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Going Public: Why Baptism Is Required for Church Membership — Jamieson (Review)

Jamieson, Bobby. Going Public: Why Baptism Is Required for Church Membership. (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2015). 243 pp. Publisher’s description and PDF of first chapter. Author interview and book quotes. (Amazon new price: $18.86 paperback, $11.99 Kindle, cheaper used.) Going Public: Why Baptism Is Required for Church Membership

For Anabaptists, baptism was and often remains a hot topic. And for a rite that has been central to the entire Church since its first moments, there is a surprising diversity of thought within Christianity at large. Basically everyone besides Quakers and the Salvation Army agrees that water baptism is important, but there is disagreement on nearly every other point.

In conservative Anabaptist circles, there are at least several points of dispute: Which mode of baptism is best? How closely should baptism be tied to conversion? And how closely should it be tied to church membership?

Given our disagreements about church membership, this last question seems to be an especially active point of discussion. I’ve heard quite a few young people suggest that baptism is too closely tied to membership in our churches. Some say this feeds into the perception that “joining the church” is the essence of salvation, with true repentance and regeneration apparently being secondary. Some don’t like all the extra-biblical church rules that are thus tied to baptism. On the other hand, most church leaders I’ve heard seem to value the connection between baptism and membership. Usually this means they don’t think it is wise to practice baptism without membership.

Bobby Jamieson’s new book, Going Public, affirms the connection between baptism and church membership. But his main concern is one we don’t usually wrestle with in our conservative Anabaptist churches. He doesn’t think it’s wise to practice membership without baptism. His primary goal is to show that “baptism is in fact required for membership in a local church” (p. 2).

Going Public Cover

Going Public is aimed primarily at credobaptists (those who affirm believer’s baptism) who are divided over whether to include as members those who have been baptized as infants. Baptists have been debating this “for nearly 350 years” (p. 11), and John Piper helped renew the debate in 2005 when he argued for what Jamieson calls “open membership”—the inclusion of those baptized as infants. (Read and hear more from Piper and his church on this debate; his church ultimately retained “closed membership.”)

Jamieson thinks infant baptism (paedobaptism) is not baptism at all, but because he assumes “virtually everyone who will read this book is a credobaptist,” he doesn’t spend much time defending that point. Rather, his goal is more focused:

In one sentence: in this book I argue that according to Scripture baptism is required for church membership and for participation in the Lord’s Supper, membership’s recurring effective sign. (p. 8)

Or, in more detail:

The thesis of this book, then, is that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are effective signs of church membership: they create the social, ecclesial realities to which they point… Therefore, what this book offers is not merely an answer to the question of whether baptism should be required for church membership. Instead it offers an integrated account of how baptism and the Lord’s Supper transform a scattered group of Christians into a gathered local church… It lays theological foundations for understanding what the local church is from the ground up. (p. 2)

Going Public is a product of 9Marks, a multi-faceted ministry founded by Calvinist Baptist pastor Mark Dever that aims “to help pastors, future pastors, and church members see what a biblical church looks like, and to take practical steps for becoming one.” Jamieson is a Ph.D. student in New Testament at the University of Cambridge and a former assistant editor for 9Marks.

Summary of Book

Part 1 is called “Getting Our Bearings.” After explaining and justifying his goals in Chapter 1, Jamieson critiques “six reasons open membership feels just right” (p. 21) in Chapter 2. “This chapter… is an exercise in critically analyzing aspects of the prevailing evangelical worldview, the broader culture which informs it, and the unique pressures baptists feel because of both. It’s an attempt to help the fish notice the temperature and currents of the water he lives in and therefore takes for granted” (pp. 21-22).

Part 2 is called “Building a Case.” Chapter 3 presents a short theology of baptism, arguing primarily that baptism is “where faith goes public,” a phrase repeated many times throughout the book. “Becoming a Christian is not a private act… The New Testament speaks of baptism as an integral part of what it normally means to become a Christian. As such, it often uses baptism as shorthand—specifically, a synecdoche—for conversion… Two implications… First, all who profess faith in Christ are obligated to be baptized. Second, infant baptism is not baptism and should not be counted as baptism” (p. 52).

Chapter 4 argues that baptism is “the initiating oath-sign of the new covenant” (p. 55)—that is, baptism is a sign (a symbolic act) that functions as an oath, an oath that initiates a person into the new covenant. “If someone believes but has not yet been baptized, he has not yet fully entered the new covenant… You might say that an as-yet-unbaptized believer belongs to the new covenant privately but not yet publicly, and God intends the two to be inseparable” (p. 78).

