In the 17th century, Presbyterians argued for their ecclesiology from the structure of the Jewish church. It was divided geographically and functioned with varying levels of authority (presbytery, general assembly, etc). Gillespie said “it is plain from Scripture that there was at least a two-fold ecclesiastical court among the Jews, the synagogue and the sanhedrim, the latter having authority above the former.” An important part of this argument was distinguishing between the church and the state in Israel. “That there was an high ecclesiastical sanhedrim, distinct from the civil sanhedrim, is observed by Pelargus, on Deut. 17., and Sopingius, ad Bonam Fidem Sibrandi, p. 261, et seq., beside many others cited before, part 1, chapter 11. And that it was so we prove from three places of the Old Testament… We find Deut. 17, a distinction of two supreme judicatories, to be set in the place which the Lord should choose to put his name there,—the one of the priests and Levites, the other of the judges.” Both the Episcopalians and the Separatists/Congregationalists argued that appeal cannot be made to Israel. In response, Gillespie argued
Is it right dealing now to forbid us to reason from the form of the Jews? I will not use any further expostulation, but let the reader judge. The truth is this: Even as that which is in a child, as he is a child, agreeth not to a man, yet that which is in a child, as he is animal rationale, agreeth also to a man; so what we find in the Jewish church, as it was Jewish, or in infancy, and under the pedagogy of the law, agreeth not indeed to the Christian church. But whatsoever the Jewish church had, as it was a political church, or ecclesiastical republic (of which sort of things the diversity and subordination of ecclesiastical courts was one), doth belong by the same reason to the Christian church. I say further, though the commonwealth and civil policy of the Jews be not in all points a pattern to our civil policy, yet I am sure it is no error to imitate the civil policy of the Jews in such things as they had, not for any special reason proper to them, but are common to all well constituted commonwealths; and so we may argue from their commonwealth, that it is a good policy to have divers civil courts, and the higher to receive appellations from the inferior, as it was among them. Shall we not, by the very like reason, fetch from their ecclesiastical republic diversity of spiritual courts, and the supreme to receive appellations from the inferior, because so was the constitution of the Jewish church, and that under the common respect and account of a political church, and not for any special reason which doth not concern us?
The Church of England should derive it’s ecclesiastical polity from the Jewish church, and the commonwealth of England should derive its civil polity from the commonwealth of Israel.
In an essay titled Goodwin vs. Gillespie: An Old Testament Debate for Church Polity, Jonathan Brack summarizes a debate that took place in the Westminster Assembly between the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists.
Mr. Calamy argues for a Gillespie-like understanding of a distinction between civil and ecclesiastical courts from Deuteronomy 17:12:
Here is a distinctive that hints 2 courts. By ‘priests’ is not meant one priest but many. By “Judge” cannot be meant the high priest, for he is contradistinct from the priest. 2. Cron. 19:8–11 ther is the resistution of them by Jehosaphat. This text showes the distinction of the Judicatories. The words in the 8 v. read with a reduplication.
Goodwin, a Congregationalist, objected.
In questioning the often-used Deut. 17: 8–9 and 2 Chron. 35:8 texts posed by Gillespie, where Gillespie demonstrated a distinction between church and state in the Old Testament, Goodwin showed himself to be functioning from a different hermeneutical angle. An angle that disagreed on the status and nature of the Jewish church in the Old Testament,
That which belonged to this Sanhedrin at Jerusalem, it was either matters Judiciall, therefore called ‘matters of the Lord’ because God had given expresse … Or matters of the king, the things of his revenew, or perhaps matters of warre and peace, yet soe as they did not … The church & state ware involved in one. Their lawes ware the lawes of God. Their judicialls had spirituals in them. 
Goodwin along with Phillip Nye challenged the distinction between civil and ecclesiastical.
Phillip Nye launched into a long speech attempting to disprove the civil and ecclesiastical distinction made from Deuteronomy 17:8–9.
The matter before us is about the validity of this place of scripture to prove that besides the priests an addition of elders. My concievements are that the totum totalum of the common wealth ware of a mixt nature … Ther is no such a perpetuall intermixture throughout all as in the Jewish church.
