What is Church Membership and Why is It Necessary?

iphone pics 10.17.12 089“What is the point of church membership? I am already a Christian and have a personal relationship with Jesus. Why do I need to become a member of a church?” Chances are we have asked those very questions when we first encountered a Reformed church. Church membership is a foreign concept to many. Brought up in the radical individualism common to American Christianity, we might find the idea of formal membership in an established church to be antiquated, unnecessary, and maybe even legalistic. Church membership also goes against the popular notion in our culture that “organized religion” is different from “spirituality.” The former is disparaged as passé at best and hatefully intolerant at worst, while the latter is readily embraced as chic and healthy. Organized religion is viewed as something very particular that manifests itself in narrow doctrines, liturgical customs, and exclusive tradition. Spirituality, on the other hand, is seen as something universal that can express itself in a wide variety of personal faiths and individual practices that generally seek one common goal: self-improvement. Influenced by this mode of thinking, many professing Christians believe they can have membership in the invisible church while opting out of membership in the visible church.

And things do not appear to be improving. Indicators show this sentiment to be on the rise, not the decline. According to market research guru George Barna, established churches are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. “Based on our research,” says Barna, “I have projected that by the year 2010, 10 to 20 percent of Americans will derive all their spiritual input (and output) through the Internet.” Why be inconvenienced by attending (let alone becoming a member of) a church when one can get the same spiritual benefits in private? Says Barna, “Ours is not the business of organized religion, corporate worship, or Bible teaching. If we dedicate ourselves to such a business we will be left by the wayside as the culture moves forward. Those are the fragments of a larger purpose to which we have been called by God’s Word. We are in the business of life transformation.”

Since “life transformation” can come from a multiplicity of methods in our fast-paced culture of technology and personal convenience, the church needs to update itself if it wants to remain relevant to spiritual consumers. Organized churches that require formal membership are not the sort of thing the experts have in mind.

So why then do Reformed churches require membership? What exactly is church membership and why is it necessary?

What Is Church Membership? Church membership is a formal, covenantal relationship between a family or individual and a true, local manifestation of Christ’s visible church. It begins with the understanding that Christ not only possesses an invisible church, that is, all the elect people of God whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev 21.27), but has also established a visible church on earth (Matt 28.18-20).

God first instituted this visible church immediately after the fall when he separated the seed of the woman from the seed of the serpent and established them as a people united in his promise of salvation (Gen 3.15). He further established his community when he made his covenant with the patriarch Abraham and his offspring (Gen 12, 15, 17) and fulfilled his promises, first in the nation Israel and the promised land of Canaan, but more fully in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Throughout the unfolding drama of redemptive history, from the days of Abraham to Christ, God kept his people as a visible covenant community marked by the covenantal sign and seal of circumcision.

With the completion of Christ’s earthly ministry and the inauguration of the new covenant, however, God no longer confined his visible church to one people (national Israel) and one place (Palestine). Having satisfied the Law of Moses in his life, death, and resurrection, Christ commissioned his apostles to preach the Gospel, baptize, administer the Lord’s Supper, and make disciples to the ends of the earth. As the book of Acts reveals, the apostles fulfilled this commission by planting churches (Acts 2.42). Beginning in Jerusalem, Christ added daily to his church those who were being saved (Acts 2.41, 47; 4.4). The visible, covenant community became a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Pet 2.9a; cf. Ex 19.6) made up of people ransomed “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5.9b).

After the apostles died, though, the visible church did not cease to exist. The New Testament makes very clear that Christ has intended his visible church to continue until the end of the age. He ordained the office of pastor to feed his flock with the preaching of the Gospel so that his sheep will be healthy and grow to maturity (Rom 10.14-17; Eph 4.11-16; 2 Tim 4.1-5; Titus 1.5-9). He has supplied his church with the tangible elements of ordinary water, bread, and wine in the sacraments, which the Holy Spirit uses to nourish our faith (1 Cor 10.16; 11.17-34; cf. John 6.41-58). He gave the office of elder so that his people will have guardians over their souls and governors keeping order (Acts 14.23; Phil 1.1; 1 Tim 3.1-7; 5.17; Heb 13.17; 1 Pet 5.1-4). He maintains the purity and peace of his church through the exercise of discipline (Mt 18.15-20; 1 Cor 5; 2 Thes 3.6, 14-15; Titus 1.10-14; 3.9-11). He has provided the office of deacon to ensure care for the poor and needy in the congregation (Acts 6.1-7; Phil 1.1; 1 Tim 3.8-13; 5.3-15). He pours out gifts upon his church so that each believer uses his or her gifts for the benefit of others (Rom 12.3-8; 1 Cor 12; Eph 4.15-16). Everywhere, the New Testament reveals to us a church established by Christ that is an observable, identifiable society made up of real flesh and blood members and real organization and structure.

