this love for the brothers and whatnot. Wait! Is that in the confession?

  55. It seems implicit in Eph 4: 1-16 that what the historic church believed has to be seriously considered as accurate since those called out men were given for the purpose of building up the body. If they err’d, He that gave them showed little regard for His bride–an unacceptable conclusion. A conclusion that many haughtily accept when they say in essence “I dont care what was believed before me, I’m going to the scriptures for myself. I can personally attest to the foolishness of this approach. Not everyone is called to be a teacher, and no one should be his own teacher.

  56. The Reformed churches, by having subordinate standards, have identified certain items which are not debatable or doubtful — you might have your doubts, but we don’t. Romans 14 is not granting latitude on any and every matter that has ever come up as a matter of dispute.

    Just admit it: when you speak of “the subordinate standards of the church,” you don’t really mean “the church” (the members); you mean “the clergy.” It’s not “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints;” it’s either “a scant few articles which we’ve determined are essential to salvation delivered unto the saints,” or “the faith which was once delivered unto the church officers.” And make sure you don’t ever identify yours as a “Presbyterian Church” — it’s a Presbyterian Session, over a hodge-podge maybe-Evangelical Church.

  57. Scott wrote:

    “Re-read my post. I anticipated your criticism. The fellows who wrote our confessions were Protestants. Biblicism is not Protestantism. We confess the perspicuity of the Word (contra Rome) and we confess that the Word forms the church (contra Rome). We confess what we do because of what the Word says. The Word norms the church (contra Rome) but we’ve never said that the Word doesn’t have to be read. It does.

    There’s a third way between Anabaptist individualism and Romanism: Reformation confessionalism.”

    Thanks Scott, I respect your position, and the great grace given to you and other Reformed believers over the generations. Thank you also for your great clarity of thought and expression. Indeed, the Protestants were defined by the Word as their authority, quite in opposition to the RCC. I agree.

    But I think you missed my point, brother, which was that a Reformed confession functions the same *in principle* as the Magisterium does in the RCC. It pre-defines the Scripture, and limits/proscribes Scripture’s authority in the church. It is the approved filter through which Scripture is to be understood by the faithful.

    Please allow me again the grace on your blog to express my position. In Scripture God calls elders to have an immediate relationship with Scripture that is not mediated by the teachings of men. That’s not to say we are not influenced and taught by such men. We are. We sit at their feet, and even stand on their shoulders all at the same time…. :-). Seriously, we are beggars, and they are rich. We are sluggish pupils, and they are brilliant teachers.

    But yet this doesn’t bring us into subjection to them. As I said earlier, Titus appointed elders who would “hold fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching (apostolic), so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict ” (1:9). Based on apostolic precedent then, elders are not held accountable to a confession of faith, such as the WCF, or a Magisterium, but to Scripture alone.

    This point has been made hastily in what I just wrote, so allow me to flesh it out a tiny bit. After Titus appointed elders in one city, he moved on to the next city of Crete and appointed elders there. He then left Crete for Nicopolis on the mainland (1:5, 3:12). Point being – the elders were left with Scripture alone and *no human oversight* but Scripture. There were no Presbyteries, no archbishops, no human oversight of the individual churches at all, except what was granted to the qualified elders. This pattern is not arbitrary, but has its source in the Triune God (Titus 1:4).

    In so doing today, Scripture is allowed immediate oversight over all matters in the church, including the elders. This reflects the apostolic pattern on which the church is built – the Word of God. It’s quite far from Anabaptist autonomy! In fact, it puts more authority and responsibility in a church’s elders than is granted in any Anabaptist church, and indeed, in any Reformed congregation. Their entire role is to know the mind of God as revealed in Scripture, and to live it and carry it out for the blessing of the sheep.

    Of course they can use a confession to teach them Scripture – and should. A godly man will want to use the very best tools he can to know the Scripture better. But his accountability is immediately to the Word of God. So in fact is the congregation. This accountability is manifestly different than what people are made accountable to in a Reformed church – a creed. This is where our discussion intersects with membership. The believers of Crete’s churches were never asked to submit to a creed, but were always to submit to Scripture.

