To Join or Not to Join?

Preston Graham
Monday, July 16th 2007
May/Jun 1999

In 1568, a prominent Heidelberg physician named Erastus wrote on the subject of the church, setting off a controversy that rages even to this day. The dispute centered on the various responsibilities of the church and the state, especially regarding the decision of who could and could not partake of the Lord’s Supper. Simply put, Erastian theory denied the authority of Christ’s office-bearers in the visible church. He advocated taking the power of the keys (Matt. 16:19) from these ecclesiastical officers and giving it to the civil magistrates. The two most famous documents refuting the Erastian position were the 1578 Scottish Second Book of Discipline and the famous One Hundred and Eleven Propositions, which was placed by George Gillespie before the Westminster General Assembly of 1647. Accordingly, “the great debate was over the proposition, Jesus Christ as King and Head of his church, hath appointed a government in the hands of church officers, distinct from the civil government.” (1)

At stake was the vocation of church work itself under a jurisdiction distinct from state-related work. The Lord’s Table represented the earthly expression of the Church’s heavenly mandate to exercise authority over matters pertaining to Christ as Redeemer (special grace), distinguished from the state’s jurisdiction to exercise authority over matters pertaining to God as Creator and Sustainer (common grace). If Erastianism had prevailed, the Church as a unique society with her own officers and particular spiritual mission would have ceased to exist. Whatever concerned the state would concern the Church, and discipleship would be domesticated under the state’s cultural agenda. To put it simply, the vocation of church membership as a “calling” from God (including the work that comes with it), as distinguished from a “calling” in the civil sphere, would have become a moot point. The Church as a divinely charted society would have been subsumed under the state, and there would not have been any “kingdom not of this world.”

Happily, Erastianism was solidly rejected at Westminster when it affirmed the proposition that the “Lord Jesus, as King and Head of his Church, hath therein appointed a government in the hand of church officers, distinct from the civil magistrate” (WCF, 30.1). The Assembly further stated that outside of the visible Church, “there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (WCF, 25.2).

A Modern Version of Erastianism?

But what does this 300-year-old statement (written under a civil monarchy) have to do with us now under a civil democracy in America? For our American system, via the separation of church and state, prevents civil magistrates from controlling church courts and admission to the Lord’s Table.

Before concluding that Erastianism is impossible today because we do not have a king, and no state agency explicitly aims to govern the church, we should consider this proposition: Erastianism is less about who governs in the place of church officers-and more about the fact that the keys are taken from those appointed by Christ. Might there be a new “magistrate,” one altogether different from an intruding congress or king-a different type of ruler, which negates the church’s unique charter? Nathan Hatch, in his masterful description of American religion since the revolution entitled The Democratization of American Religion, explains that the “magistrate” within our civil democracy ceased to be the monarch and became the “sovereign audience.” (2)

Today, our democ-ratized voluntarism appoints the private individual as the acting magistrate over the Lord’s Table specifically, and over the sphere of redemption generally. In sixteenth- and seven-teenth-century Erastian theory, the state magistrates assumed the power of the keys in the Church-which at the very least determined a person’s visible relation-ship to Christ as represented in his communion table. But in today’s democratized political sociology, the individual assumes the power of the keys. Popular sovereignty has replaced state sovereignty. For example, don’t many sincere Christians on any given Sunday admit or demit themselves to Christ’s heavenly meal merely by self-examination? And if Gillespie’s reasoning is applied to the current context, Christ’s mediatorial authority as regulated and mediated through church officers has been democratized within the individualized self. This is the new Erastian theory.

At issue is whether redeemed people are called to submit themselves to the jurisdiction of a church. Are all Christians required to be members of the visible church as a matter of Christian discipleship? In short, is there a vocation of church membership for the Christian, with a calling to participate in its work? It really comes down to whether or not we believe that God has established a visible church!

As Stuart Robinson, a nineteenth-century Presbyterian pastor, noted: “[Can] a theology without a church any more than a church without a theology fulfill all the conditions of a pure Gospel? Was Jesus Christ merely a teacher, or also a legislator and the founder not only of a school but also a commonwealth?” (3) How we answer these questions will profoundly impact our idea of calling and vocation in life. Is our “calling” to one sphere of work in the civil sphere, or to two spheres of work including the “spiritual” or “churchly” sphere? (4) First, to help us discern the Erastian principle in modern life, consider these three common scenarios.