Chapter 5 presents a similar argument using kingdom imagery rather than covenant imagery. “Jesus… has authorized local churches to serve as embassies of his kingdom… Baptism is the swearing-in ceremony for citizens of the kingdom” (p. 96). “Because baptism is the passport of the kingdom, baptism is a necessary though not sufficient criterion by which the church is to recognize someone as a Christian” (p. 99). “Baptism is an effective sign of church membership: it creates the ecclesial reality to which it points” (p. 100).

Chapter 6 turns to the related topic of the Lord’s Supper, calling it the “renewing oath-sign of the new covenant,” the event where we “repeatedly ratify the new covenant” (p. 135). “Baptism binds one to many, and the Lord’s Supper binds many into one” (p. 122). “Baptism must precede the Lord’s Supper. You must perform the initiating oath-sign of the covenant before you may participate in its renewing oath-sign” (p. 134). “The Lord’s Supper should only be celebrated by local churches as churches. It normally entails membership in a local church. And a gathering which regularly celebrates the Lord’s Supper is a church. Why? Because the Lord’s Supper, like baptism, is an effective sign of church membership” (p. 135).

Chapter 7 addresses church membership more directly. “Yes, God creates his people through the gospel. But if faith stayed invisible, there would be no church on earth, only individual Christians, or at best vague, indistinct associations of believers… Baptism and the Lord’s Supper make the church visible. They are the hinge between the ‘invisible’ universal church and the ‘visible’ local church. They draw a line around the church by drawing the church together” (p. 142). “Baptism and the Lord’s Supper give the church visible, institutional form and order… ‘Church membership’ names the relation which the ordinances create. The ordinances mold the church into a shape called ‘membership.’ …Therefore, we can’t remove baptism from membership because without baptism, membership doesn’t exist” (p. 157).

Part 3 is called “The Case Stated, Defended, Applied.” Chapter 8 mercifully summaries Part 2 in less than eight pages. Chapter 9 responds to seven arguments against requiring baptism for membership. Here Jamieson engages opponent-friends as prominent as John Bunyan and John Piper. “Baptism draws the line between the church and the world. We are not at liberty to draw it elsewhere… Paedobaptists are denied membership because they lack not the substance of a credible profession but its form” (p. 191). Chapter 10 presents seven final arguments in Jamieson’s favor—arguments against “open membership” (membership that is open to those not baptized).  “You can’t put error regarding baptism into the structure of the church. Why? Because baptism, along with the Lord’s Supper is what structures the church… If an individual’s conviction trumps the church’s confession, it’s not the church that has the authority but the individual” (p. 207). Chapter 11 gives practical advice for practicing baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and church membership, including “a transition plan” for churches who wish to newly adopt Jamieson’s position of requiring baptism for membership (pp. 210-11). Finally, an appendix is provided for “explaining why baptism is required for membership in three minutes” (pp. 227-28).

Assessment of Book

The subtitle of this book is “Why Baptism Is Required for Church Membership.” I came to this book already convinced of this basic idea. It seems very clear to me that the New Testament portrays baptism as an initiation into both Christ and his body, and that you can’t experience one without the other.

Jamieson added some theological richness to my prior understandings, such as in his discussion of covenant. Modern Anabaptists usually don’t spend as much time thinking about the Bible in terms of covenants as Reformed thinkers do, which is a shame given our historic clarity about the significance of at least the new covenant. “Is the new covenant inaugurated by an oath?” (p. 65). “Is baptism an oath?” (p. 67). I’m not sure I’ve ever considered such questions before. Good questions can lead to richer understandings.

I also liked Jamieson’s irenic (peaceful despite disagreements) tone. While he is certainly capable of absolute statements, he also evidently loves those with whom he disagrees, even counting them as fellow Christians despite theological statements that might suggest otherwise.

Yet, despite agreeing with so much in this book, I found it a somewhat frustrating read. The book could be shorter if trimmed of redundant repetitions. On the one hand it is structured carefully, with a logical progression of chapters, a summary chart of “headlines” at the end of each chapter, a summary chapter and appendix, and lots of “this is where we’ve been and this is where I’m going” material. But I also felt at times as if the author thought we readers might be convinced if he simply repeated his assertions (“baptism is where faith goes public,” etc.) often enough.

I also found the end of the book a bit of a let-down. After so many strong assertions throughout the book, when it came time for practical suggestions about church life, qualifiers and compromises appeared. For example, Jamieson strongly asserts that “infant baptism simply isn’t baptism” (p. 53) and that “without baptism, membership doesn’t exist” (p. 157). Yet in his “transition plan” he suggests that “if you currently have unbaptized paedobaptist members, I’d suggest they should be ‘grandfathered in’—that is, remain members… I don’t think their refusal to be baptized necessarily amounts to grounds for excommunication” (p. 211). I’m not saying I disagree with Jamieson’s advice. But it feels to me like this belated retreat from idealism to realism suggests that Jamieson’s position is not as absolute as he first made it appear. Maybe it would have been more honest to have acknowledged this earlier.