    Some may hear me saying than that a church’s elders become the new creed – i.e., whatever they say goes. Not at all. Since they are immediately accountable to Scripture, they must demonstrate to all that their teachings and practice reflect Scripture. They are not allowed to claim some inordinate authority simply becasue they are elders. This is all anticipated in Paul’s command in Titus 1:9: that they be accountable to the Word of God alone.

    Having elders, and members, accountable to a confession in addition to Scripture then is no different, in principle, to the RCC requiring their priests and members to be accountable to Scripture and the Magisterium. Thanks.

    • Ted,

      In the WCF we CONFESS that we submit to Scripture:

      1.4 The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.

      1.6. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

      We confess the perspicuity of Scripture:

      1.7: All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

      And we confess that all confession is subject to revision according to Scripture:

      1:10. The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.

      Every Anabaptist or modern American evangelical has a magisterium: himself. He is a pope unto himself in a church of one. We are open and honest about the reciprocal relations that exist between Scripture and confession. Indeed, we confess that councils (including our own!) do err and are reformable according to Scripture. We’ve practiced that. In RRC (which I cannot type out for you here and now in a combox) I give two major examples of this. Indeed, in RRC, I call for a new confession! This isn’t about immoveable tradition v Spirit-led spontaneity but rather its about the distinction between autonomous biblicisim (which gave us Socinianism — remember, they said that they were only following the Bible and that the problem with the Reformation was that it wasn’t biblical enough; it was the Anabaptist view gone to its extreme. Where did it lead? No atonement, no Savior, no Trinity and no Christianity) and sola Scriptura.

      Give the book a read.

  58. Every Anabaptist or modern American evangelical has a magisterium: himself. He is a pope unto himself in a church of one.

    I had to make this my FB status.

  59. Scott wrote: “He is a pope unto himself in a church of one” – Ouch.

    You are wrong. The Scripture is not only its own magisterium, but as such, is self-authenticating through the Holy Spirit. But I think I understand where you come from. Where can I get “RRC”? I will read it, assuming it deals with Scripture’s teaching on ecclesiology. Coming from you, I trust it does.

    OK. Here’s my clever retort. We are not in a church of one, but a church of One. He rules us immediately through His word, not mediately through the writings of men about that Word. Our elders are not accountable to a confession, or a BCO, but as Titus 1:9 commands, to the Word of God alone.

    Back at ya, in love, and have a joyful Sunday in worship 🙂

    • Ted,

      Can you see the main HB page? I don’t know how you’re accessing the HB (reader or email or what). There’s a big link on the home page.

      In case you can’t see it — here’s the book.

  60. Hi Ted, who appointed your elders to the office of teacher, and who affirmed their calling and how did they affirm it? It seems your position is to deny the doctrine of Sola Scriptura since it says that what men say about scripture even when it’s accurate it has no authority for you and your gang. If it has no authority even though it be the word of God, you then contradict what you confess to be your authority.

    If I say: “repent and believe that Jesus is Lord” is it void of authority just because it is me who said it?

  61. Hi Brad B.

    “who appointed your elders to the office of teacher”

    Another qualified elder, in the pattern of Titus 1:5 and 1 Tim. 5:22.

    “who affirmed their calling and how did they affirm it”

    According to 1 Tim. 3:10, only tested men who are approved can serve in the office. Therefore, all were tested as to doctrinal and moral fittedness by both the congregation and the existing elders.

    “It seems your position is to deny the doctrine of Sola Scriptura since it says that what men say about scripture even when it’s accurate it has no authority for you and your gang. ”

    This is a total non-sequitar. And Brad, Scripture calls us a church, not a gang!. Here’s something to chew on, Brad. The meaning of the Scripture is the Scripture, whether spoken by a godly man, or a heretic. It possesses a fixed meaning that can be understood and tested by others.

    “If I say: “repent and believe that Jesus is Lord” is it void of authority just because it is me who said it?”

