Church Membership: De Jure or De Facto?

When Presbyterians are first introduced to 1689 Federalism, often one of their first responses is “Oh, so you deny the visible/invisible distinction of the church?” To which we respond “No.” For example, Chris Villi says:

In one of the key statements of the book, Denault writes, “The Scriptures do not provide any possibilities of being visibly in the New Covenant without participating effectively in its substance” (p. 153). This assertion represents one of the most fundamental errors of Baptist theology. Essentially, Denault is arguing that everyone in the New Covenant is truly saved and that it is impossible for an unbeliever to be connected to the New Covenant in any sense. Denault notes that, for Particular Baptists, the New Covenant “did not have an external administration in which the non-elect were to be found” (p. 86).

Again, the denial of the possibility of unbelievers in the visible church is one of the most problematic aspects of the federalism espoused by Denault. Is it really possible to guarantee that there are no non-elect people associated with the visible church? Even more, can this idea of “regenerate membership” in the visible church be defended as biblical? Given that 1689 federalists have always been convinced that true believers cannot lose their salvation, the very existence of a New Testament command for church discipline and excommunication contradicts their position.

Yet our confession clearly states in chapter 26:

1._____ The catholic or universal church, which (with respect to the internal work of the Spirit and truth of grace) may be called invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ, the head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.
( Hebrews 12:23; Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 1:10, 22, 23;Ephesians 5:23, 27, 32 )

2._____ All persons throughout the world, professing the faith of the gospel, and obedience unto God by Christ according unto it, not destroying their own profession by any errors everting the foundation, or unholiness of conversation, are and may be called visible saints; and of such ought all particular congregations to be constituted.
( 1 Corinthians 1:2; Acts 11:26; Romans 1:7; Ephesians 1:20-22 )

3._____ The purest churches under heaven are subject to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan; nevertheless Christ always hath had, and ever shall have a kingdom in this world, to the end thereof, of such as believe in him, and make profession of his name.
( 1 Corinthians 5; Revelation 2; Revelation 3; Revelation 18:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:11, 12; Matthew 16:18; Psalms 72:17;Psalm 102:28; Revelation 12:17 )

De Jure and De Facto

So where is the confusion coming from? It’s the difference between de jure and de facto.

de jure

[Latin, In law.] Legitimate; lawful, as a Matter of Law. Having complied with all the requirements imposed by law.

De jure is commonly paired withde facto, which means “in fact.” In the course of ordinary events, the term de jure is superfluous. For example, in everyday discourse, when one speaks of a corporation or a government, the understood meaning is a de jure corporation or a de jure government.

A de jure corporation is one that has completely fulfilled the statutory formalities imposed by state corporation law in order to be granted corporate existence. In comparison, a de facto corporation is one that has acted in Good Faith and would be an ordinary corporation but for failure to comply with some technical requirements.

de facto

[Latin, In fact.] In fact, in deed, actually.

This phrase is used to characterize an officer, a government, a past action, or a state of affairs that must be accepted for all practicalpurposes, but is illegal or illegitimate. Thus, an office, position, or status existing under a claim or color of right, such as a de factocorporation. In this sense it is the contrary of de jure, which means rightful, legitimate, just, or constitutional. Thus, an officer, king, orgovernmentde facto is one that is in actual possession of the office or supreme power, but by usurpation, or without lawful title

In From Paedobaptism to Credobaptism, W. Gary Crampton explains how this relates to covenant theology and the church:

The covenant that God made with Abraham included physical or national as well as spiritual promises. Paul confirms this in Romans 9-11: a man could be an Israelite (de jure) in the physical sense without being one in the spiritual sense… (86)

The fact is that in the Old Covenant era, unbelieving Jews by right (de jure) were a part of the nation of Israel. But in the New Covenant community it is different. As the author of Hebrews citing Jer 31:31-34 writes, the New Covenant is “not like the covenant” that God made with the Old Testament fathers (8:9). In the New Covenant they “shall all know Me from the least of them to the greatest of them” (8:11). In the New Testament era, says Jesus, “they shall all be taught by God” (John 6:45; compare Isaiah 54:13). As stated by John Owen, it is the “church of elect believers,” consisting of both “Jews and Gentiles, with whom this covenant is made and established, and unto whom the grace is actually communicated.”… (28)

Again, this is in no way to assert that every member of the New Testament community, the visible church, is truly converted. There may well be a Simon the magician (Acts 8:off), a Diotrephes (3 John 9-10), or a Demas (2 Tim 4:10) in the church. Far too often this is the case. But they are members de facto, not de jure. (88)

Westminster Assembly member Samuel Rutherford argued that because the New Covenant and the Old Covenant are the same Covenant of Grace, those who had a de jure Old Covenant membership have a de jure New Covenant membership, and thus a de jure visible church membership.

That our mind may be known in this, we propose these distinctions to be considered by the learned and godly reader:

1.  There is an inherent holiness and there is a federal holiness, whereby some are holy by covenant (that is, have right to the means of salvation), which right Turks and pagans have not.

2.  People or persons are two ways within the covenant:

i. Truly, and by faith in Christ, and according to the election of grace.

ii.  In profession, because the word of the covenant is preached to them as members of the visible church.

3.  There is a holiness of the covenant, and a holiness of covenanters, and there is a holiness of the nation, flock and people, and a holiness of the single person.

4.  There is a holiness of election in God’s mind, and a real holiness real of the persons elected.

5.  There is a federal or covenant holiness, de jure, such as goes before baptism in the infants born in the visible church, and a holiness de facto, a formal covenant holiness after they are baptized…

If the root be holy, so also are the branches (Rom. 11:16).  Now this holiness cannot be meant of personal and inherent holiness, for it is not true in that sense… If then the Jews in Paul’s time were holy by covenant (howbeit for the present the sons were branches broken off for unbelief), how much more then (seeing God has chosen the race and nation of the gentiles and is become a God to us and to our seed), that the seed must be holy with a holiness of the chosen nation and an external holiness of the covenant, notwithstanding that the father and mother were as wicked as the Jews who slew the Lord of Glory.