Church membership, therefore, is about belonging to this visible, identifiable community as it is manifested in the local congregation. The church is not a store frequented by loyal customers. Nor is it a voluntary association of individuals loosely united by consumer preferences or cultural practices. Rather, the church is the people who belong to Christ, and the place where Christ meets them through the means he has ordained.

When a family or an individual pursues formal church membership, they are saying, “We are Christians. Therefore we belong to Christ and his body.” They and their children pass through the waters of baptism, acknowledging that they are part of something much larger than their own private, spiritual experience. They recognize that Christ has set them as living stones in his one temple (Eph 4.19-22; 1 Pet 2.4-5) and gathered them as sheep in his one flock (John 10.1-29; Acts 20.28). They take public vows in the holy assembly of God’s people in which they profess their faith in Christ and their willingness to submit to his Lordship and the government of his church. Likewise, the congregation receives them and acknowledges their obligation to them as fellow members of God’s family.

Why Is Church Membership Necessary? “All of this sounds great,” one might say, “but I just want to attend this church. Why is it necessary that I become a member?” Some people recognize the visibility of Christ’s church and enjoy attending worship services, but view membership as little more than an unnecessary formality.

The Bible, however, gives us at least three reasons why membership in a local congregation is essential.

1. Submission to Christ Christ is the Head of his church (Eph 1.22-23; 4.15), the King of his kingdom (Matt 28.18; Heb 2.8-9; 1 Cor 15.25; cf. Ps 110.1). Christ was not only crucified and raised from the dead, he also ascended into heaven and was exalted at the right hand of the Father. In other words, he not only saves, he also rules. And the way he rules his citizens is through his Word and Spirit, chiefly through the officers he has appointed at the local congregation. Consider the exhortation the writer to the Hebrews gives at the end of his sermon-letter: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb 13.17). This is Christ’s design. As his subjects and possession, we must submit to what he has ordained.

But how can we do that without church membership? Membership in a local congregation creates a formal relationship between the elders and the congregants. It is a covenant that obligates the elders to watch over the souls of those who belong to Christ. It is therefore part of our submission to our Lord. As Michael Horton has pointed out, “We are commanded not to become self-feeders who mature beyond the nurture of the church, but to submit ourselves to the preaching, teaching, and oversight of those shepherds whom God has placed over us in Christ.”

It has been the historical practice of Reformed churches to require a public vow to that end. For example, the fourth and final vow of Public Profession of Faith Form Number 1 in the Psalter-Hymnal (used by the United Reformed Churches in North America) asks: “Do you promise to submit to the government of the church and also, if you should become delinquent either in doctrine or in life, to submit to its admonition and discipline?”

This practice, however, is precisely where the proverbial “rubber meets the road” for many people. Prizing their freedom to roam where they please, they simply cannot bring themselves to submit to Christ’s delegated authority in his visible church. Kim Riddlebarger has appropriately labeled these folks as spiritual drifters: “Spiritual drifters…make little or no commitment to a particular congregation (much less express loyalty to a particular denomination and specific doctrine). These drifters will move from one church to another just as soon something offends their fickle sensitivities, or when the preaching and music fails to keep them in rapt attention.”

Spiritual drifters need to be confronted with texts such as Hebrews 13.17. One simply cannot claim to love Christ while despising his Body. One cannot have Christ as Savior while refusing him as Lord.

2. Accountability and Discipline One of the ways in which Christ watches over our souls through the leaders in the local church is by the exercise of church discipline. Church discipline is the practice of applying the Word of God to members of the congregation who are in rebellion (i.e. unrepentant of a particular sin) or involved in some public scandal that affects the health of the church as a whole. The goal of church discipline is the restoration of erring disciples, the preservation of the church’s doctrine, the peace and purity of the congregation, and the protection of the church’s reputation in the eyes of the unbelieving world.

Christ gave his church the authority to exercise discipline when he said to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt 16.19). Reformed churches have understood these keys to be the preaching of the Gospel and the exercise of church discipline. The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) puts it like this:

83. Q. What are the keys of the kingdom of heaven?

A. The preaching of the holy gospel and church discipline. By these two the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers and closed to unbelievers.

