Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus: The Protestant-Reformed View of Church Membership:
There is a pop-culture variety of theology that is made prominent in the dark recesses of social media today, where doctrine is vulgarized into a shallow and ignorant populism. It’s here that the bare cliff notes of essential doctrines are postulated as though they are the entire aggregation of divine truths. It’s here that every Facebook frondeur is a godly gladiator, an admin of their own corner of the social media feudal system, a paragon of whatever is considered virtuous in their own shallow cyber bailiwick. The Internet is a place where not everyone is a seminarian, but by the virtue of their podcast queue they might as well be; or so they think in their mind’s eye. And yet, more times than not, social media is a place where ignorance is on parade like the Krewe of Endymion at Mardi Gras, only Facebook statuses are shared instead of beads and the parade never ends.
Rarely do I care what happens in the Land of Zuckerberg, but recently something occurred for which I feel compelled to provide commentary.
I made a Facebook status on March 2nd that said, “If you are an abortion abolitionist and think protesting outside Shepherd’s Conference is a good use of time, you are doing it wrong. And by ‘it,’ I mean life in general.” Within a relatively short period of time, I was admonished by a commenter with Cult Warning Sign #5:
5. Sub-Christian sects engage in double-dog daring “are you saying I’m not a brother in Christ” strategy designed to force the critic to anathematize or accept them. A very popular tactic, these schismatics will demand that you call them a “Brother in Christ” or a “fellow Christian” or dare you to say they aren’t. If you concede they seem to be a fellow Christian because the confess orthodoxy on certain soteriological matters, then their charge is that you’re “attacking fellow Christians” and YOU will be made out to be the schismatic. If you say they aren’t Christians, then they’ll demand you explain why, given they agree with this point of theology or that point of theology. They’ll then make you to be an uncharitable curmudgeon. Don’t fall for this. You are not obligated to affirm or disavow anyone’s salvation based upon their profession alone (heretics lie).
Wow! Though I may adamantly disagree with a Brother or Sister in Christ, I would never go so far as to degrade their very existence/life. Disagreement is valid. But to demean or humiliate a fellow heir in this flippant manner is downright malicious. Or do you believe these men and women to be anathema? [emphasis mine]
Textbook, I tell you what. Textbook.
Of course, arguing that protesting abortion outside a church hosting a conference of 99.9999% pro-life pastors is a bad life decision (and incredible waste of funds that are given to Abolitionist 501(c)3 non-profit shell-organizations used by AHA) and is an attempt by Christian Nomads to humiliate those brethren at ShepCon is what’s malicious. For example, consider this line from AHA leader, Alan Maricle, about that protest:
As AHA leaders call Shepherd’s Conference – arguably the largest gathering of conservative, inerrantist-believing pastors in the world – “the lost and the hireling,” their supporters accuse me of being “downright malicious.” That strategy is Cult Warning Sign #4…
4. Sub-Christian sects engage in victory-by-victimhood, projecting themselves as virtuous and long-suffering victims of marginalization or mistreatment. These sects “cry foul” at every given opportunity, clinging to the status of victimization in order to signal help from unsuspecting Christians who are drawn in at the accusation of mistreatment, playing on the good but naive intentions of believers.
And so then, I respond matter-of-factly regarding the Ecclesiastical Docetism of the leaders (and many but not all of the adherents) of AHA.
If you’re new to the discussion, the leaders of AHA – in fact, the chief architect and widely recognized de facto head of the organization – denies the existence of the local church (click here, time-stamp 1:28:30). He and other AHA leaders attend a group without the Marks of a Biblical Church, lacking in the offices of both elders and deacons.
My claim was simple: If you’re outside of the local church, I don’t consider you a brother or sister in Christ.
The response was hysterical pandemonium, at least on the part of the Sectarian Minimalists, Ecclesiastical Docetists and Christian Nomads of the new AHA-Reconstructionist Alliance.
AHA homme de cour, John Andrew Reasnor, went on a tirade about my comment, in which there was much pleading and praying for my salvation, as well as imprecatory comments in relation to my apparent apostasy from the Doctrine of Sola Fide.
Unfortunately for Reasnor and his cohorts in the camp of Ecclesiastical Docetism, the hand-wringing and guffawing at the notion I espoused indicates more their own misunderstanding of Protestantism Proper than my imminent apostasy.
First, a brief caveat, and then a historical understanding (and defense) of what some might call Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus.
KNOCK KNOCK. WHO’S THERE? LOGIC.
Clearly, no one of a reasonable intellectual capacity or integrity in discourse would assume that my comment, “I do not consider those outside the local church to be brothers or sisters in Christ,” to be a denial of Justification by Faith Alone.
It works like this:
I don’t consider practicing homosexuals to be Christians.
I don’t consider unrepentant serial killers to be Christians.
I don’t consider Abortion Doctors to be Christians.
Few Protestant-Reformed Christians of any conservative persuasion would have a problem with those statements, and it’s doubtful any would perceive such comments as denying Sola Fide. Clearly, one wouldn’t have to argue that we are justified by heterosexuality, for example, in order to affirm 1 Corinthians 6:11 in regards to homosexuality being a sign of unconversion.
Likewise, arguing that being outside the local church in willful, rebellious sin prohibits my assumption of Christianhood is not claiming that we are justified by church membership. It is, however, a proper reflection of historic, orthodox, and Biblical Christianity.
