UNDERSTANDING THE CHURCH
Functions of the Church
Why is there a Church? The Church exists in every society. You can travel the world and find the Church in every one of the 161 sovereign nations that exist today. Why?
Why do we meet together each week for worship and instruction? Couldn’t we, with a lot less bother, worship at home, read the Bible and listen to a sermon on the radio?
In the first century, people gathered weekly to hear the Scriptures but today we have our own copies of the Bible to read. Then why not stay at home to read the Bible on our own? It certainly would be easier cheaper, too. Through modern technology, everyone in the world could listen to the best preachers in the world, every week! Or we could have a menu of options, and listen only to the sermons that apply to us, or only to subjects we like. Wouldn’t it be lovely?
Well, not really. I believe that stay-at-home Christians are missing out on many important aspects of Christianity. I hope to address these, both to encourage faithful attendees to get more out of the church, and to encourage others to return to weekly attendance to the church. To understand why we gather each week, it is helpful to ask, why did God create the church? What purposes does it have? By learning the functions of the church, we can then see how our weekly church fellowship meetings serve various purposes in God’s desire for his children.
You see, God’s commands are not arbitrary things just to see if we will jump when he says jump. No, his commands are given for our own good. Of course, when we are young Christians, we may not understand why he commands certain things, and we need to obey even before we know all the reasons why. We simply trust God, which he knows best, and we do what he says. So, a young Christian may attend church simply because that’s what Christians are expected to do. A young Christian may attend simply because Hebrews 10:25 says “Let us not give up meeting together.” So far, so good; But as we mature in the faith, we should come to a deeper understanding of why God tells his people to meet together.
Let’s begin exploring this subject by noting that Hebrews is not the only book that commands Christians to assemble with one another. “Love one another,” Jesus tells his disciples (John 13:34). When Jesus says “one another,” he is not referring to our duty to love all human beings. Rather, he is referring specifically to the need for disciples to love other disciples it must be a mutual love. And this love is an identifying characteristic of Jesus’ disciples (v. 35).
Mutual love does not express itself in accidental meetings at the grocery store and sporting events. Jesus’ command presupposes that his disciples are meeting with one another on a regular basis. Christians should have regular fellowship with other Christians. “Do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers,” Paul wrote (Galatians 6:10). To obey this command, it is essential that we know who the family of believers is. We need to see them, and we need to see their needs.
“Serve one another,” Paul wrote to the church in Galatia (Galatians 5:13). Although we should serve unbelievers in certain ways, Paul is not using this verse to tell us that. In this verse, he is not commanding us to serve the world, and he is not commanding the world to serve us. Rather, he is commanding mutual service among those who follow Jesus Christ. “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Paul is talking to people who want to obey Jesus Christ, telling them about a responsibility they have toward other believers. But how can we carry each other’s burdens unless we know what those burdens are — and how can we know unless we meet each other regularly?
“If we walk in the light…we have fellowship with one another,” John wrote (1 John 1:7). John is talking about those who walk in the light. He is talking about spiritual fellowship, not casual acquaintances with unbelievers. If we walk in the light, we seek out other believers with whom to have fellowship. Similarly, Paul wrote, “Accept one another” (Romans 15:7). “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other” (Ephesians 4:32). Christians have special responsibilities toward one another.
Throughout the New Testament, the early Christians met with one another to worship together, to learn together, to share their lives with one another (for example, Acts 2:41-47). Everywhere Paul went, he rose up churches, rather than leaving scattered believers. They were eager to share their faith and zeal with one another. This is the biblical pattern.
But some people today complain that they don’t get anything out of the sermons. That may be true, but it’s really not an excuse to stop attending the church. Such people need to change their perspective from “get” to “give.” We attend worship services not just to get, but also to give — to give worship to God with our whole heart and to give service to other members of the congregation.
How can we serve others at church services? By teaching children, helping clean the building, singing hymns and special music, arranging chairs, greeting people, supporting needy members etc; we provide an atmosphere in which others can get something out of the sermons. We fellowship, and find out needs to pray about and things to do to help others during the week. If you aren’t getting anything out of the sermons, then at least attend in order to give to others.
Paul wrote, “Encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 4:18). “Spur one another on toward love and good deeds,” (Hebrews 10:24). This is the specific reason given in the context of the Hebrews 10:25 command for regular assemblies. We are to encourage others, to be a source of positive words, whatsoever things are true and lovely and of good report.
Consider Jesus as an example. He regularly attended synagogue and regularly heard readings of Scripture that didn’t add anything to his understanding, but he went anyway, to worship. Maybe it was boring to an educated man like Paul, but he didn’t let that stop him, either.
Duty and desire
People who believe that Jesus has saved them from eternal death really ought to be excited about it. They enjoy getting together with others to praise their Savior. Of course, sometimes we have bad days and don’t really feel like attending. But even if it is not our desire at the moment, it is still our duty. We can’t just go through life doing only the things we feel like doing — not if we follow Jesus Christ as our Lord. He did not seek to do his own will, but the Father’s. Sometimes that’s what it boils down to for us. When all else fails, the old saying goes, read the instructions. And the instructions tell us to attend.