84. Q. How is the kingdom of heaven opened and closed by the preaching of the gospel?

A. According to the command of Christ, the kingdom of heaven is opened when it is proclaimed and publicly testified to each and every believer that God has really forgiven all their sins for the sake of Christ's merits, as often as they by true faith accept the promise of the gospel. The kingdom of heaven is closed when it is proclaimed and testified to all unbelievers and hypocrites that the wrath of God and eternal condemnation rest on them as long as they do not repent. According to this testimony of the gospel, God will judge both in this life and in the life to come.

85. Q. How is the kingdom of heaven closed and opened by church discipline?

A. According to the command of Christ, people who call themselves Christians but show themselves to be unchristian in doctrine or life are first repeatedly admonished in a brotherly manner. If they do not give up their errors or wickedness, they are reported to the church, that is, to the elders. If they do not heed also their admonitions, they are forbidden the use of the sacraments, and they are excluded by the elders from the Christian congregation, and by God Himself from the kingdom of Christ. They are again received as members of Christ and of the church when they promise and show real amendment.

Reformed churches confess this because it is what the New Testament teaches. Jesus gave instruction on discipline and public excommunication in Matthew 18.15-20. Paul wrote a whole chapter to the church in Corinth describing how sexual immorality amongst Christians defiles the church and that the offender, if unrepentant, is to be excommunicated and delivered to Satan (1 Cor 5). Other examples abound (1 Tim 1.18-20; 6.3-5; 2 Tim 2.14-18; Tit 1.10-14; 3.10-11).

Without church membership, however, the church cannot fully use the keys Christ has given her. The elders cannot excommunicate an unrepentant offender who was never in communion with the church in the first place. Church membership, therefore, provides every member of the congregation – including the minister and elders – with accountability. It allows the elders to fulfill their duty of ensuring that purity of doctrine and holiness of life are practiced; it permits the deacons to care for the needy within the church (Acts 6.1-7; 1 Tim 5.9); and it makes every member in the congregation responsible for his doctrine and life.

The person who does not join a true congregation of Christ’s visible church, however, is accountable to no one but himself. He opts for a life of “Lone Ranger Christianity,” acting as his own pastor, elder and deacon.

3. Spiritual Nurture through the Sacraments Church membership allows a disciple to participate in the sacraments and thereby receive the spiritual benefits which the Holy Spirit provides through them (1 Cor 10.16). The “spiritual drifter” often presumes that he has a right to participate in the sacraments at any worship service he chooses to attend, simply by virtue of his personal relationship with Jesus. What he has yet to understand, however, is that Christ’s sacraments are inseparably related to church membership.

One does not have the right to be baptized without joining the visible church. Christ instituted Christian baptism as a one-time, initiatory sacrament that not only signifies the washing away of sins with his atoning blood, but also identifies the baptized person as a member of God’s visible covenant community, much as circumcision did in the old covenant (Matt 28.18-20; Acts 2.39). Thus, one is baptized into church membership and under the oversight of a local body of elders. Baptism cannot be separated from church membership.

Likewise, one does not have the right to partake of the Lord’s Table without church membership. Christ established the Lord’s Supper as a holy meal for the members of his church. It not only signifies his body and blood offered on the cross, but also nourishes the faith of repentant sinners (1 Cor 10.16; cf. John 6.22-60). As the governors and overseers of the church (Rom 12.8; 1 Cor 12.28; 1 Tim 3.1-7), the elders have the responsibility of supervising participation in the Lord’s Table and ensuring, as much as possible, that people do not partake in an unworthy manner (1 Cor 11.17-34). The Heidelberg Catechism summarizes the New Testament’s teaching in this way:

81. Q. Who are to come to the Lord’s Table?

A. Those who are displeased with themselves because of their sins, but who nevertheless trust that their sins are pardoned and that their continuing weakness is covered by the suffering and death of Christ, and who also desire more and more to strengthen their faith and to lead a better life.

Hypocrites and those who are unrepentant, however, eat and drink judgment on themselves.

82. Q. Are those to be admitted to the Lord’s Supper who show by what they say and do that they are unbelieving and ungodly?

A. No, that would dishonor God’s covenant and bring down God’s anger upon the entire congregation. Therefore, according to the instruction of Christ and his apostles, the Christian church is duty-bound to exclude such people, by the official use of the keys of the kingdom, until they reform their lives.

