The Members of the Church by James Bannerman

The Members of the Church

In close connection with the subject of the notes or marks of the Church stands the question: What are the qualifications that give a right of admission within the Christian society? In other words: Who are entitled to the position and privileges of members of the Church? To this subject it seems desirable that we should now direct our attention.

In entering upon the discussion of this question, it is necessary to take along with us the important distinction, so frequently referred to, between the invisible and the visible Church. What is necessary to constitute a man a member of the invisible Church, is a very different thing from what is necessary to constitute a man a member of the visible Church of Christ. Let us, in the first place, advert briefly to the question: What is necessary to make one a member of the invisible Church?

James Bannerman, The Church of Christ: A Treatise on the Nature, Powers, Ordinances, Discipline, and Government of the Christian Church, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1868), 68.

I. Now, in answering the question, Who are and who are not members of the invisible Church of Christ? all that is necessary is, to keep distinctly in view the true nature and real character of that society. The Scriptures assure us that there is a Church which is the holy Bride of Christ, united to Him in an everlasting covenant,—a society which He calls His spiritual Body, and of which He is the exalted Head,—a community described as “a temple of the Holy Ghost,” the members of which are “lively and spiritual stones” in the building. Such marks and privileges as these belong to no visible and outward society, whose features can be traced, and whose character read, by man. In such statements of Scripture we recognise the invisible Church of Christ, known only to Himself, the members of which are included within the bonds of His electing grace. “The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible,” says the Confession of Faith, “consists of the whole number of the elect that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one under Christ, the Head thereof.” It is restricted to no one time and no one place, but embraces the elect of all times and all places, without distinction and without exception. In the history of the past, it comprehends all who from the beginning have been chosen unto salvation, and effectually called by the Spirit; and in the history of the future, it embraces all who, till the dispensation of grace is brought to a close, shall be numbered with those who are adopted into the house and family of Christ. In heaven it can count a multitude, which no man can number, of those who have already been redeemed from the earth; and in this world it can reckon up another multitude, one with the family in heaven, who are either already believers, or who shall yet believe unto life eternal. The Church invisible consists, in short, of the whole number of the elect; and the terms of membership in the Church invisible are, to have a place and a name within the bonds and the privileges of the everlasting covenant.

In thus defining the members of the invisible Church of Christ to be the whole body of the elect throughout all places and all time, we are met by the counter-statements of the Popish Church. There is some considerable difference of opinion, at first sight at least, between former and more recent Romanists, regarding this matter. In former times, controversialists on the side of Rome were accustomed to deny the existence of an invisible Church altogether, and to affirm that the Christian society was singly and exclusively to be regarded as an outward and visible kingdom. And it followed as a necessary consequence from this assertion, that the terms of membership were not an interest in the covenant of grace, but an outward union to an outward Church. By Romanists in former times, the question, “What is necessary for admission to the Christian Church?” was met by the simple reply: “A professed submission to the see of Rome.” In more recent times, the denial of an invisible Church, as possessing a corporate existence and privileges, has been in some measure abandoned as untenable; and the extreme opinions of Bossuet and other Romish controversialists have been, to a considerable extent, modified by their successors. Perrone, the present Professor of Theology in the Jesuit College at Rome, admits in some sort the twofold character of the Church as invisible and visible, but denies that the members of the invisible Church are made up of the elect, and of them only. There is a twofold difference in this respect between his views and the principles already laid down. In the first place, he denies that the invisible Church is made up of all the elect, and affirms that such of them as have not yet obeyed the outward call of the Church, and are not found in its visible communion, although numbered with the elect of God, cannot be reckoned as members of the invisible Church; and, in the second place, he denies that the invisible Church is made up of the elect only, asserting that those who have ever received grace through the ordinances and communion of the Church, even though they should afterwards fall away and become reprobate, are nevertheless to be accounted true members of the invisible Church of Christ.