On the Baptism of the Children of Adherents

The difference between 1689 Federalism and Westminster is that Presbyterians believe that unbelievers who profess faith have a right to be members of the visible church (because the visible church is separate from the invisible church) while Baptists believe they do not have a right to be members of the visible church (because it is only a manifestation on earth of the invisible church). We both agree that they are members of the visible church. In denying an external administration to the New Covenant, we deny any right (de jure) of false professors to the visible church. (For clarification on this point, see Who Should be Baptized – Professors or Believers?)

“The Church” in Scripture

Note the definition above of de jure mentions that “In the course of ordinary events, the term de jure is superfluous. For example, in everyday discourse, when one speaks of a corporation or a government, the understood meaning is a de jure corporation or a de jure government.” This is precisely how we understand the Bible’s discussion of the church. John Erskine, an 18th century Scottish Presbyterian, does an excellent job of defending and explaining this:

We have seen in the first dissertation, that under the Old Testament, men destitute of inward piety were really in covenant with God, and had a just claim to certain external covenant blessings. In the course of the argument, several Scriptures have been occasionally illustrated, which represent the nature of the Christian dispensation, as in these respects diametrically opposite to that of the Sinai covenant.

Many however maintain, that an external covenant subsists under the Gospel, by which professors of Christianity, though inwardly disaffecled to God and goodness, are entitled to certain outward blessings, and church privileges. The common distinction of the church into visible and invisible, or at least the incautious manner in which some have explained it, has contributed not a little to the prevalence of this opinion. But let us impartially examine, whether it has any solid foundation in the sacred oracles; and for this purpose enquire whether the proofs of such an external covenant under the Old Testament, will equally apply to gospel times…

Under the Old Testament, a nation was in covenant with God, many of whom were inwardly disaffected to him. Now, those only who the spirit and temper of Christ, are true members of his church…

[W]e may define the Christian church, a society of persons effectually called; or a company of penitents, united by faith and love to Christ as their head, and to one another as members of his mystical body, and on every proper occasion outwardly discovering this union. Now, if the church of Christ is a society of persons who obey the gospel call, it is evident, hypocrites are no members of that church. For the gospel calls to a humble penitent reliance upon Christ, not to a bare profession of Christianity: and invites us to fellowship with Jesus 1 Cor 1:9 and a right to his kingdom and glory 1 Pet 5:10 not to any external society and advantages. The outward call of the gospel constitutes none members of the church save those who comply with it…

He who makes a credible profession is accounted a member of the church because, from such profession, as an evidence, we judge that he professes the proper condition of church membership, not because such profession is itself that condition. So that we reckon none members of the visible church without reckoning them members of the invisible church likewise, or in other words, without reckoning them united to Christ by a true and lively faith, and entitled to heaven through his perfect righteousness…

If there is an external church, essentially different from the internal, and consisting of different members, then Christ has two churches in the world, and is the head of two mystical bodies. But if the same persons, and none else, are members of the visible and invisible church, then hypocrites are really members of neither, though from our ignorance of their hypocrisy, they may be accounted such. (67-72)

Visible/Invisible a Matter of Perspective

As Erskine said, there is only one church with one membership. If there are two different bodies with two different memberships, then there are two different churches. There is only one church, but it can be perceived in two different ways: from God’s eyes and from man’s. Because men are not God, we must make a judgment as to who is and who is not part of the church. (And that judgment should be one of charity). But our mistaken judgment that someone is part of the church does not actually make them part of the church.

From the Second Helvetic Confession of Faith (1566):


Of The Catholic and Holy Church of God,
and of The One Only Head of The Church


WHAT IS THE CHURCH? The Church is an assembly of the faithful called or gathered out of the world; a communion, I say, of all saints, namely, of those who truly know and rightly worship and serve the true God in Christ the Savior, by the Word and holy Spirit, and who by faith are partakers of all benefits which are freely offered through Christ.


THE CHURCH APPEARS AT TIMES TO BE EXTINCT. Yes, and it sometimes happens that God in his just judgment allows the truth of his Word, and the catholic faith, and the proper worship of God to be so obscured and overthrown that the Church seems almost extinct, and no more to exist, as we see to have happened in the days of Elijah (I Kings 19:10, 14), and at other times. Meanwhile God has in this world and in this darkness his true worshippers, and those not a few, but even seven thousand and more (I Kings 19:18; Rev. 7:3 ff.). For the apostle exclaims: “God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal, `The Lord knows those who are his,’ ” etc. (II Tim. 2:19). Whence the Church of God may be termed invisible; not because the men from whom the Church is gathered are invisible, but because, being hidden from our eyes and known only to God, it often secretly escapes human judgment.

NOT ALL WHO ARE IN THE CHURCH ARE OF THE CHURCH. Again, not all that are reckoned in the number of the Church are saints, and living and true members of the Church. For there are many hypocrites, who outwardly hear the Word of God, and publicly receive the sacraments, and seem to pray to God through Christ alone, to confess Christ to be their only righteousness, and to worship God, and to exercise the duties of charity, and for a time to endure with patience in misfortune. And yet they are inwardly destitute of true illumination of the Spirit, of faith and sincerity of heart, and of perseverance to the end. But eventually the character of these men, for the most part, will be disclosed. For the apostle John says: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would indeed have continued with us” (I John 2:19). And although while they simulate piety they are not of the Church, yet they are considered to be in the Church, just as traitors in a state are numbered among its citizens before they are discovered; and as the tares or darnel and chaff are found among the wheat, and as swellings and tumors are found in a sound body, And therefore the Church of God is rightly compared to a net which catches fish of all kinds, and to a field, in which both wheat and tares are found (Matt. 13:24 ff., 47 ff.).

WE MUST NOT JUDGE RASHLY OR PREMATURELY. Hence we must be very careful not to judge before the time, nor undertake to exclude, reject or cut off those whom the Lord does not want to have excluded or rejected, and those whom we cannot eliminate without loss to the Church. On the other hand, we must be vigilant lest while the pious snore the wicked gain ground and do harm to the Church.