Goodwin’s point was that everything given in Deuteronomy was “ecclesiastical” in a certain sense. This was because, for Goodwin, ecclesiastical and civil are one and the same in the Old Testament. To this, Lord Say added that on these grounds,
It ware much better to find out those places that established a ground for this ruling elder in the New Testament wher this constitution was.
So the Congregationlists argued that Israel was a unique entity of a “mixt nature” that cannot be appealed to in order to establish church government under the New Covenant.
Brack goes on to highlight how the Presbyterians pointed out inconsistencies in the Congregationalists on this point.
After Calamy represents the basic Presbyterian position of Old Testament roots for elder-rule, Gillespie strengthens the argument by arguing for hermeneutical implications,
Something to strengthen what is spoken. The analogy betwixt Jewish & Christian church, little question of that little question… If this faile, the argument of Baptisme from circumcision will faile also.
…How can the Assembly agree to pedo-baptism by appealing to the Old Testament, without also functioning the same way for the debate on church polity?… If one were to cut loose the Old Testament ground for elder rule, then one were to cut loose the very ground for Presbyterianism, not to mention baptism…
To this Mr. Vines pressed Goodwin and Lord Say on the exact same hermeneutical point made by Gillespie two days earlier,
For that we must not looke to the state of the Jewish church, is only a warrantableness for the analogy of the Old Testament & New, granted. The brother that spake last said before we must cut loose the argument of Jewish church; [for] but how shall we prove pedo-Baptism?
Richard Vines saw the inconsistency in hermeneutical method being deployed by the Congregationalists. If we were to cut loose the Old Testament ground for church polity, then what is to stop us from the Anabaptist tenet of cutting loose our progeny as well?
In 1953, in an essay titled The Relevance of the Theocracy, Kline wrote a short essay arguing against appeal to Israel for matters of civil government and ecclesiology. He said any such appeal is unwarranted because Israel was a unique theocratic entity unlike any other. It was a type of heaven. As a result, “church” and “state” were of a “mixt nature.”
If we do listen we will not try to segment the Theocracy into the usual three discrete institutions. We will not then say: “Here (e.g. in Aaron) is the church, and here (e.g. in Moses or David) is the state, and there the family.” Not even roughly speaking. For all that can be said accurately is, “Here are theocratic priests, here are theocratic kings, here are theocratic prophets and there are the theocratic people from whose ranks all these have come. (Cf. Ex. 28:1; Dt. 17:5; 18:5.)…
That the horns of the dilemma are vaporous is evident, for the argument rests on an utterly false equation of the theocratic monarchy with the ordinary state. As observed above, neither church nor state is isolable within the Theocracy. It is therefore impossible to identify one theocratic institution such as the kingship with the ordinary concept of the state…
Our chief criticism again, in terms of the thesis of this article, is that to label the priests and/or the prophets as the church within the Theocracy [as the Presbyterians did] is unwarranted… God was in the midst of the covenant people and, therefore, all was church, as also all was family and all state – the church of God, the family of God, the Kingdom of God – all in one and one in all, and such was the Theocracy. However, if all is church and all is family and all is state, then nothing is church and nothing is family and nothing is state in the usual sense of those words. Strictly speaking all is Theocracy and nothing but Theocracy.
Like many modern Presbyterians, Kline has neglected the roots of Presbyterianism and is unaware that he has adopted the Congregationalist hermeneutic (see my post on Congregationalist covenant theology).
I will close with these words from Brack:
In recent church polity debates among Presbyterians and Particularists… appealing to Old Testament ecclesiastical polity in order to gain support for the purported theories of New Testament polity assumes a presupposed debated hermeneutical method. In other words, a foul is committed in the debate, since a disagreement over how one uses the Old Testament is not properly neutral. This truth, in the mind of many Presbyterians, is a strange inconsistency in the pattern of basic Reformed hermeneutic strategies.
Recognizing that Israel in the land of Canaan was a type of heaven necessarily leads to congregtaionalism and the rejection of paedobaptism, as Presbyterians warned from the beginning.