In both these respects, in which Romanists differ from the received doctrine of Protestants in regard to the members of the invisible Church, it is not difficult to trace the one ruling and predominating idea which runs through the whole of the Popish system,—namely, the necessity and virtue of the outward grace communicated by the Church, instead of the inward call and election by God. We see it in their denial of the name and right of members of the invisible Church to those who have been elected and chosen by God, but who, being still unconverted, have not yet joined themselves to the visible Church on earth, or become partakers of its outward ordinances. We see it, in like manner, in their ascription of the title and right of members of the invisible Church to those not chosen and not elected by God, but only joined to the visible Church, and sharing in its outward grace, notwithstanding that they shall afterwards fall away, and prove themselves to be reprobate. In both cases it is the grace given or denied by the Church to the sinner, that confers or withholds the title of a member of the invisible Church of Christ, and not rather the purpose and election of God, calling him to the adoption and privileges of a son. In the one instance, although actually chosen and elected by God unto salvation, the man is no member of the invisible Church, because he has not yet shared in the grace which the Church on earth confers. In the other instance, although reprobate and rejected by God, the man is a member of the invisible Church, because he has been privileged to receive from the Church on earth the grace that it imparts to all in outward communion with it. Such principles as these, if they do not, as in the case of former Romanists, lead to an open denial of the existence of an invisible Church at all, yet plainly supersede it in reality, or make it virtually subordinate to and dependent on the visible Church. The membership of the invisible Church is a right not waiting to be realized, or needing to be confirmed, through the grace imparted by an outward society; the terms of that membership hold of a higher source. The right is a right conferred by the election of God. The invisible Church is made up of the whole number of the elect throughout all time, who have been chosen of God unto the salvation of Jesus Christ.

II. But let us next advert to the question: What is necessary to make one a member of the visible Church of Christ?

To answer this second question, it is only needful to bear in mind the true nature of the visible as contradistinguished from the invisible Church. The visible Church consists of the whole body, not of the elect, but of professing Christians, scattered throughout the world. The profession of the true faith is that which is the essence of the visible Church, distinguishing it from all other societies, and constituting it the Church of Christ; and what constitutes the mark of the visible Church, considered as a separate body, is also the mark of every member of the Church, considered simply as a member. The profession of the true faith, as it makes a Christian Church, so also is it the single element that makes a member of the Church, giving a right to its privileges, and a place in its communion. A visible profession of belief in the Gospel—comprehending under the word profession not only the confession of the lips, but also a corresponding life and conduct—is the single qualification necessary to rank a man a member of the visible Church of Christ.

Now, the principle just enunciated stands opposed to the views of the Romanists on the one hand, and the Independents on the other; and it may serve to illustrate both its import and its truth, to contrast it with the doctrines of these two parties in succession. I have said, that to give a man a right to the membership of the visible Church there is needed that he maintain a visible Christian profession, including and accredited by a corresponding life and conduct. Now, this is objected against by the Independents as insufficient, while it is objected against by the Romanists as unnecessary, to constitute a man a member of the visible Church. Let us advert, in the first instance, to the principles of the Popish Church in their bearing on this question.

1st, I have already had occasion to remark that the predominating principle of the Romish system, in reference to the Church, is the substitution of an outward authority and the grace of outward ordinances in the place of any spiritual or inward influence on the heart, and the subordination of the truth of Christ to the external Church. With this leading idea, it is not to be wondered at that Romanists should make an outward conformity to Church authority and ordinances the single test of membership in the Christian society, altogether apart from an intelligent profession of the truth, and from an outward conduct in accordance with that profession. The virtue of submission to the authority of the Church visible, and the grace communicated by its outward ordinances, are enough of themselves, independently of a voluntary profession of faith and corresponding conduct, to constitute a man a member of the Christian society. This would be true, if it were also true that the profession of the true faith is not the essential mark of a Christian Church; or if its character consisted primarily in being an outward institute for the communication of sacramental grace. But if, on the other hand, it be of the essence of a Christian Church to profess the faith of Christ, it must also be a requisite, on the part of a member of the Church, to make the same profession; and further, that his conduct and character do not make the profession void and worthless. The mere surrender of the understanding to the dictation of the Church in matters of faith, and the formal subjection of the outward man to its ordinances, can be no proper substitute for the intelligent profession of the truth of Christ, and the voluntary conformity of the life to the profession, which constitute the true qualifications for the membership of the Christian society. To receive as from the Church the truth to be believed, and the profession to be made, is the very opposite of bringing to the Church the testimony of the truth already believed and professed. To submit our outward conduct to the authority of the Church blindly and mechanically, is the very reverse of the willing and intelligent obedience which accredits and confirms the belief or profession avowed. The Popish theory of Church membership inverts the relation in which the Christian society and the members of the society stand to each other. A member of the Christian society is not to receive from the Church, but to give to it, the profession of his faith, as a voluntary testimony, on his part, to its character as the true Church of Christ. He is not to take his rule of obedience from the Church, but to bring to the Church his obedience, as a pledge and evidence that his profession is sincere. A mere outward conformity to Church authority, and a blind submission to Church ordinances, can never, if we judge by the Scripture standard, entitle a man to the place or privileges of a member of the Christian society.

