From the earliest days of church planting in North America, churches required both pastors and laypeople to provide some form of personal testimony for membership. When Puritans and Separatists arrived in New England in the early seventeenth century, they sought to embody a “pure church.” By 1640, they developed specific practices for establishing churches. Church gatherings began with at least seven men. Each of the men had to tell of their knowledge of Christian doctrine and their experience of grace. The other men present had to be satisfied with the testimony presented. Other pastors from nearby churches also evaluated the authenticity of the men’s testimonies. Pastors and deacons were elected, the first members would promise to keep a covenant, and qualified individuals would be added as new members in time.1
From the beginning of church planting in North America, an understanding of Christian doctrine and a credible confession of faith were required to be part of a local church. This emphasis strove to unify the church, visible and invisible. The distinction between these two—visible church and invisible church—was familiar to Christians in New England at the time. Their history with the Church of England had been marked by corruption. In fact, many separated from the Church of England because they saw it as no church at all. As a result, the practice of admitting members into the church became more difficult in New England than previously in parts of Europe.2 A new convert would share his testimony with elders. If credible, the elders would present the testimony to the church, only then to be evaluated for two to three weeks. These strict requirements did not ensure pure membership, as hypocrites could still be found in the church. Nevertheless, the requirements sought to remove, as much as possible, the gap between the visible and invisible church by requiring candidates for church membership to persuade the pastor and church in writing or in speech of their own experience of saving grace.3
Today, one might wonder how concerned pastors and church leaders are with understanding the nature of conversion and its effects on church health. Certainly, pastors agree that God’s glory is at the heart of conversion (Ezek. 28:25–26; 36:21). Through Jesus, God saves his people, preserves his name, and displays his incomparable glory through the atoning work of Christ (Ps. 103:10–13; John 3:16–17; 1 Cor. 15:3–5; Gal. 4:4–7; Eph. 1:3–10). His grace provides the sole means of conversion (Ezek. 34:24, 27; Eph. 2:8–10). Redemption achieved means forgiveness made possible (Eph. 1:7). Through repentance and faith, God forgives, restores, and fills believers with his Spirit (John 3). His Spirit, in turn, produces new wants and wills, as evidenced by good works (Eph. 2:10; James 2:17).
The deceitfulness of sin, along with the invaluable worth of God’s church, ought to make any pastor careful to recognize and welcome a member into the local church. Paul expected as much when he warned the Ephesians elders to be on guard against “fierce wolves” that would arise among the flock (Acts 20:28–31).
Historical Pastoral Perspective
Thus, for pastors, learning to navigate and understand spiritual experiences proves to be of great importance. Two figures from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries provide helpful guidelines for evaluating and identifying a credible confession: Timothy Edwards and Solomon Stoddard.
Raised in a strong Puritan home and trained for ministry at Harvard, Timothy Edwards (1669–1758), the father of Jonathan Edwards, was considered an “expert on the science of conversion.”4 He kept close records of religious experiences among his congregants, and he believed he knew how to identify genuine conversions. He held to the preparationist view of conversion held by many seventeenth-century Puritans. Preparationists believed that conversion was a gradual process. Religious means helped an individual arrive at and receive the covenant of grace. In a sermon, Edwards wrote, “Consider that you are stepping towards eternity every day and will shortly step into it.”5 Through godly living, spiritual disciplines, and participation in the life of the church, one prepared themselves for an authentic encounter with God and his grace.
“Church membership begins with admitting the right people into the fold.”—Aaron Lumpkin
Generally, Edwards recognized that a person would go through a three-step process of conversion. First, an individual would be overcome with conviction, which was “an awakening sense of a person’s sad estate with reference to eternity.”6 Second, an individual would have a sense of humiliation, or the understanding of God’s wrath against mankind and the individual. Third, one would experience the “light” of God that brought on repentance and transformation.7 To help bring people to this state of conviction, he did not shy away from preaching on the torments of hell. At the same time, he understood that conversion was completely out of the hands of the individual, as it was only possible through and accomplished by God’s grace. Therefore, all an individual could do is prepare to receive God’s grace.8
Solomon Stoddard (1643–1729), Jonathan Edwards’s maternal grandfather, also held to the preparationst view of conversion that recognized the process of conviction, humiliation, and regeneration. Stoddard, however, held this view more rigidly than his son-in-law. He believed preparation took a significant amount of time, and he emphasized the correct order of the preparation.9 The stages of preparation were required to avoid one finding hope in their own efforts. As one scholar has noted, “Preparation was a safeguard against presumption in a most presumptuous age.”10 Indeed, this presumption could be the most dangerous of all.
