The Good Church Member
Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular (1 Corinthians 12:27)
Maxims and Proverbs have their place, but one needs always to be warned against partial truths, lest they be taken as complete truths. It is frequently asserted that “The Church is an organism,” and so it is, but it is also an organization. Membership in the organism is conditioned only upon that change wrought by the divine Spirit known as “the new birth.” But membership in the organization is based upon the voluntary assumption of the mutual relationship between the members included in the organism, so that while one cannot be a Christian without being a member of the Church, he may be a Christian of initial grace and novitiate standing without having yet acknowledged the responsibilities involved in his new relations. This is why in the proper practice of the Church and ministry distinction is made between being converted to Christ and joining the church. And while conversion is a deeper and more fundamental change than joining the church, there is a sense in which church joining implies responsibilities which are an advancement upon conversion. Conversion, properly speaking, involves only state and standing with God, while church joining involves also standing before men.
It is a tragic mistake to substitute church joining for the new birth, and when a society becomes predominantly nonspiritual it is nothing more than a club and should not be called a church. The very word church means “the called out,” and in New Testament usage the implication is the called out from the masses of the world into devotion and fellowship with God.
It is such an easy thing to stop with the emphasis on the condition and make of Christianity a mere human endeavor. Men speak of “deciding to do better,” and of “seeking to imitate Jesus.” These are good things to do, but they do not make New Testament Christians out of people. Becoming a New Testament Christian involves these things, but it involves more. There is a work of God’s grace that corresponds to the human desires and the human needs. And until this work is approximated, the heart is yet unchanged and the sinner may be improved, but he is still not a Christian.
This is no effort to state the maximum. Rather it is a sheer endeavor to set forth the minimum. “Except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” “Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.” Salvation is not by character, it is by grace through faith. Character is a product of grace and human cooperation involving time. Salvation is like the planting of the seed. Character is in the nature of a harvest. Men do not wait until harvest time to sow the seed. Neither do sinners wait for processes to save them. The Bible way is to repent and believe on Christ, and this divine program assures a divine answer in a changed nature and the witness of the Holy Spirit to pardon and peace with God.
But although the new birth is the essential beginning without which church membership is sheer mockery, still, born-again people ought to join the church. Men are saved and made right with God without the sacraments, but this is no reason why they should go along neglecting to be baptized and to partake of the Lord’s Supper with others of God’s people. Likewise those who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ are forgiven of their past sins without assuming the vows of fellowship and service in connection with other Christians, but this is no excuse for going on as “independents.” The vast majority of the Christian people of the land are church members, and every person who is a genuine Christian ought to be a church member. This is no brief for a certain fellowship. But everyone who calls himself a Christian should find a “church home” where he can attend upon the means of grace for his own soul, and where he can pay in his money and unite his prayers with others for the progress of God’s spiritual kingdom on earth. This is a trite, old-fashioned way of putting it, but it is the right way to put it, with all due respect for any who have become enamored of any new way or any easy way. First get soundly converted to God so you know for yourself that you are a genuine New Testament Christian, and then join a church in the fellowship of which you can be happy, busy and useful.
But our subject is not merely church members, but “The Good Church Member.” I have no qualification for judging who is or who is not a Christian, and there need be no question as to who is a church member. You are the only one who knows for sure whether you are a Christian or not, and you are a church member if you have been publicly received into the fellowship of people of God. But just as one may be a Christian and still be a weak Christian, so, likewise, he may be a church member and yet not be a really good church member.
Let us pass over the principal point with just the briefest repetition: one cannot be a good church member unless he is a good Christian, and he cannot be a good Christian except he be born again by the operation of the Spirit of God. Hence, the good church member is a born-again Christian.
But startling as the statement may sound at first, it takes less to please God than to please anyone else. All one has to have to please God is a humble, sincere heart. But to please men one must have in addition to a good heart, a consistent life. This is why Paul could say we are justified by faith only, while James contended faith without works is dead. Paul is speaking of justification before God only, while James is speaking of justification before men as well.