But why? What is the church for? The church has many functions. We have grouped them before into three categories upward, inward and outward. That organizational scheme, like any scheme, has both virtues and limitations. It is simple, and simplicity is good.
But it does not show the fact that our upward relationship has both a private and a public expression. It glosses over the fact that our relationships within the church are not exactly the same for everyone within the church. It does not show that service is given both inward and outward, both within the church and to the community around.
To help bring out additional aspects of the church’s work, some Christians have used a four- or five-fold scheme.
For this purpose, I will use six categories.
Our relationship with God is both private and public, and we need both. Let’s begin with our public interaction with God — worship. Of course, it is possible to worship God when we are all alone, but the term worship usually suggests something we do in public. The English word worship is related to the word worth. We declare God’s worth when we worship him.
This declaration of worth is made both privately, in our prayers, and publicly, in words and songs of praise. 1 Peter 2:9 says that we are called to declare God’s praises. The implication is that this is a public declaration. Both Old and New Testaments show God’s people worshiping together, as a community.
The biblical model, in both Old and New Testaments, is that songs are often a part of worship. Songs express some of the emotion we have with God. Songs can express fear, faith, love, joy, confidence, awe and a wide range of other emotions we have in our relationship with God.
Of course, not everyone in the congregation has the same emotion at the same time, but we nevertheless sing together. Some members would express the same emotion in different ways, with different songs and different styles. Nevertheless, we still sing together. “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19). We have to meet together to do this!
Music should be an expression of unity yet often it is a cause for disagreement. Different cultures and different age groups express praise for God in different ways. Almost every church area has several cultures represented. Some members want to learn new songs; some want to use old songs. It seems that God likes both. He enjoys the psalms that are thousands of years old; he also enjoys new songs. It is helpful to note that some of the old songs the psalms command new songs:
“Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous; it is fitting for the upright to praise him. Praise the Lord with the harp; make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre. Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy” (Psalms 33:1-3).
In our music, we need to consider the needs of people who may be attending our services for the first time. We need music that they will find meaningful, music that expresses joy in a way that they comprehend as joyful. If we sing only those songs that we like, it sends the message that we care about our own comfort more than we care about other people.
And we cannot wait until new people start attending before we start learning some contemporary-style songs. We need to learn them now, so we can sing them meaningfully. But music is only one aspect of our worship services. Worship includes more than expressing emotion. Our relationship with God also involves our minds, our thought processes. Some of our interaction with God comes in the form of prayer. As a gathered people of God, we speak to God. We praise him not only in poetry and song, but also in ordinary words and normal speech. And the Scriptural example is that we pray together, as well as individually.
God is not only love, but also truth. There is an emotional component and a factual component. So we need truth in our worship services, and we find truth in the Word of God. The Bible is our ultimate authority, the basis for all that we do. Sermons must be based in that authority. Even our songs should be truthful.
But truth is not some vague idea that we can discuss without emotion. God’s truth affects our lives and hearts. It demands a response from us. It requires all our heart, mind, soul and strength. That is why sermons need to be relevant to life. Sermons should convey concepts that affect how we live and how we think on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, etc., in the home and on the job.
Sermons need to be true, properly based on Scripture. Sermons need to be practical, directed to real life. Sermons also need to be emotive, properly calling for a heart-felt response. Our worship includes listening to God’s Word, and responding to it with repentance from sin and with joy for the salvation he gives.
We can listen to sermons at home, either on tape or on radio broadcasts. There are many good sermons available. But this is not the full church experience. As a form of worship, it is only partial involvement. It is missing the community aspect of worship, in which we sing praises together, in which we respond together to the Word of God, in which we exhort one another to put the truth into practice in our lives.
Of course, some members cannot attend services because of ill health. They are missing out — as most of them know quite well. We pray for them, and we also know that it is our duty to visit them to make mutual ministry possible for them (James 1:27).
Although shut-in Christians may need to be served in physical ways, they are often able to serve others in emotional or spiritual ways. Even so, stay-at-home Christianity is an exception based on necessity. It is not what Jesus wants his able-bodied disciples to do.
2) Spiritual disciplines
Worship services are only part of our worship. The Word of God must enter our hearts and minds to affect what we do throughout the week. Worship can change its format, but it should never stop. Part of our response to God involves personal prayer and Bible study. Experience shows us that these are essential for growth. People who are becoming more spiritually mature hunger to learn from God in his Word. They are eager to give him their requests, to share their lives with him, to walk with him, to be aware of his constant presence in their lives.
Our dedication to God involves our heart, mind, soul and strength. Prayer and study should be our desire, but if they are not yet our desire, we need to do them anyway.
It reminds me of the advice that John Wesley was once given. At that time in his life, he said, he had an intellectual grasp of Christianity, but he did not feel faith in his heart. So he was advised: Preach faith until you has faith and once you have it, you will certainly preach it! He knew he had a duty to preach faith, so he was supposed to do his duty. And in time, God gave him what he lacked. He gave him heart-felt faith. What he had formerly done out of duty, he now did out of desire. God had given him the desire that he needed. God will do the same for us.
