Church Membership and Theological Labels

PMT 2013-041b by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

A reader responded to our blog article “Why Must We Join the Church?” (PMT 2013-036b Dr. Jeffrey K. Boer). In that he had an extensive interaction on a significant issue, I thought it might be a good idea to respond to him briefly. I will do so in two articles.

The reader’s concern

“I am not Reformed, nor do I really consider myself Arminian, I simply wish to know the truth, to understand the Scriptures as a whole and to follow Christ. I guess I’m saying, even if it is cliche, that I want to be Christian without extra labels and indentifiers.

One thing that concerns me about this article is that there is barely, if any, support of your idea of “joining” a church found in Scripture. Paul said that we are members of the body of Christ individually. I see that as spiritual, not some earthly “congregation” mindset. I am a member of Christ’s body whether I meet with others or not. To say otherwise is to claim John on the Isle of Patmos was “cut off” from the covenant because he was isolated in exile. Or what about Paul when he entered cities where there were no believers, how could he stay in covenant relationship with Jesus?

Might we have mistaken our traditions and creeds for what God’s word actually says? Personally I don’t care what Westminster thinks, they were fallible men, as was Calvin. The definition of God’s church is very simple: Wherever two or more are gathering in my name there am I among them.”

My response

Thanks much for reading my blogsite, and for interacting with the posting on “Why We Join the Church.” I very much appreciate your taking your time to join the discussion!

I and Jeffrey Boer, the writer of the article to which you refer, are also committed to the Christ of Scripture and want to understand the Scriptures as a whole so that we might better follow Christ. And as the founder of this PostmillennialismToday I want to promote an understanding of Scripture through the article I post so that others might commit themselves more fully to Christ.

Helpful book!
Nourishment from the Word (by Ken Gentry)
Reformed studies covering baptism, creation, creeds, tongues, God’s law, apologetics, and Revelation.
By one for each member of your family! I will be glad you did! 🙂

Before I respond to your particular concern, let me interact with your introductory aside whereby you declare your disinterest in labels, such as Calvinism and Arminianism.

I would argue that labels function as helpful identifiers that are necessary in a fallen world. Were there no sin, we would all be committed to the same truth and would instinctively know where everyone stood doctrinally. This certainly will be the case in heaven where we go when we die, and in the new earth where we go after the resurrection.

But the world is fallen, there are many doctrinal positions, and therefore we do not instinctively know everyone’s theological commitments. Consequently, “labels” are helpful for quickly summarizing one’s basic theological position. Labels save us an enormous amount of time in effectively communicating with others and therefore help us to quickly “cut to the chase.” Let me quickly explain what I mean.

First, your desire is torn by dialectical tension. On the one hand, you want to avoid labels. But on the other hand, you state that you “want to be Christian.” But by declaring that you want to be a “Christian,” you have labeled yourself. I now know that you are not Buddhist, Muslim, or Atheist. You have informed me of a very important label — or “identifier,” as you well say. This helps me to know your basic worldview commitment.

“Reformed Sunday School” (2 CDs by Ken Gentry)
Two sermons on issues sometimes debated in Reformed circles:

(1) Women & Ministry. Defends women’s role in church in teaching women and children.
(2) Reformed Theology & Sunday School. An historical and exegetical defense of Sunday school.
Please note: Listening to these sermons will not fix cowlicks. So don’t even think about it.

Second, your label is incomplete. The label “Christian” is an important, foundational label, but due to sin in the world it is not sufficient. Unfortunately, I do not have enough information from your label to know exactly what you mean by it.

Are you a liberal Christian who wants to follow Christ’s example, but do not believe he is divine or born of a virgin or resurrected from the dead? Are you a Mormon who is a member of “The Church of Jesus Christ, Latter-day Saints” and wants to be baptized for the dead and become a god once you die? Are you a Jehovah’s Witness who believes Christ was an angel come down to earth? Your label does not tell me enough about your commitment to know exactly how to interact with you.

Third, your dismissal of labels contradicts Scripture. Ever since God named Adam (implied in Gen 5:1; cp. Gen 2:20; 3:17), Adam named Eve (Gen 3:20), and Adam named the animals in Eden (Gen 2:19), labels have been a part of the way we operate in God’s world, even before sin entered the world.

In fact, because man is created in God’s image and is therefore a rational creature, God himself brought the animals to Adam to let him name (label) them. Adam labeled the animals as he began acting as the rational image of God in God’s world, seeking to bring order and fuller understanding into the world as he learned more and more.

All through Scripture we see the importance of names (which are personal labels). Sometimes God changes the name of a person when he calls them to special service, such as when he changed Abraham to Abram (Gen 17:5), Jacob to Israel (Gen 32:28), Simon to Peter (Mark 3:16), and Saul to Paul (Acts 13:9).

Fourth, your dismissal of labels goes against our everyday practice. Words are basically labels that help us operate in the world without requiring constant mental processes to sort out what is going on around us. They are shortcuts to understanding. If you want to tell someone to meet you at a certain time and place, you have to label the place: McDonald’s restaurant on the corner of Fairview Rd and Harrison Bridge Road.

What is more, I do not call my wife by saying, “Hey, you.” I call her by the label her parents gave her at birth, the one I committed myself toy when I made my wedding vows. I also label her as my “wife,” so people will know why she is always staying at my house overnight. My children label her “mother,” to distinguish her from other women in the world and in their lives.

Fifth, names are often used to label someone. For instance, Jacob was renamed “Israel” by God (Gen 32:28; 35:10). And he did so to label him as the man who “strove with God and prevailed,” since that is what his name means (Gen 32:28). Later Israel’s name came to define one who was a member of the Jewish lineage: an Israelite (Exo 35:29; Lev 24:10; John 1:47; Rom 9:4; 11:1).

Paul even uses several labels in narrowly defining his own genealogy: “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ?—I speak as if insane—I more so” (2 Cor 11:22–23).

In Acts 13:26 your favorite label was created to define those who wanted “to follow Christ” (as you state in your question): “the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (Acts 11:26b).

The label “Calvinist” associates a person with the basic teachings of John Calvin, who attempted to root his teachings in Scripture. The label “Arminian” associates a person with the basic teachings of James Arminius who disagreed with Calvin’s views. The labels do not commit you to every jot and tittle of Calvin or Arminius’ thought. But they do help to provide a basic understanding of your general theology. And as such they are helpful in promoting communication and understanding.

Dr. Boer’s references to the Westminster Standards were not designed to equate Westminster with Scripture, putting those documents on a par with the word of God. Rather, he was speaking to a large body of Christians who share the beliefs embodied in that great doctrinal statement. If nothing else, because he cited Westminster you know pretty well where he stands doctrinally. And of course, the Westminster Standards set forth the Bible as the ultimate standard of truth.

In my next article I will respond to your specific question regarding church membership obligations.

Redeeming Pop Culture (by T. M. Moore)
How should a Christian understand pop culture? What in it should we appreciation and enjoy?

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