The OPC Report on Republication mentions that they were unable to find any historical examples of “View 3: A Mixed Covenant” which it describes as “First, the moral law alone was presented to Israel, which is said to contain in substance a perfect covenant of works… The law was then issued a second time, but with moderation, promising pardon to the penitent, and thus in substance offering a covenant of grace…”
It would appear that John Cotton’s pivotal 1636 sermon in Salem, which sparked a revival in New England, is an example of this view. He distinguishes between the covenant made at Horeb and the covenant made at Moab. Cotton says
The Lord doth profess unto them all that should keep Covenant, That they should Live by keeping Covenant. And this is the Grand and Principle Promise wraping up all other, 18.5. And the Apostle doth Interpret the meaning of that Promise: Gal. 3.12. The Law is not of faith, but the man that doth these things shall Live in them: and this is the Promise of Life which God giveth to those that keep Covenant…
They yield themselves to be accursed of God, if they shall not keep that Covenant; and therefore when it was pronounced, Cursed is e|very one that continueth not in all things that are writ|ten in the Law to do them, all the People did say, Amen; and so their faith lay upon a curse: This is the Old Covenant that God made with his People, and is called a Covenant of Works; the Lord requireth Righteousness and Works, He Promi|seth Life to their Works, and they say, Amen, to enter into a curse. Now this was a temporal Covenant; this my Covenant they brake, saith the Lord; and they did quickly turn aside from the wayes of the Lord, and therefore Moses when he cometh and seeth the Calf which they had made, he brake the Tables of the Covenant…
Now for the Covenant that is Everlasting▪ we may observe therein also four acts of God towards his People… In Jesus Christ He doth give Everlasting Communion with Him. Through Christ He will take away the Stony heart, and give a heart of flesh…
To those that do Apostate from it: Heb. 10.29. Of how much sorer Punishment shall they be thought worthy of who have trodden under foot the Son of God, and have counted the blood of the Covenant, where|with they were sanctified, an unholy thing, & have done despite unto the Spirit of Grace. This Covenant is that which is spoken of, Deut. 29.1. beside the Covenant made in Mount Horeb: and to this Covenant belongeth a heavy curse: Deut. 30.17, 18. If thy heart turn away that thou wilt not bear, but shalt be drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them, I denounce unto you this day, that ye shall surely perish, and that ye shall not prolong your dayes upon the Land whither thou passest over Jordan to possess it. And that it is the Covenant of Grace, we may perceive by comparing, Deut. 30. 11. to the 14. with, 16.6. So that we may see the Lord doth threaten a heavy curse to fall upon them that transgress this Covenant…
Now, this is the nature of the comfort of an Everlasting Cove|nant, tho’ we fail in Families, and in Churches, yet if Christ be ours, the Everlasting Covenant is ours. Indeed when Moses came and saw the Israelites worshipping the golden Calf, Exod. 32.19. because he saw they had broken Covenant with God, therefore he brake the Tables of the Covenant; to shew the Lord would have no fellowship with them; and if the Covenant had not been renewed, they had perished.
Cotton then applied the point to the question of local church covenants.
The Use of this point in the first Place, may shew us from hence, a ground of that which some of us (yet but few) saw the truth of, in our Native Country, namely the Necessity of a Church Covenant to the Institution of a Church, Come, and let us joyn our selves to the Lord: That which doth make a People a joyned People with God, that doth make a Church: What is that? The Covenant of Grace doth make a People▪ a joyned People with God, and therefore a Church of God; and therefore you shall find that when the Lord Establishes Israel for a Church unto Himself. He maketh this Covenant: not only that in Mount Hareb, but He doth make another Covenant with them in the Plains of Deut. 29 10, 17. And so by this means they come to be established to be a Church unto God.”
Cotton then blasted the Separatist church in Salem for making their local church covenant a covenant of works because they required members to denounce the Church of England and meet other requirements (such as moral reformation and behavior) beyond mere faith in Christ.
USE. II. In the Second Place, Let me pro|voke my Self, and all my Brethren, and all the Churches to Consider, What kind of Covenant you have entred, or will enter into: if you shall come hither into this Country, and shall here confess your Sins, that you have prophaned the Name of God withal, if you take Christ for your King, and Priest & Prophet, and if you shall profess to walk in all his ways, this may all be but a Covenant of works.
