The Christian as a Church Member

In April of 1942, Westminster Theological Seminary hosted “The Christian World Order Conference,” just a few short months after the United States had officially entered World War II. It was a time of great uncertainty in the world. The goal of the conference was to contrast a biblical view of the world with fascism, communism, and nationalism, which had taken root in Europe, Asia, and beyond. It was a conference dedicated to applying the riches of the Reformed theological tradition to public societal issues.

The conference’s success was evidence of a need for wider distribution of this content. The Presbyterian Guardian, a newspaper founded by J. Gresham Machen, and loosely affiliated with Westminster and the OPC, published nine articles in a series under the heading “The Christian in the 20th Century World” with the same goal as the conference.

The content of these articles is striking and, in many ways, as relevant to the 21st Century world as it was for readers in the mid-20th century. Westminster Magazine will be republishing each article, in print and online, over the next year.

This, the fifth of the articles, is Robert Marsden’s “The Christian as a Church Member.” Robert Marsden attended Princeton Theological Seminary under J. Gresham Machen. He left Princeton for Westminster and was in the first graduating class. Upon graduating he became pastor of Middletown Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) leaving that denomination to become a founding church of the OPC in 1936. He also served as the Executive Secretary of the seminary from 1947 until his death in 1960.

In this article, he draws out the implications of the fact that the Church is a divine institution that is both Organization and Organism. By virtue of that, membership in the Church comes with certain privileges and responsibilities. The privilege includes the ability to Worship God in union with fellow believers. The responsibility is to maintain the doctrinal purity of his own life as well as of the Church. While Marsden doesn’t speak much about the role of Church membership in society generally speaking, the inclusion of this article in the current series implies that Church membership serves an integral role in the life of the Christian today. As such, it ought to inform our daily life outside the four walls of the church as much as it does inside them. (Introduction written by Brandon Smith.)

Recently I remonstrated with a Christian friend who is on the rolls of a denomination which has departed far from the faith revealed in the Word of God. I urged him to sever his connection  with that church. His reply typifies the conception of church membership held by a large segment of evangelical Christianity. He said, "I don't believe it makes any difference to the Lord what earthly roll my name is on, just so my name is written in the Lamb's book of life”. This idea, in one form or another, is held, consciously or unconsciously, by millions of Christian people who retain their membership in churches which have departed from the truth of God. If indeed being a church member means simply having one’s name on a particular roll, and it does not make “any difference to the Lord” on what roll one's name appears, then indeed we who have withdrawn from one church and organized another are very much on the wrong track. All our struggles and sacrifices to launch a new church are then in vain, and are indeed an offense against God. 

       Now, to be sure, every child of God is a member of the church antecedent to his joining any particular body of Christians. All true believers are members of the church. The moment a Christian is born again he becomes a church member; a part of the body of Christ, a member of the bride of Christ. His name is then "written in the Lamb's book of life." But as an evidence of this spiritual union with Christ, a Christian will forthwith unite with the visible church. 

A Divine Institution 

       It is a true doctrine which is often controverted in our day that God who established the church invisible, which includes every true believer who ever has lived, or who ever will live, has also established the church visible which includes within its organization not only true believers but also those who make a false profession. That God intended that the church should have a visible manifestation in the world is clearly seen when we consider that God places certain privileges and duties upon the church which cannot be performed apart from the visible organization. He has charged the church to worship in accordance with His Word, to propagate the gospel throughout the whole world, to unite in the sacraments. He has prescribed the conduct of the members of the church and has taught who are to be included in its communion. He has appointed officers, specified their qualifications, their prerogatives and the mode of their appointment. He has enacted laws for the government of His church, and has given us examples  in the Scriptures of churches which were founded upon these laws and principles. All this presupposes the church as an organization as well as the church as an organism. Yet there are thousands of fine Christian people who have seen the corruption of many organized churches, and have concluded that the organized church is simply a human institution, and have thus withdrawn from it altogether. We are convinced that this conduct is not Biblical, and that it is the privilege and solemn responsibility of every Christian to be a member of a true church of Christ.