Update: Here is another example of how Jamieson’s strong idealistic assertions clash with later compromises.

Jamieson asserts for about 200 pages that infant baptism is no baptism at all. He argues even more strongly that true (that is, believer’s) baptism is essential for church membership. Then he suggests that paedobaptists who are within baptist churches should go start their own churches… Do you feel the tension? Now read this explanation buried in a footnote:

Some readers may wonder how I can recognize a paedobaptist church as a true church since, in principle, all its members could be unbaptized persons and therefore unfit ‘matter’ for a church. I would suggest that because a paedobaptist church preaches the gospel and practices the ordinances together [HT Martin Luther], they are in fact a church. (Remember, it’s not that paedobaptists don’t baptize believers; it’s just that they ‘baptize’ infancts, too, thus preventing them from being baptized if they come to faith.) Not being baptized, did these individuals have authority to form a church? Perhaps not. But once they’re a church, they’re a church. The situation is analogous to a couple who were each unbiblically divorced before marrying each other. They lacked the authorization to marry, but once they’re married, they’re married. (p. 203)

If your head stops spinning after that, add another dance number to the mix:

If you’re the only church in your city, and you’ve got convinced paedobaptists coming to your church, and they remain so despite your best efforts to convince them otherwise, I’d suggest that your long-term goal should be to help them start a new church… You and your other elders can help raise up church leaders from within their number or connect them to other believers who might be able to find them a pastor. When they’re ready to being meeting as a church, you can pray for them and send them off with your blessing… (p. 187)

So, to go back to the marriage analogy: If you have a couple that are each unbiblically divorced, and thus without the right to remarry (I’m assuming Jamieson’s understandings of divorce and remarriage for the moment), but who nevertheless share the conviction and desire to marry each other, what should you do? Sounds like your “long-term goal should be to help them start a new” marriage. You could even “pray for them and send them off with your blessing.”

My, theology can be confusing.

This retreat from idealism also opens the door for arguing in favor of other compromise positions. There is no direct biblical basis for Jamieson’s compromise position. Thus I’m not sure there is any clear biblical or logical line between Jamieson’s compromise (grandfather in current members baptized as infants) and Piper’s compromise (accept as members those baptized as infants). Jamieson is compromising more on the Bible’s teaching on welcoming all Christians, and Piper is compromising more on the Bible’s teaching on believer’s baptism. Both are seeking compromise in a difficult situation where not all Christians agree. Neither are managing to follow the NT example perfectly. (Nor are we.)

But what really made this book a wrestling match for me was Jamieson’s “local church membership” lens. It seems to me that Jamieson’s perspective on church membership (a perspective shared by 9Marks and many other evangelicals and by many Anabaptists too) is only loosely biblical. I began critiquing this aspect of the book in a previous post and will reflect more here, but this topic really deserves more attention than can be given in a book review.

What is Jamieson missing? Briefly: The language of church membership comes from the NT’s language about members. And member language in the Scriptures is associated with body language. (Today we are more likely to say a body has “parts” than to say it has “members,” but we still might say a body has been “dismembered.” The ESV mirrors this by switching randomly between “members” and “parts” in its translation of the Greek word μέλη in 1 Corinthians 12.) And—here is the crucial point—when the Scriptures talk about the body of Christ and its members, they are almost always emphasizing the universal church, not the local church. (I hope to write a post or essay sometime to defend this claim.) Yet we are so used to extra-biblical phrases like “local church membership” and “the local church body” that we tend to read these NT references to member and body as referring to local churches. Of course the realities of the universal church must also be lived out locally. But not at the expense of the universal realities upon which the local ones rest!

Jamieson briefly acknowledges the importance of the universal church:

What if someone were to argue that baptism initiates one into the universal church, not a local church? I agree that there is a sense in which baptism initiates one into the universal church as it is visibly, publicly expressed on earth. Just as Christians all share one faith and one Lord, so also there is one and only one baptism (Eph. 4:5). And as I said, when a Christian converted in Chicago moves to Detroit, he need not be baptized again; he brings his baptism with him. Baptism is an affirmation of kingdom citizenship. And local churches, as embassies of the kingdom, are bound to affirm all the kingdom citizens they are presented with. Thus, insofar as baptism is an affirmation of kingdom citizenship, it confers a status which transcends the local church that grants it. (p. 102)

There is much good in this paragraph! (Ponder the second-last sentence again, and wrestle both with Jamieson’s thoughts about paedobaptists and the membership requirements of many of our own churches; here is an ideal we should reach towards, whether or not we can perfectly reach it.) But there are also fascinating shortcomings. Jamieson writes “there is a sense in which baptism initiates one into the universal church.” Why such hesitancy to affirm what the Bible so clearly teaches? And how did he manage to quote Ephesians 4:5 without quoting the verse right before it, which begins, “There is one body…” There is one body! The index indicates that Jamieson never quotes this verse. This is a significant lapse in a such a weighty book on membership. And after this paragraph he soon retreats again to focus narrowly on “local” church membership.

