We live in a very curious age. We actually have to defend the importance of the local church, not from unbelievers but against those who profess to believe in Jesus Christ. The church has traditionally affirmed the statement in the Apostles' Creed: "I believe in…the holy catholic church" — but such a confession seems totally out of place in this day and age. Modern evangelicals denigrate the role and purpose of the "institutional" or visible church. We hear this constant refrain, "I'm a Christian but I don't go to church." This belief is played out in the way people loosely attach themselves to various churches. George Barna's research has shown that church growth has remained virtually stagnant in the past decade. He notes that there was no real discernable growth but only "a substantial degree of membership movement." In other words, a sort of "Chinese fire drill" has come into play among churches. Many will move from one church to another without the slightest qualm. Others simply do not associate with any particular church but still claim to be Christians. After all, if the church does not meet their immediate "needs" (i.e., "wants"), then they can either stop going to church altogether or simply go to a different one. To make matters worse, some Systematic Theologies do not even give a separate treatment to the doctrine of the church.
To make matters worse, the Roman Catholic Church has also unwittingly encouraged this tendency. Though quite strong in exalting the function and powers of the visible church, she has philosophically diminished her relevance through writers like Karl Rahner. Rahner believed in "anonymous Christians," viz., men and women are related to the church in their own way, though they are not members of any particular church (an issue of theological proximity to the church). Being a member of a church is preferable but not necessary. Even the decrees of Vatican II allow for pagans and various false religions to be somehow remotely related to the church without professing any faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.6 It is no wonder the church has fallen on hard times. From evangelicals who deny the importance of the church to Roman Catholics who deny an essential or dogmatic need for it, we are forced to reckon with what she is and why professing believers need to be united to her.
What is the Church?
The Church of Jesus Christ differs from all other institutions on the face of the earth. No other institution has been brought into being by the blood of Jesus Christ. No other institution has been granted enduring permanence through all the ages. No other organization is as loved and cherished as the church of Jesus Christ. Though derided by many, she is still the people of God, the precious bride of the Holy Lamb.
In fact, the church herself is a matter of faith. How so? Edmund Clowney's statement explains:
Because … the church is God's creation, not simply a human institution. It is different, even strange. The favourite fantasy of science fiction is true of the church: its members are aliens, even though they lack pointed ears. Their astral home is not another planet, but God's own heaven. It is not surprising that sociologists find the church rather puzzling. Even Christians have extraordinary difficulty in describing the church. Luther claimed that a girl of seven knows what the church is, but that he had to pen thousands of words in order to explain what she understood. The church is different because it is the born-again family of God, the assembly and body of Christ, the dwelling of the Spirit.
Reformers like Luther concurred. Luther argued that the church is in some sense an object of faith because some of the members of the visible church were mystically united to Christ and had genuine vital fellowship (communion) with each other and with Christ.
To believe all that the Bible says about the church takes a great measure of faith. How can she be holy when we hear of one scandal after another within her midst? How can she be the bride of Christ when we see so much impurity? How can she be the church of God when there are so many divisions and denominations? It indeed takes much believing faith to accept what God says about her. It is one thing to believe in God whom we cannot see, and quite another thing to believe so many lofty things about the mixed church which we do see. Our own eyes have beheld all her imperfections. It is for that reason we need to believe what God says about the church in his Word, as opposed to what we can see.
The church, as defined by so many divines, is the community of the saints or the faithful (communio sanctorum or communio fidelium). She is Christ's body and His spouse. Yet, "if the church rather than Christ becomes the centre of our devotion, spiritual decay has begun. A doctrine of the church that does not centre on Christ is self-defeating and false. But Jesus said to the disciples who confessed him, 'I will build my church.' To ignore his purpose is to deny his lordship."10 This we must always remember whenever we study this important topic. There is always the danger of overreacting to the problems in ecclesiology by overemphasizing the church's importance. With that in mind, we can approach this study on two fronts.
I wish to deal with two major points in this paper. One is the necessity of membership in the visible church. The second is the priority of election in the visible church. The two are quite related. The first develops the need for membership in the visible church and the second addresses the status of members in the visible church. The first point argues against the modern disdain for the visible church and the second answers the question of presumptive regeneration and the purists' notions of the visible church. One group seems to say that you don't need the church at all to be a faithful Christian while another group seems to argue that you know you are a Christian because you are in the visible church. Both of these positions, we believe, are wrong.
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