The discrepancy between the visible and invisible church lies entirely in our misperception – our incorrect judgment.

17th century Irish theologian James Ussher held the same belief.

Sith God doth not reveal the covenant of grace, nor afford sufficient means to salvation to the whole world, but only to the Church: explain here what you mean by the Church?

We speak not here of that part of God’s Church which is triumphant in glory; who, being in perfect fruition, have no need of these outward means of communion with him, (Rev. xxi; xxii; xxiii;) but the subject here is the Church militant. And that we consider also, as visible, in the parts of it: consisting of diverse assemblies and companies of believers, making profession of the same common faith: howbeit many times, by force of persecution, the exercise of the public ordinances may for a time be suspended among them.

But are none to be accounted members of this Church, but such as are true believers, and so inseparably united unto Christ their head?

Truly and properly none other. (1 John 2.19) Howbeit because God doth use outward means with the inward, for the gathering of his Saints; and calleth them as wel to outward profession among themselves, (Acts 2.42. Cant.1.7) as to inward fellowship with his Son, whereby the Church becomes visible: hence it is, that so many as partake of outward means, and join with the Church in league of visible profession, are therefore in humane judgement accounted members of the true Church, and Saints by calling, (1 Cor 1.1) until the Lord (who only knoweth his) do make known the contrary. As we are taught in the Parable of the Tares. Mat. 13.24 & Mat. 13.47, &c. and of the draw net, and the threshing floor, where lieth both good corn and chaff.

Body of Divinity

In a 1997 WTJ article, Stuart R. Jones explains

The notion of a church known only to God plays a significant role in early Reformed confessions and leads to the epistemological problem calling for church marks… The problem of others knowing the church is not inability to penetrate the hidden counsel of God, but the fact that “we are often mistaken in our judgment.”

Commenting on Ussher, he notes

God’s ownership here relates to those who have “inward fellowship with his Son.” The church becomes visible by “outward profession among themselves.” This is not a Platonic church of the elect manifesting themselves in material space. This is a community which arises from a hidden life source, but making a confession that is not hidden… Ussher’s statement easily lends itself to the viewpoint interpretation of visible-invisible church.

Stuart explains Ussher’s connection to the Westminster Confession.

It is well known that the Westminster Assembly relied heavily on the Irish Articles of 1615 as a base formulary in its work. Philip Schaff has set the two creeds in parallel tables and noted that Archbishop Ussher (or Usher), the main author of the Articles, had a friend named Dr. Doyle who belonged to the committee which framed the Confession.9 Since one of the first tasks of the Assembly was to revise the Thirty-Nine Articles, it is significant that the Irish Articles provide a more direct basis for the Confession…

The determination of the Confession’s framers [ at 25.1] to be concise, suggests that the “whole number of the elect” formula was a shortened way of expressing the views of Ussher, without recourse to many words. This would have been understood at the time.

Wilhelmus à Brakel

 In 1700, Dutch theologian à Brakel published The Christian’s Reasonable Service. Volume 2 (starting on book pg. 5) discusses the visible/invisible church distinction at length. I will quote it in full because he makes the same argument we are presenting here.

        We wish to establish at the outset that there are not two or more churches, but only one Christian church. This one church we now wish to consider together.
This one church is made up of all the elect who have been called from the beginning of the world and are yet to be called until the end of the world. They are Christ’s peculiar people (Titus 2:14). “ To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven ” (Heb 12:23); “ … Christ also loved the church, and gave Himself for it ” (Eph 5:25). This one congregation is partially in heaven, and is called the church triumphant, to which reference is made in Rev 7:9 – 16. This, however, is not the subject of discussion here. This congregation exists also partially upon earth and is called the church militant. It is the church militant which is the subject of this chapter. One can view this church either in its entirety, dispersed throughout the entire word, or as individual congregations in a nation, city, or village. As such one can refer to the church of England, of the Netherlands, or of Rotterdam.

Clarification of the Invisible/Visible Church Distinction
This one church in its militant state upon earth manifests itself at times more openly in her public assemblies, confession, and holiness. She is then called the visible church. At other times she is more hidden from the eyes of the world by prevailing errors, ungodliness, or persecutions. Then she is referred to as the invisible church (Rev 12:14).
This militant church can be viewed either in her internal, spiritual frame, or in her public gatherings. Her internal, spiritual frame, which consists of faith, a mystical union with Christ, and the spiritual life of the soul, is invisible and cannot be observed with the physical eye. The gatherings where God’s Word is heard and the sacraments are used, as well as her public profession in times of prosperity, are public and visible. Thus, in some respects the church is visible, and in some respects invisible. However, one may not divide the church into a visible and invisible church. One and the same person is invisible as far as the soul, will, intellect, and affections are concerned, and he is visible a s far as his body and motions are concerned. As one person cannot be divided into an invisible and a visible person, one may not divide the church into a visible and invisible church, for then it would seem as if there were two churches, each being a different church.
One may also not divide the church into a visible and invisible church as far as the members themselves are concerned, as if the one had different members from the other. Then all the elect, that is, those who truly have been called and converted, would mentally be separated from all others in the church and constitute the invisible church, whereas converted and unconverted together, gathering in one church, and having only in common the external call, historical faith, confession of the truth, and the external use of the sacraments, would constitute the visible church. This is, in our opinion, an erroneous view, generating many confusing thoughts and expressions concerning the church. When a speaker or writer refers to the church, one will then be in doubt as to whether he is speaking of the so – called invisible or visible church.
We maintain that one may not separate the visible and invisible church in such a manner, for, first, I do not find that the terms visible and invisible church are used in God’s Word with that connotation, nor do I find the description of such a distinction.
Secondly, this distinction is founded upon a false supposition — as if the unconverted are truly members of the church with equal right, that is, in its external and visible gathering, and therefore have a right to use the sacraments, something which we deny expressly below. If the unconverted are not members of the church, even when she is visible, the aforementioned distinction is of necessity irrelevant.
Thirdly, such a distinction infers the existence of two churches which are essentially different from each other. From a spiritual perspective true believers constitute the church by reason of a true, spiritual, and believing union with Christ and with each other. If t he unconverted, together with the converted would constitute a church on the basis of equal rights, this would have to be of an essentially different nature, whereby members of distinctly different natures would constitute one body and one church, even though the unconverted are not spiritually united to Christ and believers. If there are two essential manifestations, there must also be two essentially different bodies and churches, whereas we confess that there is but one church.
Fourthly, if in this respect there were a visible and an invisible church, one consisting only of true believers (due to a spiritual union) and one consisting of converted and unconverted together by way of an external union, then believers would simultaneously belong to two churches, one being invisible and the other visible. They would thus be in one church to which salvation is not promised, and in another to which salvation is promised. To hold such a view is as absurd as to propose the existence of two churches.

