Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Was Church Membership Made More Restrictive?

I think it is fair to say that we all agree that there was an old covenant between God and a people, the Jews. And that membership in the covenant, the "insiders", was restricted to Jews, their children (whose faith was not confirmed but assumed), and adult converts.

When we get to the new covenant, we have to ask ourselves some questions. Is there still a group of insiders and outsiders? Has God relaxed or tightened the membership requirements?

The Arminian, while never denying that there is a New Covenant, does deny any corporate covenantal dealings between God and a people. To the Arminian, the only ecclesiastical reality is an indeterminate number (potentially zero) of personal-Lord-and-Savior bonds between individual epiphanized decision-makers and God. The church is just a convenient gathering of those fortunate people for whom prevenient grace was adequate. Their children tag along, but are outsiders until such time as they experience their personal altar call.

The Reformed Baptist will acknowledge not only the New Covenant but also that God has a special relationship with His people: the elect. There is only the elect and everybody else. The Reformed Baptist has tightened membership into the covenant. After all, there were elect in Old Testament times as well, yet God had a special relationship with Jews, not just elect Jews.

But does New Testament scripture teach that membership in the covenant, which includes partaking of certain promises and participation in certain sacramental rites (in short: church membership) has been further restricted? No, it does not teach that. Is it silent on the matter? No it isn’t.

That leaves us with only one option. Scripture does not proclaim a tightening. Nor is it silent on the matter. So it must be that it explicitly teaches that membership has been relaxed. Once you look for it, it is not so hard to find.
27And when you were baptized, it was as though you had put on Christ in the same way you put on new clothes. 28Faith in Christ Jesus is what makes each of you equal with each other, whether you are a Jew or a Greek, a slave or a free person, a man or a woman. (Gal. 3:27-28)

The Baptist would have to respond that membership is expanded to include Greeks, women, etc., but has been tightened so as now to exclude some who were formally admitted: infants.

For the Baptist, the absence of an explicit command to continue including infants takes precedence over the absence of an explicit command to begin excluding them. A radical change, about which scripture is silent, is assumed.
Crispus was the leader of the meeting place. He and everyone in his family put their faith in the Lord. Many others in Corinth also heard the message, and all the people who had faith in the Lord were baptized. (Acts 18:8)

Here we have a favorite passage for the Baptist position. Clearly "everyone in his family" implies reasoned adults, otherwise how could the writer (Luke) be sure they "put their faith in the Lord?" But regardless of the ages of the family members, Luke can only be sure of the legitimacy of their faith for one reason: he is writing under the inspiration of the Spirit. The Spirit knows who has been given faith. Otherwise, Luke would have to write: it appeared that they put their faith in the Lord based on their credible testimony.

As I have written many times now, if you expect to see some who died as infants in heaven, then you are forced to acknowledge that infants can possess faith. The only alternative is to give up on the notions that we are saved by faith and are justified by faith alone.
14One of them was Lydia, who was from the city of Thyatira and sold expensive purple cloth. She was a worshiper of the Lord God, and he made her willing to accept what Paul was saying. 15Then after she and her family were baptized, she kept on begging us, "If you think I really do have faith in the Lord, come stay in my home." Finally, we accepted her invitation. (Acts 16:14-15)

This is perhaps a more significant baptismal account. While once again the entire family is baptized, here Luke writes nothing about the faith of the family members. The Baptist position is that we must assume they all were adults and all made a credible profession. Perhaps that is true. But it is not necessary. What the passage teaches is that when Lydia was admitted to the covenant. Then, as the head of her household, her family was welcomed as well.

Once again I am drawn to the singular passage that started me on this journey. For, apart from acknowledging that there are a covenantal people, a group larger than the elect but smaller than all humanity, whom, even those that will not be saved, are viewed differently by God, and a group that includes infants, there is simply no explanation for:
For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. (1 Cor. 7:14)

Through a believing wife (call her Lydia) an unbelieving (and hence condemned) husband and her children are sanctified (set aside). How are they sanctified, even though they might be lost? What else can it mean other than they are admitted to the church?

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