Thursday, September 28, 2006

Distinctive Christianity in a Nominal Christian Culture, Part 3: Membership

In this series of posts, I've maintained that the defining feature of nominal Christianity is that it blurs distinctions. It blurs distinctions about conversion and salvation, and it lives on the kind of preaching that fails to distinguish, to divide, to bring into relief real differences between Christian thinking and living and uredeemed living and thinking.

Well, nominalism also blurs the distinction between God's covenant people and the surrounding nations and culture.

One can not read the Bible without seeing that God's great purpose in history is to gather together for Himself a special people. He created Adam and Eve to enjoy fellowship with Him and to worship Him in the Garden. God called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees to make of his seed a special nation. Isaac became the seed of promise, not Ishmael. The Lord chose Jacob the younger brother but not Esau. Israel is loved by God as His special people, marked out through the covenant of God and distinguished from the pagan nations surrounding them. They were to be holy, to observe His statutes, to avoid mixing with the unbelievers, and to serve God forever. They were to await the Messiah who would fulfill all the promises of God. And, as the New Testament reveals to us, they were to become one new nation with a new covenant along with Gentiles who believed on the Messiah. And this nation, the Church, is to be the revealed wisdom and glory of God to all the powers of heaven and earth, spiritual and natural. The church--the called out gathering of God's people--is the focal point of God's redeeming work and the revelation of His divine wisdom.

How incredibly important it is, then, that membership in the church, the body of Christ, be made distinct, clear. By its very nature, the church is something that distinguishes. It clarifies who belongs to the covenant community of God and who doesn't. Our individual petition to join a church is a confession of the saving work of God in our lives. And the church's admittance of an individual member is the corporate "affirmation" of that individual profession. Together, the individual and the corporate community testify to God's work of redeeming and separating to himself a special people, a royal priesthood.

Living distinctively Christian lives depends in good measure on establishing effective ways of distinguishing between those inside and those outside the church. It depends on good membership practices. Otherwise, those who may never have tasted the saving work of Christ may be left to think that their status before God is secure and to wrongly assure themselves of a salvation that is not theirs to claim. And the church runs the risk of giving affirmation to this false profession and false assurance.

Overcoming the blurring effects of nominalism means the faithful pastor must be willing to help people "examine themselves to see whether they are in the faith." He must not be willing to take for granted that someone is a Christian because they come to church, wish to join a church, or indicate by some mere profession that they are "Christians." He must be willing to look for evidence of God's grace that supports the profession, for saving knowledge of Christ.

A couple months ago, we thought a bit about why we should pursue regenerate church membership (see parts one, two, three, and four). One reason, quite simply, is to defeat the deafening effects of nominalism toward the call of the Gospel.

So much of the modern thinking on church membership assumes that the front door of the church should be open wide to all and the back door closed to prevent people from leaving. Actually, it seems that biblically it is precisely the opposite that God intends. We should narrow the front door since broad is the path that leads to destruction but narrow the path that leads to life. And we should open wider the back door, realizing that the seed sown in every heart does not produce abounding, abundant life in everyone. This closing of the front door and opening of the back door will help us to discriminate (yes, there is a good way to use this word) and discern on the front end and to expel and release on the back end persons who prove themselves disobedient in following the Lord in critical ways. We tend to fear letting people go, but that tendency will at various times actually be to their spiritual detriment.

Nominal Christianity thrives in places where lines are erased. It finds a home in the church because membership practices fail to erect a dividing wall between the people of God and the world. If we would conquer nominalism and the carnality that comes along with it, we should be careful with how we take people into the church. The souls of our nominally Christian friends and neighbors depend on it.

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