Article 28 - Everyone's Duty to Join the Church
EVERYONE’S DUTY TO JOIN THE CHURCH
We believe, since this holy assembly and congregation is the assembly of the redeemed and there is no salvation outside of it, that no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, no matter what his status or standing may be. But all and everyone are obliged to join it and unite with it, maintaining the unity of the church. They must submit themselves to its instruction and discipline, bend their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ, and serve the edification of the brothers and sisters, according to the talents which God has given them as members of the same body.
To observe this more effectively, it is the duty of all believers, according to the Word of God, to separate from those who do not belong to the church and to join this assembly wherever God has established it. They should do so even though the rulers and edicts of princes were against it, and death or physical punishment might follow.
All therefore who draw away from the church or fail to join it act contrary to the ordinance of God.
In Article 27 we repeated after God what He taught us in Scripture about the Church and her characteristics. The Church, we confessed, is not the sum total of God’s elect, but rather the gathering of the people of God, the assembly of all those saved through Jesus Christ. The gathering of all the elect in one place will occur on the Last Day, when the church will be complete. We also confessed four attributes of the church: her unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity.
Article 28 continues with the confession begun in Article 27: “We believe, since this holy assembly and congregation ...” Which holy assembly and congregation does deBres refer to here? Could deBres possibly be referring to a Church different from that confessed in Article 27? Is it possible that the church spoken of in Article 27 is a reference to the Church as God sees it, a church invisible to man, and that Article 28 is a reference to the Church as man sees it, a visible church? This distinction between a visible and an invisible church has become widely accepted in our day (see below). However, deBres did not intend such a contrast, as is clear from his use of the pronoun ‘this’ in his opening sentence. “This holy assembly and congregation” spoken of in Article 28 is not a new or different Church, but the very same assembly spoken of in Article 27, the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church the Lord gathers locally throughout history.
VISIBLE VERSUS INVISIBLE
The popular notion of a visible church versus an invisible church comes not from Scripture but from the teaching of the Greek philosopher Plato. Plato (he lived some four centuries before Christ) tried to come to grips with the concept of what is real. He reasoned that a real, true impression of things exists only in the mind of God, and that on earth God has placed many representations of the real thing in His mind. For example, God alone has in mind an accurate impression of the horse, but on earth there exist many different representations of the real horse, such as the Shetland pony, the Clydesdale, the Arabian race horse, the Quarter horse, the Palomino, etc. Each variety of horse, Plato taught, shows to greater or lesser degree something of the real horse-as-God-alone-knows-it. Hence, the real horse is not the same as the horse one sees in the field. The real horse only exists in God’s mind and is invisible to man. Each different kind of horse is merely a better or worse representation of what is in God’s mind. We might, for example, judge the sleek Arabian racehorse to be a more pure horse than the stout, heavy Clydesdale.
Theologians have adopted Plato’s distinction between the visible and the invisible in their efforts to understand what the Church was. The real Church, it was said, was something God alone saw. To man the real Church was and remains invisible; man can only see manifestations of the Church on earth. These manifestations include for example the Lutheran Church, the Church of Christ, the Anglican Church, the Baptist Church, the Presbyterian Church, etc. Each church is a better or worse representation of the real Church as God alone knows it. Each church is a true church (as each horse is true), but the one church is a closer or more pure representation of the real-church-as-God-sees-it than the other.
This perception of the church goes today by the name of ‘pluriformity’. Abraham Kuyper was a proponent of this view, going so far as to extol the great variety among the churches as manifold expression of God’s wisdom. As the more varieties of horses show up something of the wisdom of God (in making the same thing in so many different ways), so the sheer multitude of churches give reason to praise God the more.
Today each of these different visible manifestations of the Church-as-God-knows-it are called “denominations”. The term ‘denominations’ does not come from God’s revelation in holy Scripture, but comes from the world of banking. Before coins replaced dollar notes, one could find a $1 note, $2 note, $5 note, $10 note, $20 note, etc – all denominations of one set. Each banknote is legal tender, all are valid denominations – though the higher currency notes may be more valuable and desirable than the lower currency notes.
When the term ‘denomination’ is now applied to the church, the thought is that every church is equally real and equally valid – be it that one church is more desirable than the other. The one church may be more pure (in one’s opinion) than the next church, or more attractive and desirable to personal taste. But all are equally valid churches, as different notes are equally valid money. Denominationalism is the modern child of Plato’s philosophy applied to the doctrine of the church. The theory fits hand-in-glove in the Postmodern philosophy of our times, for no church is right or wrong – as no horse, or no denomination of money, is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; the one is just more pure or more desirable, depending on personal taste.