Scenario One: No Time for Church

A person has worked hard all week at his or her “vocation” when Sunday comes around. What does a person who believes in a “one-sphere conception of vocation” think? Put another way: if we believe that the paid employment of Monday through Friday is our only vocation, what do we think about Sundays? Perhaps the need to recuperate is primary; therefore, if the person attends church at all, it should consume the least amount of energy and time possible. Or maybe the person brings “job”-related ambitions to church, and looks for that much desired “inspiration” in order to go back to work on Monday. Or perhaps he or she hopes for a kind of “divine” workshop on how to be more successful at the job. Under these ambitions, is there a separation of “church and state”-or better, “civil and spiritual”? Hasn’t the spiritual simply been domesticated under the civil?

In other words, under a “one-sphere conception of vocation,” the person is not thinking, “How might I offer myself a living and holy sacrifice acceptable to God which is my spiritual service of worship?” (Rom. 12:1). Nor, “how might the grace of God that has appeared in Christ now instruct me as to how I might ‘deny ungodliness and worldly desires … in the present age?'” (Tit. 2:12). The person with an Erastian concept of vocation soon grows uneasy if the sermon requires a zealous mind directed at God and his interests rather than at themselves (Rom. 12:2). Perhaps the person even resents the request to help set up for worship or teach Sunday school class, protesting, “Haven’t I worked hard already throughout the week?” The bottom line for this person is: “My vocation and calling doesn’t include a ‘churchly’ sphere of work.” Compare this mindset with Paul’s exhortation concerning the vocation of church-related work, “Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them.” (Rom. 12:6).

Under Erastian theory, “work” is synonymous with “career” or “job” in the civil sphere. Church work, the kind that every Christian has been called to participate in with respect to the Gospel’s unique “commonwealth,” is lost under the power of civil or state-related work. We might just as well rename this new Erastianism careerism. “Careerism” is defined by Wheaton professor Leland Ryken as “an attitude, a life orientation in which a person views career as the primary and most important aim of life,” such that “work is viewed so as to establish one’s self worth and becomes the controlling center of one’s life and is the last in a series of priorities to go.” (5) A churchly sphere of “work” is at best downplayed-possibly even denied-under this Erastian conception of life.

Scenario Two: The Individual Versus the Church

A person is asked to tell how he or she came to embrace Christ as Redeemer. Sheepishly, the person begins to apologize that his or her “story” doesn’t compare to the standard dramatic, individualistic testimonies. Our embarrassed Christian can’t offer the familiar spiritualized “I pulled myself up by the bootstraps” narrative. Rather, the believer can only offer the rather boring (so it seems) story of how faithful parents together with a faithful church “parented” him or her to Christ with no major bumps along the way. This Christian, therefore, declines the invitation to tell of God’s faithfulness through his/her church and family with words something like, “There’s nothing really to tell about.”

Here again, we see an indication of the Erastian conception of the church. It is as if we believe that discipleship and conversion are more authentic when less influenced by the church! Sociologist Robert Bellah has noted that American individualism results in a strange view of religious institutions.

For Americans, the traditional relationship between the individual and the religious community is to some degree reversed. On the basis of our interviews, we are not surprised to learn that a 1978 Gallup poll found that 80 percent of Americans agreed that an individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any church or synagogue. From the traditional point of view, this is a strange statement-it is precisely within the church or synagogue that one comes to one’s religious beliefs-but to many Americans, it is the Gallup finding that is normal. (6)

We see in Bellah’s summation what some have described as one of the most prominent legacies of modernity-a legacy that has been fairly disdainful of all “social parenting” through institutions of any kind, religious institutions proving no exception. (7) Influenced by the modern notion of individualism, a person’s faith as nurtured from childhood in a Christian home in cooperation with the faithful ministry of a local church is considered inauthentic. Just compare such nurture with the testimonies so often celebrated at Christian conferences. But how does this contrast with the biblical pattern of passing down the faith from generation to generation-a pattern that was celebrated by Paul with respect to Timothy? (2 Tim. 1:5). Tradition itself in the nurture of faith is discounted under the Erastian theory of the church. Yet Paul says, “brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle” (2 Thes. 2:15).