Privileges and Responsibilities 

       Church membership brings with it many privileges. The worship of God in union with God's people is an inestimable privilege belonging properly to the communicant members of the church and their children. To be sure, strangers always find a hearty welcome in the public services of worship, yet that bond of fellowship in the church is cemented only between those who are united as members of one body. Church organizations usually welcome outsiders as members, yet in most churches there is a wise provision that officers of organizations must be members of the church. It is the privilege of church members to teach in the Sunday school and  to assist in the instruction of the young, a privilege usually reserved for church members since it is they alone who have committed themselves to the minimum doctrinal requirements of church members. A part in the government of the church is reserved for communicant members, and to them alone belongs the privilege of having a voice in the selection of the minister and other church officers. When one considers that these privileges are not given to us by man but by God,  then he sees that it may be an affront to our gracious God if we shun these privileges by refusing to unite ourselves with the visible church. 

“The worship of God in union with God's people is an inestimable privilege belonging properly to the communicant members of the church and their children.”

       When a Christian is reminded of the privileges of church membership, however, he is also reminded of the responsibilities which accompany it. The church is not a human institution but an institution of divine command. It represents the body of Christ, and the members of it, as members of His mystical body, are in the most intimate relationship to each other and to their common Lord. They thus, in the most intimate way, have a mutual effect upon each other. 

       When one member sins, all incur the guilt. This is a doctrine which is clearly taught in the Scriptures. We see it in the Old Testament story of Achan who sinned and brought defeat upon the whole company of Israel (Joshua 7). It is significant that, in the first verse of that chapter, we are told that "the children of Israel committed a trespass", and then in the account that follows we are told that the trespass was committed by Achan the son of Carmi. Yet the whole company of the people was punished, and, since God is just; the whole company must  justly have been counted guilty. 

       We see the same doctrine displayed in the New Testament when Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, clearly lays the guilt of the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ upon the heads of all of Israel (Acts 2: 23). Of the people to whom Peter was speaking in his sermon on the day of Pentecost, only a small fraction had had any direct part in the crucifixion of the Savior. Most of them had probably not even been in Jerusalem at the earlier feast, and certainly a large number of them had done no more than stand passively by while their rulers arranged the crucifixion. Yet Peter speaks to them all as guilty! 


       In view, then, of the unity of the church, it behooves a church member to be zealous not only for the purity of his own life, but for the maintenance of purity within the church through  the regularly prescribed channels of church discipline. We all realize that church discipline is a dead letter in most churches, yet The Orthodox Presbyterian Church is sure that such discipline is Biblical and hence practices it. For a member of a church to resist discipline in himself or in  others is a virtual denial of the doctrine of the unity of the church and a refusal to make the Bible the only infallible rule of faith and life, for the principles of church discipline are clearly  enunciated in the Scriptures. A church member has a right, nay, a duty, to demand that discipline be administered in love and patience, yet he has a duty to see that it is administered completely in a Biblical manner.

        A contemplation of this unity of the church and of the mutual intimate relationship which exists between church members will also lead to a very real expression of love and affection among members. They will indeed bear one another's burdens—they will comfort one another, they will provoke one another to good works, for they have been united to one another in their common relation to Jesus Christ, their Lord and Savior.  


       The privilege of worship likewise carries with it certain grave responsibilities. The responsibility regularly to attend the services of worship is not one lightly to be shirked. It is not always "convenient" nowadays to attend all the regularly scheduled services of God's house. Beside the excuses which all admit to be invalid-laziness, pleasures, and so forth-there are now  many excuses which can, with just a little stretch of conscience, be regarded as adequate. We all should probably agree that much Sunday labor which has the war as its excuse involves a sinful  use of God's Sabbath day. Yet, some kinds of Sunday labor are now allowable as a work of  necessity in wartime, and the odd hours of work often give people an excuse for not attending any services in God's house. Gasoline rationing undoubtedly has interfered with attendance of some church members who sincerely wish they could be more regular at the services, yet it has  also been used as an excuse for non-attendance by those who seek such an excuse. Not every church member, but most church members, could so arrange the use of their automobiles, with curtailment of other driving and sharing of cars, that they could attend most of the church  services. Public transportation is not always adequate, and sometimes it is wholly non-existent, yet by a wise use of it I am confident that many who remain away from church could manage to attend more regularly. 

“The church is not a human institution but an institution of divine command.”