Prayer and study are sometimes called spiritual disciplines. “Discipline” may sound like a punishment, or perhaps an unpleasant thing we have to force ourselves to do. But the real meaning of the term discipline is something that “disciples” us, that is, teaches us or helps us learn. Spiritual leaders throughout the ages have found that certain activities help us learn about God.
There are many practices that help us walk with God. Many church members are familiar with prayer, study, and meditation and fasting. And there are other disciplines we can also learn from, such as simplicity, generosity, celebration or visiting widows. Church attendance is also a spiritual discipline, giving benefits for the individual relationship with God. We may also learn more about prayer, study and other spiritual habits by attending small groups in which we see how other Christians practice these forms of worship.
Real faith leads to real obedience — even when that obedience is not comfortable, even when it is boring, even when it requires us to change our behavior. We worship him in spirit and in truth, at church meetings, at home, on the job and everywhere we go. The church is composed of God’s people, and God’s people have private worship as well as public worship. Both are necessary functions of the church.
Throughout the New Testament, we see spiritual leaders teaching others. This is part of the Christian lifestyle; it is part of the great commission. “Go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Everybody must be either a learner or a teacher, and we are usually both at the same time. “Teach and admonish one another with all wisdom” (Colossians 3:16). We must be learning from one another, from other Christians. The church is an educational institution.
Paul told Timothy, “The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2). Every Christian should be able to teach the basics of the faith, to give an answer concerning our hope in Jesus Christ.
What about those who have already learned? They should become teachers, to pass the truth along to new generations. Obviously, a lot of teaching is done by pastors. But Paul commands every Christian to teach. Small groups provide one way in which this is done. Mature Christians can teach both in word and in example. They can tell others how Christ has helped them. When their faith is weak, they can seek the encouragement of others. When their faith is strong, they can help the weak.
It is not good for man to be alone, nor is it good for a Christian to be alone. “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).
By working together, we help one another grow. Discipleship is often a mutual process, one member helping another member. But some discipleship flows more purposefully, with more direction given to it. God has appointed some people in his church for that very reason: “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13).
God provides leaders whose role is to prepare others for their roles. The result is growth, maturity and unity, if we allow the process to work as God intended. Some Christian growth and learning comes from peers; some comes from people in the church who have the specific assignment of teaching and modeling the Christian life. People who isolate themselves are missing out on this aspect of the faith.
We have much to learn and much to apply. Local congregations need to offer Bible studies, classes for new believers, training in evangelism, etc. We need to encourage lay ministry by giving permission, giving training, giving tools, giving control and getting out of the way!
Fellowship is clearly a mutual relationship among Christians. We all need to give and to receive fellowship. We all need to give and receive love. Our weekly meetings demonstrate that fellowship is important to us, both historically and right now. Fellowship means a lot more than talking to each other about sports, gossip and news. It means sharing lives, sharing emotions, bearing one another’s burdens, encouraging one another and helping those who have need.
Most people put a mask on to hide their needs from others. If we are really going to help one another, we need to get close enough to one another to see behind the masks. And it means that we have to let our own mask fall down a bit so others can see our needs. Small groups are a good place in which to do this. We get to know people a little better and feel a little safer with them. Often, they are strong in the area in which we are weak, and we are strong where they are weak. So by supporting one another, we both become stronger. Even the apostle Paul, although he was a giant in the faith, felt that he could be strengthened in faith by other Christians (Romans 1:12).
In ancient times, people didn’t move around as often. Communities would develop easier in which people knew each other. But in industrialized societies today, people often do not know their neighbors. People are often cut off from families and friends. People wear masks all the time, never feeling safe enough to let people know who they really are inside.
Ancient churches did not need to emphasize small groups they formed them naturally. The reason we find it necessary to emphasize them today is that society has changed so much. To really form the interpersonal connections that ought to be part of Christian churches, we need to go out of our way to establish Christian friendship/study/prayer circles.
This will take time, yes. It really takes time to fulfill our Christian responsibilities. It takes time to serve others. It even takes time to find out what kinds of service they need. But if we have accepted Jesus as our Lord, our time is not our own. Jesus Christ makes demands on our lives. He demands total commitment, not a pretend-Christianity.
When I list “service” as a separate category here, I am emphasizing physical service, not the service of teaching. A teacher is also a washer of feet, a person who illustrates the meaning of Christianity by doing what Jesus would do. Jesus took care of physical needs such as food and health. In a physical way, he gave his life for us. The early church gave physical help, sharing their possessions with the needy, collecting offerings for the hungry.
Paul tells us that service should be done within the church. “As we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:10). Folks who isolate themselves from other believers are falling short in this aspect of Christianity. The concept of spiritual gifts is important here. God has placed each of us in the body “for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). Each of us has abilities that can help others.