Reformed churches have sought to apply this teaching by requiring a public profession of faith and membership in good standing from all who come to the Lord’s Table.

The bottom line is that participation in the sacraments requires biblical church membership. While Christ has appointed the sacraments as visible signs and seals of the Gospel for the nourishment of our souls, he did not design them to be individualistic practices. The sacraments are acts of divine service to his assembled people on the Lord’s Day. He condescends to his flock so that he can feed them with his means of grace.

The spiritual drifter, however, who is not accountable to a local congregation nor in submission to Christ’s authority as it is delegated to church officers, seems to think he knows what is best for his spiritual wellbeing, even if it is contrary to what God has revealed. Refusing to join Christ’s visible church and submit to Christ’s authority, he disqualifies himself from participation in the sacraments to the injury of his own soul.

Thus, Reformed churches confess in Article 28 of the Belgic Confession: “We believe, since this holy assembly and congregation is the assembly of the redeemed and there is no salvation outside of it, that no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, no matter what his status or standing may be.” The fact that in this life the visible church is imperfect and mixed with hypocrites gives no Christian the right to depart from it. As the Third-Century church leader Cyprian put it, “You cannot have God for your father unless you have the Church for your mother. If you could escape outside Noah’s ark, you could escape outside the Church.” Except in otherwise extraordinary cases, a person cannot belong to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church without also belonging to a visible manifestation of the same, which, according to the New Testament, is the local congregation that preaches the gospel, administers the sacraments, and exercises church discipline.

If we profess to be Christians, we must practice the Christian faith according to the New Testament and not according to our opinions. The New Testament makes it clear that every Christian is to be baptized into the body of Christ and be accountable for his doctrine and life. It tells us that God has provided us with pastors, elders, and deacons, as well as the communion of saints in the local church. If you have been baptized but you are not a member of a true congregation of Christ’s church, you are living an irregular and unbiblical Christian life. The Lord calls you to repentance. He is calls you to come home to the safety and benefit of his sheepfold. I urge you to join a true church as soon as possible, a body of believers that confess the truth, submit to the authority of Christ as delegated to elders, and meet each week to receive Christ in Word and sacrament. You are not free to roam as a spiritual drifter on the internet or as a perpetual visitor from church to church. Find a good and true church and join it. There is no better place for us to be in this life than to take our place in the body of Christ and enjoy the communion of saints in the local church.

URCNA Missions: Funding Our Own Family First

For Missions Monday this week, I want to direct your attention to this timely article by my fellow URC pastor and Synodical Study Committee on Missions member, Rev. Bill Boekestein. Bill really nails it. I highly recommend it to all who are concerned about missions and church planting in the URCNA. (A link to Bill's personal blog, where this article appears, is below) ANSWERING THE CHALLENGES OF HOME MISSIONS

This article is adapted from an address delivered at Classis Michigan’s 2012 Missions Rally. Rev. Boekestein was asked to speak to the challenges the URCNA faces in the area of home missions.

After the United States declared independence they agreed to submit to the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union to help them in their mission to develop into a strong nation and eventually spread across the continent. The problem was that until the Articles of Confederation were replaced by the Constitution, Congress was paralyzed and every state was doing what it thought best regardless of the common good. There was no mechanism for garnering funding. Congress could do nothing significant without the approval of most or all of the states. Individual states independently laid embargoes, negotiated directly with foreigners, raised armies and made war, all violating the letter and the spirit of the Articles of Confederation. In the words of James Madison: “The radical infirmity of the ‘Articles of Confederation’ was the dependence of Congress on the voluntary and simultaneous compliance with its requisitions by so many independent communities, each consulting more or less its particular interest and convenience and distrusting the compliance of the others.”[i]

Perhaps this scenario sheds some light on some of the challenges we as United Reformed Churches face in fulfilling the Great Commission together.

The Challenge of Collaboration

Synod London adopted an overture received from Classis Michigan to evaluate how the URCNA might facilitate greater cooperation and collaboration in missions. The grounds for this overture were as follows: “While the URCNA stands as one in spirit and truth, there exists among many of our member congregations, missionaries, and church planters a sense of standing alone.” The wording might be overly tactful. Do our congregations, missionaries and church planters merely “have a sense of standing alone” or do they too often “stand alone.” Are we doing missions together? Behind this question is a more basic question. What does it mean to federate or covenant together? As that question relates to missions we could rephrase it to read, “Would our practice of home missions look any different if we were independent Congregationalists?

