Local Church Membership As Necessary

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Ecclesiology is so hot right now. And there is so much to be said. For now I want to briefly focus on a particular claim. The claim is that “church membership is necessary for our sanctification”. The claim also came with an assurance that “Church membership will justify no one.” Simply put, this is a problem that shines a light on a dangerous over emphasis on a pet doctrine.

Sanctification is a necessary outcome of justification. Meaning, those who are justified WILL be sanctified. Therefore, to say that anything is NECESSARY for sanctification, is really to say that one cannot be justified without doing that thing or having that thing. That does not mean that the necessary thing is the active force in justification, but it does make it a requirement. If you understand basic soteriology, you should know that appealing to sanctification doesn’t lighten the weight of what you’re saying.

Justification is monergistic, so clearly only the work of God is NECESSARY for justification. Sanctification is synergistic, so what is necessary for sanctification? The necessary MEANS of sanctification are the work of the Cross, the Holy Spirit, and faith.

XIII.I WCF puts it this way, and I agree.

“They, who are once effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them: the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified; and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.”

Now, there are MANY means of sanctification. Baptism, prayer, marriage, study, work, persecution, and so on.

But, according to the WCF, what are the effectual and necessary elements?

“ through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them”

According to John Owen, what is the nature of sanctification?

“Sanctification, then, is the direct work of the Holy Spirit on our whole nature. It proceeds from the peace made for us by Jesus Christ. By this peace with God through Jesus Christ, we will be preserved blameless, or be kept in a state of grace and continual acceptance with God, according to the terms of his covenant, to the end.”

Is sanctification the direct work of local church membership, or is it of the Holy Spirit? Owen seems to believe it’s a work of the Holy Spirit. Is the Holy Spirit unable to sanctify us apart from local church membership? That would be quite the claim, and it is the one being made by a few.

So, are specific temporal means, such as local church membership or baptism, NECESSARY means?

Now, I don’t want to be a jerk, but we do know what “necessary” means, correct? If you say that ‘X’ is necessary, that means that without ‘X’ you don’t get sanctification. And, again, where there is no sanctification, there is no justification.

“Necessary” is not the same thing as saying “regular” or “normative” or “ordinary” or “important”.

My contention is that there is far more scriptural support for sanctification through the word, prayer, and baptism. Are we to say that these particular means of sanctification are NECESSARY means (sorry about all the caps. Some tend to read past words like required, mandatory, and necessary)?

Because it has become difficult to communicate clearly on ecclesiology, let me be clear. I am not opposed to the “local church”. I am part of a fellowship and I believe that fellowship has certainly been a means of sanctification for me. However, I am not talking about whether or not local fellowships and certain types of memberships in these local fellowships are good or important. I am talking about whether or not they are necessary for sanctification.

The specific means in which God ordains that we are sanctified by will largely depend on circumstances. In all of these circumstances, the effectual and necessary means remain the Cross, the Holy Spirit, and faith. Very often, in fact most often, some of those specific means will be prayer, will be the reading of the Word, will be baptism, and will be fellowship with other believers. This is not a controversial statement, nor is it something that anyone I know of is arguing against. What HAS been argued against is a soteriological requirement to do any of these things in all circumstances.

To be sure, obedience that flows from faith is part of sanctification. However, it is an imperfect obedience that we can obtain based on our own shortfalls and our own lack of knowledge. Even if we say that “local church membership” is a clear command from God, it is not a command that is specially set aside as necessary and therefore salvific. If so, why not baptism? Necessary for sanctification isn’t the same thing as necessary for perfect obedience.

What has been remarkable to me is that Baptists (of all people) are arguing for the NECESSITY of local church membership. It’s also Baptists who, by the direct implication of their errant theology, believe that Christians who are baptized as an infant are not in truth baptized. So we have a situation in which Baptists give a great measure of grace and charity to their, in their opinion, un-baptized friends, but will clearly and obviously question the salvation of anyone who is not officially a member of a local church. Is baptism, one of the two God-given sacraments given to the universal Church, less important than local church membership (something that is at best hinted at)? You’ve got to be kidding me.

What we have here is a rhetorical sleight of hand. The Papist doctrine of institutionalized “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” has been shifted up a peg on the ordo salutis chart from justification to sanctification. Although the technicalities are different, this is also the same logic behind the error of the Church of Christ’s (the restoration movement denomination) view of baptism. Most from that crowd will not say that baptism saves in that effectual justification sense, BUT they will say that you must be baptized to be saved. Again, it’s a sleight of hand. Whether it be the Roman extra ecclesiam nulla salus or the Protestant extra locorum ecclesiam nulla salus, both set up an extra-biblical standard for salvation.

As an admonishment, be careful with your language. In your zeal to protect something that is valuable to you (the local church) do not esteem it so greatly that you make it a de facto work of salvation. Be very careful. Not only is this sort of twisted and haphazard language not scriptural or confessional, it does NO service to the good and right idea of local fellowshipping and genuine Biblical Church authority. It only makes you look like a Papist, just without the fancy hat.

I thank God that the old priest and the new presbyter are only seeking to “force our consciences that Christ set free” with ecclesiological structures and the Court of Facebook.

Because you have thrown off your Prelate Lord,

And with stiff vows renounced his liturgy

To seize the widowed whore Plurality

From them whose sin ye envied, not abhorred,

Dare ye for this adjure the civil sword

To force our consciences that Christ set free,

And ride us with a classic hierarchy

Taught ye by mere A. S. and Rutherford?

Men whose life, learning, faith and pure intent

Would have been held in high esteem with Paul

Must now be named and printed heretics

By shallow Edwards and Scotch what d’ye call:

But we do hope to find out all your tricks,

Your plots and packing worse than those of Trent,

That so the Parliament

May with their wholesome and preventive shears

Clip your phylacteries, though balk your ears,

And succor our just fears

When they shall read this clearly in your charge:

New presbyter is but old priest writ large.

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