Which spiritual gifts do you have? You can take a test to find out, but much of the test is really based on your experience. What have you done in the past that turned out well? What do other people say you are good at? How have you helped others in the past? The best test of spiritual gifts is serving within the Christian community. Try a variety of roles in the church, and ask others what you do best. Volunteer. Every member should have at least one role in the church. Small groups are again an excellent opportunity for mutual service. They provide many opportunities for work, and many opportunities for feedback on what you do well and what you enjoy doing.
The Christian community also serves the world around us, not only in word, but also in deeds that go with those words. God did not just speak, he also took action. Actions can demonstrate the love of God working in our hearts, as we help the poor, as we offer comfort to the discouraged, as we help victims make sense of their lives. It is those who need practical help who are often the most responsive to the gospel message.
In some ways physical service may be seen as supporting the gospel. It can be seen as a method of supporting evangelism. But some service should be done with no strings attached, no attempt to get something in return. We serve simply because God has given us some resources and has opened our eyes to see a need. Jesus fed and healed many people without any immediate appeal for them to become his disciples. He did it simply because it needed to be done, and he saw a need that he could fill.
“Go into the entire world and preach the gospel,” Jesus commands us. Frankly, we need a lot of improvement in this area. We have been too conditioned to keep our faith to ourselves. Of course, people cannot be converted unless the Father is calling them, but that fact does not mean that we shouldn’t preach the gospel!
To become effective stewards of the gospel message, we need a cultural change within the church. We cannot be content to let other people do it. We cannot be content to hire other people to do it on the radio or in a magazine.
Those forms of evangelism are not wrong, but they are not enough.
Evangelism needs a personal face. When God wanted to send a message to people, he used people to do it. He sent his own Son, God in the flesh, to preach. Today he sends his children, humans in whom the Spirit is living, to preach the message and give it appropriate shape in each culture.
We need to be active, willing and eager to share the faith. We need enthusiasm about the gospel, an enthusiasm that communicates at least something about Christianity to our neighbors. (Do they even know that we are Christians? Does it look like we are happy to be Christians?) We are growing and improving in this, but we need more growth.
I encourage all of us to give thought to how we might each be Christian witnesses to those around us. I encourage every member to obey the command to be prepared to give an answer. I encourage every member to read about evangelism, and to apply what they read. We can all learn together and spur one another on to good works. Small groups can provide some training for evangelism, and small groups can often become agents of evangelism themselves.
In some cases, members may learn faster than their pastors. That’s OK. The pastor can then learn from the member. God has given them different spiritual gifts. To some of our members, he has given a gift for evangelism that needs to be awakened and directed. If the pastor cannot equip this person for this form of ministry, the pastor at least ought to encourage the person to learn, and implement, and provide examples for others, so that the whole church might grow. In this six-fold scheme of the work of the church, it is important to mention evangelism specifically.
The Role of the Church in Society
Every society, which honors basic human rights, has a role for the Church and the State. In this segment we are going to talk about the role of the Church in society. In another segment we may discuss the role of the State. Have you noticed that every city and county seat has both a Church and a courthouse? In big cities like Kampala, we find the statehouse, together with the Catholic National headquarter, the Anglican National Cathedral and all the other faiths. The Church and the State are always found together.
The Church Endures While States Come and Go
The past 20 centuries, the Christian centuries, provide many illustrations of Church and State relations. We will go into this more later when dealing with the state, but here it is important to note that the Church has lived with, and under, every form of civil government known to man. Nations and governments come and go. The Catholic Church endures; it is the oldest living institution known to man. Like Uganda celebrated our nation’s 50 years of independence and pride ourselves in having that status of a democratic country. The Catholic Church, by comparison, has a history of more than 20 centuries, maintaining the same hierarchical structure, the same doctrine on faith and morals, the same sacramental system, the same Lord and Master. The Church is a living witness to Christ’s promise that He would be with us until the end of time (Mt 28:20).
Christ entered into our humanity and into human history when He took on our flesh, by the help of His human mother, Mary, our blessed Lady. He came among us to save us from our sins. He taught us the ways of God, a way of life that leads to eternal life in the Kingdom of God. He gave us those special helps we need to live the Christian life by giving us the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and the sacrament of Reconciliation. He established His Church to continue His mission on earth throughout the ages, generation after generation, from one culture to another.
Church and State
What is the difference between the Church and the State? Why can’t we combine the two, or eliminate the one of the other? Recall the statement of our Lord when the Pharisees asked him if it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not. He replied: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt 22:17). Clearly there is a difference between Caesar’s state and God’s Church. Who gets what? What is the role of the Church and the role of the State in any society? If a healthy society requires a vibrant Church and an energetic State, what services do these two provide? What are their distinct functions?
Here is a simple way to explain the different roles of the Church and State in society. The Church deals with the eternal order, our eternal salvation, which is to be found ultimately in the Kingdom of God. The State deals with the temporal order, which is concerned with the here and now, the material well-being of citizens. God made us material bodies and immortal spirits. We are incarnate spirits, and spirit-filled bodies. Both dimensions of our being must be attended to. The spiritual well-being is by far the more important, but we cannot neglect the material needs of our bodied existence.