2d, But let us advert next to the principles of Independency, as they bear upon the question of the membership of the Christian Church. I have said that Independents regard the qualifications already laid down as insufficient to entitle a man to be called a member of the visible Church of Christ. Something more than this is demanded. Positive evidence of a credible kind that a man is a true believer, and savingly united to Christ, is alone held to be a sufficient warrant to admit him within the Christian society,—the work of grace effected in his soul being accounted the only ground or condition of Church membership. The difference between the principles of the Independents on the one hand, and those of Presbyterians on the other, is broad and fundamental. With Independents, a saving belief in Christ is the only title to admission to the Christian society; and the candidate for admission is bound to bring with him at least credible evidence to prove that such a title belongs to him, and that he has been effectually called unto salvation through faith that is in Christ Jesus. With Presbyterians, on the other hand, an intelligent profession of belief in the Gospel is the title to admission to Church membership; and the candidate for admission is only required to show that his conduct and life are in accordance with and accredit his profession. Let us endeavour briefly to apply the principles of Scripture to these different systems.

In the first place, the Independent system of Church membership is founded on a denial of the distinction between the invisible and visible Church of Christ.

We admit that the title of admission to the Church, viewed as the invisible Church of Christ, is a real and saving belief in Him; and that none can be members in reality of that society who are destitute of such a faith. In regard to this there can be no dispute. A mere outward profession of faith, however credible in itself, and however strongly confirmed by an outward walk and conversation, can never, as an outward profession, and no more, give a title to the privileges, or a place among the number, of the elect of God. And were there no other aspect under which the Church was spoken of or recognised in Scripture, we would not be warranted in saying that any were members of it save true believers only. But we have seen that there are manifold statements in Scripture which cannot well be reconciled with the notion of a purely invisible Church, and which appear to require us to admit the existence of another Church, or rather the same Church under a second aspect, having a character and a membership altogether different from the first. It is not merely that the invisible Church is made up of a number of men whose outward profession as Christians is visible publicly to the eye. There seems to be good ground in Scripture for asserting that the Church, as a visible society, has a corporate existence and character, and that in this character it has certain privileges and certain members, distinct from those that belong to it as an invisible society. That some outward provision of ordinances has been made by Christ for the benefit of His Church, no one can deny; that men are invited and warranted to make use of this outward provision, and that certain benefits and privileges in consequence of their obeying the invitation are made over to them, apart from those of a saving kind,—seem to be no less clearly shown in Scripture. The Church of Christ stands revealed before the eyes of men, embodied in an outward system of administration and ordinances and discipline; and men are called upon to enter within this Church, and are promised that, if they do so, they shall enjoy certain advantages even outwardly, and distinct from any saving benefits in this Church state.

That such is the amount of what may be gathered from Scripture, it were not, I think, very easy to deny. And if so, what is the conclusion to which we are shut up? We have plainly seen a visible society, marked out as a corporate body by privileges and promises, belonging to its members, not as individuals but as members of the society; and we have these privileges and promises, apart altogether from other saving blessings, conferred upon it by Christ its Head. In other words, we have a visible Church, standing in an outward relation to Christ, distinct from the inward and spiritual relation in which it stands to Him as the invisible Church, and made up of members complying with His external call, entering into a Church state, and receiving in return outward privileges, and the fulfilment of outward promises from Him.