In principal we stand together. The introductory paragraph of our church order says that “the churches of the federation cooperate and exercise mutual concern for one another.” This thought is echoed by several of the foundational principles of reformed church government appended to the Church Order. The seventh principle reads, “…Even though churches stand distinctly next to one another, they do not…stand disconnectedly alongside one another.” The tenth principle reminds us that “In order to manifest our spiritual unity, local churches should seek the broadest possible contact with other like-minded churches for their mutual edification and as an effective witness to the world.” Churches must work together with the “broadest possible,” as the next principle reads, “to exercise its ministry of reconciliation by proclaiming the gospel to the ends of the earth.”

Church Order Article 47 similarly states that “the Churches should assist each other in the support of their missionaries.” Considering that the introductory paragraph to the church order says that “we order our ecclesiastical relations and activities in the following articles” the word “should” is curious. Is it a suggestion? Is it a strong suggestion? Is it a requirement? Perhaps this wording needs to be tightened up a bit. Regardless, we have a divine imperative to cooperate in missions. Biblical church government doesn’t just tell us how to run meetings. It also tells us how to do missions. Throughout his epistles Paul demonstrates his concern for “all the churches.” If our concern is for all the churches then we will cooperate in missions.

What does it mean to do missions as a body of churches? First, it means developing closer ties as congregations. Classis Eastern U.S. has added an extra day to its fall meeting for the purpose of instruction and fellowship. During the first such meeting Rev. Strange, professor at Mid America, reminded the delegates that a Classis is a body and should function like a body. Things like pulpit exchanges and fellowship gatherings would knit our churches together in a way that could greatly facilitate cooperation in missions. So would joint classical services on Reformation Day, Ascension Day, and Prayer Day.

Doing missions collaboratively also means involving other churches in outreach. If we agree that the Great Commission is, among other things, a church planting commission, then church planting should be one of our primary collaborative goals as churches of our respective classes. Congregations shouldn’t consider planting a church without seeking meaningful cooperation from the other churches in their classis.

This brings up the challenges of funding.

The Challenge of Funding

The problem with the United Statesgovernment under the Articles of Confederation was, in the words of George Washington, “No money.” No state paid all their federal taxes and some paid none. In Massachusetts during Shays’ Rebellion, Congress had no money to defend the state.Boston merchants were forced to pool funds to pay for a volunteer army.

In our case, the money is there. But unlike every single other NAPARC denomination we have no mechanism to mandate financial cooperation. The result is that ordained, church-planting ministers are forced to hold fundraising events like church youth groups. We are surrounded by opportunities to collaboratively engage in missions but we struggle to know how to pay for them. Perhaps I should have saved this point till last. But until we deal with the funding question, the goal of collaboration will remain a pipe dream.

Let me suggest that the texts to which we often appeal to encourage tithing within a congregation, are better suited to mandate giving between congregations. Paul’s appeal (in 2 Cor. 8-9) was for the churches of Corinth to assist the churches elsewhere. The word “quotas” isn’t used. But the word twice translated “equality” in 8:14 is synonymous with the idea behind a quota system. Clearly Paul is not advancing a system of “askings.” Spoken, as it was by Paul the Apostle, this appeal for funds had teeth! He suggests that this giving was an obligation. But he pleads with the Corinthians to “prepare your generous gift beforehand…that it may be ready as a matter of generosity and not as a grudging obligation” (2 Cor. 9:5). Funding beyond our churches is obligatory but should be done cheerfully.

The question of funding is fairly easy to answer after we have considered the collaborative question. We must prioritize URC missionary funding. Paul says that we need to take care of our own families before supporting others, who might also be worthy causes (1 Tim. 5:8). As a federation we have agreed to function as an extended family. Yet, we fund organizations that have their own families for support and, frankly, operate under different house rules. How can we as churches support organizations, often with enormous funding bases while our own mission efforts struggle (or fail) to make budget? As others have pointed out, if the organizations which many of our churches are funding were individuals they would not be eligible for membership. Quotas worked well in the CRCNA for a century, leading that denomination to engage in missions on a scale hardly suggestive of its small size.

I believe the question of funding leads to a third challenge.