We are really citizens of two worlds. We live on earth for 70 or 100 years and then die. We were created to spend eternity either with God in Heaven, or without God in Hell.
The State looks after our temporal material needs. The Church must be equally concerned about getting us into Heaven, about sharing in God’s eternal life. Generations of men and women have passed this way before us and are dead. The only thing that really matters to them now is whether they accomplished the purpose for which they were created.
The Church continues the work of her Lord and Master. She continues His work throughout the centuries. The aspect of the Church which concerns us here is her role as a teacher and moral guide. Jesus gave His authority to teach to His Church: “All authority in heaven and on earth is mine. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations… teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28: 19-20).
Church Proclaims the Moral Order
The clearest articulation of this is found in Pius XI’s social encyclical, Quadragesimo anno, promulgated in 1931, when the world was in the throes of a depression. In paragraphs 41-3, Pius explains. The Church proclaims the moral order of the human universe. She is to proclaim and explain every aspect of the moral order. The moral order is something like the plan of an architect for a great project. God is the architect, and the human race is His great project. God has a design for His human universe. We are free agents, with intelligence and free will. We can discover the moral order and choose to abide by it, or we can ignore it and make up our own plan. Attempting to improve upon God’s moral order is a dangerous undertaking. We have seen many examples of social engineering in this century alone, and know the disastrous results of Nazism, Fascism, and Marxism.
The moral order is based upon the dignity of every human person. That dignity flows out of the fact that each of us is created in the image and likeness of God, with an immortal destiny. All our human rights flow out of this dignity. Only God can give us this dignity, no one else. The state does not grant us our human dignities; it can only recognize and honor them and help to protect them.
Paragraph 43 of Quadragesimo anno reads as follows: For it is the moral law alone which commands us to seek in all our conduct our supreme and final end, e. g., God, and to strive directly in our specific actions for those ends which nature, or rather, the Author on Nature, has established for them, duly subordinating the particular to the general.
If this law be faithfully obeyed, the result will be that particular economic aims, whether of society as a body or of individuals, will be intimately linked with the universal final order, and as a consequence we shall be led by progressive stages to the final end of all, God Himself, our highest and lasting good.
Whenever any component of society, e.g., the economic order, a political system, education, etc., debases human dignity by violating basic human rights, the Church becomes involved. How? By upholding the full truth of the moral order and clearly calling real abuses of this by name. This is a negative, critical service of the Church. We saw examples of this when Pius XI, in 1937, wrote encyclicals highly critical of National Socialism in Germany and of atheistic Marxism in Russia. Again we saw Pope Paul VI doing this in his social encyclical On the Development of Peoples (1967), and John Paul II in his On the Social Concerns of the Church (1987). Very often, the Church is the only voice available to the poor and exploited.
Much more important is the Church’s positive role in explaining and promoting the various components of a just social order. She does this through her social teaching. This is the role of Catholic social teaching. Whenever the social, political, or economic order touches the moral order, then the Church speaks out of her competency. Since the moral order affects and touches everything in society that has moral implications, the opportunities for the Church to address society are many.
In this world, think of such documents as the American bishops’ pastoral letter on the nuclear deterrent in 1983, The Challenge to Peace, and their pastoral letter on American capitalism in 1986, Economic Justice For All. Churchmen do not claim to have the expertise of economists, political scientists, or military strategists. Their strength lies in the moral order. As moral teachers they point to what fosters morality, and what destroys it. Like our Lord, they are a light in the darkness.
The Church is Hierarchical
The Church is a hierarchical organization. She is not a democracy. Some people think that the political order of a country should be the model for the Church, e. g., a democracy in the United States, a one party system in the Soviet Union, and a military dictatorship in Cuba. The Church must live with every form of government known to mankind, but identifies with none of them. Governments are designed by their citizens. The Church was designed by Christ. Public officials are chosen by the people to perform the service of the state.
The hierarchy of the Church is chosen by God to carry out His work. Because churchmen (bishops, priests, deacons) teach and act on behalf of Christ Himself, they are accountable directly to Him, not to the people. Priests are not allowed to run for public office, since the art of politics often jeopardizes the clarity of principles which the priest must defend. If a priest were perceived to be defending the alleged right to have an abortion, it would create a terrible scandal. Jesus once took Peter to task. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Mt 16:23; Mk 8:33).
The Pharisees once said to Jesus: “Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men” (Mt 22:16). The hierarchy will have accomplished their mission in life only if they help their people get to heaven. Present popularity with the people is not the best criterion of success. Very often a good bishop or priest must confront sinful practices of their people, and call for conversion. Like parenting, pastoring is a service which usually is not appreciated until many years later.
Church is Both Human and Divine
Catholic social teaching is found primarily in the papal social encyclicals and major documents of the Vatican. As such it shares in the teaching authority, or Magisterium of the Church. Jesus promised us that He would remain with His Church until the end of time (Mt 28:20), and that He would send His Spirit to teach us the full meaning of His revelation (Jn 16). A person of faith places great trust in the Church’s moral teaching, both in the private and the public spheres; He does so because of the promises Christ made to us. That is why he informs his conscience with the principles of this teaching.