The following statement about the local church is more typical of Jamieson’s thought patterns:

It’s the body—I’d argue the only body—that has the authority to declare to the world who does and does not belong to the kingdom of Christ (Matt 16:18-19; 18:17-20).

This statement not only assumes a strongly congregationalist form of church government, a perspective which may be correct but which will not be shared by many such as Presbyterians and conference Mennonites and Catholics who are beyond his ideal readership. It also stretches the evidence provided by its proof texts. In Matthew 16 and 18 Jesus was granting authority first of all to his disciples. After Pentecost these same disciples would often exercise this kingdom-defining authority outside of local church contexts. They did this, for example, through writing letters, through traveling from church to church, and in the Jerusalem conference, which affirmed the inclusion of Gentiles everywhere and gave conditions for that inclusion.

This confusion about membership expresses itself repeatedly throughout Going Public. A few more examples:

If you’re only at a church one Sunday, there’s no time to be a member, so the theological category of ‘membership’ doesn’t obtain. (p. 130)

This may be true of Jamieson’s theological categories, but surely not Paul’s.

In lots of places Jamieson moves without warning or distinction between phrases that properly describe the universal church and phrases that describe local churches. For example:

You should not baptize anyone who is not intending to join your church. With only one exception (addressed below), no one should be baptized who is not intending to come under Jesus’ authority by submitting to his church… (p. 213, emphasis added)

In once sentence he says you shouldn’t baptize anyone who is not intending to join your church. In the next sentence he says you shouldn’t baptize anyone who is not intending to submit to his (Jesus’) church. Of course, on one level it is both. But our sphere of authority is much smaller (both absolutely and geographically) than Christ’s, so the two cannot be identical. I suggest we need to remember more clearly that the church is Christ’s, not ours. So I see no theological problem in baptizing someone who is planning to fellowship primarily with another group of believers elsewhere, whether across town or across the country or globe. Despite the need to remind all baptismal candidates of the importance of bonding with other believers, I do not think we have a biblical basis for limiting such baptisms to cases that mirror the Ethiopian eunuch, as Jamieson believes (p. 214).

Here he apparently equates the universal and local church:

Baptism… is necessary for entry into the new covenant community on earth—the membership of a local church. (p. 79, emphasis added)

Here he uses a text that deals with universal realities and seems to see only local ones:

The reality of membership—that some people are in the church and others are out—is everywhere present in the New Testament. For example, Paul writes, ‘For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside’ (1 Cor. 5:12-13). Provisionally, we can define church membership as a relation between a local church and a Christian in which the Christian belongs and submits to the church and the church affirms and oversees the Christian’s profession of faith in Christ. (p. 145, emphasis added)

Clearly, when Paul said that “God judges those outside,” “outside” did not mean simply outside a particular local church. In context, those outside were ones who were to be strictly avoided as false brothers, even delivered over to Satan. This means that the phrase “those inside the church” extends beyond any local church, too. We are to judge traveling false teachers just as surely as local ones. The membership Paul was discussing included local realities, but went far beyond it.

Jamieson’s theological categories cause him to affirm divisions (or at least withholding of communion) within Christ’s church. Here he describes the Together for the Gospel (T4G) conference:

One of the goals of the conference is to showcase the unity such brothers can enjoy in the gospel. Yet many have argued that such unity remains a sham as long as those men cannot sit together at the Lord’s Table. (p. 26)

Later he writes this:

My primary response to the ‘If T4G, then church membership’ argument is that church membership isn’t the only kind of fellowship Christians can have. By definition Christians who are geographically distant can’t be members of the same church…

Is it inconsistent to invite a minister to break the bread of life to us and not allow him to break bread at the Lord’s Table with us? I’d suggest not. First, we see in 2 Corinthians 8:18 and 3 John 5-6a that the earliest Christians would occasionally hear trusted preachers from other churches. This means the New Testament doesn’t require someone to be a member of a certain church in order to preach to that church. And if someone isn’t required to be a member, I can’t see why he would need to fulfill all of a church’s requirements for membership… Unity between churches is made of different stuff than unity within churches. (pp. 189-90)

When I read such paragraphs, my pencil gets busy in the margins. “Proof??” is what I wrote after that last sentence. And try telling Paul that “by definition Christians who are geographically distant can’t be members of the same church”! Whose definition, pray tell? Certainly not Paul’s. And can you really imagine that the Paul who rebuked Peter for refusing to eat with the Gentile believers would affirm Christians today refusing to share the Lord’s Supper together?

