Hammer to the Nail: The Requirement of Local Church Membership – Part I

Bojidar Marinov has written a series of posts against the idea of local church membership. His work in this regard is historically inaccurate, leaves out several details from the history of the church, largely ignores a plethora of biblical passages that ought to be considered when looking at the subject and just generally remains uninformed. The fact of the matter is that local church membership is part and parcel of what it means to be Christian, this has largely been recognized throughout the history of the church, the Reformers saw it as a must, and it is no less important today. That Mr. Marinov feels free to do things Lone Ranger-style does not mean he’s actually made his case and no amount of rambling TLDR posts will establish what he wants to argue from the pages of Scripture or the records of history.

Bojidar begins by saying that mandatory local church membership is a Reformed Baptist peculiarity and that it didn’t appear until the late 17th century in the Second London Baptist Confession (1689). The problem with this historical claim on the part of Mr. Marinov is that it almost entirely ignores the earlier Westminster tradition that the London Baptists relied upon in their framing of their confession. The Westminster divines in addition to the Confession also produced The Form of Presbyterial Church-Government (1645) and it reflects a mature Reformed viewpoint of local church membership that Marinov denies.

This Form describes local congregations as gatherings of Christians meeting in one place for worship and further says that congregations should be formed ordinarily in reference to where people live. In other words, congregations should be local and Christians members of them for the purpose of mutual edification. Note that the Westminster divines called this arrangement lawful, ordinary, and expedient–meaning in short that this is the way things should be for Christians overall.

The Form goes on to detail that Christ has instituted a government in his church of elders and that these ruling elders have the ability to administer church discipline (including excommunication). The fact that the Reformed Baptists argued similarly in their own confession only underscores the fundamental Reformed identity of local church membership and the legitimate church discipline and government each local body was to have in a plurality of elders.

Bojidar later goes on to claim that multiple church buildings in the historical cities of the Reformation meant that there was no such thing as the local church. But, Marinov’s failure to provide any historical context here clouds the matter. Calvin’s Geneva was a city of some 20,000 people (not much larger than many megachurches today) and not a city like Houston by today’s standards (+- 3 million people). In reality, the whole city was a local church of sorts. When practical, the Reformers very much divided cities up and expected people to attend their local congregations just like the Form of Presbyterial Church-Government maintains for congregations that grow beyond the ability to be managed in one place. This is so much the case that Calvin’s Geneva fined households that did not attend on Sunday as they should. How really would that have been done except “decently and in order” through localized congregations divided as necessary by districts or parishes where people on any given Sunday were where they were expected to be?

It does seem that Bojidar is arguing against a certain implementation of local church membership and polity and hasn’t accounted for the fact that differences remain historically between various groups even while a commitment to local church membership remained a reality. Calvin’s Geneva isn’t going to look exactly like 21st century local church membership, but to think there was no localized implementation and requirement of membership in Geneva during Calvin’s day is to seriously misread the history. Since Bojidar continues to argue against contemporary local church polity as it is today, every divergence historically from it remains for him yet another nail his hammer is designed to hit. The problem here is we don’t need all these nails and all his hammering is really just waving in the wind.

Bojidar’s claim that local church membership was never required until only recently goes against the grain of what local church membership was and continues to be in Reformed churches. Overall, however, the real basis for church membership in Reformed churches comes from the text of Scripture and that’s where we’ll look in the next post.

[[ Part II, Part III, Part IV ]]