Objection # 1: There is a twofold calling, the one being internal and the other external. There is also a twofold faith: a saving, and a historical or temporal faith. There is a twofold holiness, the one being external and the other in truth, and there is a twofold participation of benefits, the one being external and the other an internal participation in the real benefits. Consequently, there is also an external and internal church.

Answer : (1) From this proposition it must be concluded that there are two churches, which is contrary to the Bible.
(2) The external call, historical or temporal faith, external holiness, and external participation in external privileges, do not constitute true membership of the church, which is spiritual in nature. Consequently, such a church cannot be the true church of Christ.

Objection #2: We do not think of two churches when we speak of an external or visible church, and of an internal or invisible church. Rather, we understand this to refer to a twofold perspective of the same church.

Answer : (1) If one maintains that the one church consists of different members from the other, there being a different manner of being united to her, one is not proposing that there are two aspects of the same church. Rather, it is only being indicated that there are two essentially different churches, with two types of members essentially different in nature which make up the church, and two ways whereby one can be united to her.
(2) The external relationship neither makes one a true member of the church, nor constitutes an external church, just as an external relationship with a corporation or business does not make one a true member and partner of it. It also does not cause the corporation or business to be viewed in a different perspective.
(3) No external relationship to the church gives the unconverted the right to use the sacraments, and thus unconverted and converted together cannot constitute an external church. There is no true church of Christ unless all who are members of it have a right to partake of the sacraments.
(4) If one understands the differentiation between the external and internal church to be but a twofold view and perspective of one and the same church, and does not hold to a twofold membership relationship, all is well and our proposition is confirmed: The differentiation between an external and internal church on the basis of membership and relationship is not good. One and the same church, consisting of true believers only, can either be viewed in reference to her internal spiritual condition, or in reference to her external manifestation in the world. This is what we have stated.

From that which has been said it is now evident in what manner we view the church in this treatise: We speak of a church consisting of true believers only, which on earth wars against her enemies and for the faith, being at times more and at times less visible to the human eye. As far as her internal, spiritual frame is concerned, she is invisible; but she is visible in reference to her public assemblies and members.
As we shall now consider the matter itself, we shall first give a description of the church, and subsequently give an explanation of all her elements.

The Church Defined
The church is a holy, catholic, Christian congregation, consisting of true believers only, who by the Holy Spirit have been called through the Word of God, are separate from the world, and are united to their Head and each other with a spiritual bond, and thus are united in one spiritual body. All of this is manifested by a true confession of Christ and of His truth, and in striving against their and Christ’s enemies, doing battle with spiritual weapons under the command of their Head Jesus Christ to the glory of God and their salvation. Let us now consider the individual elements of this description.
The church is first of all a congregation. One individual person does not constitute a church or a congregation. The church is referred to as a house, “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house ” (1 Pet 2:9); as a flock, “… and there shall be one fold, and one Shepherd ” (John 10:16); as a body, “… and gave Him to be the head over all things to the church, which is His body ” (Eph 1:22 – 23); as a nation, “ But ye are … an holy nation ” (1 Pet 2:9); and as a kingdom , “ … who hath called you unto His kingdom ” (1 Thess 2:12). However, one stone does not constitute a house, one sheep does not constitute a flock, one member is not a body, one person is not a nation, one person is not a kingdom — and thus also one pope doe s not constitute a church, which papists claim to be the case.

The True Church: A Congregation of True Believers
The church is a congregation of true believers. The unconverted, even though they have made confession of faith, have been accepted into the fellowship of the church, live without offense, and have been admitted to the use of the sacraments, the unconverted, I repeat, are not true members of the church. This is so whether the church is viewed in her internal, spiritual condition or in her public gatherings whereby she manifests herself externally to the world. The unconverted are not members of the external, visible church. Believers only constitute the true church. They alone are members of the church, regardless of how one views them.
This is clearly stated in articles 27 – 29 of the Belgic Confession of Faith, which read as follows:

Article 27
We believe and profess one catholic or universal Church, which is a holy congregation of true Christian believers, all expecting their salvation in J esus Christ, being washed by His blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Ghost. This Church hath been from the beginning of the world and will be to the end thereof; which is evident from this, that Christ is an eternal King, which, without subjects He ca nnot be. And this holy Church is preserved or supported by God against the rage of the whole world; though she sometimes (for a while) appears very small, and in the eyes of men, to be reduced to nothing, as during the perilous reign of Ahab when neverthel ess the Lord reserved unto him seven thousand men, who had not bowed their knees to Baal. Furthermore, this holy Church is not confined, bound, or limited to a certain place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed over the whole world; and yet i s joined and united with heart and will, by the power of faith, in one and the same spirit.

Article 28
We believe, since this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved and out of it there is no salvation, that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw himself, to live in a separate state from it; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it, maintaining the unity of the Church, submitting themselves to the doctrine and discipline there of; bowing their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ; and as mutual members of the same body, serving to the edification of the brethren, according to the talents God has given them.

And that this may be the more effectually observed, it is the duty of a ll believers, according to the Word of God, to separate themselves from those who do not belong to the Church, and to join themselves to this congregation, wheresoever God hath established it, even though the magistrates and edicts of princes be against it ; yea, though they should suffer death or any other corporal punishment. Therefore all those, who separate themselves from the same, or do not join themselves to it, act contrary to the ordinance of God.

