A recent, widely-circulated sermon took aim at pastors who lead their congregations to adopt premillennialism as an article of faith. The sermon posited that, by instituting premillennialism as a doctrinal test, those churches were unnecessarily dividing the body of Christ. Addressing pastors who encourage their churches to adopt premillennial confessions, the preacher said, “You are sinning.”
This sermon raises an important question. Is it a sin to implement a particular millennial view as a test for church membership? Or is every church obligated to grant eschatological latitude? The question may not be as easily answered as the sermon assumed.
Perhaps the place to begin is by recognizing that some doctrinal and practical tests are essential, not merely to church membership, but to any Christian fellowship. The basis of all Christian fellowship is the gospel. Those who deny the gospel should never be accorded Christian fellowship or recognition at any level. Therefore, any proposition that is essential to the gospel is also essential to Christian fellowship. No level of Christian fellowship, including church membership, is ever proper with those who deny the essentials of the gospel.
Historically, most gospel-affirming churches have required more than simple affirmation of the gospel for membership. Their requirements have usually included some level of Christian obedience. Baptism provides a convenient illustration. Most Christians have thought that baptism, while not essential to salvation, is essential to obedience for those who have been saved. Since one function of a church is to foster obedience in its members, most churches have typically required baptism as a precondition for membership. Other Christians, however, believe that baptism, while advisable, is not essential to obedience. Their churches do not require baptism for membership. A very few Christians even believe that water baptism should not be practiced at all.
Since believers disagree rather strongly about the necessity of baptism, their options are limited. If they intend to remain together in one congregation, one side or the other must agree not to press its understanding of Scripture. Alternatively, if they all intend to act and teach according to their understanding of Scripture, then they must form separate congregations. In short, they must either limit their message or else they must limit their fellowship. Either a church will require baptism or it will not: it cannot respect every Christian’s conviction.
The same is true of Christians who disagree about the biblically-authorized subjects of baptism or the biblically-required mode of baptism. It is also true of Christians who disagree about certain aspects of church order. A church cannot be governed congregationally, presbyterially, and episcopally at the same time. Not every Christian’s conscience can be respected in the order of every congregation.
When Christians disagree about biblical teachings, then they must limit either their message or their fellowship. Obviously, some differences are so marginal that they should not significantly affect fellowship. In the face of such differences, Christians ought to agree to limit their message. For example, making a particular view of the authorship of Hebrews into a test of fellowship would be unnecessarily narrow.
Other differences are more serious. These differences are likely to create divisions if both sides are taught enthusiastically within the same congregation. If the differences are sufficiently important, it is wrong to deny believers the right to express, rejoice in, and propagate their convictions. For such issues, the best way to unity may actually be to organize separate congregations in which members have full liberty to explore and proclaim their understanding of God’s will.
How can Christians distinguish those areas that must be made tests of fellowship, those areas that may be made tests of fellowship (but also may not), and those areas that must not be made tests of fellowship? Two criteria are helpful. First, the more important a doctrine or practice is, and the further it reaches in its effect upon the system of faith, the more likely it becomes that disagreement over this doctrine or practice will cause serious disruption in Christian fellowship, and the more necessary it becomes to limit fellowship in areas that are affected by the doctrine or practice in question. Second, the more directly an area of doctrine affects Christian practice and obedience, the more likely it becomes that Christians will be unable to remain in fellowship at levels where the doctrine manifests its influence.
What about the doctrine of the millennium? How far-reaching are its implications, and how immediate is its influence upon conduct? Is it a doctrine over which Christians should limit their message, or is it one that requires them to limit their fellowship?
Of course, most Christians permit and expect some level of fellowship among those who hold differing theories of the millennium. Very few would limit their personal fellowship to Christians who held identical millennial views. Even fundamentalists, those most notoriously separatistic evangelicals, have allowed for some levels at which premillennialists, amillennialists, and postmillennialists can work together.
Church membership, however, is one of the more restrictive levels of Christian fellowship. Joining a church is not like joining a club. Church membership is a covenant relationship. In becoming members of a church, believers submit themselves to the discipline of the congregation and take responsibility for one another’s wellbeing. Not everyone who qualified for personal fellowship or even parachurch collaboration will necessarily qualify for church membership.