The world has certain standards by which it measures Christians and Christians must live up to these standards before their profession of attachment to higher principles can be accounted valid. For instance, the world requires honesty, veracity and purity of the professing Christian, and unless the Christian lives up to these standards his claims to vision and inner peace and witness of acceptance with God will be rejected. The world’s religion does not include all the Christian’s religion involves, but the Christian’s religion covers all the world’s standard involves. The good church member is consistent in his conduct so that he brings no reflection upon the house of God. The world has no scruples against judging motives. So just as soon as it catches a Christian in unworthy conduct it dubs him a hypocrite at once. After that that Christian is not a good church member, even though he may be restored to favor with God, until he has time to live down his bad name and convince observers again that he is what he claims to be.
Those who generalize in saying, “The church is full of hypocrites,” more often than not have particular cases in mind — instances where a church member took short cuts in trades, slandered a neighbor’s good name, camouflaged the truth for a purpose, indulged in fits of sinful temper, used language unbecoming a Christian, broke down on a civic duty, revealed a selfish streak or in some other way brought the name by which he was called into disrepute. It is well enough that we can answer the objector by reminding him that by staying out of the church he is associating himself with the hypocritical world which in both numbers and degree out-hypocrites the church. It is well also that we can remind him that one never stumbles over another who is behind him, and that his stumbling over hypocrites is bad on his own reputation. But it still remains a fact that the inconsistencies of professing Christians are greater hindrances to the work of God than all the infidel societies in the land. And it also yet remains that the strongest argument in favor of the divinity of our holy Christianity is the consistent lives of those who do live what they profess. A good church member, therefore, is one who lives up to the standard by which the world itself differentiates .the righteous from the wicked.
Those who say, “I do not care what people think of me,” are speaking carelessly. Aside from one’s standing with God, his greatest asset for doing good is his good standing with men, and a good church member will go a long way out of his way to keep the confidence of any person whomsoever. The good church member will pay a debt the second time rather than have a forgetful creditor go on thinking he has not paid at all. He will suffer wrong rather than to do wrong. He will not stop with abstaining from actual evil, but will avoid anything that might become the occasion for having his good name evil spoken of. He is not only just in his dealings with men, but is merciful and considerate also. He never considers a trade finished until the other man is satisfied.
A good church member hopes to receive good from the fellowship of his brethren, but he is more anxious to do good than to receive good. He does not ask, “How little can I do and get by?” Rather, he asks for a task commensurate with his ability. He does not ask, “And what shall this man do?” when he is called upon to render a service or endure a sacrifice, but answers immediately, “Here am I; send me.” He pays his tithe into the treasury of the church without hesitation and without assuming to dictate how the money shall be spent. He is always ready to give in addition to his tithe “as the Lord has prospered” him. He accounts no earthly possession as having value except in its relation to the kingdom of God, and he gets more satisfaction out of what he gives to the church than out of any money he uses otherwise.
The good church member will share in the counsel of the whole body, but he will not contend for his way beyond what is reasonable. And when the church decides a matter contrary to his advice, he gladly co-operates and goes along with the majority to do the work of the Master. A good church member is not factious, for he feels that God wants him in the church, and he does not feel free to lightly quit because he does not like the preacher, or because things are not always done according to his plans and specifications, or because someone else is promoted and he is overlooked, or because others do not do their share and he thinks he is imposed upon. He cannot easily take offense, for he is not working for men or for money, but for God whose rewards will come without fail.
The good church member has high regard for leadership. Peter warned the preachers against “lording it over God’s heritage,” but Paul counseled us all to “obey them who have the rule over you.” Jesus Christ taught His disciples that they are all brethren, and that He alone is their Master. But in such a fellowship leadership is needed more than anywhere else. There is not much place for authority in the church. Even membership itself is voluntary. But it has been proved over and over again that Christian people will follow leaders so long as the leaders lead them right. And this is a characteristic of the good church member.
