Weekend Reads: Defending church membership and dispensationalism

by Caleb Nelson
Posted 4/16/16, 08:55 am

Is Church Membership Biblical?

Ryan M. McGraw and Ryan Speck

Though the word is never mentioned, the specter of Romanticism haunts Is Church Membership Biblical? (2015), a new entry in Reformation Heritage Books’ Cultivating Biblical Godliness series.

Do formal commitments enhance or stifle the heart’s longings? Romanticism, as the 19th-century literary and philosophical movement was called, insists that formality represses truth and that the only honest lifestyle is to follow one’s heart. Naturally, things like marriage and formal church membership are anti-Romantic. Curiously enough, so are the booklet’s authors, conservative Presbyterian ministers Ryan M. McGraw and Ryan Speck.

The basic line of argument in their booklet runs thus: The church is a community. Like every community, it is made up of individual members. But without formal commitment to the community, made by taking vows and being written down on an official list, it is impossible to fulfill the Bible’s commands. God commands us to greet one another, submit to our leaders, and exercise church discipline by admitting to and expelling from the church. These commands require physical presence with each other, and a clear demarcation of who is inside the church and who is outside it.

But, the Romantic responds, “Is belonging to the kingdom of God merely a matter of having the right papers on earth?” No, reply Speck and McGraw. Nonetheless, “public, formal vows are not at variance with living, warm, organic fellowship.” Adoption is a legal process; would you dare tell an adoptive parent that he loves his children less because he formally assumed responsibility for them? Christ Himself keeps a list of people who are members of the invisible church. He calls it “the Lamb’s book of life” (Revelation 21:27). Is that cold and impersonal?

Do not follow your heart, this booklet urges. Rather, follow the commands of Jesus. Formally join the earthly society that reflects the kingdom of Heaven. 

Dispensationalism and the History of Redemption: A Developing and Diverse Tradition

D. Jeffrey Bingham and Glenn R. Kreider, general editors

Dispensationalism and the History of Redemption: A Developing and Diverse Tradition (Moody Publishers, 2015) doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Is it a summary of dispensational teaching? Is it polemical, dedicated to defending dispensationalism against its arch nemesis, covenant theology? Or is it a work of devotional theology, intended to nourish dispensationalists’ faith? The volume’s 10 essays (each by a different author) show glimmers of each of these purposes. But the subtitle oddly suggests that the book is trying to prove that dispensationalism is “developing” and “diverse.” Why? Did someone accuse it of being hidebound and monolithic? (The book never says.)

The first essay defines dispensationalism: “The view that the Bible teaches that there are distinguishable periods of time in which God administers His plan for creation differently.” Defined thus, of course, all Christians are “dispensationalists.” The real sine qua non of the movement is its distinction between ethnic Jews and ethnic Gentiles within God’s plan of salvation, as reiterated by almost every contributor.

Most of the essays trace God’s differing administrations from creation through the cross and the consummation. Other essays recount the history of the movement and defend its approach to the Bible.

As I read the volume, I couldn’t shake a nagging feeling that the authors had something to prove but didn’t want to admit it to themselves. The tone seems reluctantly polemic, as if the contributors have been attacked so fiercely that they must fire back, even though it grieves them to take on fellow Christians. Read this way, the book’s goal is to demonstrate not dispensationalism’s “diversity” but its legitimacy.

Whether it succeeds is debatable. Indeed, precisely because the book is not openly polemical, I don’t think it will change anyone’s mind. But it certainly provides good information, even devotionally rich information, about what dispensationally minded Christians believe.

Caleb Nelson

Caleb is the pastor of Harvest Reformed Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Gillette, Wyo.

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