Marinov’s Ecclesiology (pt. 3): Membership isn’t Optional

This is the third in a series of posts looking at the various claims of Bojidar Marinov’s blog series entitled, “And In One Holy Local Church”: The Ghettoization of Protestantism. You can read part one here and part two here.

This is the second of two posts that will consider the content of the catalyst for Marinov’s blog series, a Jeff Durbin Facebook status update. Again, Durbin merely posted the following:

Facebook is filled with “Facebook Prophets”. These are people who aren’t a part of the local church but insist on giving biblical insight and wisdom to those who are actually a part of God’s design for believers: corporate worship, communion, under the care of pastors, etc. The Bible can be a dangerous thing in the hands of those who despise authority, aren’t involved in the life of the body, and act like renegades. We are wise to avoid the “insight” of people who refuse to participate in the most fundamental part of the life of a Christian: the local church. God gave us one another for a reason. If we don’t love the church, we don’t love Jesus.

As I said last time, there is nothing in this status that is at odds with Reformed Christianity. Yet Marinov claims that the status update carries a novel ecclesiology that is based on a fallacious ideology which has been destructive to Reformed churches. He is just plain wrong. Durbin’s status is boringly normal Reformed Christianity.

You can boil Durbin’s post down to two major pastoral admonitions. First, a warning against the corrupting influences of vagabond ministers. I dealt with that last time here. Second, a warning against rejecting the centrality of the local church. That will be the focus of this post and, frankly, it is my biggest concern when it comes to Marinov’s ecclesiology.

Marinov’s main goal is to undermine the normative nature of local church membership. He argues that all the dangerous assumptions contained in Durbin’s status will disintegrate if this concept is removed. Therefore, he sets out to argue that local church membership isn’t mandatory. He claims that local church membership, while it may be desirable, is entirely optional. It is a matter “left to Christian liberty.” He even goes so far to claim that it was rejected by the reformers and the confessions:

Mandatory “local church membership” has never been part of the doctrine and the practices of the early church; it was never part of the Reformed doctrines; it was specifically rejected by Reformed Confessions and Reformed theologians. It came originally from the Anabaptist and other non-orthodox sects.

The untruthfulness of this position is obvious to anyone with even a cursory understanding of the confessions or the reformers. Consequently, I will spend most of my time considering his rejection of the centrality of the church through the lens of Reformed confessionalism.

The Doctrine of the Particular Church

The confessions clearly teach the doctrine of the locality of the church. They taught that the church visible existed in two senses, general and particular. Particular churches are members of the general visible church. Nowadays, we refer to a particular church as a local church. The terminology has changed but the doctrine hasn’t.

Marinov downplays the doctrine of the particular church, if not outright rejects it, to emphasize the generality of the visible church. He claims, “Where the [Westminster Confession of Faith] speaks in only six articles, and sees nothing more than the universal church, leaving the issue of local congregations to non-confessional standards…” This is clearly false. The WCF mentions the particular church twice in chapter 25:

25.4 This catholic Church has been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the Gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.

25.5 The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error;and some have so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. (emphasis mine)

It is clear that the Westminster Divines see more than just the universal church. They note that “particular churches” are members of the general visible church. They speak of churches in the plural, again emphasizing both the generality and locality of the visible church.

Moreover, what is meant by the particular church was carefully laid out by the Form of Presbyterian Government (FPG). Remember that this document was drafted by the very same Westminster Assembly that drafted the WFC. Not surprisingly, you find a very robust doctrine of the particular church put forth in the FPG. For example, it includes the following lines:

Particular visible churches, members of the general church, are also held forth in the New Testament.

IT is lawful and expedient that there be fixed congregations, that is, a certain company of Christians to meet in one assembly ordinarily for publick worship.

It is lawful, and agreeable to the word of God, that the church be governed by several sorts of assemblies, which are congregational, classical, and synodical.

THE ruling officers of a particular congregation have power, authoritatively, to call before them any member of the congregation, as they shall see just occasion.

