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.

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