What are we to think of self-proclaimed Christians who have little or nothing to do with the visible church? We will first admit that only God knows whether or not these people are truly born again. We will also admit that the church has historically allowed for the possibility that some people outside the visible church are indeed saved. The Westminster Confession of Faith says, “Out of [the visible church] there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.”  The word ordinary grants the exception to the rule. It says that salvation normally brings people into the church, while acknowledging that, under extraordinary circumstances, some true believers may remain outside the visible church.
The existence of exceptions should not provide a sense of assurance and security for those who knowingly refuse to participate in the visible church. Unfortunately, it is very easy to use exceptions to justify wrong behavior. We are often too quick to argue that “My circumstance is different!” If we are honest with ourselves, we are all familiar with our own self-justifying tendencies. We have all rationalized wrong behavior at some time or another.
To show how easy it is to rationalize exceptions, consider this illustration: A video once made the rounds on social media. Ben Shapiro, a conservative, Jewish pro-life advocate, was filmed presenting his pro-life position at a college. After his talk, he took questions from the audience. One defiant young lady took her turn at the microphone and asked, “What would you say to a woman who is pregnant because of rape or incest?” Knowing that less than 1% of all abortions occur in cases of rape or incest, Shapiro responded, “Okay, if I grant that abortion should be permitted under those particular circumstances, would you be willing to discuss preventing abortion in all other circumstances?” The young lady quickly replied that women should always have the choice to abort regardless of the circumstances: “It’s her body. She should be able to do what she wants with it.”
This scene quickly demonstrated that the young lady’s exception was simply a rationalization for the position she truly wanted. In her heart, she believed the exception in one case should be the rule in all cases. Similarly, Christians outside the church should be quick to examine whether or not their “exceptional circumstances” are simply justifications for doing what they want instead of what God wants.
Lest there be any misunderstanding, let me state clearly that the Bible teaches that salvation is only and always by faith in Jesus Christ. Baptism never saves anyone. Neither does participating in communion or joining a church. We have already seen that non-Christians exist within the visible church. Presumably they have been baptized and regularly partake of communion. Obviously being in the visible church does not guarantee salvation. So why has the church historically insisted that salvation and the visible church are ordinarily inseparable?
There are at least three reasons: The first is that the church is the divinely ordained steward of the Gospel through which God saves souls. The apostles were first commissioned by Christ to build his church by proclaiming the Gospel throughout the entire world. Repeatedly in Scripture they warned the church against adulterations of the Gospel. Alongside the Apostles, God gifted prophets, evangelists, and pastor/teachers for the purpose of keeping the church on the same page with regard to doctrine and practice (Ephesians 4:11-16). Today, the church sends out Gospel-preachers to every tribe, tongue, and nation. As the Gospel spreads, church elders are to be ordained in every location (Titus 1:5). They are to continue the divinely-ordained process of stewardship and instruction (Titus 1:9).
The second reason is that the church is in the business of accrediting claims to salvation. This is done through baptism, communion, and church discipline (how and why will be the explained in a later chapter). As a bivocational pastor who is also a college educator, I borrow the word “accreditation” from the academic world. Simply put, accreditation is the process by which an agency certifies that a college is what it says it is and does what it says it does. Similarly, the church uses baptism, communion, and church discipline to certify that Christians are what they say they are and do what they say they do. Once “accredited,” the church provides their ministry-home and assembles them regularly for worship and instruction according to the plan of God.
The third reason is that the Word of God teaches that Christians do not knowingly continue in sin. Those who do should not consider themselves Christians, and churches have no grounds to consider them Christians. The First Epistle of John was written to inform people how they can know whether or not they have truly been born again. It presents many different applications of a very simple formula: All believers keep God’s commandments. Those who do not keep God’s commandments are not Christians:
1 John 2:3-6And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.
For many, this is a scary thought. It sounds so black and white. Doesn’t every one sin? How can anyone ever have assurance of salvation? Indeed, everyone sins. First John 1:8 makes that clear: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” But John continues by reminding us that Jesus is the sinners’ advocate and that God justly and faithfully forgives all who confess their sins. What John means is that the Christian’s life is not characterized by unrepentant sin: “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him (1 John 3:6). Those who are Christians live lives characterized by love for God and love for their brothers and sisters in Christ (I John 2:9-11; 3:10-18, 23; 4:7-8, 20-21; 5:1-3). Those who do not love their brothers and sisters in Christ are not themselves “in Christ.” First John therefore raises two questions: 1) Do people who want little to do with the earthly assembly of their brothers and sisters have grounds to consider themselves Christian? And 2) do people whose lives are characterized by disobedience to God’s expectations for the visible church have grounds to consider themselves Christian?
Additionally, does the church have grounds to consider them Christian? Baptism and communion are a primary means by which the church certifies its confidence in people’s profession of faith. Through these, the church declares that it believes someone is truly a Christian. Excommunication is the means by which the church withdraws that confidence. What then is the church to think of all those who refuse to participate in the church’s sacraments and submit to the church’s discipline? At the least the church has no normal grounds to consider them Christians, no matter what they may believe about their own salvation.
Now back to the exceptions. What might be some legitimate, extraordinary examples of true believers outside the visible church? As it should be, it is hard to say with 100% confidence. The following spring to mind: What if you are the only believer in a large, third-world community? What if you are a believer in a country that has made it impossible to gather with other believers? What if you were taught incorrectly through no fault of your own? What if you move to a new area and can’t find a good church? What if you are disabled and unable to attend church? What if you are a Christian in a family that forbids you or otherwise makes it difficult for you to be a part of a church? I am sure others can think of many other possibilities.
 The Westminster Confession of Faith is not the Bible, and therefore does not carry its authority. However, it is a widely-accepted, historical expression of what the Bible teaches. It originated in the 1600s and is still the official “statement of faith” for presbyterian churches. All churches have creeds and confessions, whether they are stated or unstated, old or new, short or long. Few are as time-tested and widely received as the Westminster Confession of Faith. The Baptists have their own version called the London Baptist Confession of Faith. It is almost as old and borrows heavily from the Westminster Confession.
 In Presbyterianism, the children of believers are baptized into the church even though they do not yet possess personal faith in Jesus Christ. They are known as non-communing members because they may not yet participate in communion. Later, when their faith is confirmed, they are admitted to communion as an expression of their own faith in Christ and the church’s confidence in their profession of faith.