The ruling officers of a particular congregation have power authoritatively to suspend from the Lord’s table a person not yet cast out of the church…

It is important also to know that Samuel Rutherford was among the Scottish commissioners on the Second Committee that made all the major revisions to the FPG. Marinov makes much of Rutherford’s disagreement with the congregationalists’ strict requirements when it came church covenants. He thinks Rutherford backs his view. He doesn’t. Rutherford is rejecting a form of fundamentalism, not the importance of the local church. Anyhow, I only mention him now just to make it clear that Rutherford did approve of the final version of FPG. Rutherford very much affirmed the doctrine of the particular church.

As a matter of fact, there was some debate among the second committee whether or not it was right to speak of the particular church as a divine institution, since the doctrine derives in great measure from inference. It was for this reason that they settled on the compromise language stating only that particular churches are “also held forth in the New Testament.” In Covenanted Uniformity in Religion, Wayne Spears relates a noteworthy fact:

Samuel Rutherford spoke for the Scottish commissioners in this debate, first to contend for the divine institution of particular visible churches and later to indicate that the compromise language which ha been adopted could still be interpreted as referring to a jus divinum. His assertion was that “if those words scripture holdeth forth stood alone then it may be less than Institution but if Scriptures [are] anexed then it is noe lesse than an institution. 

Rutherford, like the majority of the Divines, saw the local church as an institution clearly taught by Scripture. We find the same sort of claims in chapter 17 of the Second Helvetic Confession (1562) and chapter 18 of The Scottish Confession of Faith (1560). The doctrine of the local church is exceedingly confessional. They didn’t just add to the standards for kicks. For example, Lazarus Seaman, who was a member of the Second Committee that worked on the FPG, explained their intentions in drafting the document:

Many are exceeding loose in Christian profession and care not to enter into any Christian society of any kind, now if it be at liberty for man to enter or not, [consider] whether it will not be a dore of much looseness…the scope is to shew that it is the will of Jesus Christ that Christian people should assemble and associate themselves together. (Spears)

This all clearly demonstrates that Durbin’s status is boringly normal confessional Christianity (aka Reformed Christianity). He is right to stress the centrality of the local church. It is Marinov who is at odds with confessional Christianity. At this point, some detractor will claim that Marinov isn’t against the particular church but against requiring membership in it. Well, he is wrong in that regard as well.

Membership in the Local Church

Now, Marinov claims,“Even John McArthur, for all his insistence on ‘church membership,’ admits that the Bible never speaks of it.” This is a misrepresentation of McaArthur’s statement. Here is what McArthur actually says:

While the New Testament never speaks of church membership in today’s terms, the principles of life in the early church lay the foundation for faithfully submitting and belonging to a local congregation. While the original membership process might vary from today’s patterns, there’s no doubt that New Testament Christians were lovingly united and bound to their local body of believers….One of the key ways the church can guard itself from error and maintain its purity is to confirm the faith of its people and keep them accountable. The early church didn’t have a name for that—they didn’t need one. Today we call it church membership. (source)

Clearly, McArthur believes that membership is taught in the Scripture. He is only saying that the doctrine isn’t expressed in today’s terms. We could say the exact same thing about the Trinity. Terminologically speaking, the New Testament doesn’t speak of the Trinity. That isn’t a denial of the Trinity. It is a simple statement of fact. But the concept is present both explicitly and by logical inference.

The doctrine of membership in a local church is, at least in part, arrived at by good and necessary consequences (WFC 1.6). I don’t intend to lay out the biblical argument in this post but rather just demonstrate that this is the thinking of the reformers. They saw membership as a logical consequence of the teaching of Scripture. For example, in the FPG they argue for the lawfulness and expediency of fixed congregations on three grounds:

First, Because they who dwell together, being bound to all kind of moral duties one to another, have the better opportunity thereby to discharge them; which moral tie is perpetual; for Christ came not to destroy the law, but to fulfil it.

Secondly, The communion of saints must be so ordered, as may stand with the most convenient use of the ordinances, and discharge of moral duties, without respect of persons.

Thirdly, The pastor and people must so nearly cohabit together, as that they may mutually perform their duties each to other with most conveniency.

