Jonathan Edwards was fired. Was it over his Calvinist theology? Was it over his participation in the highly-emotional Great Awakening? Was it over his hard preaching on the wrath of God and the reality of hell? Nope. It was because he had the audacity(!) to teach that only those who professed and evidenced saving faith could partake of the Lord’s Supper. This was controversial in that day because some taught what was known as “the halfway covenant”, which allowed nonbelievers to become members of a church and receive all the privileges of a member except for partaking in the Lord’s Supper. Edwards’ grandfather and predecessor at Northhampton, Solomon Stoddard, went even further by teaching that only nonbelievers who lived immoral lives should be excluded from the Supper.
Edwards disagreed. He taught that only those who professed and evidenced saving faith could partake of the Lord’s Supper. This was so shocking to the congregation that they voted nearly unanimously to fire Edwards. To be sure, there were other tensions that added fuel to the fire, but the main point was Edwards’ teaching that only the regenerate could take the Lord’s Supper.
I do not know if Edwards taught anything against unregenerate membership, but that is the rally cry today. Tom Ascol in the SBC and Mark Dever, also in the SBC but with a broader audience, have both been faithful in calling churches to a reformation in church membership. I do not know if or when the SBC will move to taking membership more seriously, calling the sin of numbers-gouging as it is instead of using the guise of “evangelistic purposes”. But my prayer is that the Church will look like the pure and spotless bride that Jesus is sanctifying her to be.
As I was meditating on this, I thought of a rather obscure Old Testament passage, Deuteronomy 13. In there, God is giving Israel guidelines for people who attempt a rebellion to idolatry. This includes false prophets (v.1), family and friends (v.6), or even a whole city (v.12-13). In each scenario, God calls for their execution (v.5, 8-10, 14-17). This was to show their total devotion to the Lord (v.3-4, 8, 18) because He is their Redeemer (v.5, 10). This would purge the evil from their midst (v.5), strike holy fear in the community (v.11) and bring God’s blessing on the people (v.17).
Obviously, I am not calling for capital punishment as a means of church discipline. But I do believe that God’s purposes for creating a people who are wholly devoted to Him have not changed. If there is a member of a local church who does not believe in the Gospel or live in the sin-killing power the Gospel graciously provides, why would the church not discipline that person? Why would the church boast in her tolerance (1 Cor. 5)? Are we not to demonstrate the glory of God in all of life (Matt. 5:13-16)?
The Scriptures are clear that regeneration is essential to church membership. The health and the mission of the church is at stake. How can a church unite in living out the implications of the Gospel if not everyone in the church even BELIEVES in the Gospel?! How can a church unite in spreading the Gospel with conviction and love if neither the conviction or the love exists in many of her members? How can a church make tough decisions with God’s wisdom if many of her members do not possess the mind of Christ? Without regenerate church membership, the church will fail to be what God intended her to be.