And so we see again the Erastian conception of the church as subsumed under the civil sphere and “sovereign audience sociology.” Here, the “spiritual” has been domesticated under a “civil” sphere of individualism: the work of the church is now viewed as secondary (at best) to the work of private individuals. The spiritual keys, if managed by a church, are viewed with suspicion in comparison to the spiritual keys that reside in every human heart.

Scenario Three: The Non-Churchly Evangelistic Agency

A Christian or perhaps some Christian foundation is approached for the purpose of financially supporting evangelism in the world. The peculiar demographic being targeted begins to excite the potential donor. But when the potential donor discovers that the evangelist’s strategy entails planting a church under the jurisdiction of a denomination, the conversation turns cold. Why? Because many believe that evangelism is better accomplished when not encumbered by all the “organizational stuff” related to creating a new and visible society complete with confessional constitution, order of worship, and form of church government. Evangelism, in short, is thought of most highly when undertaken by an itinerant speaker, governed by a non-churchly agency. Why? Because the person or agency is not thinking about a Gospel defined by the saving presence of God being mediated through sacramental worship, authorized confessions, and pastoral government. Rather the person or agency acting under this Erastian conception of the church views the Gospel as merely a rational message that changes a person’s “world-and-life-view,” or perhaps merely an experience that results in a decision to accept Christ. Not that the Gospel doesn’t include some aspect of these things. But the messy stuff of forming a new and definable “household of God” (complete with all the pastoral issues associated with people in every stage of life) is viewed as an encumbrance at best. Again, discipleship is seen as an individual matter outside of the communal context defined and regulated by God himself as a means of grace.

But how does this third scenario measure up to the great evangelist Paul and especially the record of evangelism recorded in Acts? Did Paul consider his work completed when converts were made? Not at all! Rather he made it his business to finish the task by appointing elders in the places where he had seen a harvest (Acts 14:23). The ultimate object of his labors was new churches. And while we clearly see “preaching” as one of the means used by the apostles in Acts (2:41, 47, 4:4, 5:14, 6:7, 8:4-7), we come to the striking observation that “then the churches throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and were edified” (Acts 9:31). In other words, we see that the apostles’ church planting was always co-extensive with preaching. Numerous churches were the result of the apostle Paul’s “evangelism.” And when he instructed his young evangelist protg Timothy with the “pattern of sound words,” these words included such instructions as qualifications for church officers (1 Tim. 3:1-13) and worship (1 Tim. 2:1-15). Moreover, these instructions were not merely Paul’s personal preferences; rather, they were how one “ought” to “conduct oneself in the household of God,” described then as the “church of the living God,” even “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:14-15).

The Necessity of the Church

The Erastianism of the “sovereign audience” is expressed in modern times wherever the divinely chartered church is ignored. Too often the work of the church acting in its particular, local, and visible manifestations is viewed as nonessential-despite the protest of Scripture. We therefore urgently need to reassert the biblical truth that the church is an essential element of the Gospel, and that by implication, the vocation of church membership is essential to Christian discipleship. (8)

First, that the Church is an essential element of the Gospel can be demonstrated in Scripture several different ways. We can, for instance, show that the Church was divinely established by Christ (Matt. 16:15-19). The Church on earth included a basic form of government, worship, and confessional standard after the foundation laid by the apostles (Eph. 2:19-20). Therefore, what Christ has organized ought to be considered “essential” with respect to the Gospel. This would be the argument from Divine institution. A second line of thought could be described as Christology applied. Christ’s work for our salvation can be summarized under the three offices of prophet, priest, and king (see Heb. 1:1-2, 10:11-18, and 1 Cor. 15:24-25 respectively). These three offices can also be derived from the foreshadowing offices in the Old Testament. These offices (or ministries) constitute the defining marks of the church. The Church’s ministry in its prophetic, priestly, and kingly aspects corresponds to the charge of confessional preaching, sacramental worship, and pastoral government (see Rom. 10:14 and Titus 1:5-9, 1 Cor. 10:16ff, and 1 Pet. 5:2ff and Acts 20:28-31 respectively). In other words, the Church is essential to the Gospel since it mediates the essential ministry of Christ to us in this present age.