Some people, even some Christians, look upon the Church and its leaders as mere mortals, frail, fallible human beings, whose opinion are no better than anyone’s else’s. Here we must be very clear. The Church is both human and divine. It is like our Lord Himself, who while being one divine person, had a human nature as well as a divine nature. The great mystery of the Church is that God chooses to work through human instruments. God reaches us through the humanity of Jesus. We reach God through the humanity of Jesus and through His Church.
Jesus is present to us today where He chooses to be found, and that is in His Church where He employs flesh and blood persons in His service. Why do we look to the Church for moral direction? Because she speaks on behalf of Christ, not of herself; She claims Christ’s authority, not her own. She is under God’s law, subject to it, not above it, or able to change it. The Church is a reliable moral guide. We can sink absolute confidence in her.
The Church is human, in that she is made up of people like you and me. But she is also divine: she is the body of Christ. Christ is the head of the Church. We have every reason to trust in Jesus’ promise to His disciples: “He who hears you, hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me” (Lk 10:16). This is why the Church exists in every society, and in the world at large.
Duties of Church Members
These are so numerous and various, that they must be classed under different heads. I do not now intend so much those duties, which they owe in common to God as Christians as those which they owe to the church, as members. If I was speaking of the former, it would be proper to enumerate, supreme, habitual, practical love to God, Matthew 12:37: unreserved, cheerful, and perpetual devotedness to Christ, Rom. 14:7-9. 1 Cor. 3:23; 6:19, 20. Phil. 1:21: entire and constant dependence on the Holy Spirit, Rom. 3:13, 14, 16, 26. 1 Cor. 6:19. Gal. 5:16, 25: a life of faith. 2 Cor. 5:7. Gal. 2:20: spirituality of mind. Rom. 8:4-6: deadness to the world, Col. 3:2, 3. 1 John 2:15-17. 1 Cor. 7:29-31. 1 John 5:4: heavenly mindedness, Col. 3:2, 3. Phil. 3:20, 21: supreme regard to eternity, 2 Cor. 4:16-18, 5:1-4: separation from the world, 2 Cor. 6:17, 18. Rom. 12:1, 2: universal and high toned morality, Phil. 4:7. 2 Peter 3:10-14: eminent social excellence in all the relative duties of life, Ephes. 5, 6: all the gentle and passive virtues, Matt. 5; Ephes. 5:26-32: diligent attendance on all the means of grace, Heb. 10:25. O, what a character is that of a consistent Christian, how holy and heavenly, how meek, how gentle, how benevolent, how just, how devout, how useful, how happy!! “Lord, who is sufficient for these things?” “My grace is sufficient for you.”
But I now enumerate the duties which belong to church members as such;
I. There are solemn duties which members owe to the pastor.
Love and affection for his work’s sake; 1 Thess. 5:12, 13; Submission to his authority as the servant of Christ, appointed to enjoin obedience to the precepts of our Lord, and to rule his church; Heb. 13:17;
Constant, punctual, and devout attendance on his ministrations, not neglecting him for others, not led by curiosity to indulge a rambling taste for novelty; Heb. 13:7. 2 Tim. 4:3, 4;
Provision for his temporal comfort; Gal. 6:6. 1 Tim. 5:17. 1 Cor. 9:13, 14.
Tender regard for his reputation; Phil. 2:9.
Cooperation with him in all his scriptural and judicious schemes for the good of the church, or the spread of religion in the world; 2 Cor. 1, 2; Phil. 4:3. Rom. 16:2, 3, 4,-12; 3 John 5-8.
Sympathy with him in his personal, relative, and official sorrows and anxieties; Acts 28:15;
Earnest and constant prayer; 2 Cor. 1:12. Ephes. 6:19. Philip. 1:19. 1 Thess. 5:25.
Deep and constant interest in the success of his ministerial labors;
II. There are solemn duties which the members owe to each other.
The bond which unites the members of a Christian church is a very sacred and very tender one. It is altogether peculiar; there is nothing like it in the world. It is not a tie of interest or blood kinship, or mere friendship, but of holy love: they are all one in Christ, and are therefore to regard one another for Christ’s sake, as well as for their own.
1. There is a duty of reciprocal love. The whole system of the gospel is a system of love: God is love, and redemption is a manifestation of his love; Christ is love incarnate; and His religion is love, love to God for his own sake, love to man for God’s sake, and love to Christians for Christ’s sake. All who make a profession of such a religion should therefore be distinguished by its characteristic feature, and shine forth in the mild beauty of holy love. This is enjoined upon us in many parts of the New Testament: “Be kindly affectionate one to another with brotherly love.” Rom. 12:10. “Let brotherly love continue.” Heb. 13:1. A Christian church is a society of brothers, and they ought therefore to love as brothers. But how is this love to show itself?
By a feeling of deep interest in each other, not only as belonging to the church universal, but to that particular branch of it with which we are in direct association and communion.