By whatever name it may be called, this outward relationship with Christ is, to all intents and purposes, a covenant or federal one. We have the two distinguishing characteristics of a covenant,—namely, first, certain outward conditions enjoined; and, second, certain outward promises annexed to a compliance with these conditions. On the one side, we have an outward profession of faith and an entrance within a Church state, as the conditions fulfilled on the part of those who join themselves to the Christian society; and, on the other side, we have, as following upon this fulfilment, the bestowment of certain outward privileges, to be enjoyed by the members of the Church in its ministry, ordinances, and administration. In short, we have a visible or outward Church, distinct from the invisible or inward; and we have members admitted to that Church upon grounds and conditions different from those on which the members of the other are admitted.

In the second place, the principles of Independency seem to be contrary to the analogy of all God’s dispensations with men.

In the history of God’s former covenants there seems always to be the principle of an outward and an inward life. There are two covenants, as it were, the one within the other,—the one outward and, so to speak, carnal, and the other inward and spiritual; and the outward one designed and intended to lead on to the inward. So it was in the covenant established with Noah. It had its outward and its inward form, its more carnal and its more spiritual character or aspect. There was the outward covenant made with Noah and his whole posterity, without exception, whereby God promised that the settled order of nature should never again be subverted, but that seed-time and harvest, summer and winter, day and night, should not cease; and there was the inward covenant or promise of grace given to God’s peculiar people, on the ground of the sweet-smelling sacrifice, which He accepted as the type and earnest of a better to come. Within the bosom of the outward covenant, which promised forbearance and long-suffering to all men, there lay hid the promise of grace to the Church of God; and the forbearance and long-suffering ensured by the outward covenant were designed to lead men onward to the grace promised by the inward. So it was in the case of the covenant with Abraham. There was the outward promise of Canaan, and the admission to the benefits of that promise by means of the external rite of circumcision; and there was the spiritual promise, that lay within the other, of a higher rest, and “a better country, that is, an heavenly;” and the admission to that promise by means, not of the circumcision of the flesh, but of the faith of the heart. In this case, too, the outward covenant was designed to lead on those who shared in it to the saving benefits of the inner and spiritual one. So it was in the case of the covenant with Israel of old. Here, likewise, there was an outward and an inward covenant. There was an outward covenant made with Israel after the flesh, embracing many advantages and privileges of a temporal kind; but there was an inward covenant made with Israel after the spirit, comprehended and encircled within the former, and containing the promise of blessings, of a spiritual and saving kind, to the true Israel of God. And here, in like manner, the outward was made subordinate and subservient to the inward, and designed to lead men on from the one to the other.

There is a close parallelism in this respect between those ancient dispensations of God, and that under which we now live. We have now, as we have ever had in former times, an outward and an inward covenant,—the one comprehended and encircled within the other. We have an outward and visible Church now, characterized, as of old, by an external administration, and numbering among its members those admitted by an external profession. But, embraced within that outward Church, and encircled by it, we have the invisible and spiritual one characterized by the promise, not of outward but of inward blessings, and numbering among its members none but those spiritually united to the Saviour. And precisely as in former instances of the kind, this outward Church is subordinate and subservient to the interests of the inward, and is designed to guide and advance the members onward, until they reach the blessings of the spiritual Church within. Is there no reason to say that, if there had been, as the Independents allege, no visible Church with its outward provision of ordinances, and membership embracing the invisible and spiritual, it would have been traversing the analogy of all God’s former dispensations towards men, and reversing the principles of all His previous dealings with them? In the doctrines of a visible and invisible Church we simply see the realization, in the present, of the principles of every former economy of God.

In the third place, there seems to be much more than a mere analogy to be gathered from Scripture in favour of a visible Church, made up of outward or professing Christians, and not of true believers exclusively. The express delineation of the visible Church given in Scripture, and that frequently, seems to be totally inconsistent with the idea of a society, the terms of membership in which are, a true faith and saving interest in Christ.

