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

Bojidar Marinov does treat select passages of Scripture in his three-part attack on local church membership (I, II, III). However, his treatment of Scripture is notably one-sided, incomplete, and all things considered quite light when it comes to examining the relevant details of local church membership. This post will examine some of Marinov’s missteps as well as provide more in the way of a biblical approach to local church membership.

The Heidelberg Catechism reminds us in Q/A 54 that the church at root is really everyone from beginning to end that has been called out for everlasting life. This means the church existed in one form or another from Adam until now in various forms and that overall Scripture speaks to its existence and importance in several places. In fact, in Genesis 4:26, we have the first instance where public corporate worship appears as a matter of practice among God’s people.

Of course, the revelation of God’s Word is a progressive one for his people–the earliest cases of public worship and collective fidelity only tell a part of the story and more complete commentary on things like local church membership are going to become clearer as one advances through the pages of Scripture. The institution of the church in its local form changed over the years due first to God’s covenantal administrations and second to circumstance and providence.

But, that fact alone doesn’t stop Bojidar from attempting to note lone characters in the Bible that don’t seem to have any level of affiliation with others like they might in a New Testament church. Marinov brings Abraham, Moses, Elijah, and even John the Baptist to provide testimony, all apparent examples of the sort of Lone Ranger Christianity he espouses.

The problem, however, is that each of these figures really do not present the sort of absolute example Marinov would like once all the facts about their lives are out on the table. The question here, however, is not whether the lives of Abraham and others approximated 21st century church membership standards, but rather whether or not each figure participated in local expressions of God’s church and life and to what extent we can see that in the pages of Scripture. Marinov’s citation of each is notably incomplete as we shall see.

Abraham was definitely called away from his home, but it was not “to wander alone all his life” as Marinov claims. The singular calling of Isaiah 51:2 only means that Abraham was singularly called by God as a covenantal head and patriarch of the new nation God called out for himself, the verse says nothing about wandering alone all his life or doing so alone. Sarah, too, had obligations as a part of this calling (1 Peter 3:6). Isaac and Jacob shared in Abraham’s calling and were invoked as heirs of the promise and identified as living with Abraham “in a foreign land, in tents” (Heb 11:8-9). Genesis 12:1-3 tells us that Abraham left his homeland to go to a land God promised so that he might become a great nation and blessing. But, Genesis 12 and following tells us more. Abraham, in fact, did not go alone. His nephew Lot comes with him in addition to his wife and all the members of his household.

For Abraham, this was not just a nuclear family departing bravely from their homeland we’re talking about (as Bojidar’s language might imply) but rather an entire tribe of people moving to God’s promised land. In Genesis 14:14 we learn that just the male members born in his household numbered over 300 people–a number four times larger than most any congregation in America (75 is the national average, though sources vary in terms of the exact number).

We aren’t offered a complete record of Abraham’s activities, but what we do know doesn’t exactly sound like the Lone Ranger approach Marinov prefers. In Bethel, Abraham made an altar to God and “called upon the name of the LORD” (Genesis 4:26; Genesis 12:8). Later, after Abraham returns from the famine and the episode in Egypt he sacrifices again in Bethel ‘calling upon the name of the LORD.’ (Genesis 13:4) Here public repeated worship remains a pattern for Abraham and his larger-than-a-local-church household and indeed marks his journeys.

But, the language here echoes the same language about public corporate worship we find in Genesis 4:26. It would be absurd to think that Abraham himself was offering sacrifices without the clear involvement of his household and tribe especially when we see the author of Genesis (Moses!) utilizing the same language to describe the public worship of God’s people in both places.

In fact, we see Abraham paying tithes to Melchizedek in a very public way (Genesis 14:17-20), circumcising his entire household at the command of God (including his servants, Genesis 17:10-14; Genesis 17:23-27), offering three angels of the Lord hospitality after God appears to him at the door of his tent (Genesis 18), and finally tested at Moriah with his son Isaac and his sacrifice in Genesis 22. Even here, Abraham is not alone as he brings two servants with him in addition to his son.

There simply is no evidence that Abraham was a Lone Ranger Bojidar Marinov Hebrew as he wandered in following God’s calling for his life. Clearly, the fuller evidence speaks otherwise.  Abraham consistently led his family, his servants, and anyone who traveled with him in the local, regular, public, and corporate worship of God’s people.  In essence, given that he had his household and servants circumcised, he went far above and beyond any modern requirement for membership in today’s churches!

Less is known of Elijah than Abraham, but the Bible isn’t telling us a story about where Elijah went to church. The context is an entirely different narrative and so we can’t immediately assume one way or the other about what local worship habits he had. Marinov is simply arguing from silence to mention a figure like Elijah because the text isn’t speaking to the subject. However, even when we examine Elijah there are clues that he was never acting exclusively alone. Public communal worship to God alone is defended and maintained by Elijah (1 Kings 18), Elijah’s call to hide alone in the wilderness is temporary and when the word of the Lord comes Elijah is directed to action in the community (1 Kings 18:8-9), Elijah’s visit to the widow of Zarephath foreshadows the nature of the church’s ministry to the Gentiles (1 Kings 17:9-24; Luke 4:26), Elijah’s work is continued by Elisha (2 Kings 2:15), and when Elijah does want to be alone and in a cave God commands him to resume his prophetic duty in Israel among God’s people (1 Kings 19:16).

We also know more generally that the prophets of the Old Testament weren’t acting alone. There was a company or school of prophets (1 Samuel 19:18-24; 2 Kings 2:7; 2 Kings 4:38-44), they associated together–a hundred men at least–in community and doubtless functioned as a refuge from the general godless idolatry of the time.

Again, the point here is not to read specific 21st century church membership requirements or polity expressions into the text of Scripture, but to note that the normal communal, public worship, and identity of God’s people in local assemblies is part and parcel of every age mentioned in Scripture and only looks different due to differences in the providential exercise of the particular covenantal administrations given to God’s people at the time. The next post will examine further biblical evidence, Moses, and John the Baptist in our continued look at this subject contra the claims of Bojidar Marinov.
[[ Part I, Part III, Part IV ]]