During the training session for the recent Simeon Trust workshop in Toronto, David Helm took the workshop leaders through a number of passages of apocalyptic literature that we would be dealing with in our sessions. I sat in a room of scholars who knew the bible inside and out and so it was a real treat to be able to hear these men exposit their assigned texts of scripture.
One text in particular stands out in my mind: Revelation 12. I don’t recall whose task it was to deal with this outstanding passage of Scripture, but I do recall David Helm’s comment about the first verse. It reads: “Then a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and with the moon under her feet, and on her head was a crown of twelve stars.” Judging from the context of the rest of the chapter, the woman is the people of God; whether it is just Israel or whether it is the entire people including the New Testament church is not totally clear (the church appears a little later). Yet there can be no doubt about how God views his people. She is adorned with the sun, a symbol of radiance and light. The moon sits at her feet and she is crowned with twelve stars—either a reference to the twelve tribes of Israel or the twelve apostles. The description leaves one with the vision of a beautiful woman, royal, majestic and precious.
David Helm noted this and reminded us to think on the church the way that God does. Do we view the church, the people of God, with such vaulted imagery? Do we adorn her with the sun? Is she glowing and radiant? Helm admonished us to always maintain a high view of the church and keep her utterly lovely in our eyes. I will never look at Revelation 12 the same again.
Ecclesiology has been brought to my thinking of late. I recently devoured the festschrift for J.I. Packer edited by Timothy George called J.I. Packer and the Evangelical Future. Carl Trueman has a controversial article in it where he highlights areas of weakness in Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ ministry, particularly in his ecclesiology. This is not a new critique, as John Brencher has made plain in his monograph on the Doctor that I read about seven years ago. Packer, according to Trueman, has a robust ecclesiology and it is his view of the church that serves as the ballast for his theologising. While Dr. Lloyd-Jones had a significant and important impact on twentiety-century evangelicalism, his ecclesiology has had a negative impact on subsequent developments in certain Reformed circles. Trueman reminds us that we must keep the church central.
I’ve essentially had my theology reoriented since reading Trueman’s article, indeed even the rest of the book. This is not to say that I’ve had a low view of the church all along and I have only just realised it, rather the church has been more on the periphery in my thinking, but now I realise the need to strive to keep her central.
How does this play itself out practically in the ministry of a pastor? It does so in many respects, more than I can get into here. But I do want to highlight one aspect of ecclesiology that can be considered from two angles. Namely, church membership.
Hebrews 10:25 is the classicus locus of church membership. We are reminded by the author to not forsake the assembling together as some do, but to encourage one another as the day of judgement approaches. Membership is an important issue in the life of the Christian and the life of the church. It is the formal allegiance of an individual into a group who have covenanted together to worship God and live a godly life.
Of course membership can be and is taken for granted. It can be taken for granted when the Christian refuses to join a local church. Now, refusal can be understandable on one level, if it is for theological conviction. For instance, I may not become a member of the paedobaptist church if their church covenant stipulates that I must baptise my child. I may go to that church because they are the only Reformed church in a fifty-mile radius. But if I attend a church where my theological beliefs on core issues are essentially compatible and I refuse to join, I am acting in a forthrightly disobedient manner. Why would I not want to align myself with God’s people? God loves the church so much that he sent the Son to die for her, do I have a right to love her any less? Revelation 12:1 reveals the high esteem that God has for his church, should I not esteem her in like manner?
Church membership can also be taken for granted in another way. If one aligns themself with a church for reasons other than biblical conviction. So for instance, I may join a church because they have a good music ministry—yet they preach a watered down gospel. Or I sign up because a person of the opposite sex that I like attends, but I could give a rip about what is actually taught there. To join a church for any reason other than the desire to follow the biblical injunction is just as bad as the person who refuses to enter into the covenant of membership. Either way, it is not God-honouring.
Joining a church is like entering into marriage. It requires love and committment. One should not hastily enter into membership if they are not familiar with the church or if they are not sure that the theological perspective of the church matches their own thought out convictions. God watches and he knows the heart. To take the bride of Christ (Ephesians 5) for granted is to render an offense to God. I liken it to someone blatantly offending my wife—how would I feel? How does Christ feel when his bride is blighted? When someone neglects the church, takes the church for granted, treats the church as a commodity or a means to an end is sin that God will deal with. The Christian’s perspective should be to view the church as we do our own spouse. We should love the church, care for the church, esteem her before others and ultimately die for her. Nothing less than full, heart-felt committment to the people of God is what God requires.