The Challenge of Vision

A very important part of our history is rooted in reaction. I don’t say that negatively. We are grateful to those who had the courage to react to dangerous trends earlier in our history. But we must not become reactionistic. J.I. Packer has defined sectarianism as the attitude in the church which defines identity by exclusion. It is the attitude which says, “We are the people who don’t…” do this, that and the other thing. But we need to be the people who do! We need to be visionary and proactive.

Luke uses a powerful phrase in Acts 19:21 to describe Paul’s vision for ministry. He “purposed in the Spirit.” He “resolved” (ESV) or “strategized” in the Spirit. One phase of Paul’s work had been accomplished inEphesus. He was now planning to expand upon those accomplishments. And he does so in concrete terms. Paul didn’t just say, “I would like to see the ministry grow; I would like to see the church expand.” Paul lays out a plan. He planned to minister inMacedoniaand Achaia toJerusalemtoRome. Since a spiritual purpose also requires action, “He sent intoMacedoniatwo of those who ministered to him.” On a congregational, classical and federational level we need to be willing to brainstorm about new possibilities and then prayerfully plan to implement some of those ideas. Where are reformed churches badly needed? How could we coordinate a ministry to migrant workers in our area? Could we place a denominational chaplain in every prison in the state or on every college campus in our city? Such questions raise the issue of organization.

The Challenge of Organization

One of the great weaknesses of our pre-Constitution government was the lack of any separate executive. There was no person or group of persons having administrative or supervisory authority. To use a phrase from Dr. Brian Lee’s recent column in CR, there was no “executive energy.” During the Constitutional Convention, James Madison strongly questioned whether the loose confederation of states was truly promoting a decent and well-ordered government (Cf. 1 Cor. 14:40). I have tried not to stump for the Synodical Mission’s Committee recommendation for a federational missions coordinator. But I do believe such a coordinator would help us address several of the challenges we face on a denominational level. I believe similarly, if our classical and congregational missions committees would free up an individual to exercise some administrate or supervisory authority we could be more effective in missions.

When important tasks are left up to everyone they are really given to no one. If no one person has a vested interest in a task, with reasonable, authority to do it, it may not get done. Those who have served on committees also know how long simple processes often take. Sometimes that’s good. But in missions timeliness is a big deal. If no one is able to process information and make non-critical decisions in a timely fashion we will miss out on opportunities to implement our vision for missions.

With this in mind, Classis Eastern U.S. has recently approved a part-time, paid church planting coordinator position. The yet-to-be-named coordinator would provide vision and administrative leadership for the church planting committee. He would respond to inquiries from possible church planters as well as from persons and/or core groups interested in finding out more about URC church plants. He would visit the consistories, councils, and/or missions committees of the churches of Classis Eastern U.S. as well as attend all meetings of Classis to answer questions and continue to hold forth the vision for planting churches in our classis. He would visit other classis in the URCNA to report on the progress of church planting in the classis and pursue ways that the different classis might work together. Finally, he would solicit and follow-up on possible sources of financial support for the work of church planting the classis.

This is exactly what our church planting committee has been trying to do for years but has lacked the executive energy to make greater strides in realizing our vision.

The Challenge of the Heart

Jesus’ Great Commission is directed first to our hearts. Yes, we believe it is important to have a proactive vision for missions which should include cooperation even in terms of funding and perhaps in terms of executive organization. It’s also more than possible that there are better solutions than those proposed in this article. But the well-spring of every issue of life is the heart. The hearts that are called to fulfill the Great Commission are filled with both fear and love. We may be fearful of trying new things. We may be fearful of trusting committees or coordinators. We may fear the pushback we might face if we propose restructuring our church’s giving. But have you ever noticed that the Great Commission, in the Gospel of Mark, is given in the context of the fear of God evoked by the resurrected Christ! Apart from the fear of God the Great Commission will remain merely a good suggestion.

The other challenge might be a lack of love. Three times Jesus told Peter, “If you love me feed my sheep” (John 21:15-19). Jesus has untold thousands of sheep in our own backyards who are starving. We have the food. Do we love them enough to feed them? Do we love God enough to feed them? This is what God says of believers, “God has poured his love into our hearts” (Rom. 5:5). It is from the overflow of that love that we are called to love those around us.

Jesus doesn’t say, “Where there’s a will there’s a way?” But he does say that the fields are ripe with harvest and that as the Lord of that harvest he will bring it in. He holds out to us the privilege of participating in that great harvest. Let not the challenges we face keep us from joining in that harvest. Instead, let’s face these challenges with great faith in our great God!