A third line of argument is particularly interesting given post-modern disenchantment with what some have described as the “vinyl religion” of the Church. As one observer notes, “just as shopping malls simulate the great outdoors … danger [is simulated] with amusement park rides, friends or enemies with talk-radio hosts… [so] we simulate real life … and end up mistaking what is real for what is only artificial.” (9) Like the leaves on Disney World’s Swiss Family Robinson Tree House, so are the various vinyl replications that try to fabricate life as we wish it to be. (10) Marva Dawn observes this shallow world in the Church without a Gospel authenticated by a real and divine presence. Such a situation begs for a Gospel more defined by saving presence than merely efficiently run programs or well-crafted media and entertaining messages. Nothing short of a Gospel that mediates a regulated and divinely appointed presence will sufficiently satisfy. I am tempted at this point to reclaim the clich “full Gospel”-as developed in Ephesians where “Christ fills all in all.” And clearly what is not here in mind is the individual filling by an individualized Holy Spirit, but rather that kind of filling that is explicitly stated in the passage, “for the church which is his body…” (Eph. 1:22, see also Eph. 2:19-22 and then Eph. 4:10ff). This Church is made visible in its sacramental worship, confession and pastoral oversight (see 1 Tim. 1-3).

Another way to demonstrate the necessity of the Church is by tracing redemptive-history. Ever since Adam and his posterity were excommunicated from “before the face of God” (Gen. 3:8), until the elect are reunited back into God’s immediate presence (Rev. 21:3-4, using language from Lev. 26:9ff), God has in a provisional way mediated his saving presence through divinely appointed sacramental rituals, governments, and confessions. King David certainly understood the omnipresence of God in the world, yet he still longed for that saving presence which was mediated through the ordinances and worship of the Old Covenant (Ps. 84:2). Orthodoxy in the Old Testament era was described in terms like “dwelling place,” “living God,” “tabernacle”-even as covenants were initiated and sealed through rites whereby God manifested his presence to his people. (11) The New Covenant, although under new apostolic forms, proves no exception as promised by Christ in Matthew 28:18-20, “I am with you until the end of the age.” For in the words of Calvin about the Lord’s Table, “his word cannot lie or deceive us: Take, eat, drink: this is my body which is given for you; this is my blood which is shed for forgiveness of sins….” (12) The Church is essential to the Gospel insofar as the Gospel in the present age is made “full” when mediated through the visible Church.

The Obligation of Church Membership

It only follows therefore that the “vocation of church membership” is, morally speaking, an involuntary calling for the Christian. On the most basic level, every Christian is called formally to join a church-if only from the simple observation that Christians are commanded by Christ to participate in things which would be impossible apart from formal relation to the visible Church. One could immediately turn to passages that command “shepherds” and church officers to “watch over the flock of God that is in your charge” (Heb. 13:7, Acts 20:28, and 1 Pet. 5:1-3). But how could this happen if the conscientious shepherd was unable to “define” those within his jurisdiction? This is church membership! We have seen already how participation in the Lord’s Supper itself comes by admission to the Table by the those acting on behalf of the Church. For how could the Church, acting through its apostolic government, be authorized in Scripture to excommunicate (demit) someone from the Lord’s Table (1 Cor. 5) if it doesn’t have the power to admit the person to the Table? Therefore, while each person should examine himself or herself with respect to their participation in the Lord’s Supper, this is not a private self-examination as some would suppose, but one done in the context of oversight by those authorized in Scripture.