Obviously, consequences follow. If all the churches of town are equally valid churches (be it with different degrees of purity according to personal taste or cultural influences), it does not principally matter which church one joins – as long as you join a church. You can no longer speak of true churches verses false churches, no more than you can speak of true horses verses false horses – for all horses are by definition true horses. This leads to church shopping, and settling in the church where you feel comfortable. Again, since all churches are true (though the one more pure than the other), you cannot ultimately condemn interdenominational services or communion. Admission to the pulpit or to the Lord’s table is no longer regulated by which church one belongs to, but instead by whether one belongs to a church (and is, of course, a believer).
This distinction between the church-as-God-sees-it and the church-as-man-sees-it (with the numerous visible churches of town being better or lesser manifestations of the church-as-God-sees-it) is simply not found in deBres’ writing. I drew attention earlier to the force of the pronoun ‘this’ in the opening line of Article 28; the church one must join on earth is the same church confessed in Article 27. On top of that, the very term ‘church’ itself describes an assembly, by definition something local and tangible. It is true that the church is not over-see-able (like the ocean), but that doesn’t make it invisible or something nebulous and hard-to-define. The Platonic distinction between church as visible and invisible is a philosophical import made popular in the last two centuries, and then read into the Belgic Confession. It is not a Scriptural distinction, and should –together with its consequences be rejected.
If we can agree, then, to reject this error, we can read deBres’ words for what they say, and join him in repeating after God what the Lord has revealed in Scripture about the duty to join the church.
THE OBLIGATION TO JOIN
To emphasize the obligation of one and all to join the church, deBres uses powerful logic.
1) the Church “is the assembly of the redeemed,” and
2) “there is no salvation outside of it,”
1) “no one ought to withdraw from it,” and
2) “all and everyone are obliged to join it.”
We note: deBres lists two realities, and on the basis of these two realities comes to two conclusions – or, rather, one conclusion which, like all coins, has two sides. DeBres repeats the conclusion in the closing sentence of this article: “All therefore who draw away from the Church or fail to join it act contrary to the ordinance of God.” That’s strong language. On what Scriptural grounds was deBres able to make such a statement in his day? Was he actually ‘repeating after God’ here, or was he recording nothing more than a personal conviction? The question is important: are we able to defend such a perspective and such strong language in our confession today?
A. THE TWO REALITIES
1) THE CHURCH IS THE ASSEMBLY OF THE REDEEMED
The following Scriptural arguments may be mentioned in support of the Confession’s claim that the Church is the assembly of the redeemed.
i. The Church Belongs to God
Article 28 had begun with describing the Church as “this holy assembly”. This description of the Church is an echo of passages of Scripture as Exodus 19:6 (“a holy nation”) and 1 Peter 2:9 (again “a holy nation”). Notice how the apostle applies to the Church of the New Testament the identical title Israel received from God in the Old Testament. This holy nation, washed by the blood of Christ, belongs to God; these are the people whom God in Christ has delivered from the power of the devil. That is why the apostle Paul regularly speaks of the congregation as “the church of God.” Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are addressed to “the church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1). This is the normal congregation, with many weaknesses and sins, strongly admonished by the apostle to repent. Yet, because of Christ’s work for them, she is addressed as “church of God”.
Paul writes to Timothy about how things ought to be done in Church (regarding, for example, the offices in the Church). Timothy is a minister of the Church at Ephesus, minister of a real, local Church, God’s house. Writes Paul, “These things I write to you … so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:14,15). This Church in Ephesus, with all its sins and weaknesses, is God’s house, God’s dwelling place, God’s Church. To belong to God means then, too, that one ought to belong to God’s church. The church’s identity as church of God requires that all the redeemed join her.