Authority is the refuge of littleness. A man does not need a throne if he is naturally “head and shoulders above the other men of the tribe.” He does not need a crown if he has golden wisdom inside of his head. He does not need a scepter if he has genuine force of character. He does not need robes of purple if he has a heart that is royal blue, He does not need protection from the masses if his goodness is able to bear the most careful scrutiny. Many words are the justification of a weak cause. This paragraph is for the church members who are in places of leadership.
The good church member is a member of his local church and of his whole denomination. He believes in the purpose and in the means for attaining that purpose in use by his church, and therefore he supports everything from the sexton to the bishop, and includes all in the scope of his prayers from the choicest member of his own household to the heathen in the antipodes. The good church member is a believer in his local church, in his denomination’s home missionary undertakings and in its foreign missionary enterprise. He believes that the method of the organized church is the most economical of men and money of any possible method for being good and doing good, and he is loyal to his organization. He turns a deaf ear to pleas from “independent” programs, believing that movements are safer and longer lived than men.
The good church member is patient with the processes which are necessary for doing good. Henry Ward Beecher once said, “The church is not a museum for the exhibition of eminent saints, but a workshop for the production of useful Christians.” And in a workshop there is always the unfinished product, but there is also always a looking forward to the time when the real product of the factory shall be offered for public approval. Also, in the best workshop there is some waste. Not all raw material can be utilized, and there is something of sadness that some things must be cast away. But the wise manufacturer does not give up his factory on account of the waste, and he utilizes every means for reducing the waste to the minimum.
The good church member is like that. He does not get discouraged with the church because it is unable to reach and save everybody, but he does work hard to make the standard of efficiency as high as possible. Jesus said the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath, and by so saying He indicated that man is the valuable factor in it all. Man is not made for industry, but industry is made for man. Even the church exists for the blessing of men, and not to subtract from the sum of man’s good. And the Good Shepherd who cannot rest easy while one lone lamb is yet outside the fold is represented by the good church member who is ready always to bear that the processes for saving men may have their further chance.
A good church member is one who believes in and enjoys the fullest expression of Christian experience and life. He does not mimic others just in order to be uniform, and he does not depart from the customs of others just to be different. The good church member is really just an old-time Christian who is in earnest to receive all the good he can for himself and do all the good he can for others. He reaches for the substance, rather than for the shadow, and covets to save his life by devoting it to Jesus Christ and the interests of His spiritual kingdom. He is aggressive and militant because he knows this is the way of safety, and because his own soul is awakened and revived. He realizes that no man can accomplish very much working by himself, and he has discovered that nine-tenths of one’s ability to secure co-operation is his willingness to cooperate with his brethren. He is not “churchy,” but he is loyal. He is narrow in the good sense of the word. He has found that those who say, “Oh, one church is just as good as another,” really mean that no church is worth giving much attention, and he has found that he can do the most to help other churches by being an enthusiastic promoter of his own church.
Of course there is danger that one shall overestimate his own importance. But I think there is even a greater danger that the average Christian will think his part too small to be of any consequence. He thinks he would be glad to do a larger part, but he is not challenged by the small part that falls to his lot. The great symphony orchestra was in full swing. The big important instruments were doing their part well. But the man whose task it was to play the little piccolo became discouraged. “The others have important parts,” thought he, “but this little instrument will not be missed, even if I do not play at all.” And so he ceased to play his part and not many noticed the difference. But the great director stopped the whole orchestra and called out, “What is the matter? I cannot hear the piccolo.” We are all members of God’s great orchestra — “members in particular,” Paul reminds us. Our part may seem to be but a small part — so small in fact that many would not notice if we dropped out. But the Great Leader knows what we are supposed to do, and the music will be marred if we do not play. Let us play to please Him. The orchestra needs the piccolo as well as the first violin, and He has placed us in the organization as it pleaseth Him. And, after all, it is not the places that are honorable, it is the Lord himself who is to be praised. There is no higher place for you or me than the particular place for which the Lord has chosen us.