Article 29
We believe, that we ought diligent ly and circumspectly to discern from the Word of God which is the true Church, since all sects which are in the world assume to themselves the name of the Church. But we speak not here of hypocrites, who are mixed in the Church with the good, yet are not of the Church, though externally in it; but we say that the body and communion of the true Church must be distinguished from all sects who call themselves the Church.

It is first of all evident that the Belgic Confession of Faith makes no mention of an invisible church which would consist, by way of mental deduction, of none but believers only, in distinction from a visible church which would consist of both converted and unconverted. This we have rejected earlier. Rather, it speaks of a church, existing and gathered upon earth, which is more or less visible. Anyone who attentively examines the words of the confession will readily discern this, for it makes mention of that church 1) in which hypocrites are to be found (Article 29), 2) to which one ought to join himself, “wheresoever God hath established it,” subjecting oneself to its instruction and discipline (Article 28), 3) against which are magistrates and the edicts of princes, and the joining of which could result in death or any other corporal punishment during times of persecution (Article 28), and 4) which one can distinguish from other sects. All of this can only be applicable to the visible church as she gathers to hear God’s Word and use the sacraments.
Secondly, the confession states that this church, which is more or less visible, consists only of true believers, when 1) it describes the church as “a holy congregation of true Christian believers, all expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by His blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Ghost” (Article 27), 2) it declares that “hypocrites, who are mixed in the church with the good, yet are not of the church, though externally in it” (Article 29).
This confirms the conviction of the Reformed church that only believers are members of the church, while the unconverted are not members of the church, though they be externally in it.

Objection: The confession speaks of that church outside of which there is no salvation. Salvation can, however, be obtained outside of the visible and external church. Many are saved, even though they are neither baptized nor partake of the Lord’s Supper — yes,who are as yet in the Roman Catholic Church. The confession therefore speaks of the invisible church, which consists of believers only, and thus not of the visible church.

Answer : (1) At the time of the Reformation, when there was fierce persecution, many did not dare join themselves to the congregations of believers, thus pretending (as many still do) that salvation can be obtained in every religion. This the confession here refutes.
(2) It is an obvious truth that there is no salvation outside of the church; he who does not have the church as his mother, does not have God as His Father, for the church alone has the truth and preaches the truth, without which no one can be converted and saved.
(3) The confession does not state that no one can be saved unless they have been accepted as a member, are baptized, and attend the Lord’s Supper, but rather that apart from the church there is no salvation, and that outside of her neither the way of salvation is taught nor the means unto salvation are to be found.
(4) Unbaptized converted persons are saved by means of the church, which puts God’s Word at their disposal and proclaims that Word to them. If someone from the realm of popery is converted, this does not occur by way of papal doctrine, but by the Word of truth which the papacy has still allowed to remain in the church.

We have thus demonstrated that the Belgic Confession of Faith declares that only true believers are members of the church, and that the unconverted within the church are not members.
The truth of the aforesaid is established by the following arguments:
First, an external covenant between God and man, of which the unconverted would be partakers, has not been established either in the Old or New Testament. Consequently, there is also no external church of which unconverted persons are members. The first proposition has been proven exhaustively in chapter 16; the second proposition is then certain, since the church is founded upon the covenant. As the covenant is, so is the church.
Secondly, all true members of the church are entitled to the use of the sacraments, whereby the benefits of the covenant are sealed to them. The bread and wine are the communion of the body and blood of Christ, which is broken and shed for the forgiveness of sins (cf. Rom 4:11; 1 Cor 10:16; Matt 26:26 – 28). The unconverted, however, have no right to use the sacraments, since they have neither part nor lot in the sealed benefits, and they thus eat and drink judgment to themselves. The Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper states: “All these, while they continue in such sins, shall abstain from this meat (which Christ hath ordained only for the faithful), lest their judgment and condemnation be made the heavier.” Thus, the unconverted are not members of the church.
Thirdly, the very essence of the church, which gathers in an external form, is union with Christ and each other by the Holy Spirit. “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body … and have been all made to drink into one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13). The Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper speaks of this when it quotes 1 Cor 10:17, “For we being many are one bread, and one body: for w e are all partakers of that one bread.” It further states, “that we by the same Spirit (which dwelleth in Christ as in the head, and in us as His members), might have true communion with Him; … besides, that we by this same Spirit may also be united as members of one body in true brotherly love.” The unconverted, however, do not have this Spirit. “These be they … sensual, having not the Spirit” (Jude 1:19). Since the unconverted do not have the Spirit, they are none of Christ (Rom 8:9). Thus, they are no members of the church, for her members are mutually united by the Spirit and are Christ’s.
Fourthly, the name “church” is not applicable to the unconverted. The church is called, “… the house of God” (1 Tim 3:15); a spiritual house, built up of lively stones (1 Pet 2:5); the fold of Christ (John 10:16); “… the kingdom of His dear Son” (Col 1:13); “the congregation of the saints” (Ps 89:5);  “… the assembly of the upright” (Ps 111:1). The apostle, when writing to the congregation, denominates them as those “that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Cor 1:2); “holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling” (Heb 3:1). All of this, however, cannot be stated concerning the unconverted. Thus, they do not belong to the church, and consequently are not members of her.
Fifthly, this is also evident in 1 John 2:19: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us.” Those who went out were the unconverted, who prior to their departure were in the church but nevertheless did not belong to the church. Thus, the unconverted, even though they are in the church, are not of the church, and therefore are no members of her.

Objections Answered Concerning Membership in the True Church

Objection #1: It is evident that a large multitude of unconverted persons associate with the church, are accepted as her members, remain members there, and partake of the sacraments. Therefore they are members of the church indeed.

