Church Membership and Prescriptive Implication
My name is Sean Demars, and I believe in church membership. The words “believe in” are kind of ambiguous, though, aren’t they? What exactly do I mean when I say that I “believe in church membership”?
Simply this: every Christian should be a member of a local church, and every local church should practice meaningful church membership. The word “should” is open to interpretation though, so it might be helpful to clarify further. In stronger terms, I think the Bible teaches that every Christian, in so far as he is able, should publicly commit himself to his local church through formal membership, and that every local church should have some measure of formalized commitment for all of the Christians that gather under its name.
It might surprise you to find out that I don’t believe that the New Testament anywhere teaches church membership explicitly. To be sure, Matthew 18:20 is explicit, but the line drawn from a few Christians gathered in Jesus’ name to names on a membership role is a squiggly one, requiring a certain measure of implicit reasoning. The modern requirements for explicit proof-texts are tremendous. So tremendous, in fact, that many Christians are unwilling to accept Bible-based arguments for church membership unless one can produce a proof text that uses the word “list” or “rolls.” Jonathan Leeman’s response to such stringent textual demands seems appropriate: “When people ask me, ‘Is church membership even in the Bible?’ I’m half tempted to reply, ‘No, it’s not in the Bible, at least not in the way that you mean.’”
Is it possible for the Bible to teach something prescriptively without teaching it explicitly? I think it is possible, and I think you do too. I call this “prescription through implication,” and I’d be willing to bet that, even if you don’t fully understand how all the dots connect, you already believe in prescription through implication. As a matter of fact, orthodox Christianity—sometimes for better, other times for worse—has been doing theology by implication since its very inception, and continues to do so up to our present day. One easy example of this would be the way we as Christians think about God.
THEOLOGY BY IMPLICATION: THE TRINITY
If you believe in, teach on, and safeguard the church from wrong teachings on the Trinity, you already practice and therefore affirm theology by implication. As most freshman Bible college students and Mormon apologists know, the word Trinity can’t be found anywhere in the Bible. Moreover, the prooftexter extraordinaire will, ten times out of ten, come up short trying to find a verse in the Bible that clearly and explicitly lays out the contours of Trinitarian theology. How is it possible, then, that the historically orthodox Christian understanding of God is unflinchingly triune? The answer is theology by implication.
In the pages of the Old Testament we see hints that the God of the Bible is Triune in nature, but the shadows don’t become full-color, hi-def reality until Christ arrives, revealing himself to be God with us. Even then, mystery remains. It’s not until after Christ’s resurrection that he teaches his disciples the fullness of the mystery, part of which involves another person, the Counselor. The pages of the New Testament clearly and explicitly teach us that there is one God. The Bible also teaches us that the Father is God, Jesus is God, and the Spirit is God. The way we put all those pieces together to formulate the doctrine of Triunity is grounded entirely in implicit reasoning.
The Trinity is the most obvious example of theology by implication, but we use implicit reasoning to arrive at all sorts of other theological conclusions. One way that Christians know that becoming addicted to heroin is sinful is by implicit interpretation of Scripture’s explicit teaching on drunkenness (Eph 5:18). The examples could be multiplied.
So here’s my question: Why aren’t we okay with doing theology by implication when it comes to ecclesiology?
PRESCRIPTION THROUGH IMPLICATION
Is church polity prescriptive? I think so, but I haven’t always felt that way. Church membership is the most obvious example of something I believed in, practiced, and even encouraged through formal teaching—but I wasn’t entirely comfortable using “ought” language in connection to it. How can I say Christians ought to do something if the Bible doesn’t explicitly say that they should?
The same reasoning I employ to arrive at conclusions like “Christians shouldn’t do heroin” is the same reasoning I employ with regards to church membership. I don’t read anything about heroin in my Bible, nor do I read anything “about” church membership. But I do think the line from “don’t be drunk with wine” to “don’t do cocaine” is straight enough. I feel comfortable using “ought” language there.
In the same way, I think the line from “submit to your elders” (Heb. 13:17) or “take it to the church” (Matt. 18:17) to “we should formally covenant together and call it membership” is a pretty straight one—straighter than most, in fact. Who should we submit to? Every elder in he world? Every elder in our city? Should we submit to bishops from another county, or pastors in our local gathering?
What about pastors? They’ll have to give an account for those whom God has given them to shepherd. But who are those people? Will my pastor, Mark Dever, have to give an account for all the Christians that live in his city, or even in his neighborhood? I don’t think so.
IMPLICATION AND RISK
That said, when we do theology by implication we run the risk of messing up. Furthermore, every level of implicit reasoning away from the text incurs more risk.
But just because theology by implication is risky doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. It does mean, however, that we should move carefully, engage our Bibles and each other with humility, and probably consult our forefathers along the way.
Christians who refuse to do ecclesiology by implication assume they aren’t running any risk because they’re avoiding that which isn’t explicit in Scripture. But I would argue they’re actually running a greater risk. They’re risking a denial of Scripture’s clear implications for the church, which imperils the preservation of the gospel across generations. Knowing how much the King loves his bride, that’s not a risk I’m willing to take.
 Leeman, Jonathan: Church Membership, p.71