In addition to this, a close reading of various confessions will show that the requirement for membership in a particular church is deeply connected to a Reformed understanding of the sacraments (e.g. WFC 30, 2 Helvetic 28). This is particularly important because Marinov claims:

The Reformers worked to Christianize societies but they never mentioned anything about “local church membership.” In Geneva of Calvin, the city had a number of church buildings for church members to gather on Sunday (and every day, for that matter), but there was never a division of which family goes to which church, or any membership in a specific church.

This is demonstrably false. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Calvin’s Geneva should know that this isn’t true! The reality is that Genevan children were supposed to attend their parish church for their catechism instruction. Likewise, communicant Genevans were supposed to take the Lord’s Supper in their parish church. This is clearly outlined in the Ecclesiastical Ordinance (1541). For example, Calvin writes:

For bringing children to catechism, and for receiving the sacraments, the boundaries of the parishes should as far as possible be observed; that is, St. Gervais embracing what it had in the past, the Magdalene similarly, St. Peter what belonged formerly to St. Germain, St. Cross, Our Lady the New, and St. Legier.”(Library of Christian Classics p. 62 Also, see p. 69)

This wasn’t simply for practical reasons. There was a pastoral motivation behind it. Calvin writes:

The Sunday before the celebration, intimation is to be made, in order that no child come before it has made profession of its faith as proved by examination by the Catechism, and also that all strangers and new-comers may be exhorted first to come and present themselves at the church, so that they be instructed and thus none approach to his own condemnation. (Library of Christian Classics p. 67)

In other words, Calvin doesn’t have a wishy washy view of the Lord’s Supper. Only those that have demonstrated what we would now refer to as a “credible profession” were welcomed to the table. The table was protected by the pastors. So much so that the consistory would typically be very busy with resolving church discipline cases just prior to the quarterly communion service.

In essence, they wanted all those who demonstrated repentance to be welcome to the table, but that required that the consistory rule on their cases. Conversely, they wanted to keep the table from those that would shirk discipline. This is why Calvin required them to attend their parish church. Calvin had written to Bullinger expressing his concern that Genevans saw them simply as preachers and not as pastors. This practice then allowed for a degree of pastoral oversight.

Also, consider the fact that Calvin had hoped that reform would eventually lead to weekly communion. It is reasonable then to conclude that he would have advocated for Genevans to attend the same church every Sunday. I suppose that is debatable but the rest isn’t. There were requirements placed on what church Genevans should attend. It wasn’t weekly requirement for adults but quarterly requirement was an application of pastoral theology. Nonetheless, participation in a particular church was necessitated by their view of the Lord’s Supper.

Membership is Neither Optional Nor Salvific

It is true that membership in a local church doesn’t save you. However, very few will be saved without it. In other words, it is central but not absolutely necessary to salvation. This may seem like double-talk. It isn’t. The confession says “there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” outside the visible church (WFC 25.2). The key word is ordinary. There are situations that fall outside of the norm. Salvation can come to the man locked away in a prison or exiled in some pagan land. Nonetheless, normally Christians, as John Calvin argues, are carried from “birth” to the “putting off of mortal flesh” through the “care and guidance” of the visible church (Inst. 4.1.4).

In this sense, membership in a local church is much like the partaking of the sacraments. Consider the helpful language of the confession regarding baptism:

Although it is a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it: or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated (WFC 28.5)

Salvation isn’t “inseparably” connected to baptism. The same could be said for the Lord’s Supper. You can be saved apart from the sacraments. Circumstances do arise in history in which divine providence prevents an individual from partaking in these sacraments. However, we can rightly say that the lack of partaking in such circumstances isn’t the fruit of contempt or willful negligence. This, of course, doesn’t mean that the sacraments are optional. The individual possesses the desire but lacks the opportunity. It would be a great sin to possesses the opportunity but lack the desire.

So it is with the local church. It isn’t optional. To the contrary, it is a great sin to contemn and neglect her care and ministry. Calvin says, “He who voluntarily deserts the outward communion of the church (where the Word of God is preached and the sacraments are administered) is without excuse.” Every believer according to their ability and opportunity should voluntarily join themselves to a local church. In the Due Right of Presbyteries, Samuel Rutherford writes, “An adjoining to a visible Church either formally to be a member thereof, or materially, confessing the Faith of the true visible Church, God offering occasion, is necessary of all.”

