TO WHOM THE CHURCH BELONGS
Protestants seem peculiarly apt to fall into a dangerous and dishonoring practice. when they speak about the church. Every day we can hear people talking about “the Rev. Smith’s church” or “Dr. Jones’ congregation.” Although we may not be ready to condemn these phrases too severely. they do betray a lamentably superficial attitude to the church. After all, the church belongs to no man or group of men. It belongs solely to the Lord Jesus Christ who is her Savior and Head.
Scripture is abundantly clear on this. Paul tells us that God has put all things under Christ’s feet “and gave him to be head over all things to the church” (Eph. 1:22), John emphasizes this truth repeatedly in Revelation, when he calls the Savior “the Lord of lords and Kings of kings.” Peter calls Christ “the Shepherd and Bishop (overseer) of your souls” (I Peter 2:25). And Jesus reminded his disciple at the time of the Last Supper, Ye call me Teacher and Lord: and ye do well; for so I am” (John 13:13). This claim he explicitly exercises after the resurrection. when he bestows His peace, gives them the Holy Spirit, sends them out to be his witnesses, and entrusts to them the keys of the kingdom (John 20:21–23). In summarizing the arguments for speaking of Christ’s rule over his church, Berkhof mentions the following points : (1) Christ himself instituted the church, which is not a purely voluntary organization rooting in the wishes and will of men (Matt. 16:18). (2) He has instituted the means of grace which spiritually nourish the church (Matt. 28:19, 20; Luke 22:17–20; 1 Cor. 11:23–29). (3) He gave the church both her constitution and her officers, clothing them with his authority (Matt. 10:1; 16:19; Eph. 4:11, 12). (4) This same Christ is always present, when the church meets for worship (Matt. 10:40; II Cor. 13:13).
In our Reformed confessions we hear the clear-toned echoes of this Scriptural teaching. The Belgic Confession acknowledges that the church “has been from the beginning of the world, and will be to the end thereof; which is evident from this that Christ is our eternal King, which without subjects He cannot be” (art. XXVII). Believers are obligated to join the true church where the marks are maintained, “submitting themselves to the doctrine and discipline thereof; bowing their necks under the yoke or Jesus Christ” (art, XXVIII). Likewise, Christ has given her in his Word “the spiritual polity” by which she must be governed (art. XXX). In the Heidelberg Catechism we confess similar truths concerning the church (Lord’s Days XXI and XXXI). And even the Canons of Dordt, which do not deal directly with the doctrine of the church, stress the need of faithfully serving Christ (II, 9) and being “much more careful and solicitous to continue in the ways of the Lord, which he has ordained” (V, 13).
Such truths are far from popular in our days of self-will and self-expression.
Many members seem to resent an authoritative proclamation of the Word. When admonished concerning doctrine or conduct by the officers, some will even speak boldly of the curtailing of their Christian(!) liberties and the unwarranted prying into what they consider to be their private affairs. As a result some who have been clothed with Christ’s ruling power hesitate to carry out their commission. The danger of closing our eyes to weaknesses and sins in the congregation is not imaginary. The sin of hesitating to rebuke the wayward does not seem to be infrequent. And by such neglect heresy and worldliness threaten to sweep the church from her spiritual moorings.
Our only weapon against these defections is the daily, prayerful reminder that Christ wills to rule his people through lawfully appointed and elected officers. The authority with which ministers, elders and deacons are clothed is not their own but his. Let us then remind ourselves constantly of the blessing of living by faith and laboring according to this major principle.
First of all, it affords a sure foundation for carrying out our God-given calling. Officers although elected by the congregation, receive their mandate from the King of the church. They are servants of the people only for Christ’s sake. And they cannot serve the people well, unless they are conscious of serving Christ above all.
Moreover, it clothes us with proper humility. The danger of “lording it over the flock” is ever present. It was already present in Peter’s day. One writer warns, “Power will intoxicate the best hearts, as wine the strongest heads.” We will only rule ill proper fashion and seek the proper goal. when we remember that we are but representatives of the heavenly King.
This truth also gives the nccessary encouragement. Those who rule in Christ’s name may often be plagued with a sense of their own unworthiness and inability. Yet let them look to Christ who has promised the needed wisdom, zeal and love.
And finally the Bible assures us of the promised reward. The words of the officers may be resented; their interest in the flock criticized; their admonitions rejected; their persons vilified. But Christ himself promises all those who rule wisely and well for his sake “the crown of glory that fadeth not away.”
PETER Y. DE JONG