The fact is that one’s millennialism (or lack thereof) never occurs in a theological vacuum. On the contrary, one’s view of the millennium is part of a complex of doctrinal problems that are pretty far-reaching in their implications. Millennialism is tied to one’s opinion about the present and future status of national Israel. It influences one’s understanding of which biblical promises and blessings can be claimed by the church. It affects one’s perspective on the integration of Mosaic Law into Christian living. It is a direct consequence of and contributor to one’s hermeneutic. To varying degrees, it carries implications for the definition of the Kingdom of God, the present status of the New Covenant, the concept of People of God, and a variety of other biblical and theological constructs.
Millennial views also appear to exert some influence upon conduct. Premillennialists have been blamed for escapism and a lack of social ethics, and they have often charged their opponents with a lack of urgency for evangelism and missions. While these accusations are certainly overblown on both sides, they probably do indicate some connection between theology and practical emphasis.
Another practical concern is the frequency with which amillennialism and postmillennialism have been used to excuse anti-Semitism. This is not to suggest that every amillennialist or postmillennialist is an anti-Semite, nor is it to suggest that premillennialists have been entirely exempted from this particular sin. Nevertheless, in a post-Holocaust world, many premillennialists fear that the denial of a future kingdom for Israel is almost intrinsically anti-Judaistic. They are keenly aware of a long history, beginning with Augustine, in which supercessionism (the denial that Israel can expect a future kingdom) has been used to excuse or even legitimate the persecution of Jews.
A greater problem concerns the trustworthiness of God’s promises. The apostle Paul ends the eighth chapter of his epistle to the Romans with marvelous promises to believers. He then launches into a three-chapter exploration of God’s future plan for Israel. Premillennialists believe that these two things (God’s promises to church saints and God’s future for Israel) are connected. If God did not have to keep His promises to Israel, or if God could fulfill those promises by giving them to someone else, then God does not have to keep His promises to Christians, or He might fulfill those promises by giving them to someone else. To many premillennialists, the future security of believers and the future security of national Israel are inextricably linked.
The above considerations are intended neither as a defense of premillennialism nor a refutation of post- or amillennialism. Defense and refutation would require much more detail and much more careful and balanced consideration of the arguments. The point is not that premillennialism is right and other eschatologies are wrong. Rather, the point is that the choice between these views is freighted with theological and practical implications. Premillennialism is not some isolated theological backwater. It is a rushing river with currents that sweep through many doctrinal and ethical pools.
Is a church obligated to incorporate premillennialism into its doctrinal statement and to make premillennialism a test of membership? Any church that allows for eschatological diversity should be aware of the differences that it will have to manage. If it gains members who are seriously committed to divergent millennial views, it will certainly find itself challenged. Any view of the millennium affects broad stretches of faith and conduct. What would be the consequences for a church that included both Douglas Wilson and Thomas Ice in its membership?
On matters of so much importance, a church cannot rightly expect God’s people to remain silent about their convictions. Before God they must have liberty to teach, exhort, and conduct themselves according to their understanding of the Word of God. Churches that enjoy very skilled leadership and a high level of maturity may be able to navigate this kind of diversity. Most churches, however, will experience a significant degree of tension. This tension will not arise from malice or from factious behavior. It will arise from the significance and implications of the alternatives.
Because the choice is so important, millennialism is not an area in which God’s people should agree to limit their message—certainly not within the local church. If a church can tolerate the enthusiastic proclamation of multiple messages, then it certainly may practice eschatological diversity. If people take their convictions seriously and express them enthusiastically, however, this difference may well create significant division within individual congregations. For that reason, churches that choose to adopt a single millennial view as a criterion for membership are not necessarily sinning. Their approach may actually be the one that best preserves the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Samuel Speed (d. 1681)
I sought for Peace, but could not find;
I sought it in the city,
But they were of another mind,
The more’s the pity!
I sought for Peace of country swain,
But yet I could not find;
So I returning home again,
Left Peace behind.
Sweet Peace, where dost thou dwell? said I.
Methought a voice was given:
‘Peace dwelt not here, long since did fly
To God in heaven.’
Thought I, this echo is but vain,
To folly ‘tis of kin;
Anon I heard it tell me plain,
‘Twas killed by sin.’
Then I believed the former voice,
And rested well content,
Laid down and slept, rose, did rejoice,
And then to heaven went.
There I enquired for Peace, and found it true,
An heavenly plant it was, and sweetly grew.
This essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.