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God is the Missionary

Why should the churches of the URCNA be concerned about missions? First of all, because God is a missionary God. Providing a biblical and confessional basis for doing missions, the Report of the Synodical Study Committee on Missions (coming to the URCNA's Synod this June) summarizes how God has revealed this about himself: "From beginning to end, the scriptures reveal clearly the heart that God has for his lost children, and his purpose to save sinners throughout the whole earth. In Genesis 3:9, immediately after Adam’s fall into sin, God called out, 'Where are you?' not only to judge man but also to make the covenant of grace with him, promising to send a savior, the seed of the woman (Gen 3:15). Just as God clothed Adam and Eve in animal skins in order to cover their shame (Gen 3:21), so also he would cover all of his sinful people in the perfect righteousness of our Savior who would die for our sins (2 Cor 5:21).

"The Lord later called Abraham, made the covenant of grace with him, and promised to bless Abraham and give him and his descendents the land of Canaan. From the very start, God revealed his purpose to use Abraham to bring salvation to people throughout the whole world: 'in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed' (Gen 12:3; cf. Gen 22:18).

"Many generations later, fulfilling his covenant promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Lord God graciously delivered the Israelites out of Egypt (Ex 6:2-8). Out of all peoples, God made them his treasured possession, 'a kingdom of priests and a holy nation' (Ex 19:5-6). God’s purposes of salvation seemed for a time to become far narrower with Israel, as Moses reminded them: 'Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day' (Deut 10:14-15). Still, in his very next breath, God called them to share his love with strangers: 'He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt' (Deut 10:18-19). This love of God for sojourners from other nations was demonstrated in a noteworthy manner in the inclusion of Rahab and her Canaanite family within the covenant people of Israel (Josh 6:22-25), and in the inclusion of Ruth the Moabite – both women being ancestors of Christ Jesus, our Savior (Mt 1:5).

"Of course, God’s plan to bring salvation to the ends of the earth through the seed of the woman, who would also be the seed of Abraham, took on greater clarity in his covenant promises to King David, to whom God said, 'I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever' (2 Sam 7:12). The nations would have to bow down to this royal son of God, or else be broken with a rod of iron, and dashed into pieces through his just judgment (Ps 2:9). But in becoming the possession of this Davidic King through the redemptive grace of God, the nations would be blessed in him (Ps 72:17), for he would be their Savior, 'a covenant for the people, a light for the nations' (Isa 42:6). To the Christ, God the Father says, 'It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth' (Isa 49:6).

"In the fullness of time, God the Father sent his eternal Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to be born of woman, to become a true man – the seed of the woman, of Abraham, and of David – that he might live, die, and rise again for our salvation (Gal 4:4ff). But he was slain in order to ransom people for God 'from every tribe and language and people and nation,' and he has made them 'a kingdom of priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth' (Rev 5:9-10). Throughout redemptive history, God has repeatedly shown that he would not abandon us in our sin but would provide for us a Savior. He has sought out sinners, repeatedly making promises of redemption by grace, which promises he has fulfilled in the person and work of Christ his Son."

Clearly, God is the Missionary in redemptive-history. And yet he graciously calls and equips his church to continue building his global temple through the ordinary planting of congregations. Next Monday, I'll post the subsequent section of the report, which summarizes how the New Testament reveals that God's missionary work is done primarily through the planting and nurturing of churches. The Missionary God uses ordinary means to make disciples of Christ and establish his kingdom. With such an awesome responsibility, how can we as a federation of Reformed churches not seek to improve our missionary efforts? How can we not do all we can to be both aggressive and organized in our approach to plant churches on domestic and foreign soil?

Machen on Missions: What the URCNA can learn from the OPC

In order to fulfill its mandate from Synod 2010, the Synodical Study Committee on Missions researched the mission policies of our fellow NAPARC denominations, namely, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARPC), the Canadian and American Reformed Churches (CanRC), the Reformed Church of Quebec (ERQ), the Free Reformed Churches of North America (FRCNA), and Heritage Reformed Congregations (HRC), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS), the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA). The Committee made evaluations of these policies in light of the URCNA mission report of 2001, known as the Biblical and Confessional View of Missions (BCVM), the polity of the URCNA, and the present challenges and deficiencies we are experiencing in our federation in our attempt to do missions and fulfill our Lord’s Great Commission. We recognized that most of these denominations had well thought-out mission policies and highly structured denominational mission committees. For example, the PCA has a denominational mission committee composed of fifteen elders: eight teaching (ministers) and seven ruling. They are elected by the PCA’s General Assembly to serve for five years, and serve as an “enabling” committee to encourage and enable the PCA at every level to function as a missionary church. Their primary task is to assist in the planting of confessional churches. They also assist in recruiting candidates for mission service, oversee missionary training, and keep the home church aware and supportive of their missionaries.