By bearing with each other’s infirmities of manner, temper, and ignorance, and neither despising each other for those infirmities, magnifying, misrepresenting, nor reporting them. “We then who are strong ought to bear with the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves.”
By sympathizing with each other in our sorrows and cares, “Weeping with those that weep;” We ought to visit one another in sickness, or any personal or family trouble of mind, or estate. Without being meddling or obtrusive, we certainly ought to feel it our duty to offer to the afflicted our kind condolence. This is “bearing one another’s burdens, and so fulfilling the law of Christ.”
By relieving each other’s temporal needs. How explicit is the language of the apostle: “Distributing to the needs of saints, given to hospitality.” Perhaps there is scarcely one duty more neglected by Christians than this. The richer members of our churches are strangely neglectful of their poorer brethren. It is true that considerable caution is necessary, lest the poor should be induced to desire to enter into church fellowship for the sake of having their temporal needs relieved; against this danger, however, our mode of admission is a sufficient check. The monthly contribution at the Lord’s Supper is not, in most cases, what it ought to be.
It is oftentimes matter of surprise and grief to the deacons, who carry round the plates, to see how many pass it on without adding a farthing to its contents, from whom, too, better things might be expected. Every single member, however poor, not excepting even those who are relieved from the church fund, ought to put something into the plate, if it were only a single penny. But the richer members should not satisfy themselves with what they do at the Lord’s supper for their poorer brethren; but ought, especially the females, to make themselves personally acquainted with the condition and needs of the poor, in order to supply them.
How striking is the language which Christ represents himself as addressing to his people at the last day: “For I was hungry and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger and you didn’t take Me in; I was naked and you didn’t clothe Me, sick and in prison and you didn’t take care of Me.’ Then they too will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or without clothes, or sick, or in prison, and not help You?’ Then He will answer them, ‘I assure you: Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for Me either.'” (Matthew 25:42-45)
2. Reciprocal watchfulness is another duty that church members owe to one another. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is a question which no church member should ever allow himself to ask: for we are united in fellowship for the very purpose of endeavoring to watch and care for each other. The pastor is appointed to take the oversight of the church; but this by no means relieves the church from the duty of also taking the oversight of it;
How utterly impossible is it for one man efficiently to watch over several hundred members! How can the members of the church really love one another, if they do not in some measure watch over one another? Can we pretend to love a person, and yet not warn him of the danger into which we see him running? Is it compatible with affection never to warn or admonish those who are in imminent peril? Even the Old Testament enjoins this duty in the following striking language: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall rebuke your neighbor, and not allow sin upon him.” This duty is still more explicitly enjoined in the New Testament, “Comfort yourselves together, and edify one another.
Now we exhort you, brethren, warn those who are unruly, comfort the feeble minded, support the weak, be patient towards all men.” This was addressed to church members, not to church officers. If any one sees his brother living in the known neglect of an obvious duty, or in the commission of a known sin, or in a careless and lukewarm manner; it is his duty, in a spirit of true humility, meekness, and affection, to mention it to him. This, however, it must be admitted, is an extremely difficult and delicate matter, and ought not to be attempted in any case, but in a spirit of the purest love, and in a manner the most gentle, unassuming, and inoffensive. All appearance of officiousness, superiority or dictation; all that savors of accusation, scolding, and reproach, must be avoided, for such things instead of producing conviction will only excite irritation.
Except in rare cases, this is a duty which ought generally to be performed by the old towards the young, and the experienced towards the inexperienced, and by superiors towards inferiors; Still no man, whatever be his situation, ought to be offended in being told in a kind, humble, and delicate manner, of his faults. Every man in whom is the meek and humble spirit of the gospel is ready to say with David, “Let the righteous smite me, it shall be a kindness; and let him reprove me, it shall be as excellent oil, which shall not break my head.” To give warning and reproof, and to take it in a right spirit and manner, are both difficult; but yet, for all that, incumbent duties.
3. Reciprocal helpfulness is another duty of church members, and another end of church fellowship. We all need assistance in the way to glory, not only from God, but as his instruments from each other; and we are associated together for this purpose. This appears to be plainly our duty from 1 Thess. 5:11, “Therefore, comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as you also do. Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feeble minded, support the weak.”
Nothing can be more plain than that the members of a church are to help their fellow-members in their spiritual course, in such manner and measure as their circumstances may allow; by promoting religious conversation, by uniting with them in social prayer, encouraging their hopes, dissipating their sorrows, instructing their ignorance, removing their doubts, and promoting their edification. O how much was it to be desired that they could all be baptized into the spirit of that holy love: “Love is patient; love is kind. Love does not envy; is not boastful; is not conceited; does not act improperly; is not selfish; is not provoked; does not keep a record of wrongs; finds no joy in unrighteousness, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
III. There are duties which the members owe to the church in its collective capacity.
They ought to take a deep interest in its welfare. They should not of course, cherish a sectarian spirit, an exclusive feeling of separation from the church universal, from other denominations of real Christians, or other congregations of their own denomination. But they should consider the church with which they are united as the special object of their interest, affectionate solicitude, and fervent prayer. They should attend all its meetings, when convenience will allow. They should endeavor to promote its welfare by leading suitable people into its communion. They should in an especial manner do all they can to preserve or restore its peace. If they know any of the brethren in a state of alienation or strife, they should do nothing to fan the coals of contention, but all they can to extinguish the unholy fire. They should never lend their ear to the tale bearer, and sower of discord, but discourage him.