And consider the Scriptural examples cited. Can you imagine the Paul who rebuked the Corinthian church for failing to share the Lord’s Supper in a loving manner with all the believers present (1 Cor. 11:17-34) being happy if the Corinthian church failed to offer the Lord’s Supper to Titus and “the brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel” when they arrived in Corinth (2 Cor. 8:16-18)? And it seems to me that the John who rebuked Diotrephes because “he refuses to welcome the brothers” would not be content if his readers failed to welcome godly traveling teachers to the Lord’s Table (3 John 5-10).

Jamieson’s narrow focus on the local church leads him to a strange conclusion that is at odds with historic church practice:

Because the Lord’s Supper effectively signifies a church’s existence as a body, it shouldn’t be celebrated by individuals or families or any other group… And it shouldn’t be ‘taken’ to those who are homebound or in the hospital, despite the commendable compassion that evidences. To make the Lord’s Supper something other than a communal, ecclesial meal is to make it something other than the Lord’s Supper. (p. 131, emphasis added)

In contrast, when Justin Martyr records how the Lord’s Supper was observed around the year 150 A.D., he specifies that “to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.” (See Chapter 67 of The First Apology of Justin Martyr.)

I could provide dozens more examples from Jamieson’s book of the tension that is caused by what I feel is his imbalanced understanding of church membership, but this is long enough. Jamieson says several times that “simple proof texting won’t settle the issue either way” (p. 18; cf p. 185). This may be true. But I wish Jamieson built his theological house more directly on a more careful reading of the full biblical foundation.

Conclusion

Jamieson quotes the early Anabaptist Balthasar Hubmaier to good effect several times. I wish he had taken to heart this description that Hubmaier provides of church membership. Hubmaier describes baptism as being “a sacramental oath before the Christian church and all her members, assembled partly in body and completely in spirit” (p. 144, fn 13). May we regain this grand vision of belonging to Christ’s one true, universal church!

We often (and rightly) critique the individualism that keeps too many Christians from ever meaningfully bonding with a local gathering of believers. But I submit that this same individualism is at work in those who focus on the local church without grasping the grandeur of the church universal. America is full not only with individuals who love Jesus but not the church. It is also full of people who love their local church but not the rest of Christ’s body.

If we understand church “membership” in a true NT manner–as describing a belonging to Christ and to his one universal body rather than merely to a local congregation–and if we also agree that Jamieson is right in asserting that baptism and communion are the normal markers of membership in Christ’s church, then we still face difficult questions.

To return to Jamieson’s main question: What about someone who has only been baptized as an infant? If we say that infant baptism is no baptism at all, and if we say that baptism is always essential for church membership, then we must deny such people membership. But if membership is not merely a local matter but a universal one, by denying membership we are saying not merely that those baptized as infants cannot be part of our congregation, but that we have no assurance that they belong to Christ at all!

Jamieson takes pains to clarify that he is not saying this. One way he attempts to escape this trap is by saying that withholding membership is not denying someone’s faith, only refraining from affirming it. More precisely, it seems that Jamieson believes that there are cases where Tom as an individual can believe that Brother P (paedobaptist) is a Christian, and Dick can believe this too, and so can Harry, but that Tom, Dick and Harry together as a church must not affirm this by granting Brother P membership (pp. 166-67). Brother P may indeed be a Christian, and the church is not saying he isn’t. It’s just that they can’t say his is. Thus Jamieson disagrees with Piper’s claim that refusing membership is “preemptive excommunication” (p. 171). I’m not so sure. And the only way Jamieson’s argument works, as I see it, is if there is a local “membership” that is different from how the Bible uses such language.

How to move forward? While I strongly affirm believer’s baptism as the biblical pattern, I think I might be more comfortable acknowledging that we sometimes fall short of the biblical ideal in our understanding and practice of baptism than I am with trying to clone Christ’s body into thousands of separate “bodies.” How many bodies does Christ have?

Or is there a middle path that can avoid compromise on both baptism and membership? I am still pondering and listening.


This book is a valiant effort with a significant flaw.
I give it 3-1/2 out of 5 stars.

What are your thoughts? Do you agree with Jamieson and me that baptism and membership are integrally connected? Do you think Jamieson is hearing the heartbeat of the NT about “membership”? Am I? Are we conservative Anabaptists? Share your insights in the comments below.