In fact, since the church belongs to God, God Himself made a point of joining new believers to His church. Peter’s preaching after Pentecost was blessed with many converts. The Lord, however, did not let these converts float wherever they would. Scripture tells us rather that “the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). The church to which God joined these new believers was not an invisible Church, but a real, visible entity where the believers “continued ... in the breaking of bread” (vs 42). To belong to God, to be one of the redeemed, implies that one also must be joined to His Church.
ii. The Brethren desire Togetherness
Psalm 1:5 makes mention of “... the congregation of the righteous.” The righteous persons of the Psalm are not portrayed as so many scattered individuals. They are a body, a group together, ‘the congregation of the righteous’. They are together because they take seriously the command of a passage as Leviticus 23:3. God decreed that “the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation.” The term ‘convocation’ translates the notion of being called together in one place. Yet Israel was not to congregate at the soccer oval, but it was to be a “holy” convocation, and that’s to say that the people were to gather together at the tabernacle – where the gospel of redemption in Jesus’ blood was proclaimed through the sacrifices. At that tabernacle was “the congregation of the righteous,” and this is where the redeemed longed to be. The sons of Korah think back with nostalgia for the time when “I used to go with the multitude; I went with them to the house of God, With the voice of joy and praise, With a multitude that kept a pilgrim feast” (Psalm 42:4). David was “glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go into the house of the LORD’” (Psalm 122:1). The godly have no desire to be alone, but wish instead to be together in the presence of the Lord.
iii. In the Assembly of the Redeemed God meets His people
Ruth the Moabitess came to faith, and as a result insisted on accompanying Naomi to the land of Israel. She did so because, she said, “your people shall be my people, and your God, my God” (Ruth 1:16). She understood: you cannot separate God from His people. More, she would not meet God in the land of Moab, but had to go to the place where God was pleased to meet with His people.
Zechariah 8:23 tells us of the eagerness of the Gentiles to join the Jew. “Thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘In those days ten men from every language of the nations shall grasp the sleeve of a Jewish man, saying “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’” These Gentiles do not simply embrace the faith of Israel and then stay in their heathen land; rather, they realize that those who treasure salvation shall also seek to join the assembly of the redeemed, for that is where God is.
Here is again the message of the passage quoted earlier from Leviticus 23:3: “the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation.” The gathering was to be at the tabernacle because the Lord God dwelt with Israel in the Holy of Holies in the back of the tabernacle. The people had to assemble at the tabernacle because that is where God would meet with them, to set before them the gospel of redemption through the blood of Another and to lay upon them His divine blessing.
Why, then, must I join the Church? To put the question differently: why must I join the assembly of the redeemed? Why is any alternative improper? If God is my God, then I want to be with the others God has redeemed – and that’s the Church of God. In the unforgettable words of John Calvin: “to those to whom [God] is a Father, the Church must also be a mother” (Institutes, IV, I, I).
2) OUTSIDE THE CHURCH THERE IS NO SALVATION
The second reason mentioned in Article 28 for the prohibition against withdrawal from the Church and the demand to join the Church is the phrase “there is no salvation outside of it.” This phrase has been variously interpreted over the years. There have been those who understood the pronoun ‘it’ in this phrase to refer to the invisible church, the church as God sees it, all the elect. Then the point of the phrase is that there is no salvation outside the body of the elect; that is: outside the body of the elect none will be saved. So the punch of the phrase becomes that one must make sure that he is elect, is a believer, must come to faith. Yet, since the Confession does not speak of some invisible church (= all the elect), this cannot be the meaning of the phrase.
There have also been those who have understood the phrase to mean that no one will be saved outside the Church (= the gathering of the people of God), for believers are only to be found inside the Church. This understanding assumes that all the elect are in the local, visible church, and so this local church equals all the elect of a given community. However, with Article 27 we have confessed Scripture to teach that the Church is not all the elect but is rather the assembly of the elect. With our discussion of Article 27 we also learned that, according to Scripture, there can be, and indeed are, believers, elect persons, outside the church. One cannot maintain that only the members of a particular federation of churches will enter heaven.
The point of the phrase ‘there is no salvation outside of it’ is that salvation is not available outside the church. God has ordained that salvation is made available for mankind not in the bush or on the beach, nor in the flock of a hireling (John 10:12); salvation is available there where Christ is, where His voice is heard. That is so because one needs faith to be saved (cf John 3:16), and “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17; see also Lord’s Day 25). The Word one hears in the preaching is the Word of Christ, is the Voice of the Good Shepherd. “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me,” Jesus said (John 10:27). So the church is the workshop of the Holy Spirit; through the preaching in the assembly of the redeemed the Spirit of Jesus Christ works faith in the hearts of those whom the Father has given to the Son.
To clarify: if one wished to buy a bike, the place to go is the local bike shop. Certainly you do not go to the local bakery to buy a bike. So too: if one wants salvation, there is a place where one is guaranteed to find it, namely, the Church. One can find salvation here because this is where Christ labors. In His Church His voice is heard (in the preaching), and so in His Church the Holy Spirit works faith. If one wants faith, there is a place to go to obtain it.