       I do not believe that a Christian who is a church member will willingly absent himself  from services in the house of God. He will always want to attend, although he may sometimes find it impossible simply because there are other demands upon his time and strength which can legitimately supplant even church attendance. He will want to attend in order to worship, but he will also want to attend because of the testimony of his attendance to others. It is simply a practical fact that you cannot easily persuade strangers to come into an empty church. The pastor may work never so hard, but if the members themselves are not in regular attendance at the  services, strangers whom he induces to attend the church once will probably not return. A full church breeds a fuller church. Not in a week or a month, but over a period of years, the surest way of interesting strangers in attending the services of the local church is for the church members always to be there. 


       A Christian church member will also desire to have some active part in the work of the church which he attends. If elected by the people, he will be willing to assume office in the church. If he is at all gifted, he will be willing to teach, to have part in the ministry of music, to lead the several societies of the church. He will do these things willingly, allowing the officers of the church and his brethren in the Lord to determine his fitness for any particular service. He will not push himself into places of leadership, but neither will he shun leadership for which his fellow members consider him well qualified.  

       A Christian church member will also desire to have a part through his gifts in the work not only of the local church but also of the church at large. He will give generously, not as unto the salary of the minister nor to a missionary, but as unto the Lord. He will be conscious of the fact that the Lord sees his gifts, and will not bring to Him that which costs him nothing (II Sam.  24;24). He will be generous with the minister, and will avoid petty criticisms of him and his family. He will express his appreciation of the efforts of the minister, and will seek to encourage him in his labors. He will pray regularly for the church in all its departments, and family worship will be a regular part of his life. 

       The Christian church member will likewise be a witness. Some will be able to witness through personal work, others by inviting people to the church services, others through their kindness and Christian charity, others simply through their activity in the church. No one can dictate just how each Christian shall bear witness to the saving power of Jesus Christ, since the  Lord has given to each of us different talents. Yet each Christian should be satisfied in his own conscience that he is truly witnessing in obedience to the command of Christ. 

       A Christian church member will also want to have a part in the government of the church. He will not be content to "let them run things” Church business meetings will be attended even  when there seems to be a tendency on the part of some of the leading members of the church to "run things". He will enter into intelligent discussion of the problems which confront the church and will not be afraid to bring up, in love, matters which may provoke discussion. But he will  conduct his discussions within the meetings, not after they are over and the matters are settled. If  there is no question of principle involved, he will go along with plans about which he may not be enthusiastic, if the majority favors them. He will not provoke dissension by quarreling over nonessentials. He will, in church conduct, not allow himself to be brought into bondage to the opinions of men, but he will be agreeable even when everything does not seem to be done in accordance with the highest wisdom. The number of church members who have left the church because they did not like the building committee’s plans, for instance, is legion, but no church member worthy of the name will withdraw for such reasons. 

       A Christian church member will not despise the authority, or reject the admonition, or resist the counsels or slight the censures of a true church, much less separate from it and break up  its unity. He should not leave a church for trivial errors, for all churches have error in them. Neither should he leave the church because it contains grievous sinners. He will not join the ranks of those who, because of a false sanctimoniousness have despised the society of all men in  whom they can detect the remains of human weakness and sin. Only when a church ceases to be a true church will he for conscience' sake, withdraw from it and in that event he will withdraw  speedily, lest he partake of the church’s guilt of apostasy.

       A Christian church member will not  absent himself from the communion service because there are those communing who, he feels  are sinners. He will leave the responsibility for such judgments to those in the church to whom such judgments are committed. He must examine himself whether he be worthily partaking of the Supper, but it is not his business to examine others (I Cor. II:28, 29 ). The apostle did not assign to the individual the responsibility to determine who is worthy, but that function of judgment is assigned to the church. An individual does not incur guilt when he communes with those who are unworthy. It would be unjust that any individual should be contaminated with the unworthiness of another, whose approach to the Lord's table is neither in his power nor his duty to prevent. This does not mean that he shall be for one moment complacent with evil in the church, but he will treat such cases in the manner prescribed in the Bible and in the standards of the church. If there be offenses which he cannot establish in an orderly fashion, he will bear with them until in the providence of God they be brought to light by Him. 

Such a Christian church member will be happy in his church relationships, and useful in the Lord's service. May our church be composed of such Christian church members!

(December 25th, 1943) 

Robert Marsden was a member of the first graduating class at Westminster in 1930. He went on to be pastor of Middletown Presbyterian Church in the PCUSA. He led that church out of the denomination and helped found the OPC. He then became the Executive Secretary of the seminary until his death in 1960.

Partner with Westminster Theological Seminary and our mission 


Get Westminster Magazine delivered to your inbox

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.