To guard against this damning presumption, Stoddard wrote Guide to Christ (1714) as a manual for helping people navigate conversion.11 He emphasized the role of terror and humiliation. He wrote, “We learn by experience that mens hearts are generally set for carnal things before they are terrified, and for their own Righteousness before they see [the corruption of] their own hearts. Generally, such men as have not had the terrors of God in them, don’t much mind Eternal things.”12 Stoddard hits a chord that can be heard today. A lack of sensitivity to one’s unrighteousness is a clear indicator of a lack of experience of God’s glory and grace. For Stoddard, the minister could evaluate if a person held true faith based upon their experience with humiliation.13 As Stoddard wrote, “[A]s long as they imagine that they can help themselves, they will not come to Christ for help.”14 If there was no true humiliation, there was no true faith.
While both Edwards and Stoddard stressed the process of conversion, they still recognized that there was only one actual moment of saving grace in conversion. In some instances, true spiritual knowledge and saving grace had to be understood over time. Nevertheless, certain rhythms did emerge when evaluating the way in which God worked in bringing people into his family.
The practices of the church in the early years of New England, as well as the reflections of Edwards and Stoddard, help inform church practices today. First, pastors ought to lead their congregations to reflect visibly the invisible church. If people must be born again to be part of the invisible church, local church members ought to be born again as well. The task before pastors is to navigate these waters and to be convinced of the buoyancy of an experience of grace. This will require pastors to have a robust theology of conversion and wisdom from the Scriptures to evaluate those who seek to join their churches.
Second, pastors will do well to contemplate and reflect upon salvation broadly and conversion specifically in the Scriptures. Knowing that we must give an account for those whom we oversee, along with the eternal realities of conversion, should lead us to examine people carefully. We won’t be equipped to do this well if we don’t know the Scriptures and do not have general conceptions related to the nature of conversion, such as conviction, humiliation, and transformation.
Third, pastors should ensure that a membership process be directly linked to credible testimonies of grace. If joining your church is more difficult in some other area or lacks some sort of requirement for an experience of grace, there could be a problem. Church membership begins with admitting the right people into the fold. Then, the shepherd can lead the flock to where they ought to go.
- Edmund Morgan, Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea (New York: Cornell University Press, 1963), 88. ↩
- Morgan, 61–62. ↩
- Morgan, 93. ↩
- George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 26. ↩
- Timothy Edwards, “Sermon on Acts 16:29–30,” c. 1695, 12, Washington University Library. As found in Kenneth P Minkema, “The Edwardses: A Ministerial Family in Eighteenth-Century New England” (Ph.D., University of Connecticut, 1988), 81. ↩
- Timothy Edwards, Sermon on Acts 16:29–30. Quoted in Minkema, 82. ↩
- Minkema, 83. ↩
- Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 26–28. ↩
- Minkema, “The Edwardses,” 213–14. ↩
- James W. Jones, The Shattered Synthesis: New England Puritanism Before the Great Awakening (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973), 119, https://liberty.alma.exlibrisgroup.com; As quoted in Rhys S Bezzant, Jonathan Edwards and the Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 30. ↩
- Solomon Stoddard, A Guide to Christ, or, the Way of Directing Souls That Are Under the Work of Conversion: Compiled for the Help of Young Ministers, and May Be Serviceable to Private Christians, Who Are Enquiring the Way to Zion (Boston: Printed by J. Allen, for N. Boone, 1714). ↩
- Stoddard, 5. ↩
- Stoddard, 88. ↩
- Stoddard, 7. ↩