Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Early Church Membership

A few comments on some statements in Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church.
“If you read the story of the early church recorded in the book of Acts, you will find no evidence that any of them meant to have anyone other than believers as members.”
1. First off, searching Acts to find out what the early churches required for church membership is like searching Acts to find out their policy on baptistries (“You will find no evidence that any of them used anything other than a natural water source”) or the mode of the Lord’s supper (“You will find no evidence that any of them used wafers and Welch’s”).

The Acts narrative isn’t built to answer every question we might have about categories the earliest Christians didn’t operate with, or issues they didn’t face. Dever’s point assumes that “church membership” would have been a category as pivotal and axiomatic for the earliest Christians as it is for 9Marks ecclesiology. And in my mind, that’s a pretty large assumption.

This is not to say that church membership isn’t biblical. I believe it is, though I’m not willing to say that it jumps right off the pages of the New Testament. We get there by good and necessary consequence, along with perhaps a dash of sanctified cultural pragmatism.

2. Yet still, there’s evidence even in Acts that households were treated as covenantal units (Acts 16:15). A household was covenantally and socially joined to whatever the head of the household was joined to, which is unfriendly to Dever’s claim.
“When you read the letters of Paul, it seems clear that Paul too wrote as if the churches were composed entirely of believers; thus he addressed them as saints – those whom God has specially chosen.”
And yet Paul, in 1 Cor. 7:14, says that the children of at least one believer are to be considered hagios, the word frequently translated elsewhere as saint.


Nathaniel Simmons said...

I'm not feeling you Joel.

I think Dever's point is significant. He argues that church membership should be restricted to believers. While Acts may not prove it his point, because as you stated, it is not a manual for church structure, it could easily disprove it. If a single instance of a non-Christian church member existed in Acts, especially if it was recorded as a positive thing, then Dever's point would be void. So he has to demonstrate that Acts doesn't violate his argument.

Your examples, Acts 16 and 1 Cor. 7, don't in my mind show that non-believers were either baptized or considered members of the local church. Acts 16 does not state or imply that the people in Lydia's household weren't believers. It is entirely possible, and I would even say likely, that Lydia was not the only believer in her household.

Similarly, 1 Corinthians 7 does not teach that non believers who are married to believers or are the children of believers are saved by extension. So we have to be careful about how we interpret the word sanctified in this passage, clearly Paul is using the term differently that it is most commonly used by us in the church. Also, I think it is clear that Paul makes no remark about whether or not these unbelieving spouses or children should be baptized or considered church members.

Additionally, I think it is important to consider 1 Cor. 5 to bolster Dever's argument. If the church is going to meaningfully practice church discipline, and expel the immoral from their midst (not immoral unbelievers, but immoral believers), there needs to be a sense in which we can identify what it means to be in our midst (a member) and expelled (non-member). I honestly can't understand how we can responsibly practice church discipline without an honest effort toward practicing regenerate church membership.


Nathaniel Simmons said...

Also, I can't edit my comment. Perhaps that should teach me to proofread before pressing send, but really it just makes me wish you'd upgrade to a better comment system like Disqus.

Joel Griffis said...

(Part one)

Thanks for the comments, Nathaniel. Sorry about the lack of editing ability. I’ll have to look into the Disqus thing. I wasn’t aware that there were other options. To make up for it, I’ve corrected your typos in my quotations of you.

You said, “[Dever] argues that church membership should be restricted to believers.”

Right, and my point is not necessarily that such a restriction is wrong, but that he’s approaching Acts to ask questions about a later ecclesiological category. Which is where I think our disagreement probably lies: Is “church membership” as we practice it today really a later category?

You said, “While Acts may not prove his point, because as you stated, it is not a manual for church structure, it could easily disprove it.”

True. I think the Bible could easily put lots of debates to rest. But it doesn’t. It gives seeming plausibility to competing perspectives. Which isn’t God’s fault in the least — it’s ours.

But in my judgment, given the complexity of debates like these, “Acts doesn’t say I’m wrong” strikes me as a lazy appeal that no one should be too impressed by. Because (1) we should be after a more holistic understanding of Scripture anyway. Why would the inquiry be restricted to only certain parts of the Bible? And (2) we can find a number of reasons to at least doubt the tidiness of Dever’s restriction. To throw out one example, Jesus looked at infants and called them members of the kingdom (Luke 18:15), and I recall you and I agreeing over lunch recently that it’s absurd for the door of the church to be narrower than the door of heaven.

You said, “Acts 16 does not state or imply that the people in Lydia’s household weren’t believers. It is entirely possible, and I would even say likely, that Lydia was not the only believer in her household.”

I agree. But my point doesn’t have anything to do with guesstimating the ratio of believers to non-believers in Lydia’s house. My point is to draw attention to an evident principle, one that continues unbroken from the Old Testament and one that baptistic Christians by and large don’t operate with today, namely the covenantal solidarity of a family. Based on this evident principle, to me it seems most natural that the NT Christian community would have understood “membership” along the lines of “Nathaniel and his household.” And yes, that means Dorothy.

Joel Griffis said...

(Part two)

You said, “Similarly, 1 Corinthians 7 does not teach that non believers who are married to believers or are the children of believers are saved by extension.”