Again, this is not to say that outside the Church no one will ever be saved. It is quite possible that one will one day find a bike for sale in a bakery. Yet that possibility does not mean that you shop at all the bakeries to find a bike. As almighty God, the Holy Spirit is able to work faith wherever and however He pleases. He has, though, been pleased to bind Himself to a particular means to work the faith needed for salvation, and that is through the preaching of the Word. It is for us to abide by the means the Lord has revealed to us. If we wish to be saved, we need to adhere to the norms of Scripture. That means: we join the Church of Jesus Christ, every Sunday anew. We do so because we believe that this is where the Holy Spirit works the faith needed to be saved. So it will not do for me to stay away from Church, or to go to the church of the hireling (much as the hireling may sound like Christ, see John 10:12); rather, I am to respect the means God Himself is pleased to use to bring His chosen children to faith.
These two realities lead to two conclusions. Since
1) the church is “the assembly of the redeemed”, and
2) “there is no salvation outside of it”,
two conclusions follow:
1) “no one ought to withdraw from it”, and
2) “all and everyone are obliged to join it”.
B. THE TWO CONCLUSIONS
1) WITHDRAWAL IS ALWAYS ILLEGITIMATE
Article 28 concludes as follows, “All therefore who draw away from the Church or fail to join it act contrary to the ordinance of God.” It does not say here that a person who withdraws himself from the Church will be lost and go to hell. DeBres expresses himself in modest terms concerning the eternal destiny of those who withdraw from the Church. This is in keeping with the apostle’s command in 1 Corinthians 5:12,13: “For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges.” Even so, the act of withdrawing from the church is contrary to God’s ordinance, is sin. And sin invariably has consequences. To explain how withdrawing is always sin, and what consequences follow, we need to consider God’s second commandment.
The second commandment reads as follows: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image – any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exodus 20:4,5) One can make a molten image of God to set up in one’s house as an aid to worship Him; one can also develop a mental image of God in one’s mind – and one will then worship God in accordance with the mental image of God one has developed in one’s mind. That’s why the church summarizes God’s instruction in the second commandment like this: “We are not to make an image of God in any way, nor to worship Him in any other manner than He has commanded in His Word” (Lord’s Day 35, Q & A 96).
Why would one withdraw from the church? One leaves the assembly of the redeemed only because one is convinced that the Lord permits it. The thought goes like this: though the church belongs to God, He will not mind my staying away from the church of God – as if God will overlook my transgression. Or: though He says the church is one, He will not mind if I go elsewhere where my own back is stroked. Or: though He says He works faith through the preaching, He’ll make an exception for me. Withdrawing from the church of God is the product of having in one’s mind a perception about God that differs from His revelation about Himself in His holy Word!
We need to know that the Lord does not tolerate that one worship Him in a self-chosen manner. The second commandment continues: “For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me...” (Deuteronomy 5:9). Who hate the Lord? The reference here is not to the heathen or the harlots, but to those who decline to embrace the Lord as He actually is, who replace His revelation about Himself with a modified mental image of God – and so serve ‘God’ in a manner or in a place different from what God has commanded. Such action provokes God’s jealousy, so that the Lord pours out His judgment on the coming generations.
No, withdrawing from the Church does not automatically make one an unbeliever or earn one a place in hell. Yet it remains true that the Holy Spirit works faith through the preaching. To absent oneself from the preaching means one’s faith is no longer fed, and so it will eventually suffer from malnutrition. More, my actions today not only affect me, but have implications for my children also. If I no longer go to church to hear God’s Word and be instructed in His way, I invariably set a bad example for my children and grandchildren; their perception of Who God is will be more relaxed still, and it will come out in their behavior – also in relation to the church. More still, since I close myself off from being fed through God’s Word, I shall not be able to teach the coming generations the way of the Lord to the degree I should. One must bear in mind, then, that withdrawing from the Church is not a decision for the self only, but has obvious implications for future generations. One need but look around to see what has become of the descendents into the third and fourth generation of those who have withdrawn years ago from the church. On the other hand, God blesses obedience; He shows “mercy to thousands of those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Deuteronomy 5:10) – including His command to be faithful in joining the church Sunday after Sunday.
