Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Curse of Expulsion vs. the Blessing of Belonging

In our last post we saw that, in Paul's estimation, barring a sinning church member from the privileges of the local assembly of saints is tantamount to "handing him over to Satan" (I Cor. 5:5).

If permitted, a simple inference from this would be that if expulsion from the means of grace is so precarious, then participation in the means of grace should be considered equally beneficial. Or to put the matter differently, belonging to the church ought to be thought of as being every bit a blessing as being thrown out of it is a curse.

Significant by its absence from Paul's strongly-worded pronouncement is the idea that, if the man in error is a member of the invisible church, then that somehow mitigates the ill-effects of his dismissal from the visible one. Moreover, the idea that a truly elect child of God can never be handed over to Satan in the first place did not seem to bother the apostle either. In fact, Paul does not appear particularly concerned with God's eternal decree or the Book of Life's Table of Contents at all. Instead, he seemed to operate under the assumption that those questions fall under the jurisdiction of Another.

While evangeliberal pietism may balk at the simplicity of this type of assurance and the ease with which such churchly forms of devotion can be faked, the confessionalist can simply point out that it is no easier to recite the catechism by rote than it is to go through the motions of closing one's eyes and swaying romantically to "Lord I Wanna Love You" (and in fact, it's way harder).

So if being expelled from the visible church is to fall prey to the wiles of the devil, what is membership in it but the enjoyment of the protection and love of God? But if the alternative to being handed over to Satan is merely to remain in neutral territory where one must torturously prove his sincerity before being given the right hand of fellowship, then the Cyprianic formula of extra ecclesiam nulla salus est becomes meaningless. Once assurance of salvation becomes so rare a jewel that it can scarcely be found within the church's walls let alone without them, then what is the benefit of attending?