    Yes, if by what you mean in that statement is different than what Scripture means by that statement. You don’t get to define “repent” “believe” “Jesus” or “Lord” except as Scripture does.

    Be a faithful Christian and pattern all your thinking after Scripture. Blessings.

  62. Hi Ted, I wrote to you while in a hurried state, and it seems to me that you took a little undue offense by your tone in this response. I didn’t mean to offend you, and when I used the word gang, it was not meant to be in a negative way [I call my family “my gang” sometimes]

    That being said, when you said: “Therefore, all were tested as to doctrinal and moral fittedness by both the congregation and the existing elders.” it made me wonder who among you divined the doctrines of the Trinity, justification by faith alone, predestination and election, babtism, the Lords Supper, etc… You are seriously annointed or a liar [I dont know which] if you tell us that you used the Scriptures alone and came up with orthodox Christian doctrines yourselves.

    If you admit that you didn’t use the scriptures alone, which sources are your authority that tells you which scripture proofs keep the analogy of faith intact as you divine the doctrinal truths that govern your church? Please take a second to see that my line of questioning is meant to keep you from setting yourselves up as judge over the scriptures.

  63. Brad,

    I wasn’t offended, and I’m not, but you might want to re-read what you write to “hear” how it sounds, i.e, “who among you divined the doctrines of the Trinity, justification by faith alone….” and “You are seriously annointed or a liar.”

    Such words could easily be taken offensively, but I know that when I’m emotionally invested in a topic of theology, my words can be testy as well, even if I don’t want them to be.

    I’ve written a bit in this blog posting that answers your questions. Such as:

    “In Scripture God calls elders to have an immediate relationship with Scripture that is not mediated by the teachings of men. That’s not to say we are not influenced and taught by such men. We are. We sit at their feet, and even stand on their shoulders all at the same time…. :-). Seriously, we are beggars, and they are rich. We are sluggish pupils, and they are brilliant teachers.”

  64. “In Scripture God calls elders to have an immediate relationship with Scripture that is not mediated by the teachings of men.”

    Hi Ted, three things, do you consider the “immediate” imparting of knowledge to be an ordinary means? Also, do these men understand their calling immediately even prior to reading the scripture that says that it is immediately imparted? And then, were the men who developed, say the WCF or the Chalcedonian Creed, some of those who would fit the condition for receiving biblical truths per this immediate relationship?

  65. Well, I’m a Westminster Standards guy by default at this point; but I could live with the Three Forms of Unity pretty easily (I’ve read them). The two systems of doctrine are very close.

    But as for the Reformed Faith being a “Second Blessing”, I must admit that Kepha here thinks it is. I was raised in a nominal, liberal Protestant home with a foot in liberal Judaism. I got exposed to neo-Evangelicalism, then got bitten by the neo-Pentecostal bug in college. And, yes, somewhere along the line God graciously led me to confess that Jesus is Lord. But while I loved God, I often found the ideas of my brethren a bit grating; and I came close to despair when my “spiritual experience” was far from intense enough.

    Well, I went to a none-too-loudly Reformed church near college, and bought a commentary on the WCF and a few other things from their book table. I borrowed and read Calvin’s Institutes in order to understand the theology behind Britain’s Reformation when I was taking a needed Western history course.

    Well, all that marvelous stuff I read hit poor, struggling young man Kepha like a great, big blast of fresh air. And it sure helped make sense out of Scripture! If that wasn’t a “Second Blessing”, what is?

    Now, I don’t think I’m better than “Mere Christians”. I’m not really a spiritually elite person by any stretch of the imagination. But I am grateful to God that he allowed me an acquaintance with a very wonderful part of the Christian world, and, to this day, I identify most with conservative Presbyterian/Reformed circles.

    So, brethren such as our gracious blog host, J.I. Packer (Thank you for _Knowing God_), and others, please don’t scold me. A lot of us have slogged through a lot of mosquito-infested swamps to get to where we are and love getting our breaths of fresh air. I’m sure that I’m not alone among the people who, thank God, are rediscovering the Reformed Faith.

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