Disclosures: I received this book free from the publisher in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

 


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Ecclesiology of the Reformers (2): Martin Luther

Martin Luther, by almost anyone’s estimation, was the single most influential figure of the Protestant Reformation. (Gutenberg, with his printing press, is a serious outlying contender.) If Luther was the single most influential figure of the Reformation, the single most influential idea of the Reformation was surely Luther’s understanding of justification.

Luther did not set out to start a new church, and most children of the Reformation today do not belong to the Lutheran Church. Yet Luther’s understanding of justification has shaped the churches of all the children of the Reformation, just as it shaped his own developing conception of the church. Luther’s ecclesiology, then–and the ecclesiologies of each branch of the Reformation–was a by-product of a deeper concern: the nature of the gospel itself.

This, of course, is how it should be; if we define the gospel based on our churches rather than defining our churches based on the gospel, our ecclesiology will inevitably go awry. But this historical observation also reminds us that Luther’s ecclesiology was a work in progress. He, like us, did not possess a fully-formed and clear conception of the true Church and its temporal manifestations at the moment of his new birth. So as we consider Luther’s ecclesiology, let’s consider him a fellow student–not a complete novice, to be sure, but not an all-wise master, either.

Here, then, are some quotes about Martin Luther and ecclesiology from Timothy George’s excellent book, Theology of the Reformers. (For the introduction to this series, go here. For the ecclesiology of Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, Menno Simons, or William Tyndale, stay tuned. And here is my concluding post in this series.)

From Timothy George:

Far from attempting to found a new sect, Luther always saw himself as a faithful and obedient servant of the church. Thus his deep chagrin that the first Protestants, in England and France no less than in Germany, were being called “Lutherans”: “The first thing I ask is that people should not make use of my name, and should not call themselves Lutherans but Christians.” (Kindle Locations 1142-1145)

Luther did not see himself as an agent of ecclesiastical revolution, a sixteenth-century Lenin or Robespierre out to shake the world and overturn kingdoms. That the papacy and empire were shaken, if not overthrown, by the words of a simple German monk was, he thought, merely a providential by-product of his prior vocation. “I have done nothing. I have let the Word act.” What Luther did do, what he was called to do, was to listen to the Word. “The nature of the Word is to be heard,” he remarked. (Kindle Locations 1158-1161)

Protestantism was born out of the struggle for the doctrine of justification by faith alone. For Luther this was not simply one doctrine among others but “the summary of all Christian doctrine,” “the article by which the church stands or falls.”(Kindle Locations 1292-1293)

The person who has… received the gift of faith Luther described as “at once righteous and a sinner” (simul iustus et peccator)… [As his theological understanding developed], Luther [used] simul iustus et peccator… in the sense of semper (always) iustus et peccator. The believer is not only both righteous and sinful at the same time but is also always or completely both righteous and sinful at the same time. What does this mean? …Luther expressed the paradox thus: “We are in truth and totally sinners, with regard to ourselves and our first birth. Contrariwise, in so far as Christ has been given for us, we are holy and just totally. Hence from different aspects we are said to be just and sinners at one and the same time.” …Luther’s doctrine of justification fell like a bombshell on the theological landscape of medieval Catholicism. It shattered the entire theology of merits and indeed the sacramental-penitential basis of the church itself. (Kindle Locations 1459-1476)

The principle of sola scriptura was intended to safeguard the authority of Scripture from that servile dependence upon the church that in fact made Scripture inferior to the church… The church, far from having priority over Scripture, is really the creation of Scripture, born in the womb of Scripture. “For who begets his own parent?” Luther asked. “Who first brings forth his own maker?” Although the church approved the particular books included in the canon…, it was thereby merely bearing witness to the authenticity of Scripture, just as John the Baptist had pointed to Christ. (Kindle Locations 1640-1647).

At the same time Luther did not simply throw out the preceding 1,500 years of church history. In his treatise against the Anabaptists (1528), he said, “We do not act as fanatically as the Schwärmer. We do not reject everything that is under the dominion of the Pope. For in that event we should also reject the Christian church. Much Christian good is to be found in the papacy and from there it descended to us.” Sola scriptura was not nuda scriptura.
(Kindle Locations 1651-1655)

“Now if anyone of the saintly fathers can show that his interpretation is based on Scripture, and if Scripture proves that this is the way it should be interpreted, then the interpretation is right. If this is not the case, I must not believe him.” Thus Luther argued for the coinherence of Scripture and tradition , Holy Writ and Holy Church, while never wavering in his commitment to the priority of the former. (Kindle Locations 1662-1666)

The last thing in the world Luther wanted to do was start a new church. He was not an innovator but a reformer. He never considered himself anything other than a true and faithful member of the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church…. [Luther’s acts] provoked a schism in Western Christendom that has not yet been healed. Luther, however, was no mere iconoclast . He revolted against the church for the sake of the church, against a corrupt church for the sake of the “true , ancient church, one body and one communion of saints with the holy, universal, Christian church.” (Kindle Locations 1735-1743)

