God's Way in Dealing with Those Outside the Signs of Christ's Church

John ArmstrongThe Church

I am working this week on finishing a volume for Zondervan on baptism. This is a book to appear in the Counterpoint Series, an excellent group of volumes designed to let Christians see different viewpoints on various issues that divide us. My book has four views which are represented by quite capable authors who are Lutheran, Reformed, Baptist, and Christian Church. I have prepared the introduction, conclusion, bibliography, and an extensive appendix with various confessional statements on the subject of baptism. While doing this reading and collecting of confessional material over the weekend I came across a wonderful and interesting statement, from one of the great Reformation statements of faith (The Second Helvetic Confession), that suggests the church should not be bound by its signs. It says, in part:

But as yet we do not so strictly shut up the Church within those marks before mentioned, as thereby to exclude all those out of the Church who either do not participate in the sacraments (not willingly, nor upon contempt; but who, being constrained by necessity, do against their will abstain from them, or else do want them), or in whom faith does not sometimes fail, though not quite decay, nor altogether die: or in whom some slips and errors of infirmity may be found. For we know that God had some friends in the world that were not of the commonweath of Israel. We know what befell the people of God in the captivity of Babylon, where they were without their sacrifices seventy years. We know what happened to St. Peter, who denied his Master, and what is wont daily to happen among the faithful and chosen of God, who go astray and are full of infirmities. We know, moreover, what manner of churches the churches in Galatia and Corinth were in the apostles’ time: in which St. Paul condemns many and heinous crimes; yet he calls them holy churches of Christ ( 1 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians 1:2).

I do seriously wonder if modern Reformed and Lutheran churches, and for that matter most all other conservative evangelical North American churches, really believe these words from such a venerable Protestant confession. It seems to me that the answer, in many circles, is a clear no. My pondering over these words gave me new love for the whole church, including those people who stumble and fall and seem hopelessly confused about faith. It also prompted me to wonder anew about this business of God having "some friends in the world that were not of the commonwealth of Israel." Dare we even ponder such a prospect without hearing the howls of "heresy" from many over zealous conservatives.

It seems to me that the problem here is rather significant. In trying to preserve those inside the church, which is good and right, we have wrongly excluded others. The warnings of Jesus, even about hell, are directed far more intentionally to insiders than to oursiders. I tend to think that we could stand a healthy discussion of what this means for modern church renewal. I fear we are far from having such a discussion, at least without rancor and personal attacks.