DeBres lived in a time when it was exceedingly dangerous to join the church of Jesus Christ, due to intense persecution. Yet deBres was categorical as he sought to echo in his confession what the Lord had revealed in His Word. “It is the duty of all believers,” deBres confessed, “to separate from those who do not belong to the Church and to join this assembly wherever God has established it. They should do so even though the rulers and edicts of princes were against it, and death or physical punishment might follow.” He rules out, then, all exceptions. Neither hard feelings nor strained relationships, neither death threats nor opportunities to make an extra dollar, neither enjoying activities nor another preacher justify leaving the church of Jesus Christ. Sunday by Sunday, as often as the Lord gives health and opportunity, I am to be present with the saints in the workshop of the Holy Spirit.
Why is joining the Church even worth the cost of one’s life or physical punishment? It is because, ultimately, one’s own (and one’s children’s) eternal salvation is at stake. The price of withdrawing from the Church is always too high to pay. “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Mark 8:36).
2) THE CHURCH AND THE COMMUNION OF SAINTS
The consequence flowing from the double reality of 1) the church being “the assembly of the redeemed,” and 2) “there is no salvation outside of it,” includes more than that “no one ought to withdraw from it”. There is also the obligation that “all and everyone are obliged to join it and unite with it.”
Joining the Church involves more than getting your name on a membership list and so placing oneself under the oversight of the office bearers. That’s only a small part of it. Joining oneself to the Church is something one does Sunday by Sunday, by being in Church when the Word is preached. This was the command of God to Old Testament Israel: “the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation” (Leviticus 23:3). The need to be gathered together is repeated in the New Testament, for the apostle exhorts the Hebrews not to forsake “the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25). Soon Christ shall return, time is running out, and it is for me to be there where salvation through Him alone is preached. It’s all part of Jesus’ command to “watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming” (Matthew 24:42).
Again, there is more to Church membership than filling my spot in the pew each Sunday. Church membership also implies an active involvement on the part of each member of the body. Says deBres: The members “must submit themselves to (the Church’s) instruction and discipline, bend their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ, and serve the edification of the brothers and sisters, according to the talents which God has given them as members of the same body.” Scripture compares the Church, the body of believers, to a physical body where all members of the body are dependent upon each other. One reads of this in 1 Corinthians 12:12, “For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many are one body, so also is Christ.” Each member needs the other, and the other members all need him.
The communion of saints is part and parcel of being Church. Said Paul to the Corinthians, “Now you (the saints of Corinth, the Corinthian Church), are a body of Christ, and members individually” (1 Corinthians 12:27. (Note: the Greek text does not have the definite article ‘the’ here). That is: the church of Corinth is a complete body, with each member needing every other member. So each believer in Corinth was to make a point of being actively involved in the body, for mutual benefit and personal advantage. Likewise, the Church of Kelmscott today is a complete body of Christ, and so is the church in Yarrow. That is why the church in Kelmscott, as well as the church in Yarrow, is also to be a body, to be a communion of saints together, where each member is there for the other and where each member is dependent upon the other. It will not do for me therefore to distance myself from the congregation. After all, is David’s delight in the communion of saints, his delight in the togetherness of the saints, not also my delight? (Psalm 16, Psalm 122). Hence I delight in congregating with the saints Sunday by Sunday, and I give myself in service to the saints all the time.
Much confusion prevails concerning the doctrine of the Church. God’s revelation on this point of doctrine, though, is not so confusing. Instead, His revelation is clear – and has consequences for us that run counter to our fallen desires. May the Lord give grace that we humbly repeat after God, in word and in deed, what He teaches us about His Church.
Points for Discussion:
- Article 28 underlines the need to join the church. According to this article, which church must one join?
- Explain what, in popular, philosophical terms, the invisible church is.
- What is the theory of denominationalism? Evaluate it in light of God’s revelation.
- If one belongs to God, ought one also to belong to God’s church? Why or why not?
- The confession says that “outside of it there is no salvation.” What does this expression mean? Explain its comfort and its obligation.
- What is wrong with withdrawing from the church? What consequences follow? Do those who withdraw from the church invariably go to hell? Why or why not?
- Why is the communion of saints an essential element of the church? Is there true communion of saints across church borders?
- Should shouldering the cost of reformed education be primarily the responsibility of the parents of school age children or should the communion of saints as a whole bear the weight of the cost together? Why?
- Should shouldering the cost of caring for the aged of the congregation be primarily the responsibility of the family or should the communion of saints as a whole bear the weight of the cost together? Why?
- Discuss the same question in relation to the care of the handicapped in the congregation.