Likewise, smaller denominations in NAPARC, such as the RCUS and HRC, have established denominational missions committees made up of ministers and elders. The Foreign Mission Committee of the RCUS is responsible to provide reports and recommendations to each annual synod, and then to carry out the program and budget approved by that synod. Membership on the committee is for three-year terms, staggered in order to maintain stability.

As our Committee researched the various approaches to missions taken by NAPARC denominations, it became clear that we could learn a great deal from the missions work of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. While the OPC has a slightly different church polity from the URCNA, their coordination and cooperation in missions have so impressed us that we thought it would be important to provide at least a glimpse of their denominational infrastructure for missions.

The work of the OPC in missions is especially striking when one considers the origin of their denomination. In the early twentieth century, the corruption of foreign missions within the Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA) led J. Gresham Machen to establish an independent board for foreign missions. This culminated not only in his being deposed from the liberal denomination, but also in the eventual formation of the OPC, which has always maintained a vigorous witness to the world – and one that has not been hindered in the least but rather helped greatly by their denominational coordination. In other words, the OPC did not overreact against particular abuses in the PCUSA by ruling out or minimizing the importance of denominational missions committees. On the contrary, they have established denominational missions committees that have proven to be highly effective and efficient in the planting of churches at home and abroad.

The OPC has a plan for “Worldwide Outreach” that involves the work of three committees – the Committee on Christian Education, the Committee on Home Missions & Church Extension, and the Committee on Foreign Missions. For our purposes here we will take a look at the latter two committees. Both missions committees are composed of fifteen men (ruling and teaching elders) who are elected by the OPC General Assembly (akin to our synod), and accountable to that body for the work that they do. Committee members are elected to a term of three years and eligible for re-election indefinitely. Serving each of these two missions committees is a general secretary and an associate general secretary; all four men are ordained officers (teaching or ruling elders) and paid for full-time employment. The secretaries have no vote on their respective committees, are directly accountable to their committees, and serve at their committee’s pleasure. It is noteworthy that the OPC hopes to get about twenty years of service from these four secretaries.

The Committee on Foreign Missions has some oversight of all missionaries in their nine active mission fields (China, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Haiti, Japan, Quebec, Uganda, Ukraine, and Uruguay), but this oversight is very general and administrative – setting goals for the missions, providing financial support, encouraging missionaries on furlough, and visiting missionaries on the field. All pastoral/disciplinary oversight, however, is in the hands of a missionary’s presbytery. The Foreign Missions committee also gives instruction to the denomination in biblical missionary principles, formulates mission policy, and encourages each presbytery to develop their own foreign missions committee (most presbyteries have one).

The Committee on Home Missions & Church Extension has partial oversight of those church plants to which it gives financial aid. Church plants that are not financially aided by this committee rely on the local giving of their attendees and of the presbytery to which they belong. Each OPC presbytery (akin to our classis) has its own home missions committee as well, which coordinates with the Committee on Home Missions for the work of church plants.

Funds for the support of all foreign missionaries and numerous domestic church plants, for the remuneration of the secretaries and administrative personnel who serve the two missions committees, and for the support of the Committee on Christian Education are provided by the regular monthly giving of OPC congregations to Worldwide Outreach. To meet the budget of Worldwide Outreach, most congregations simply make their contribution a line item in their own budget based on Worldwide Outreach’s suggested yearly amount for each communicant member. For 2012, the 3.5 million dollar budget of Worldwide Outreach translates to a suggested amount of $162.66 per communicant member for the year. Each congregation also takes an annual Thank-Offering (usually around Thanksgiving) which also helps meet the budget of Worldwide Outreach. Again, these funds support all three committees of Worldwide Outreach, but about eighty percent of funds collected for OPC missions go directly to the mission field. This is a denomination that makes it a priority to ensure that its missionaries and church planters are fully funded.

What prohibits the URCNA from adopting a similar structure for missions? With our close ecumenical ties to and warm fellowship with the OPC, why can't we learn from our brothers a better way of fulfilling the Great Commission? Is there any good reason for maintaining our present approach of applying consistorialism (if not congregationalism) to missions?