The recent pandemic and its accompanying lockdown have highlighted some of the problems the Church is facing in the 21st century. We are unsure about what it means to be a local church, to meet as a church, and what the implications are for the individual Christian. In an increasingly global world, what is the point of committing to just one church in one place? And in an increasingly connected world, why not make use of the myriads of excellent sermons available online?
In answering these questions, we would do well to draw from the biblical wisdom of men such as Benjamin Keach. Keach was a pastor in London in the last third of the 1600s and in the very early 1700s (he was a pastor until his death in 1704). While he lived in a very different period of history, he was familiar with problems related to church membership and attendance. This article is written to highlight what Keach wrote on these matters in his A Short Confession of Faith.
Joining a church
Writing on baptism (where Keach argues that baptism should be limited to those who truly believe), he states ‘that it is the indispensable duty of such who are baptized, to give up themselves to some particular orderly church of Jesus Christ, and to walk in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless: Baptism being an initiating ordinance’ (Article 21).
‘Those who actually profess repentance towards God, and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Article 21) should be baptized. That is not, however, where the journey ends. Christians ought to join some ‘particular orderly church of Jesus Christ’ (Article 21). In other words, every Christian ought to be a member of a local church.
Keach defines a true church as consisting of ‘a number of godly persons’ (Article 22). These have ‘in a holy covenant given themselves up to the Lord, and to one another’ (Article 22). What follows is a remarkable definition of what a local church is and what she is like. Keach argues that a local church is a body of believers pursuing unity, who love one another and pursue godly lives, where the word is preached and the sacraments are rightly administered.
What Keach is arguing for is quite distinct from the low commitment culture that we see in many western churchestoday. He does not speak of a passive, consumerist attitude toward the church, where the ‘minister’ does the ‘ministry’ and everybody else sits down and listens. Keach presents a much larger picture of service and commitment to one another, of mutual love and care. Yet these are not simply his ideas; they are thoroughly biblical. Keach is drawing on passages in Acts, 1 Corinthians, and Ephesians for his argument.
Articles 21 and 22 of his A Short Confession of Faith, then, do not simply give us an overview of baptism and true churches. They drive home the duty of every Christian to join a local church and what it looks like to be part of one. In other words, they show the need for church membership and what it means to be a church member.
Sadly, many Christians are not convinced that joining a church is necessary. They might ask: Is it not enough to be a Christian? Can we not simply attend a church once a week? The biblical answer is, ‘No’, as the biblical vision for the Christian life is far greater than that.
At the end of Article 22, Keach addresses the problem of church attendance. He writes that Christians as part of a local church should not ‘forsake the assembling themselves, as the manner of some is’, drawing on Hebrews 10:25 in the AV (‘Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is’; ESV: ‘not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some’). Given what we read in Hebrews 10 (1st century AD) and in Keach’s Short Confession of Faith (17th century AD), we quickly see that a lack of church attendance is a perennial problem.
Yet Keach goes further. A Christian should not simply attend a church; a Christian should attend his or her church: ‘not … to take leave to hear where they please in other places when the church is assembled, but to worship God, and feed in that pasture, or with that church, with whom they have covenanted, and given up themselves as particular members thereof’ (Article 22).
The internet has exacerbated what we could call ‘evangelical consumerism’. By evangelical consumerism, I mean the tendency (though this phenomenon is by no means limited to the present day) to aggrandise certain preachers. A by-product of that phenomenon is that some are attending another church on certain days to hear Mr so-and-so, instead of the ordinary pastor of their own church, who knows them (this should not come as a surprise, but a shepherd ought to know his sheep). The recent closure of many churches, and the wide availability of sermons online, have made this an even more prominent problem.
Keach is here very critical of that sort of thinking, emphasising the fact that a local church has covenanted together. This greater vision of what it means to be a member of a local church affects church attendance. Unless there are unique circumstances, it should never be questioned whether and where to attend church this coming Lord’s day. A member who is unexpectedly absent should cause his fellow members to exclaim, ‘Something must be wrong’. That is similar to how J. A. Spurgeon responded to the news that a faithful member of the church had missed a couple of meetings: ‘I was sure she was dead’ (J. A. Spurgeon, “At the Prayer-meeting; or Dead,” The Sword and Trowel: 227-8).
Conclusion: Responding to Keach
It should not be shocking to say that every Christian should be a member of a local church and attend their church’s meetings. Benjamin Keach helps us to address some concerns related to church membership and attendance, and what he wrote is incredibly timely as the relevant questions have come to the forefront over the past year due to the Coronavirus and its implications for churches.
As a pastor, I have counselled professing Christians from the Bible about the need to join a church and attend church meetings, with varying degrees of success. Many have sadly embraced a form of Christian individualism, with little to no accountability, with little concern for carrying the burdens of other Christians, and with little more than a superficial interest in the church. Others, however, have committed themselves to a local church, and ‘feed in that pasture, or with that church, with whom they have covenanted’, for the glory and praise of God. For the first few years as a Christian, I belonged to the former group, but have come to firmly embrace the biblical vision for church membership and attendance. That is the vision presented by Benjamin Keach. We would do well to not only embrace that vision ourselves but help others to do the same.