Answer : (1) It is one thing to associate with the church and to be accepted as members, and another thing to be true members. The latter does not proceed from the first, for the acceptance of men as members is performed by men, who see only what is before their eyes and cannot judge according to the heart, leaving this to Him who knows the hearts. Regeneration or the probability of regeneration has not been established as a rule by which the elders of the church accept members. Rather, they are judged by their confession of the truth and their response to this truth, and by the manifestation of a life which does not contradict their confession. The rest is left to them and to the Lord.
(2) It is one thing to join the church externally, and it is another thing to speak of an external church. Even though they are externally in the church, this does not mean that there is an external church of which they are bonafide [de jure] members. Membership in an external church to which the promise of salvation is not annexed is not their objective, but rather a church as being a fellowship within which they may be saved. To this church they apply themselves, but only externally, and not in truth with a converted and believing heart. Therefore they are no members, even though men view them as such externally. They are thus within the church as a poisonous fruit which is attached to a good tree with good fruits. They are therefore within the church as strangers, who for some time dwell in a house, but whom no one deems to be family members. Because of this external association with the church there is also an external relationship to the Lord Jesus as King of His church, as well as her true members, and they enjoy the external privileges of the church. Their entrance into the church, and the church’s acceptance of them does not make them true members of the church. Such can only come about by faith and repentance.

Objection #2: On a threshing floor both wheat and chaff are to be found. The church is the threshing floor, and both chaff and wheat are in an identical relationship to the threshing floor. In like manner the unconverted and the converted belong to the same church.

Answer : There is no argument over the fact that both good and evil men are to be found in the church. We are not proposing, however, the chaff to be a “member” of the threshing floor, that is, the church. Chaff is present on the threshing floor as chaff and not as wheat. All who are in the church are not therefore of the church.

Objection #3: Consider Matt 13:24 – 25, 47. On the same field good fruit and tares were to be found, and the same net contained good and bad fishes. Thus, in the church both the good and the evil are equally members of the church.

Answer: The field does not represent the church, but the world (vs. 38), upon which both good and evil men reside. The fish net which gathers all fish, is examined by the fishermen, and only the good fish are placed in the barrels. One must keep the objective of the parable in view, which is not to show who are true members of the church, but what the end will be of the good and the evil. This passage is therefore not applicable here.

Objection #4: One could object by referring to 2 Tim 2:20: “But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honour, and some to dishonour.” The house is the church, and the vessels are the members of the church. Among these members are also the unconverted, who are referred to as vessels of dishonor.

Answer: (1) The vessels in a house are not household members. Likewise the vessels of dishonor — the unconverted — are not members; they do not truly belong to the household.
(2) Again, one should not become entangled in details, but take note of the objective, which is to demonstrate who are the good and the evil within the church, a fact we readily admit. Not one word is mentioned here, however, whether or not they are true members of the church. Even if they are in the church, they are not therefore of the church.

Objection #5: If one maintains that only the converted are members of the church, one proposes that there is a pure church upon earth, which is contrary to the Bible and experience. [This is the poor objection every baptist hears from Presbyterians]

Answer: (1) True believers themselves are still subject to many impurities, and are far from being perfect.
(2) By maintaining that only true believers are members of the church, we do not claim that there are no unconverted in the congregation, but that they are not present as true members there. There neither has been nor will ever be a church upon earth in which there are no unconverted, that is, those who merely travel along; yes, the latter are generally in the majority. There is a significant difference between being in the church, and being of the church.

Objection #6: If only the truly converted are true members of the church, the true church which we need to identify is not recognizable, since one cannot be certain of the conversion of others.

Answer : One ought not to identify the church by regeneration, but by the true doctrine, and the sanctification of the confessing members conjoined with this true doctrine. These two are identifiable, and wherever these two are present, the true church is to be found. Whether someone possesses these two in truth or in pretense is a personal matter, however, and is not to be a distinguishing mark for the church for others. It thus remains certain that only true believers who congregate upon earth are members of the church, it being more or less visible. The unconverted are therefore not members of the church, though they be externally in her.

John Murray

John Murray wrote a brief essay titled The Church: Its Definition in Terms of ‘Visible’ and ‘Invisible’ Invalid. His purpose was slightly different than ours, but his observations are pertinent to our discussion.

It has been common to make a sharp distinction between the church visible and the church invisible and with this distinction to apply definitions by which the differentiation can be maintained. This position calls for examination in the light of Scripture…

[T]he actions of God by which men are made members of the body of Christ are of such a character that they are imperceptible to men… So from many angles our human limitations have to be recognized and these may be expressed by speaking of the church as invisible. At least the term ‘invisible’ has been used to draw attention to these obvious facts…

The distinction between the church visible and the church invisible is not well-grounded in terms of Scripture, and the abuses to which the distinction has been subjected require correction…

A rapid survey of the New Testament usage will show how frequently the term ‘church’ designates what is visible. The church is the assembly or fellowship of the people of God, constituted by the call of God, a people formed for himself to show forth his praise and to bear witness to him in the performance of prescribed functions…

God gave Christ ‘to be head over all things to the church’ (Eph 1:22), ‘Christ is the head of the church’ (5:23), ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself for it’ (5:25; cf. 3:10, 21; 5:24, 27, 29, 32; Col 1:18, 24)… It might seem that in these latter passages the ‘church invisible’ is in view and that only to the church as such can the various properties belong… [I]t is impossible to dissociate the church visible from the relevance and application of the various propositions in these contexts. Hence, even in those passages in which the concept of the ‘church invisible’ might appear to be present, the case is rather that there is no evidence for the notion of the ‘church’ as an invisible entity distinct from the church visible…

Strictly speaking, it is not proper to speak of the ‘visible church’. According to Scripture we should speak of ‘the church’ and conceive of it as that visible entity that exists and functions in accord with the institution of Christ as Head, the church that is the body of Christ indwelt and directed by the Holy Spirit, consisting of those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be saints, manifested in the congregations of the faithful, and finallt the church glorious, holy and without blemish.


Charles Hodge, when challenged by Episcopalians and Romanists to consistently apply the Jewish model of the church, argued

…if the Church is the coetus sanctorum, the company of believers; if it is the body of Christ, and if his body consists of those, and of those only, in whom he dwells by his Spirit, then the Church is visible only in the sense in which believers are visible.