He said, echoing Cyprian, that outside the church there was no salvation. (Kindle Location 1747)

But what exactly is the church? Luther once responded impatiently to this question: “Why, a seven-year-old child knows what the church is, namely, holy believers and sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd.” We have in this answer a major thrust of Luther’s ecclesiology: the essentially spiritual , noninstitutional character of the church. Luther disliked the German word Kirche (which , like church in English, or curia in Latin, derives from the Greek kuriakon, the Lord’s house) because it had come to mean the building or the institution. He preferred Gemeine, “community,” or Versammlung, “assembly.” For him the true church was the people of God, the fellowship of believers, or, as the Apostles’ Creed has it, the communion of saints. (Kindle Locations 1756-1762)

Against the Roman conception of the church, Luther stressed the priority of the gospel. Luther insisted that the gospel was constitutive for the church, not the church for the gospel: “The true treasure of the church is the holy gospel of the glory and the grace of God.”(Kindle Locations 1782-1784)

Like Augustine, Wyclif, and Hus before him, Luther talked about the invisible church whose membership comprised the whole company of the predestined… Its invisibility derives from the fact that faith itself is invisible, “the evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11: 1 KJV). If faith were a measurable quantity, we could identify the church by its outward characteristics. But because faith as the radical gift of God is not definable in external terms, the church, too, is not a physical assembly but “an assembly of hearts in one faith.” (Kindle Locations 1784-1790)

In addition to “invisible,” Luther also spoke of the church as “hidden.” This is a more complex concept and carries several connotations. It means first of all that the church, while manifest to God , is hidden from the world… The hiddenness of the church also extends to its holiness. Unlike the Anabaptists, Luther never espoused a pure church composed only of discernible saints. In this age the church is a corpus permixtum containing at once sinners and saints, hypocrites and devout believers, tares and wheat. The purity of the church is not subject to examination, nor does it depend on the moral qualifications of the members or the ministers. “Our holiness is in heaven, where Christ is; it is not in the world, before the eyes of men, like a commodity on the market.” (Kindle Locations 1791-1806)

It seemed to some that Luther’s emphasis on the hidden, invisible character of the church would undermine its tangible, historical reality. However, Luther intended neither to dissolve the church into a fairy castle in the clouds nor to reduce it to a loose-knit association of like-minded individuals. The gospel remained the sole, infallible mark of the church but the gospel in a particular sense, as it was manifested in the Word rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered. Wherever these two “notes” are evident, the true church exists, even if it is composed only of children in the cradle. (Kindle Locations 1815-1819)

Luther did not invent preaching, but he did elevate it to a new status in Christian worship.(Kindle Locations 1824-1825)

Luther’s greatest contribution to Protestant ecclesiology was his doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Yet no element in his teaching is more misunderstood. For some it means simply that no priests are in the church— the secularization of the clergy… More commonly people believe that the priesthood of all believers implies that every Christian is his or her own priest and hence possesses the “right of private judgment” in matters of faith and doctrine. Both of these are modern perversions of Luther’s original intention. The essence of his doctrine can be put in one sentence: Every Christian is someone else’s priest, and we are all priests to one another.
Luther broke decisively with the traditional division of the church into two classes, clergy and laity. Every Christian is a priest by virtue of his baptism… The priestly offices are the common property of all Christians, not the special prerogative of a select caste of holy men. Luther listed seven rights that belong to the whole church: to preach the Word of God, to baptize, to celebrate holy Communion, to bear “the keys,” to pray for others, to sacrifice, to judge doctrine. (Kindle Locations 1909-1920)

All of this means that no one can be a Christian alone. Just as we cannot give birth to ourselves, or baptize ourselves , so neither can we serve God alone. Here we touch on Luther’s other great definition of the church: communio sanctorum, a community of saints.(Kindle Locations 1926-1928)

How did Luther relate the priesthood of all believers to the office of the ministry? While all Christians have an equal share in the treasures of the church, including the sacraments, not everyone can be a preacher, teacher, or counselor…
Strictly speaking, Luther taught that every Christian is a minister and has the right to preach. This right may be freely exercised if one is in the midst of non-Christians, among the Turks, or stranded on a pagan island. However, in a Christian community one should not “draw attention to himself” by assuming this office on his own. Rather he should “let himself be called and chosen to preach and to teach in the place of and by the command of the others.” The call is issued through the congregation, and the minister remains accountable to the congregation. Luther went so far as to say: “What we give him today we can take away from him tomorrow.” (Kindle Locations 1935-1944)