But church membership is not merely having one’s name on a church role, or even being admitted to the Lord’s Table. Rather it is a vocation of “work” insofar as there is a “churchly” kind of work that needs to be done by every member of the body, that when combined with the other members is “essential” to the Gospel. A two-sphere mandate to vocation (one that is civil/cultural and one that is spiritual/cultic) can be further demonstrated from the creation account itself. Old Testament theologian Meredith Kline notes, “[As] a garden-paradise it would occupy humanity with the royal-cultural labor of cultivating its bounty and beauty. As a sanctuary of God it presented humanity with the cultic vocation of priestly guardianship.” (13) This I take to be Paul’s point concerning our citizenship in the church (Rom. 12), contrasted with the duties of citizens of the state(Rom. 13). Paul’s point is not that all people are called to a career in church work. Rather, all people are called to some vocation in the church insofar as they are Christians who ought not to think “more highly of himself than he ought to think” but rather in accord to God’s “allotment to each a measure of faith” (12:3).

In summary, the Erastian conception of the church today subsumes the church sphere of work under the state sphere, thereby reducing “calling” to merely civil vocations. Subtly then, the state or civil sphere now in the hands of the “sovereign audience” is charged with mediating both the grace of God as Creator and the grace of God as Redeemer. Are we then advocating a return to a pre-Reformation concept of vocation? In no way! Both the medieval doctrine and the Erastian doctrine of vocation are incorrect, for both are “one-sphere” conceptions. The medieval period allowed church work to swallow the civil sphere; today Erastianism allows the civil sphere to swallow the spiritual sphere.

This article does not aim to swing the pendulum back to the medieval conception of vocation, for the Reformation did us a good service when it “reformed” the doctrine of vocation and calling so as to include the civil sphere for the common good. Rather, the point here has been to reaffirm the Reformation’s “two-sphere conception” of work. Every Christian wears two vocational hats: churchman/churchwoman and citizen.

In the fourth century, Augustine in his Confessions reminded us of the necessity of church membership. For he introduced us to Victorinus who said to Simplicianus, “not openly, but secretly, and as a friend, ‘know thou that I am a Christian’ to which [Simplicianus] replied, ‘I will not believe it nor will I rank you among the Christian unless I see you in the Church of Christ.'” (VII.ii.4). Against Erastianism, we ought to stand with Simplicianus.

1 [ Back ] Quoted from Stuart Robinson's, True Presbyterian, "Gillespie's Account of Erastianism," April 10, 1862. See also The Works of George Gillespie, One of the Commissioners from Scotland to the Westminster Assembly, Vols. 1-2 (reprints by Still Waters Revival Books).
2 [ Back ] Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale, 1989).
3 [ Back ] Stuart Robinson, "Theology with a Church," True Presbyterian, October 29, 1863.
4 [ Back ] I would argue that the family is a third sphere of calling as distinguished from the civil and spiritual spheres. But in the family, there is the seed of both the civil and the spiritual. Therefore, in terms of grace, there are two spheres: one common/civil and the other special/spiritual, under the authority of the "state" and the "church" respectively.
5 [ Back ] Leland Ryken, Work and Leisure: A Christian Perspective (Portland: Multnomah, 1987).
6 [ Back ] Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1985).
7 [ Back ] See for example Thomas Oden, After Modernity, What? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990).
8 [ Back ] Much of what follows I published under the title: The Church Question: Is the Church Essential for the Gospel?, A Rationale for Church Membership and Church Planting (1997). Available from Christ Presbyterian Church Study Center, 135 Whitney Ave., New Haven, CT 06510.
9 [ Back ] Joey Earl Horstman, "Channel Too: The Postmodern Yawn," The Other Side, vol. 29, num. 3 (May/June 1993), 35, quoted by Marva Dawn, Reaching Out without Dumbing Down (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995).
10 [ Back ] This is Stephen Fjellman's critique in Vinyl Leaves, as summarized by Richard Lints, "The Vinyl Narratives: The Metanarrative of Postmodernity and the Recovery of a Churchly Theology," lecture delivered at the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals' Colloquium, Colorado Springs, June 1998.
11 [ Back ] E.g., Gen. 15, 26:24, Ex. 29:42, 40:34, Lev. 22:3, Num. 35:34, Deut. 12:5, and Ps. 76.2.
12 [ Back ] John Calvin, Institutes, 4.7.1,3,5.
13 [ Back ] Meredith Kline, Kingdom Prologue (privately published, 1993), 42.
Monday, July 16th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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