He says the Church is visible in so much as:

(1) it consists of men and women, in distinction from disembodied spirits or angels..

(2) Its members manifest their faith by good works… Wherever there are true believers, there is the true Church; and wherever such believers confess their faith, and illustrate it by a holy life, there the Church is visible

(3) …believers are, by their “effectual calling,” separated from the world… The true Church is visible throughout the world, not as an organization, not as an external society, but as the living body of Christ; as a set of men distinguished from others as true Christians…


The scriptural and Protestant doctrine of the visibility of the Church is, therefore, a corollary of the true doctrine of its nature. If the Church is a company of believers, its visibility is that which belongs to believers. They are visible as men; as holy men; as men separated from the world as a peculiar people by the indwelling of the Spirit of God…


When Protestants say the Church is invisible, they only mean that an inward and consequently invisible state of mind is the condition of membership, and not that those who have this internal qualification are invisible, or that they cannot be so known as to enable us to discharge the duties which we owe them. When asked, what makes a man a Christian? we say true faith. When asked whom must we regard and treat as Christians? we answer, those who make a credible profession of their faith. Is there any contradiction in this? Is there any force in the objection, that if faith is an inward quality, it cannot be proved by outward evidence?

Implications for Covenant Membership

Erskine continues by explaining how this relates to covenant membership:

What then are the covenant blessings, that belong to unconverted professors of Christianity? Surely, not the spiritual blessings infallibly connected with salvation, for in these, believers only have an interest. Not outward prosperity, that being no where promised in the covenant of grace, either to the visible, or to the invisible church. Not the sacraments, which, unless as signs and seals of spiritual blessings, are of little value. Not the call of the gospel, for they have no more benefit by it, than infidels, and the openly profane. A strange covenant indeed, which confers only an empty unmeaning title, but from which the persons in covenant derive no advantage!…

I should do injustice to my argument, if said nothing of some passages of Scripture, from which, those who read without due attention, may be apt to conclude, that hypocrites are true members of the church. The church seems compared to a field, where tares grow up with the wheat, to a threshing floor, where good grain is mixed with the chaff, to a net which draws bad fish as well as good, and to a feast where a guest comes, not having on the wedding garment, Matth. xiii. throughout, and xxii. Must we not conclude from these Scriptures, that hypocrites are members of the church?—By no means. Unless we must also infer, that chaff is good grain, and that tares are wheat, because they often happen to be mingled together. There is no occasion for an inference thus dishonourable to sacred writ. These parables represent to us, not the nature of the church, but her condition in this world where hypocrites are mingled with Christians, breathe the same air, worship in the same temple, and make the same outward profession…

It deserves our notice, that the apostle does not speak of some of the church as within and others as without, and thus give countenance to the distinction of a visible and an invisible church, but speaks of all the members of the church as within, and of the world as without. All then who belong to the church, are within, or members of the church invisible. Some are so, truly, and in the eyes of God ; others, only apparently, and in the eyes of men. The first have a title to be within. The second have no title. If we reckon them within, it is only, because their profession being credible, we charitably believe it sincere, and that consequently they are united to Christ. And hence, so soon as we find, from their course of life, that their profession was deceitful, it becomes our duty, to renounce communion with them…

The greater part of modern Christians, have, I acknowledge, in their sentiments of the nature of the church, widely deviated from Scripture and antiquity. And the fiction of a visible church, really in covenant with God, and yet partly made up of hypocrites, has almost universally prevailed.

Theological Dissertations II: The Character and Privileges of the Christian Church

Charles Hodge went on to draw conclusions for covenant theology as well.

Much of the most plausible argument of Romanists is derived from the analogy of the old dispensation. That the Church is a visible society, consisting of the professors of the true religion, as distinguished from the body of true believers, known only to God, is plain, they say, because under the old dispensation it was such a society, embracing all the descendants of Abraham who professed the true religion, and received the sign of circumcision… The Church exists as an external society now as it did then; what once belonged to the commonwealth of Israel, now belongs to the visible Church…

The fallacy of this whole argument lies in the false assumption, that the external Israel was the true Church…

It is to be remembered that there were two covenants made with Abraham. By the one, his natural descendants through Isaac were constituted a commonwealth, an external, visible community. By the other, his spiritual descendants were constituted a Church. The parties to the former covenant were God and the nation; to the other, God and his true people. The promises of the national covenant were national blessings; the promises of the spiritual covenant, (i.e. of the covenant of grace) were spiritual blessings, reconciliation, holiness, and eternal life. The conditions of the one covenant were circumcision and obedience to the law; the condition of the latter was, is, and ever has been, faith in the Messiah as the seed of the woman, the Son of God, and the Savior of the world. There cannot be a greater mistake than to confound the national covenant with the covenant of grace, and the commonwealth founded on the one with the Church founded on the other.

When Christ came “the commonwealth” was abolished, and there was nothing put in its place. The Church remained. There was no external covenant, nor promises of external blessings, on condition of external rites and subjection. There was a spiritual society with spiritual promises, on the condition of faith in Christ. In no part of the New Testament is any other condition of membership in the Church prescribed than that contained in the answer of Philip to the eunuch who desired baptism: “If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” (Acts viii. 37). The Church, therefore, is, in its essential nature, a company of believers, and not an external society, requiring merely external profession as the condition of membership.

The New Covenant is our union with Christ. If someone is not united to Christ, they are not part of the New Covenant, period. Therefore the New Covenant establishes the church, which is defined as those who are united to Christ. The visible church is not a separate entity from the invisible church with a different foundation and establishment. The visible church is just that: the visible manifestation of the church (which is singular). LBCF 26.5 says that Christ commands those who have been effectually called to walk together in particular societies/churches. Paragraph 6 says “the members of these churches are saints by calling…” Someone who has not been effectually called is not commanded to be a part of the visible church and they have no right to membership in the church. Their lack of faith nullifies any claim to membership in the church. The issue is simply our ability to know their heart. The New Covenant does not establish a right to membership in the visible church to those who are not united to Christ.