The exigencies of the Reformation did not conform to Luther’s early Congregationalism. If the church were to be reformed, the governing authorities had to play a role. Luther referred to the prince as a Notbischof, an emergency bishop. Through the institution of the visitation, the territorial prince assumed a larger role in the affairs of the church. Eventually a network of state churches emerged in Germany. (Kindle Locations 1948-1951. B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

Timothy George goes on to survey Luther’s understanding of the state and its relationship to the church. It is here that I have some of my strongest disagreements with Luther. Time does not permit me to discuss Luther’s conception of church and state, but I do want to note one point: Luther taught a doctrine of two kingdoms–the spiritual government of the Church and the worldly government of the state. This may surprise some of us Anabaptists. We emphasize our “two-kingdom theology,” and rightly so. But I don’t think we always remember that Luther, too, had a  two-kingdom theology (as did many other Reformers). In fact, it was a quite nuanced two-kingdom theology, well-versed both in historical and systematic theology, and based in part on biblical passages such as Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13–14. To repeat, I disagree strongly with important aspects of Luther’s understanding of the two kingdoms. But my point here is that I think we owe it to Luther and to ourselves to remember that we Anabaptists are not the only ones to have wrestled with such ideas.

Back to the quotes above. What do I like or dislike about Luther’s ecclesiology? First, some affirmations:

  • I like his humility and his desire to be a servant of the Church.
  • I think he was exactly right to stress the priority of the gospel in defining and creating the Church, and to insist that the Church was and is born in the womb of Scripture, not vice versa.
  • I like his preference of assembly over church, and his understanding that the Church is essentially a communion of saints, not a building or even primarily an institution.
  • I like his identification with the catholic Church across time and space.
  • I like his rediscovery of the priesthood of all believers.
  • I think he was right to say that there is no salvation outside the Church. (Of course, this statement hinges on your definition of the Church!)

What are some points where I might disagree with Luther’s conception of the Church? I’ll answer this question paragraph-style:

My biggest point of disagreement with Luther begins at my biggest point of agreement: I think he was exactly right to define the Church based on the gospel, but I don’t think his understanding of the gospel was perfect. Luther deserves great credit for helping to trigger a vast European discussion about the nature of the gospel, and I am eager to give him credit for this. His writings were very helpful to thousands of seeking souls, including many early Anabaptists such as Menno Simons. But this does not mean his understanding of the gospel was perfect in all respects.

For example, I think that Luther’s understanding of semper iustus et peccator (always or completely both righteous and sinful at the same time) weakened the biblical link between faith and works in ways damaged his ecclesiology. While faith may be invisible, as Luther insisted, it does not exist without visible manifestation. Luther based his conception of an invisible church on his understanding of invisible faith. While I agree with the concept of an invisible church in the sense of how the true Church extends across time and denominational lines without respect to either, I do not think that this true Church is invisible in the sense that it is impossible to recognize a member of this Church when you see one. Our human discernment on such matters will always be imperfect. Yet “by their fruits you shall know them” applies, I think, not only to false prophets but also to true Church members.

This leads me to also disagree somewhat with Luther on the concept of a corpus permixtum–a Church containing at once sinners and saints, hypocrites and devout believers, tares and wheat. After Jesus told the Parable of the Weeds (Matt. 13:24-30), he explained that the field that contained both wheat and weeds was “the world” (Matt. 13:38). This understanding of the parable matches Paul’s understanding of the church’s role in judging sinners (1 Cor. 5:12-13): “Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you.'” Thus, I think those Reformers were correct who added to Luther’s two “notes” of the church (right preaching and right sacraments) the mark of the proper exercise of church discipline. Luther was certainly right to root our holiness in Christ, but he was misleading to say that our holiness was “not in the world, before the eyes of men, like a commodity on the market.” Our holiness is not a commodity on the world’s market, for sure; we are not justified of damned based on the assessment of unregenerate observers. But the world around should indeed be able to “see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). (I will also add that I think some Anabaptists have fallen into the opposite ditch on the question of a pure church, but that is a topic for another post.)

I’ll end by repeating one of my favorite quotes from Luther, followed by one of my favorite statements of Jesus about the Church:

Luther: “Why, a seven-year-old child knows what the church is, namely, holy believers and sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd.”

Jesus: “There will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16).

(Next up: the ecclesiology of Huldrych Zwingli.)

What did you learn reading these excerpts from Timothy George about Martin Luther’s ecclesiology? Where do you agree with Luther? Where do you disagree, and why? What do you think our churches today should learn as we ponder Luther’s example and influence? Share your insights in the comments below!


PS: If you are enjoying this series, be sure to buy Timothy George’s book! He has so much more to say than what I am sharing here. (Disclosure: The link above is an Amazon affiliate link, so I’ll make pennies if you buy the book.)


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