The leaders in the church are important. They are men called of God and entrusted with the care and feeding of the flock. Naturally, they must be men of special gifts and abilities, and they are recognized as such.
But there is another group within the church which are equally important: the followers. Only a very few are leaders and the vast majority of us are followers, also called of God and also given ‘“finite duties and tasks. Following, too, requires special gifts and abilities, as well as the exercise and development of those gifts. We should never make the mistake of assuming that following requires no effort and serious application. Let us consider then what is implied and demanded of us in our capacity as followers.
Our following is essentially end primarily a following of Christ. Any following of human leaders is meaningless unless these men are men of God, for it is only insofar as our leaders are followers of Christ that we can follow them. Paul said to the Corinthians, “Be followers of me, even as I am of Christ.” Thus, the prime requisite of following is faith in Christ. We follow Christ because we are his sheep and know his voice; it is Christ’s voice we hear when we follow the leaders in the church.
We know his voice. A wealth of significance is contained in that statement. First, we are called by Christ. His voice summons us, and we respond in faith, as faithful followers of him. But we must know his voice. Consequently, ours must be an enlightened following, for only as it is enlightened is it a true and faithful following. We possess the prime requisite, faith, in a measure, but the extent to which we develop this faith into knowledge is often pitifully small. One of the confessional standards begins with the statement, “We believe in order that we may know.” This implies that our faith must develop into knowledge, into enlightenment. We must think. Even we followers must think. It will not do that our leaders carry the whole burden of development in knowledge of Christ and in Christian living. They are our leaders, not our substitutes. They can and must guide us in the development of faith, but they cannot develop for us.
Ah, but it is painful, this thinking. It requires effort. It demands that we arouse ourselves from our lethargy, and work. No work of the hands and muscles is so demanding and wearying as this spiritual labor of following. To follow blindly is easy indeed, but that is not following at all. A string of boxcars follows the engine, but our following must be entirely different. If we know neither where we are being lead nor the significance of our actions, we are not following.
For example, take the matter of our denial of the theory of Common Grace, Our leaders have denied it; we deny it, too. Does this mean that we are following? Not necessarily. We are following if we have studied the meaning of common grace and the significance of its denial, and have thereby reached an enlightened and intelligent conclusion. If we have not done this, if we have not thought our position, then our denial of common grace means nothing.
Or, to take a positive example, we often say that we are Calvinists, following the teachings of John Calvin. This means, among others things, that we believe in the limited atonement. How many of us can give a clear and significant account of this important doctrine? Or, for that matter, how many can even repeat the rote-memorized definition of it which was taught in catechism? The same may be said about the perseverance of the saints, the absolute sovereignty of God, and almost any other doctrine of the Reformed churches. Now, if our understanding of these all-important dogma is so hazy and ill-defined, how can we say that we are followers of John Calvin? We cannot believe these doctrines if we do not know them, and we cannot disbelieve them, either. We then stand in a natural shadow-land of ignorance.
Of course, there are always intricacies of doctrine and faith which are beyond our depth. There always will be. But no one of us can say that he has explored his faith to the utmost of his ability. We must be especially wary of being satisfied with a shallow and superficial acquaintance with the doctrinal contents of our faith, of being content with the mere formal description of our doctrine without the living reality of it.
We are followers. Let us be proud of that fact. Let us accept the challenge which it brings. Are we faithful followers? Then let us develop in faith. We must explore the meaning and significance of the commitment we have made; we must read and study, and listen to the voices of our leaders, intelligently. Let us labor in that most sublime of all callings, the work of being followers of Christ. We believe in order that we may understand. Let us therefore understand.