When Dennis Bills, a West Virginian minister in the Presbyterian Church of America, received his author’s copy of A Church You Can See in 2017, he was writing to a church world certainly in need of the book’s subtitle: Building a Case for Church Membership. What he did not realize at the time was that just three years later the church would face one of the most difficult periods in recent history. During the COVID-19 era, churches naturally experienced significant declines in church attendance. When people were able to return to church, however, membership not only remained depressed, it also continued to decline. Why commit to a particular church when one can simply customize one’s church experience by mixing services online?
In our challenging church moment, Bills’ book is a much needed case for church membership. The Reformed tradition has a rich history of ardent arguments for the necessity and benefits of church membership. Sadly, very little has trickled down and influenced the average churchgoer’s ability to articulate and defend a case for church membership. Bills provides a compelling case for just that—an impressive feat in a concise 106-page book.
In the preface, Bills observes that people are normally told what church membership looks like, rather than why it is necessary. The flow of Bills’ argument is arranged according to a building metaphor—an apt choice considering the New Testament precedent of referring to the church as a building. Beginning with the invisible aspect of the nature of the church, Bills’ explanation moves toward a visible conclusion—a church you can see. His argument has three broad sections: union with Christ, the nature of the visible church, and membership in a local church.
Union with Christ
In the first chapter, Bills explains that Jesus’ promise to build his church (Matt 16:13–19) is accomplished by union with himself. As each believer is united to Christ, they are also united with one another—a union so closely knit that the church is called the body and Christ is called the head. Cheekily, Bills states that since there are no spiritually “dismembered” Christians, there should be no physically “dismembered” Christians either (think church on the couch in pajamas). In the second chapter, Bills describes the terms invisible church and visible church. Like a blueprint which sketches the shape of a building, we must distinguish between the invisible, universal church, and the visible, local church. Helpfully, Bills observes that we have to be in relationship with one another in person in order to use our gifts to serve one another. A Christian who refuses to participate in the visible church is therefore disobeying God’s commands, both robbing fellow believers of the gifts God has given them to serve others, and robbing themselves of the opportunity to be served by others.
The Nature Of The Visible Church
In the third chapter, Bills frames his argument by explaining that although the New Testament identifies the many local churches in a region collectively as the church, these individual churches actually met at separate physical locations. However various denominations may be organized in our modern time, the common biblical principle is that one cannot be a member of the visible church without attending a particular church in a particular location. In the fourth chapter, he details what constitutes a true church. Bills presents the historic Reformed definition of a true church: it is marked by the true preaching of the Word, the right administration of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and the faithful exercise of church discipline. But once one has identified a true church, is it not enough to simply attend regularly? Why is membership required? This question leads to the third and final section of the book.
Membership In A Local Church
In the fifth chapter, Bills looks at how a church operates when comprised of faithful members. He argues that in order to for us to participate in the privileges of the covenant community—exercise our duties and gifts, pursue unity, hear the word, receive the sacraments, and be shepherded—we need to be members. He is right. Expressions of unity are primarily in-person, and the same is true for the use of spiritual gifts. As evidence of this, New Testament metaphors demonstrate connectedness—hence the imagery of vine and branches, or body and head, rather than planets in orbit. In other words, the Scriptures require not only attendance, but also a close participation in life together. In chapters 6–9, Bills first explains the process of becoming a member, from being identified as a believer professing sound faith, to commitment to the local church body, to reception by the existing members of that body, to being officially entered into the membership roll of a church. Then Bills provides a helpful guide to the practicalities of joining a church. Here he shepherds the reader through the process of becoming a member—from picking a church, to membership classes, professing faith or transferring membership, and taking vows and covenants. For each component of the process he details the necessary steps and gives useful advice. For example, when picking a church, he suggests fourteen guiding questions to help the reader discern which church to choose. And finally, Bills addresses a common question about how assertions of church unity are compatible with the existence of different denominations. He points out that while denominations may have some disagreements on secondary matters, there is substantial unity, as evidenced by common creeds, confessions, and catechisms. In fact, so long as they are true churches, denominations are part of the plurality of the global, invisible church, united as one by virtue of union with Christ.
Because of their secondary nature to his argument, Bills provides two brief but helpful appendices. The first covers the Presbyterian view of the relationship between regeneration and baptism. The second gives a defense of the Presbyterian practice of a one-time infant baptism.
This book has a number of strengths. (1) It is brief, well-written, clear, and accessible to any Christian, providing an excellent introduction to the topic. The book will also encourage people already committed to membership in a local church, serving as a scriptural reminder of the necessity, responsibilities, and benefits of church membership. (2) Bills’ warm and winsome tone evidences the heart of a true shepherd. The gentleness of his words coupled with the uncompromising firmness of his position should prove an advantage in persuading questioning Christians. (3) The abundant use of scriptural evidence shows that his convictions about church membership flow primarily from Scripture, not only history and tradition. (4) The development of the argument is easy to track, as Bills helpfully summarizes the progression of the argument at the end of each chapter. (5) This book appeals to a broad Christian base. While the author is a Presbyterian, he makes other denominations feel welcome by affirming that denominations evidence unity and catholicity as visible expressions of the invisible church, and by providing examples of both Presbyterian and Baptist membership covenants.
One significant weakness that could perhaps be remedied in a later addition is the lack of a redemptive-historical approach. In other words, it would have greatly strengthened the effectiveness of Bills’ argument if it began with a foundation (to use Bill’s building metaphor)—namely, that the pattern for the covenant community is established in the Old Testament. The covenant community as the realm of God’s salvific blessings is not a New Testament construct; rather, it is central to the full scope of God’s redemptive activity. The doctrine of the church is not first expounded in the Gospels or Acts; instead, it is declared in seed form in the promises in Genesis, reaffirmed at Sinai and the eldership structure in Israel, and then brought to full glory in the church of the New Testament. Bills’ argument would be stronger if he had demonstrated that being a member of the covenant community has always been God’s way of dealing with his beloved children.
Nevertheless, A Church You Can See does what few others have managed to achieve: provide a timely, persuasive, and accessible case for church membership that can benefit all Christians. I commend it to you heartily.
©Alex Hewitson. All Rights Reserved.
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