They should never connect themselves with those who on any occasion are seeking factiously to make a party in the church, either on the ground of dissatisfaction with the pastor’s labors, or the church’s decisions in matter of discipline. The peace of the church should lie so near their hearts, that for the sake of it, they should be willing to make any sacrifice of feeling, and any surrender of their own will, except in matters of truth and conscience.
They should consider a spirit of cabal, and party, and faction, as a species of high treason against the well-being of the church. “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of the Lord Jesus, that you all speak the same thing and that there be no division among you; but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind, and in the same judgment.” “Mark those who cause divisions and offences, contrary to the doctrines which you have learned, and avoid them.” “All of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility.” “Let nothing be done through strife or vain glory, but in lowliness of mind, let each esteem others better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.” “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; they shall prosper, who love you. Peace is within your walls and prosperity within your palaces. For my brethren and companions’ sakes, I will now say, Peace is within you. Because of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.”
IV. The duties of church members to Christians of other congregations and other denominations.
With Christians of other congregations of their own denomination, it is their duty to keep up friendly fellowship and to be ever ready to cooperate with them in every proper scheme for the promotion of the gospel in general, or the good of their own denomination in particular; avoiding at the same time all feelings of envy and jealousy, and all expressions in reference to their respective ministers or churches, in the smallest degree calculated to produce hostility or alienation.
Towards other denominations that agree with us in the fundamental truths of the gospel, there should be a charitable forbearance of those things wherein they differ from us; a belief that they are as conscientious in their views, as we are in ours; a candid respect for their conscience, combined with an opposition to their opinions; an abstinence from all ridicule, sarcasm, and bitterness, though at the same time a readiness, on suitable occasions, by reason and persuasion, to convince them and the world of their errors; a unity of spirit with them as fellow Christians: a love to them for the sake of the truth which is in them; and a willingness not only to blend with them in the fellowship of private life, but to cooperate with them in all those public objects which admit of union without compromise.
“John said to Him, “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in Your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.” “Don’t stop him,” said Jesus, “for whoever is not against us is for us.” “Grace be with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity.” “Who are you that judge another man’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” “We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let everyone please his neighbor for his good to his edification.”
V. Duties of church members in reference to the world.
It is their manifest duty to pay all due respect and obedience to civil governors in secular affairs, honoring the king, upholding the constitution, observing the laws, paying all lawful taxes, and never defrauding the revenue, nor in any way obstructing the administration of public justice. While at the same time they may lawfully exercise all their rights and enjoy all their privileges as citizens of a free state, in such peaceable and orderly manner as they believe will be for the benefit of their country; and remembering that as it is by God that kings reign, and princes decree justice, it is their duty to sanctify their loyalty and their patriotism, by earnest prayer for their king and country. Rom. 13; 1 Tim. 2:1-3; 1 Peter 2:12-17.
It is no less the duty of church members meekly, but firmly to refuse obedience to all laws that are manifestly in opposition to the Word of God. Acts: 4:18,19;
Towards the world they owe all the ordinary duties of social life; and it should be their especial care, in all their transactions with the ungodly, to manifest the utmost kindness, the most transparent morality of every kind, the greatest courtesy, the most conciliatory spirit, and throughout the whole of their demeanor, avoiding everything that is in the smallest degree inconsistent, that savors of spiritual pride, or that looks like contempt, or conscious moral superiority. “Walking in wisdom towards those that are outside;”
It is the duty of church members to avoid what are called worldly amusements, such as theatrical representations, card playing, balls, and all kinds of gambling, frequenting taverns, fashionable concerts of music, private dancing parties, and fashionable games, and oratorios: for although some of these entertainments may not be demoralizing, yet they abate seriousness and spirituality, promote levity and frivolity of mind, are a great waste of time, and are a part of that conformity to the world in which Christians are forbidden to indulge. It is a sad proof of little or no true vital piety, when people feel it a hardship to be debarred by their profession from such engagements. 2 Cor. 6:17; Rom. 12:2.
It is the solemn duty of church members to seek the conversion of the world to Christ. Every church ought to be a home and foreign missionary society within itself, and every professing Christian should consider himself converted to seek the conversion of others. “From you;” said the apostle to the Thessalonians’ church, “sounded out the word of the Lord, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith to God’s ward is spread abroad.” A similar testimony should be borne to every church.
Such then are the solemn and incumbent duties of all who have made a profession of piety, and taken upon them the name of Christ. Let them often read over this Manual of their obligations, be humbled that they have lived so far below the standard of their duty, and beg renewed grace from God, to live more and more to his glory.