Void Membership

Consider the concept of a void marriage:

A void marriage is a marriage which is unlawful or invalid under the laws of the jurisdiction where it is entered. A void marriage is “one that is void and invalid from its beginning. It is as though the marriage never existed and it requires no formality to terminate.”

Annulment is a legal procedure for declaring a marriage null and void. Unlike divorce, it is usually retroactive, meaning that an annulled marriage is considered to be invalid from the beginning almost as if it had never taken place… A void marriage is a marriage which has no legal recognition (was not legally valid in the first place, i.e. is void ab initio).

If someone has made a false profession, their church membership is void ab initio. False professors are never part of the church, though we may mistakenly consider them such. “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” (1 John 2:19 ESV) “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven… then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me'” (Matt. 7:21-23).

Thus the 1689 Federalism position regarding church membership is expressed by Samuel Renihan (recall the Second Helvetic Confession’s language of traitors in a state):

10. The objective nature of the covenant, and the subjective nature of profession of faith produce a robust Baptist ecclesiology and doctrine of baptism. The church is the kingdom of Christ, established and governed by his covenant and filled with his people, born again by the power of the Holy Spirit. Election and regeneration are objective realities of the covenant effected by God himself. But how is the visible church to be governed? How are the children of God identified? The newborn cry of a child of God, no matter their age, is faith in Jesus Christ. And by one’s doctrinal and practical profession of faith individuals are admitted or removed from the church.

11. Because we believe that faith is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8) and that all those who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved (Romans 10:13), we have scriptural reasons to presume that all professing believers are true children of God. But because a profession of faith is subjective, there will be false believers in our midst. What is their relation to Christ’s covenant? Objectively, there is none. They do not belong to Christ, supposing they never repent and believe. However, they are held accountable for their treason. When a spy is discovered, a country should not release him to his own land under the false notion that they do not have authority over him. Quite to the contrary, the spy is accountable to the laws of the land in which he committed his crimes. So also, false believers are not released without action. They are accountable to the King, Jesus Christ, and they are to be removed from the body of Christ by excommunication. The warning passages of Scripture cause the sheep to flee to Christ and the goats to flee from Christ.

12. Admitting and removing individuals based on profession of faith in turn produces an identical proleptic value for joining and leaving the church. Those who join the kingdom of Christ claim salvation in him while those who are expelled are declared outside of salvation, both according to human judgment operating with scriptural criteria and commands.

The Case for Credobaptism (The Alliance for Confessing Evangelicals)

The Necessary Implication of the Visible/Invisible Distinction

Far from rejecting the visible/invisible church distinction, we have actually found that the view presented here is the only logical possibility. If one denies this view, if one denies the distinction is one of viewpoint, one ends up with two different churches. Thus Presbyterianism is built upon an unresolved tension that the 17th century Congregationalists, including baptists, resolved.

Recently, advocates of the false gospel known as Federal Vision have pointed out this problem. Doug Wilson’s observation is worth noting (though his solution is utterly disastrous).

A problem is created when we affirm a belief in two Churches at the same moment in time, one visible and the other invisible. Are they the same Church or not? If they are, then why are “membership rosters” different? If they are not, then which one is the true Church? We know that Christ has only one Bride. The natural supposition is that the invisible Church, made up of the elect, is the true Church. But this leads to a disparagement of the visible Church, and eventually necessitates, I believe a baptistic understanding of the Church.

“Reformed” is Not Enough

24 thoughts on “Church Membership: De Jure or De Facto?

  1. CoramDeo1689

    Thank you for this information. This is most helpful since I have been struggling in dialogue with some OPC folk. I found this link on your site where it is the one and only FAQ (-:


  2. Pingback: Chris Villi’s Analysis of 1689 Federalism | Contrast

  3. Pingback: Un nouveau livre sur la théologie des alliances (AJOUT) | Un Héraut dans le net

  4. markmcculley

    Not all baptists are like, and not all paedos think like Norman Shepherd—-If paedobaptists begin apriori to say “baptists do not know the difference between visible and invisible, because they think they know who’s justified and not merely professors”, then paedobaptists would say about anybody who makes a distinction between visible and invisible—not a real baptist—we have your definition and we are sticking with it.


  5. Pingback: A Critique of R. Scott Clark’s Covenant Theology | Contrast

  6. Pingback: Update to Church Membership Post | Contrast

  7. Pingback: à Brakel on the Visible/Invisible Church | Contrast

  8. keach1689

    I had previously read this, but in a recent discussion with one of the Reformed Pubcast hosts I was taken aback by his insistence that, “all Presbyterians mean by administration of the covenant” is the visible church (which I have read enough Presbyterians to know that is not all they mean), and that this is the “common ground” between Presbyterians and Baptists. To which I responded by asking for sources and quotations that support his claim that, that is all Presbyterians mean. However, I could not put my finger on precisely the issue, but I remembered this blog, and you do an excellent job in explaining, and clearly showing, that isn’t all Presbyterians mean, but rather that, “The difference between 1689 Federalism and Westminster is that Presbyterians believe that unbelievers who profess faith have a right to be members of the visible church (because the visible church is separate from the invisible church) while Baptists believe they do not have a right to be members of the visible church (because it is only a manifestation on earth of the invisible church).” Thanks again brother. I wish our newly turned paedobaptist brothers would read more paedobaptists.


  9. Pingback: Who Should Be Baptized – Professors or Believers? | Contrast

  10. Pingback: Heidelcast “I Will Be a God to You and to Your Children” | Contrast

  11. Pingback: John Murray (the Baptist) vs James Bannerman (the Presbyterian) on The Church | Contrast

  12. Pingback: Does 1689 Federalism require “Regeneration Goggles”? | Contrast

  13. Pingback: 19th Century Scottish Presbyterian Criticism of Bannerman’s Visible/Invisible Church(es) | Contrast

  14. Pingback: The French Reformed Understanding of the Visible/Invisible Church | Contrast

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s