EXTRA ECCLESIAM NULLA SALUS, ROMAN CATHOLIC STYLE
This term in Latin means, “outside the church, there is no salvation” (the term comes from a letter of Cyprian’s in 258, in which he was explaining that baptism performed by heretics shouldn’t be recognized by the Church). However, the Bishop of Carthage wasn’t stumbling upon some kind of new doctrine.
Irenaeus said that the church “is the entrance to life” and that we should resist those who deny it as thieves and robbers, “in defense of the only true and life giving faith, which the church has received from the Apostles and imparted to her sons” (Against Heresies, Book 3).
These early church fathers were not referring, of course, to the Roman Catholic church, but to the Church Visible. This term, as history testifies, was co-opted – or stolen – by the Papists and applied to the church headquartered in Rome (although the Eastern church, headquartered in Constantinople, also applied it to themselves). In 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council, the Roman church applied it solely to themselves and the faux-ecclesia under the leadership of the Pope. Later in 1302, Pope Boniface further clarified that Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus applied only to the church under his charge. This position was held (but softened) even all the way up to the Second Vatican Council (1965), which still upheld that those who “knowingly” remain apart or leave the Roman Catholic church are outside the faith (albeit it would go on to refer to Protestants as “separated brethren,” while still not loosening the anathemas of Trent).
EXTRA ECCLESIAM NULLA SALUS, PROTESTANT STYLE
If you’re under the impression that the Protestant Reformers swept Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus into the dustbin of misfit doctrines, you would be sorely mistaken. Far from considering the notion a papist stench to be wafted away by a fresh reading of the Holy Scriptures, the Reformers embraced and defended the idea of the Church – local and universal, or visible and invisible – as being the sole abiding place for God’s Covenant people.
We see the Protestant variety of Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus in the Reformed Confessions:
The Belgic Confession (1561), which was used to defend the Reformed Faith at the Synod of Dort and to which many Reformed Christians still subscribe, says “Out of [the Church], there is no salvation.”
Welcome to Reformed Christianity, folks. Other confessions concur.
The Second Helvetic Confession (1566) was a far more Calvinist confession that the First Helvetic Confession (1536) and was used in Reformed Church from Switzerland to France. It says, “No one can live before God, which do not communicate with the true Church of God.”
My confession, the Second London Baptist Confession (1689), after saying “he commandeth [believers] to walk together in particular societies, or churches, for their mutual edification, and the due performance of that public worship, which he requireth of them in the world” (26.5) it goes on to say, “The members of these churches are saints by calling, visibly manifesting and evidencing (in and by their profession and walking) their obedience unto that call of Christ” (26.6). In the 2LBC1689, the believers of the Universal Church in 26.1 that includes “the whole number of the elect” is the very same number who are a part of the local church in 26.6.
There is only one Universal Church, but the Universal Church is made manifest in many Local Churches. To be a part of the one, in the Reformed understanding, is to be a part of the other.
The Westminister Confession of Faith puts it even more strongly, saying “The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation (25.2).”
Again we see that any dichotomy between the Visible and Invisible, or Universal and Local Church is a false one. While they are distinct, they are not different (in that they do not consist of different people). Everyone in the Local Church should be considered not a part of the Universal Church (if not, they should be disciplined and removed from the Body). Everyone in the Universal Church must be a member of the Local Church, or there is no reason to believe their membership in the Universal Church belongs at all.
The reason that all of the Reformed Confessions elude to this Protestant version of Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus is because the Scripture is abundantly clear (and perhaps because of the influence of the Regulative Principle of worship, of which I don’t have time here to explain the connection but perhaps you can guess it).
Consider these Biblical truisms:
1. There is no Christian in all of Scripture who is not an active participant of and under the authority of a Local Church (we call that “membership”). You can’t find it, unless you want to cite the thief on the cross, and considering he died in the Old Testament era (pre-death and resurrection), it’s moot.
2. To be outside the Local Church was seen in Scripture to be immediately identified as an unbeliever. Consider 1 Corinthians 5:5, Matthew 18:17, or 1 John 2:19.
3. Likewise, the first act of a believer upon salvation was to join a Local Church. Consider Acts 2:47, Acts 4:4, Acts 5:14.
Albert Mohler once postulated that there are “millions” of “saved Roman Catholics” still in the church, and notable politi-baptist, Robert Jeffress said the same thing. The reason these comments from Mohler and Jeffress (and many others) concern us isn’t because we doubt that God can save someone outside Protestantism. Indeed, it would some very likely there is a regenerate Roman Catholic somewhere inside the Papist church, who has yet to come out of her (but they will, if John 16:13 is true). However, we mustn’t consider them Christians until they repudiate their former idolatry as a part of their public profession of faith. Likewise, there may be someone in a Sectarian Minimalist non-church who has been justified by faith, but we cannot consider them Christians until they repent of their sectarianism and join the Local Church.
It’s really not that complicated.
If you’re not a part of the Local Body of Christ, there’s no reason to consider you a part of the Universal Body of Christ.
We are all aware of the many false professors of Jesus’ religion, and even though we don’t know for sure someone inside the church is a Christian, we are right to presume that those outside the church are not.
[Editor’s Note: Joel McDurmon also criticized my Reformed understanding with this comment
…but he seems to have forgotten that there’s a post at his organization’s website, American Vision, espousing these very things and agreeing with me entirely, entitled Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus. ]