You said, “So we have to be careful about how we interpret the word sanctified in this passage, clearly Paul is using the term differently than it is most commonly used by us in the church.”

Which indicates that Paul thought differently than we do. So why is it that Paul doesn’t have a problem calling a presumably unregenerate person holy or sanctified, and we do?

Two differing interpretations of this verse come to mind: (1) the common baptistic interpretation: the children are called holy because they have a unique connection to the church and a unique opportunity to hear the gospel; and (2) the common presbyterian interpretation: the children are called holy because of their inclusion as covenant members.

I don’t think either interpretation is without problems. (1) doesn’t capture the strength of the word holy, while (2) raises questions about the covenantal status of the unbelieving spouse. But for my money, I think (2) has a lot more going for it than (1).

In any case, it seems to me that if a passage is not entirely clear, then people tend to assume they’re allowed to functionally ignore it when they make their arguments. Which strikes me as a little bit odd. The reason I jumped on that second statement of Dever’s is because he claims that the churches being composed entirely of believers is the very reason Paul could address them as hagios (saints). Which doesn’t show any acknowledgement of 1 Cor. 7:14, where Paul refers to certain unbelievers as hagios.

Joel Griffis said...

I forgot to comment on your last paragraph!

I do think a strong biblical case can be made for the need to know who your people are, who’s the pastor’s responsibility and who’s not – and an official membership roll helps to meet that need. So I think your points from 1 Cor. 5 are good ones. And I’m certainly not down with a person trying to justify a lack of consistent fellowship with a body of believers.

But my concern is that “church membership" has come to be understood as a hard-and-fast biblical category, and as such, has in my opinion become too pivotal in contemporary ecclesiology. You can’t read a book like Nine Marks without seeing the concept on nearly every page. It’s in the premise of every argument.

Which in turn leads to all the silliness of excluding paedobaptists, because “Baptism is prerequisite to church membership” — as if the NT clearly draws that line somewhere. Some would even question whether the Lord’s supper is open to non-members, whether believers or not. Which is all absurd to me.

Now allow me a bit of sentimentality. When I was growing up, I remember the several occasions in which my family would take pictures for the RRC church directory; and I remember anticipating the day when the new directories would be released to the church. I would look through every picture and read every name. When a family’s picture was shown, every name was included, from the husband and wife down to the tiniest baby. Those directories were special to the church and to me personally.

If a pastor is asked about his church members, I think he ought to be able to hand someone a directory and say “Here we are,” without worrying that doing so would in some way compromise the gospel or threaten the purity of the church. It's perfectly natural to think of those in the directory as members. I think it's also entirely consistent with the NT, and better preserves the strong multi-generational heartbeat of God's promises to his people.

(The more I write about this, I'm starting to wonder if my concern is not so much with the category of "church membership" itself, but rather with the strictness of the stipulations that Dever and company would enforce, in the name of obedience to Scripture.)

Nathaniel Simmons said...

I just saw your response. Which is another reason to consider disqus. It would have emailed me that you responded.

I still don't think Dever's appeal to Acts is lazy, but I do agree that it isn't decisive. If Dever wants to convince me that I should accept his position he has two responsibilities. First, that there are positive reasons to accept the position and second that his position isn't refuted by other lines of argumentation. Acts gives us more pictures of the early church than any other book, so I think it's a good place to start if you want to show me that your position isn't refuted by any narrative examples. Again, I agree that the lack of contradiction doesn't win the argument, but it still needs to be demonstrated.

That aside, the question that I have for you and my Presbyterian friends, is what exactly is meant by "covenantal solidarity of the family?" I think this is where I tend to get lost.

Perhaps this is a difference first in Biblical theology, that has some ecclesiological implications.

For instance, what covenant and what benefits are being passed to the family? In the Old Testament, I would have said that the Abrahamic covenant and Davidic covenant had some clear familial ties. For instance, it was the descendants of Abraham who would inherit the land, and bless the nations. It was the descendant of David who would have the everlasting throne.

In the New Testament, it seems that the categories of family move from being primarily identified through blood relationships to faith relationships.

This seems to be what Paul is talking about in Romans 9. "Neither are they all children because they are Abraham's descendants. On the contrary, 'in Isaac your seed will be called.' That is, it is not the children by physical descent who are God's children, but the children of the promise are considered seed.

Who are the children of promise? In chapter 9 Paul would say the children of promise are the ones who have been chosen, but the context of the rest of Romans suggests that we identify the children of promise by looking for faith.

So this brings us to the big question; what exactly is the relationship between Israel and the church

It seems to me that Presbyterian view and the "covenant family" view looks at the church as being just like Israel of the Old Testament. That is, it consists of anyone who God has made a promise to, or anyone related to someone God has made a promise to."

In my mind, that is too broad. There seems to be, even if it isn't clearly defined, a difference between Israel and the church in the NT. We wouldn't, for instance, call all of the Jewish people members of the church. Why not? Certainly they didn't stop being part of a covenant community. But, being a member of the church is not the same as being a member of a covenant community.

Let me conclude with two questions. I think these questions may help me understand more clearly where the differences are.

What does it mean to be a member of a covenant community?

Is there any distinction between members of a covenant community and members of a church?