“Now hath God set the members each of them in
the body” 1 Corinthians 12:18
Many organizations make a distinction between active members and members who merely give their financial support. The active members participate in the activities of the organization; the others are mere hangers-on. The active members are actual members because they exert themselves to attain the objectives of the organization. Those who quit themselves of responsibility by paying may be called members, but they are not actually that.
A twofold relationship such as that is possible in a society because a society is not a body, an organism. But a relationship such as that is not possible within the church of Christ, because the church is depicted to us in the scriptures as a body. It is a body not made by human hands, but created by the Lord our God. We are the members of that body. It is that truth that the apostles constantly try to weave into our consciousness, and it is especially that truth that the apostle Paul exposes to us in 1 Corinthians 12. Your relationship to the church can be a true one only if you think of that church as a body and of yourself as a living member of it, as you will always remain a living member of it.
A conception such as that enables you to appreciate that the several members can be different, that one member of the church can possess an individuality differing from that of another, and that each member has a function to perform that is peculiar to himself. Your body has many members—eyes and ears, feet and hands—and each of these serves the body differently. Jesus’ apostle tells us that it is thus also among the members of the church. So far from resembling each other as do two drops of water, he tells us, the several members differ among each other and vary greatly. Such is the body of Christ, not because we have spoiled it by our willfulness, but because God has ordained that it should be so. The apostle says: “But God hath set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him.”
These facts are being said about what our fathers called the invisible church, the mystical body of Christ, and not of the external, visible church. Who would say of his relationship to the visible church: “I am and eternally will remain a member of it.” The church on earth has many members whom God has never set in the body. There are thousands, millions, who have never performed any function for the mystical body as members of the visible church. Yet you may not think of the visible church as an organism that is quite disassociated from the invisible church, as though the former stood beside the latter, as though you could do as you pleased with the visible church, and do so with impunity. An illustration will elucidate what is meant. You are raising peas in your garden. You know very well that you want the peas, not the pod. Yet you do not tell your gardener, “You must tend the peas, but you may ignore the pod.” True, when the peas are ripe, and picking time has come, you shell the peas and throw the pod away. Similarly, you remove a scaffolding when once a building has been completed within it. Similarly the Lord God will sometime come to throw away the visible church. But the present is not yet the season of harvest. The scaffolding is necessary still, and the pod must remain. And pod and scaffolding must be protected: the visible church must be preserved. Hence, you may not be indifferent about the visible church, wrongly supposing that the invisible, spiritual church can mature without her. Remember that the invisible church is contained within the visible, and that the invisible church flourishes only when the visible grows.
Never yield therefore to that spiritual greed by which so many, because they suppose their own soul secure, become indifferent to the welfare of the invisible church. Whoever thinks that way supposes himself to be wiser than God, who gave us the visible church. Essentially the attitude of a man such as that represents sheer arrogance and pride. These are sins that inevitably are punished, be they ever so skillfully subtilized. A sheltered spirituality is false. Every child of God is by his confession obliged to join the true church of God. The trueness of the church can be determined from the purity of her confession, by her purged administration of the word and of the sacraments, and by her maintenance of Christian discipline. Never say therefore: “I am a living member of the invisible church, and besides, I have joined the visible church.” By such a confession you put asunder what God has joined together. You separate the soul from its external body. By it you suppose that two kinds of life obtain: the one a spiritual life, which is lived for God; the other a life that accrues to you from your membership in an external organization, a life really external to holy things. It is from heresies such as these that the wicked custom of receiving members into the church arises, a custom according to which the sole objective is to support an external scaffolding of the church, and which cares not at all about spiritual, godly essences.
If you are to prosper spiritually, you must at the time of your public confession begin to take an active part in the life of the visible church. The body of Christ has room only for active members. Hence he who is passive and indolent in the affairs of the church is courting a lie and raises reasons to suspect that he is not a member of the body, even though his name is enrolled on the records. The fact that you are young does not excuse you from active participation, for by your public confession you asserted that you had outgrown childish things and that you had attained an age of discretion. Nor may you plead that you are so insignificant that your contribution can be of no avail. The apostle Paul has clearly pointed out that the least significant members of the body do have a function to perform. Hence there is no comfort in pleading one’s insignificance as an excuse for indolence. The apostle pleads for co-operation between all members in order “that there be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another” (1 Cor. 12:25). You were born within the church, you were baptized within it, and you lived in it many years. But you perhaps never stopped to reckon what active participation in the life of the church really meant. At the time of your confession you must become responsible in this matter. After your confession it is most obligatory that you ask what such participation demands of you in the name of the Lord.
Real participation in the life of the church asks many and various things of you.
First, it demands that you avert shame and reproach from the church by maintaining a goodly conduct. Next, you must insist that you and your family make constant use of the church, and you strive to obtain spiritual nourishment, spiritual exercise, and spiritual enrichment. You must insist upon that because you know that the body is healthiest when the constituent members are vigorous and strong.
But these are not the only demands. You must also support and sustain others, be patient and longsuffering toward them, and strengthen them spiritually. This does not mean that you must assume the duties of the pastor. That would be arrogance, and you must be motivated solely by your love for the body of Christ, a love that seeks not itself. For whom then should you provide? That question is easily answered. You may not imitate Cain by saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper? Let him see to his own affairs; they are none of mine.” Cain blasphemed with those words, but a child of God does not. The child of God knows who his neighbors are. True, you may also go into the highways and byways and seek out and help the unfortunate. It is blessed to do so, provided that you have first, with spiritual love and courage, fulfilled your duty within your own community. There are those who detect much evil in their own group, but who, though they see it, are silent. Often such as these try to assuage their conscience by going out to admonish some unfortunate strangers in a distant hovel or saloon. Sheer folly that: it is folly and a desire for ostentation. It is shirking one’s duty under the guise of performing it. No blessing accrues to such practices. You must always begin by helping those whom God has placed in your way, in your house, in your circle of intimate friends. When you have done your duty there, you may go outside.
The life of the church offers still other opportunities for service. The church also has a social life. She observes the communion of the saints, and maintains service for that purpose. She provides for those who suffer. She seeks out the delinquent. She maintains missions to those still outside of holy baptism. These duties involve much work. Some of this work is of a high type; some of it is of a lower class. There is work for those who are officebearers, for those who function in offices that Christ has ordained. But there are also other duties that remind us of those performed by the hewers of wood and drawers of water among Israel. Money must be collected, ushers must maintain appropriate order at public services, the organ must be played, letters written, books supervised, etc.
All of these duties must be done, must be done well, and must be done with a willing heart. They must be done well because part of her honor depends upon whether or not she maintains a becoming order and propriety in her public manifestations. They must be done willingly and freely, as far as that is possible, because work that is paid for loses much of its spiritual savor. Salaried positions have always functioned detrimentally in the church of Jesus. Naturally he who devotes his full time and energy to the church must be provided with the means of living. Scriptures affirm that in the plainest of terms. But in all other cases it is far better that willingness and love motivate the services than that money intervene to create a condition such as Jesus once had to punish with a whip.
One caution may be appropriate; no one should push himself to the foreground in such matters. But if you are legitimately called upon to assume an office or by lesser means to assist in the life of your church, you should think twice before you refuse. Any feeling of incapability does not excuse you. Your church, not you, must judge your capabilities. To refuse is to manifest a cold attitude that does not savor of a love for the Christ. If the church is to flourish, each of her members should say, as Samuel said: “See, Lord, here am I.”