Ironically, Marinov quotes the Second Helvetic Confession to support his “local church is optional” position. I say this is ironic because it author, Heinrich Bullinger, couldn’t disagree more. Consider these two quotes:

For you shall find in these days captious and fantastical men, not a few, which of many years have had fellowship with no church nor as yet have fellowship with any; for in every man that is they find some kind of fault, in themselves only they find nothing worthy reprehension. (Heinrich Bullinger, Decades, Volume 5, The Second Sermon)

It is a heinous sin and a detestable schism, if the congregation be assembled, either in cities or villages,for thee then to seek out byways to hide thyself, and not to come there, but to contemn the church of God and assembly of saints: as the Anabaptists have taken an use to do. (Heinrich Bullinger, Decades, Volume 2, The Second Sermon: “The Fourth Precept of the Ten Commandments”)

I should add that the Second Helvetic itself does not allow for the view that it is optional to belong to a particular church. I’ll quote the same section he quotes:

Nevertheless, by the signs [of the true Church] mentioned above, we do not so narrowly restrict the Church as to teach that all those are outside the Church who either do not participate in the sacraments, at least not willingly and through contempt, but rather, being forced by necessity, unwillingly abstain from them or are deprived of them; or in whom faith sometimes fails, though it is not entirely extinguished and does not wholly cease; or in whom imperfections and errors due to weakness are found. (emphasis mine)

This restates what I’ve already argued. Namely, a Christian may not willingly abstain or deprive himself of the ministries of the local church. Here they are referring to those who are unable, due to providence, to partake in the sacraments. It is important to understand that they righty saw the sacraments as something that happened in the public worship gathering and were administered by a minister. Consider the following section:

The duties of ministers are various; yet for the most part they are restricted to two, in which all the rest are comprehended: to the teaching of the Gospel of Christ, and to the proper administration of the sacraments. For it is the duty of the ministers to gather together an assembly for worship in which to expound God’s Word…And, besides, they are to administer the sacraments, and to commend the right use of them, and to prepare all men by wholesome doctrine to receive them…

In other words, the sacraments are a ministry of the local church. so, we are to understand that those who are unable to partake in sacraments are those who, of no choosing of their own, are unable to join themselves to a local church. These Christians, according to the Second Helvetic, are very much members of the visible church. They only would say otherwise if these professed believers “willingly and through contempt” purposely neglect the sacraments. That would raise a red flag with them as it did with Calvin and Rutherford.

When in the Wilderness

It is necessary that we pause here for a moment and consider the right course of action for those who are isolated from a true church. It is a real dilemma which Christians find themselves in for various reasons. Sometimes there simply isn’t a church. Other times the only churches that are available have “so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan” (WCF 25.5). Public worship is impossible in the former situation and it would be sinful to join yourself to such a church in the latter situation. What is a Christian to do?

Marinov claims, “In [Calvin’s] ‘anti-Nicodemite writings’ he made it very clear that in the case where the churches in an area were all impure, the best course for a true Christian was to leave them and worship in private. Yes, worship in private!” This is actually a misrepresentation of Calvin’s position. Marinov justifies his claim with the following citation:

Some one will therefore ask me what counsel I would like to give to a believer who thus dwells in some Egypt or Babylon where he may not worship God purely, but is forced by the common practice to accommodate himself to bad things. The first advice would be to leave if he could. . . . If someone has no way to depart, I would counsel him to consider whether it would be possible for him to abstain from all idolatry in order to preserve himself pure and spotless toward God in both body and soul. Then let him worship God in private, praying him to restore his poor church to its right estate . . . .

Even in its truncated form it is clear that Calvin doesn’t see private worship as the best course of action. He says, “The first advice would be to leave if he could…” He is saying that they should leave a false church, not for private worship, but for a true church somewhere else. In essence, the best course is geographic relocation. This point becomes all the more clear when you read Calvin’s quote in its larger context.

