Faith and Membership

The Catechism, painting by Edith Hartry
The Catechism, painting by Edith Hartry

In some Reformed congregations and denominations, full subscription to the Reformed Confessions (i.e. the Three Forms of Unity and/or the Westminster Standards) is required for church membership.

I always had a problem with that because, according to the Bible (i.e. John 3:16 and Ephesians 2:8-9), I was saved in 1988 by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, without works, without Protestant church membership, and definitely without the Reformed Confessions. I was not perfect, had lots of doctrinal and ethical deformities, and was still in the Roman Catholic Church with no Protestant contacts, but I was truly converted, saved and growing in Christ.

Codex Manesse, fol. 292v, "The Schoolmaster of Esslingen" (Der Schulmeister von Eßlingen)
Codex Manesse, fol. 292v, “The Schoolmaster of Esslingen” (Der Schulmeister von Eßlingen), between 1305 and 1340

In membership classes, I teach the following “Basic Essentials of the Christian Faith”:

  1. The Bible is the perfect and authoritative Word of God for faith and life. (2 Timothy 3:6)
  2. There is one God in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19)
  3. God alone is the Creator, Ruler and Savior of the world. (Romans 11:36)
  4. All men are sinful, subject to God’s wrath and unable to save self. (Romans 3:23)
  5. Jesus Christ is 100% God and 100% man. (Philippians 2:6-8)
  6. Christ died for sins and satisfied God’s wrath. (Isaiah 53:5)
  7. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
  8. The Holy Spirit causes and enables true believers to grow in holiness and obedience. (Ezekiel 36:26-27)
  9. All professing believers and their children are members of Christ’s church. (Acts 16:30-34)
  10. Jesus Christ will return again as Judge of all men and to be with His church forever. (Matthew 25:31-46)

It’s basically a study of the Apostles’ Creed.

Catechism, Genevan
Title page of 1545 edition of the Genevan Catechism

Because salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, all who profess to believe these basic essentials of the Christian faith and show fruits of conversion (new life) must be accepted as full-pledge members of the church, even if they do not believe in covenant infant baptism, T.U.L.I.P., Presbyterian polity, etc. As one pastor stated wisely, “Membership in the visible church must be open as wide as the gates of heaven.”

Now, although full Reformed confessional subscription must never be required for church membership, it must be required of office-bearers. Members who do not fully subscribe to the Reformed Standards (i.e. the Three Forms of Unity and/or the Westminster Standards) cannot and must never be allowed to serve as office-bearers in a congregation of Christ.

Secondly, although full Reformed confessional subscription must never be required for membership, the church must be absolutely confessional and bear the marks of a true church: (1) the pure preaching of God’s word, (2) the proper administration of the sacraments, and (3) the faithful exercise of church discipline. This requires that, beyond basic membership classes, there must be a system of continuing, thorough catechetical/confessional instruction for all members, i.e. both full-confession subscribers and basic-creed believers. Basic-creed believers may, even after full-orbed catechetical/confessional instruction, continue to reject some Reformed doctrinal distinctives that are not essential to salvation, but they may not serve as office-bearers nor speak to others about teachings that do not accord with the Doctrinal Standards of the church.

Presbyterian Catechising, painting by John Phillip
Presbyterian Catechising, painting by John Phillip

“In all churches a distinction is made between the terms upon which private members are admitted to membership, and the terms upon which office-bearers are admitted to their sacred trusts of teaching and ruling. A Church has no right to make anything a condition of membership which Christ has not made a condition of salvation. The Church is Christ’s fold. The sacraments are the seals of his covenant. All have a right to claim admittance who make a credible profession of the true religion—that is, who are presumptively the people of Christ. This credible profession of course involves a competent knowledge of the fundamental doctrine of Christianity—a declaration of personal faith in Christ and consecration to his service, and a temper of mind and habit consistent therewith. On the other hand, no man can be inducted into any office in any Church who does not profess to believe in the truth and wisdom of the constitution and laws which it will be his duty to conserve and administer. Otherwise all harmony of sentiment and all efficient co-operation in action would be impossible.” – A. A. Hodge, Westminster Confession: A Commentary


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