The Elders of the Church propound it, Will you renounce all your Sinful Pollutions? Will you keep Covenant? And enter into a Cove|nant with the Church, and take Christ, and pro|mise to walk after all God’s Ordinances? You Answer, All this we will do; all this is no more than the Old Covenant: For you are much de|ceived if you think there was no speech of Christ in the Covenant of works. What were the Ce|remonies but shadows of Christ? What was the laying the hand on the head of the Sacrifice, but the laying hold upon Christ Jesus? What was the blood of the Sacrifice? Was it not the blood of Christ? And what was the Atonement by that blood? Was it not the Atonement which is by Christ? All the understanding Israelites did see that these things did point at Christ. Now, if we do enter into a Covenant to keep the Or|dinances of the Law, of the Gospel, and of the Civil State, (for that was the tripartive Covenant) all this may be but a Covenant of Works. What then must we do? We must fall down before the Lord in our Spirits, and profess our selves insuf|ficient to keep any Covenant, and profess our selves unworthy that the Lord should keep any Covenant with us; as to say, Lord! who am I? Or what is my Fathers house, that the Lord should ever look upon such a poor Soul as I am? What doth the Church lay hold upon duties, and there’s an end? No, no, There are no true Servants of Jesus Christ, but they must be drawn out of themselves by a Spirit of Bondage, and unto Christ by a Spirit of Poverty; and then a Soul seeth there is much in Christ, but he cannot hope there is any thing for him: Now the Lord doth draw a man on to Christ Jesus, and calleth him to believe in Christ, but yet he is not able to reach Him. Now then, if the Lord draw the Soul to depend upon Christ, and shall go forth, and not undertake any thing in his own Strength; so you will keep it by the Strength of the Lord also; now the Lord will have Peace with you, and the gates of Hell shall never prevail against you. Build a Church up|on any other foundation but Faith, and the pro|fession of Faith, and it will break into manifold distempers.
The Separatists insisted that any true Christian must declare full separation from the Church of England because the Church of England had defiled herself by not practicing church discipline. They thereby made their separation the grounds of their cleanness and their inclusion in the church. Cotton concluded:
So in case the Church do tolerate these, that do defile them|selves with any Sinful Pollution, do not I make my self Unclean now by touching this Church?… You see the Church lye in Sin, you will not touch her, then you Sin against her, and have broken your Covenant, Will you suffer your Brother’s Ox to lye in the Mire?… I Pray you therefore consider it: I am marvellously afraid of Separation from Churches upon any breach of duty; they who do Separate for such causes, think they are sprinkled with the water of Separation: but believe it, they are Separa|ted from Christ Jesus for ever, if they so live and so dye. Therefore if you belong to Christ, He will shew you it is not the water of Separa|tion that will serve your turn, but getting Christ Jesus, and sitting closer to Him, and to your Brethren, by Admonishing and Reproving them, if you see them defiled. This will keep you clean, and your hearts clean, and your Souls comfortable: That the Lord hath made an Everlasting Covenant with you that shall never be Forgotten.
For more on the context, see Edmund S. Morgan’s extremely helpful Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea.
In 1700, Dutch theologian Wilhelmus à Brakel published The Christian’s Reasonable Service. Volume 2 (starting on book pg. 5) discusses the visible/invisible church distinction at length. à Brakel was a leader in the Dutch Further Reformation which was a response to “the declension or absence of a living faith” in the Netherlands.
Someone in a Covenanter (referring to the English and Scottish Presbyterianism of the 17th century) Facebook group recently posted this asking for help reconciling it with their view of the visible/invisible church consisting of different memberships. Referring to Brakel, they said “The weird thing is that it almost seems like an argument a baptist would use.” It’s worth noting that paedobaptists consistently return to this view whenever they are faced with the inevitable degradation and corruption of the church that occurs when their “external covenant” view is applied consistently (see Hodge and Erskine as other examples).
I’ve added this excerpt in full to the Church Membership: De Jure or De Facto? post.
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:
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.
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.
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.