One of the thornier question in ecclesiology is the question of boundaries: who gets included and who gets excluded? If you’re reading this hoping that I will conclusively resolve the issue in a “basic ecclesiology” series, you will be disappointed.
No, the starting point for my discussion of inclusion and exclusion is the apostle Paul’s advice to a younger minister of Christ, Timothy. After reminding him of the salvation available in Jesus, Paul continued (2 Timothy 2:14-19):
Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have departed from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some. Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.”
In the context, Paul wants Christians to be continually reminded of Jesus, and not to wrangle worthlessly about turns of phrase. I’ve done a certain amount of that latter activity myself… But according to Paul, the stakes are too high: fighting over phrases is not only “of no value” but “only ruins those who listen”! Instead, Timothy is urged (and us through him) to seek God’s approval and handle truth well. “Godless chatter” continues all too prevalently in our churches (and in my heart).
But then Paul gets personal, referring to a couple particular “godless chatterers” whose distinctive teaching spreads like gangrene, like flesh rot. He names names: we know nothing else about Hymenaeus or Philetus than that they “have departed from the truth” by insisting the final resurrection of all people is past. (Hymenaeus also received dishonorable mention in 1 Timothy 1:20 as someone whom Paul “handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.“) The result of this teaching is not only that their own faith is shipwrecked (the evocative image of 1 Timothy 1:19), but that “they destroy the faith of some.” Paul responds to this unacceptable situation of false teachers leading Christians to apostasy with trust in the foundation laid by God, and he records two “inscriptions” on that foundation which encourage our faith.
“The Lord knows those who are his”: The Church will not fall because of deceiving teachers like Hymenaeus and Philetus, because God knows who belongs to him. I see two possible ways to understand this assurance, one of which I think is more likely than the other. Perhaps Paul is saying that while false teachers like these two may trick other people into thinking they are Christians, they cannot trick God, because “the Lord knows those who are his,” and therefore he knows that these two are not. While this is certainly true, I do not see how this realization is very helpful, or how it implies that “God’s solid foundation stands firm.” Instead, it seems to me more likely that “the Lord knows who are his,” and this gives us confidence that false teachers will not prevail. While people like Hymenaeus and Philetus may “destroy the faith of some,” they cannot actually take away people who are the Lord’s. The Lord really knows who’s in, and they are really in, regardless of who else false teachers may lead astray. The Church will survive.
“Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness”: Claiming to be a Christian leads to certain moral obligations. Again, I see two distinct interpretations, both correct, but one more powerful than the other. This could be Paul’s critique of the life decisions of Hymenaeus and Philetus: their false teaching is wickedness (and perhaps they live immoral lives as well), but as those who publicly claim to be Christian, they are obligated to renounce their false teachings. This is probably true enough, but again, I do not see how this gives Christians confidence in the face of false teaching, or how it assures us that “God’s solid foundation stands firm.”
Instead, I think the reminder of Christians’ duty to reject wickedness fleshes out the bare fact of divine knowledge. “The Lord knows those who are his,” and there can be a great sense of security in that. Our Lord Jesus said, speaking of his sheep, “No one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand” (John 10:28-29). But some people will not find comfort in that, for they do not know whether they are in or not. This is where Paul’s appeal to the distinction between Christians and wickedness echoes two other statements of our Lord. Jesus described his people as branches off of the true vine, himself, including the injunction to “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love” (John 15:9). What does that look like? “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love” (John 15:10). It looks like lives of obedience to Christ out of love for Christ. More briefly, when warning his followers of false prophets, Jesus turned it around: “By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7:16) This is not to say that works are a cause of our salvation, but that godly, loving acts may provide evidence of a godly, loving heart.
Of course there are caveats. Christianity is not the same as “being nice.” Sometimes the most loving thing we can do for someone is tell them what they don’t want to hear. (Jesus often did that.) And of course some people are “more moral” than others, despite being “less Christian.” There are some very righteous non-Christians, and some who claim to be Christians who do awful things. This statement is only about those who “confess the name of the Lord.” Paul doesn’t say that everyone who does so will be prevented from doing wickedness. But if someone engages in wickedness, it does call into question their use of the Lord’s name, as even non-Christians rarely tire of pointing out. Yet the Lord, in his kindness, may bring such a person to repentance (Romans 2:4). We do not fully know the state of other people’s spirits (indeed, we do not fully know the state of our own spirit!). But the people of the Lord are not, or at least are not supposed to be (Matthew 5:14-16), some impenetrable mystery. Our knowledge is not perfect, but our understanding can approximate (it is always only an approximation) the true knowledge of God. This is the case even for recognizing other Christians, although we tend to go easy on our own sins and the sins of people we like, admire, or wish to use for our own gain, and we tend to judge harshly people who offend us or we dislike for any reason. Our assessment of “who’s in” and “who’s out” is deeply flawed, but it isn’t baseless.
But bringing these two “inscriptions” together can be very comforting. Calvinists tend to emphasize the immutable knowledge of God mentioned in the first phrase, while Arminians and other non-Calvinists tend to emphasize the moral actions in the second phrase. But we can keep them together. Together, they tell us that God can protect and defend us, and if we see ourselves turning away from wickedness, that can be encouraging evidence of the Holy Spirit working in our hearts. (Of course, if we run toward wickedness, our lack of holiness should also be a warning to us regarding the Holy Spirit’s probable absence from us!) We need not engage in the stereotypical non-Calvinist worry that somehow in a moment of weakness we will exclude ourselves from salvation (“the Lord knows those who are his”), nor need we feed the stereotypical Calvinist anxiety that somehow God overlooked us when he drew up his list of the elect (cf. 2 Peter 1:5-11). Instead, we can trust in the Lord whose name we confess, that he knows us and will enable us to turn away from wickedness. With this foundation, the Church cannot be destroyed by false teachings, even if they “destroy the faith of some,” because those who belong to the Lord will stand, “for the Lord is able to make them stand” (Romans 14:4). And this solid foundation was laid by God, who will make it stand firm to the end.