It is unnecessary to go over at length the numerous passages of Scripture, sufficiently familiar to all, in which such an idea seems to be expressly excluded or contradicted. The kingdom of God, or visible Church, is compared at one time to a field, where both tares and wheat are found growing together; at another time, to a net cast into the sea, and enclosing and bringing to shore both good and bad; at a third time, to a house in which there are vessels, some to honour, and some to dishonour; at a fourth time, to a wedding supper, where there are guests without the marriage garment; and again to a fold, with a mingled flock of sheep and goats. Such, as described in Scripture, is the condition of the visible Church of Christ in this world, made up of the real and the nominal believer, of the true and the hypocritical Christian, of the elect and the reprobate. It is vain to allege, as the advocates of Independent views are fond of alleging, that such descriptions merely indicate the actual state of the Church on earth, in consequence of the infirmity or charity in judgment of those whose office it is to receive or exclude the candidates for admission, and that it by no means represents what the Church was intended or in duty bound to be. As if to anticipate and meet such a plea beforehand, our Lord, in the parable of the tares, expressly declares it to be His will, that His servants should not attempt to separate between the righteous and the wicked, the tares and the wheat, even when the difference was known to them, but should let both grow together until the harvest; adding as His reason, the danger lest in pulling up the tares they should destroy the wheat also. There cannot, I think, be a more express and explicit answer to the objection of Independents, that such delineations refer to the Church as it is, not to the Church as it ought to be; and it seems to leave no reason to doubt, that in regard to the Christian society on earth, it is neither possible, nor designed, that it should be a community framed on the principle of excluding all but the regenerate from among its members. The visible Church can never be completely, or in all its parts, identical in this world with the invisible; nor can its members ever be restricted to the elect alone.

In the fourth place, the principles of the Independents in regard to Church membership seem to transfer the responsibility of the admission or non-admission of parties to the Christian Church, from a ground on which it may be competent to exercise it, to a ground on which it is not competent to exercise it.

So long as the terms of Church membership are acknowledged to be a visible religious profession, and a corresponding character and conduct to accredit it, there can, with ordinary intelligence and singleness of desire for the purity of the house of God, be no great difficulty in deciding upon such kind of evidence. Thus far, and up to this point, there is a definite rule to walk by, and a competent knowledge to enable the office-bearers of the Christian society to judge in the matter. They have power to judge of the outward profession and outward conduct of the candidate for Church membership; and having the power, they are responsible for the right exercise of it. But when the judgment is transferred from the external profession and character to the inward conviction and experience of the candidate,—when, instead of being called upon to determine the credibility of what is seen and may be known in the outward man, the office-bearers of the Church are charged to decide upon the reality of what is unseen and cannot be certainly known in the inner man,—it is plain that there is a task committed to them which they are utterly incompetent and unqualified to discharge. They can be no witness to the secret work of God done on the soul of a brother; they can have no knowledge of the reality of that mysterious transaction by which to himself, but not to other men, it may be made manifest that he has passed from darkness to light; they can have no evidence sufficient to guide them in seriously pronouncing a judgment on the state of grace, or the opposite, of a candidate for Church membership. The knowledge and the evidence of such a saving experience must, from the very nature of the case, lie only between God and the man with whom God has graciously dealt; and are a knowledge and an evidence which another can neither understand nor receive. The man himself, whose experience it is that God has done the work of conviction and conversion on his soul, may have the knowledge, and underlie the responsibility involved in it. A stranger can neither share in the one, nor is competent to undertake the other. And if, in the admission to the membership of the Church, direct evidence of a state of grace on the part of the person admitted is required, the decision upon the question involves a responsibility which the office-bearers of the Church cannot take, because they cannot have the knowledge necessary for it, and a responsibility which the person himself cannot transfer to them, because he cannot communicate along with it that knowledge. The power to look upon the heart, and to judge of its spiritual state, is a power which God challenges as His own; and man, even although willing to transfer such judgment to a fellow-man, has not the power to do so. In leading evidence, and attempting to sit in judgment on the spiritual state, as in the sight of God, of others, men are trespassing into a province where it is not lawful for them to enter. In erecting a spiritual inquisition for the judgment of such matters, they are setting up a tribunal whose inquiries they have not knowledge to direct, and whose decisions they have not received authority to pronounce. It is not the judgment of charity, in defect of more perfect knowledge, pronounced about the spiritual state of any man, that ought to form the reason for his admission to Church membership; but it is the judgment of justice, with competent knowledge, pronounced on his visible profession and his outward conduct. The judgment on his spiritual state belongs only to God, and may form the reason for his admission among the members of the invisible Church. The judgment on his outward profession belongs to man, and ought to form the only ground of his admission to, or exclusion from, the membership of the visible Church.

James Bannerman, The Church of Christ: A Treatise on the Nature, Powers, Ordinances, Discipline, and Government of the Christian Church, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1868), 68–80.