Some one will therefore ask me what counsel I would like to give to a believer who thus dwells in some Egypt or Babylon where he may not worship God purely, but is forced by the common practice to accommodate himself to bad things. The first advice would be to leave if he could. For when all is well considered; happy is he who is far from such abominations, because it is very difficult to be so close to them with sullying oneself in them. So let him withdraw to a place where he would not be forced to get involved in such garbage, or to hear God’s name and word blasphemed, keeping silent and dissembling as if he were in agreement. On the other hand, [it would be a place] where it would be permissible for him to profess his Christianity in the assembly of Christians, to be a partaker of the holy doctrine of the gospel, to enjoy the pure and entire use of the sacraments, and to share in the public prayers. In my opinion, this would be the best thing to do.

If someone has no way to depart, I would counsel him to consider whether it would be possible for him to abstain from all idolatry in order to preserve himself pure and spotless toward God in both body and soul. Then let him worship God in private, praying him to restore his poor church to its right estate.

Finally, let him do his duty by instructing and edifying the wretched ignorant souls as much as he can. If he replies that he cannot do that without the peril of death, I grant it. Yet the glory of God, which is involved here, should be much more precious to us than this perishable, fleeting life, which to tell the truth, is no more than a shadow.

These omissions are significant because they underscore that Calvin saw private worship as a last resort and one that should be temporary. He says that the best thing to do is to find an assembly where the believer can openly profess his Christianity. If such an assembly can’t be found, then the believer should move. If that can’t happen, then the believer can worship at home. However, Calvin goes on to say that the believer can’t simply worship at home. He has a duty to instruct the ignorant. This instruction has a particular purpose in a particular context, which is made clear in Calvin’s anti-Nicodemite sermon on Psalm 27:4. Calvin writes:

As for those babblers who ridicule us, wondering if one cannot get to paradise except by way of Geneva, I answer: would to God they had the courage to gather in the name of Jesus Christ wherever they are, and set up some sort of church, either in their houses, or in those of their neighbours, to do in their place what we do here in our temples! But what do we find? Not deigning to use the means God provides them, they still want to be saved. It is like asking if they cannot come to port rowing backwards, or if they cannot tempt God and still enjoy grace. Well, let them make themselves as big and strong as they like in order to break their own neck; but let the children of God be very careful not to exalt themselves with them. And, whoever has no means of being in the Christian church, where God is worshipped purely, let him groan night and day, ‘Thine altars, Lord; it is only thine altars that I desire, my God, my king!” And let this fire remain always lit in all good hearts, so that, come what may, they never weary of being thus transported. Let not the length of time cool them so that they stop seeking to be led to the flocks. Furthermore, let everyone look well to himself and see to it that he gathers quickly to the banner, as soon as our Lord gives him the means to do so. This is how one must show that he was not faking when he made this request to dwell in the house of God.

In short, Calvin allows for private worship when membership in a true church cannot be achieved. However, that private worship should, in God’s providence, lead to something more and more approximating a fully developed true church. Private worship, though perhaps necessary for a season, is always an unideal state.

The consistent teaching of the reformers is to keep the local church central. It is by her ministry that we are carried through this life. Calvin puts it beautifully in his Institutes:

But as it is now our purpose to discourse of the visible Church, let us learn, from her single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels.

Durbin is no innovator. He is just Reformed. He, like so many before him, rightly sees the local church as “fundamental” to the Christian life. It is Marinov who has departed from Reformed Christianity. He has repeatedly manipulated sources to pass off his practice as reformed, but nothing could be further from truth. The reformers would have no patience for a Facebook prophet of his ilk and neither should we. 

In closing, there is much more that could be said about Marinov’s ecclesiology. I’ve yet to even address his take on membership covenants and elders. I’m not sure if I’ll return to do a part four. His writing is so dishonest it grieves my spirit. The reality is that his influence, small as it already is, will shrink not because of my labor but because of his increasingly obvious heterodoxy. I hope this is enough for you to see that this man is a liar and that his doctrine is not Reformed. 

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