“We believe . . . outside of [this holy congregation] there is no salvation; that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it; maintaining the unity of the Church” —Belgic Confession, Article 28
Though its adherents number only hundreds of thousands in the world today, the Religious Society of Friends once shook the world. Better known as Quakers, this Christian sect arose in seventeenth-century England in an effort to persuade Christians to rely upon the inner light, or testimony, of the Spirit. George Fox, the founder of the movement, was convinced that the institutional churches of his day had lost their way, because, he thought, God speaks directly to Christian souls and not through the clergy.
Although this fledgling group rejected formality in religion (including the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper), Fox created and adopted his own rules for their services. And, as is the case with all social groups, fellowship and visible unity among them continue today.
Even in a fairly radical offshoot of Christianity like the Quakers, we see a desire to unify around various principles in an assembly of likeminded people. We might even conclude that this is a human need, if not a principle, of our nature. This ought not surprise anyone. It was God, after all, who created male and female together to procreate—to fill the earth with their progeny. This would have been the original, if not only, society that would have existed in a perfect world.
Yet we know all too well that we do not live in a perfect world. That is precisely why the church of Christ exists. One of the principal reasons Christ established and maintains the church is to proclaim the gospel of salvation to a world that is in dire need of reconciliation with its Creator.
But what happens when sinners are received, by faith, as children of God? What happens to their family members, who now come under the blessing of God’s covenant? Functionally, many professing Christians have become disenchanted if not entirely hostile to the idea of belonging to a local church. To use a biblical analogy, many today are a society of members, to the exclusion of the society of the body (1 Corinthians 12:12).
It almost sounds as if Guido De Bres were describing our generation when he wrote that one should not be “content to be by himself.” So many potential addictions present themselves today: television, the Internet, video games, and many others. Thus we regularly hear complaints that children and adults are not making real connections because they are not interacting as persons but as avatars, or fake personalities, in digital life.
But does this sound like your church? Does it reflect your attitude to your congregation? We confess in article 28 “a holy congregation of believers,” but since we cannot live everywhere in the world at once, we must express this faith in a local congregation of Christ. As Reformed believers, we are often challenged—and rightly so—to believe in a true church and to make certain that we are in a true church of Christ (Belgic Confession, article 29). But are we doing what we can to truly be a part of it? Does our church life include face-to-face conversations, a handshake, or maybe even a hug for a hurting brother or sister? Real Christian life is with real people experiencing real-life situations.
This applies to everyone in the church, but certainly this applies to office-bearers most of all. In a later article of the Confession, De Bres notes that “by these means [i.e., the appointment of officers and the fulfillment of the duties of their respective offices] the true religion may be preserved, and the true doctrine everywhere propagated” (article 31, emphasis added). Scripture tells us that true religion is more than true profession: it also includes true living for one another (James 1:27).
Officer-bearers, then, have a particular responsibility not only to teach and instruct what the members are to do but also to personally embody the principles of Christian life. When they see families or individuals drifting away from the church, they should ask themselves this: “Have I done what the Lord has called me to do? That is, have I been a witness to his love and care for the congregation? Or are they just following my poor example?”
As a pastor, I have been challenged not to do my pastoral work via email, but rather to sit down and meet with members. After all, how can you counsel flesh-and-blood through digital media? It has its advantages when it comes to business correspondence for consistories, classis, and committees, but it will never replace face-to-face interaction with a brother or sister who needs prayer and counseling. Technology offers helpful tools that even can be used to advance the gospel, but they are not replacements for church life.
Of course, we may all find justification within ourselves for withdrawing from our local church. Isn’t it true that within that body there are broken sinners? Aren’t there many who need our help, assistance, love, support, and prayer? And doesn’t that sound like a lot of work? Doesn’t that mean that we have to give up our time and energy for others?
So in the name of personal liberty and freedom, we choose to do as we please with our time and days off. All well and good, we say, as we have familial and vocational duties to which we must attend. These are even commanded in Scripture (Ephesians 6:1–9). But to consistently withdraw from the fellowship of the local body of which we claim to be a part is a weakening of our Christian profession. If our daily life is separating us from the fellowship of those whom God calls his household (Ephesians 3:19), then we are divorcing ourselves from Christ himself.
Let us be convinced of this principle: what we think about Christ governs what we think about his church. Did not Jesus spend time with broken sinners? Did he help people, love them, support them, and pray for them? Yes, praise God that he did! You may be certain that he continues to do so as our exalted king and high priest.1 So we must emulate his love for his people by continuing to love them by being among them.
One of the biggest challenges we have today with respect to being a society of church people is the faithlessness with—or even the avoidance of—the Lord’s Day services. Whether Christians regularly attend one of the two divine services or struggle to go at all, we live in a time when it seems there is little urgency to come together in worship. We might wonder why pastors emphasize this so much. Why is it brought up consistently from the pulpit? Does my spiritual “temperature” really depend on whether I am there in the pew? And, of course, many of us may have good reason, we believe, not to be there on a given service or even for an entire Sunday.
We must consider that, for the most part, we do not have our priorities straight. Yes, it is true: we can now stream worship services into our homes through the Internet and listen in at the ease of turning on our computers.2 But is this the “communion of the saints”? After all, worship consists of more than hearing a sermon. It also consists of singing and making melody in our hearts to the Lord (Ephesians 5:19). The author of Hebrews insists that our Lord himself declares our names as brothers to his heavenly Father and leads the singing of the assembly (Hebrews 2:12).
In this worship, we come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, assembled with angels and the saints of old, to God and our Mediator, Jesus (Hebrews 12:22–24). It is in this place that God speaks (Hebrews 12:24–28).3 It is no wonder that we are encouraged earlier not to forsake “the assembling of ourselves together” (Hebrews 10:25, emphasis added). What a wonder and glorious foretaste of heaven this body is supposed to be to us! Shouldn’t we then look forward to Sunday worship? Shouldn’t it be an absolute joy to commune together in the public adoration of our Triune God?
How many today rely on pictures or statutes of Jesus to help them realize his presence in their lives? As Reformed Christians, we would say this is a violation of the second commandment.4 But do we all understand that in the corporate worship of God’s people, we actually see a real manifestation of the body of Christ? In its local gathering, we have a powerful witness to the risen Lord (Colossians 1:18). For there we have men, women, and children who worship and glorify him as citizens of his kingdom (1:13).
Can we then really say that a digital representation of Christ’s body is more real than actually being with Christ’s body? For comparison, would anyone say that it is appropriate to witness your daughter’s wedding, a father’s funeral, or a grandchild’s graduation on a computer screen when we are only a few hours away? We know the answer to the second question. Let us answer the same to the first.
As Guido de Bres notes in this section of article 28, this is part of “maintaining the unity of the church.” We are bound by no less than the Lord Jesus himself to join and unite ourselves with her. Let us then continue to love and cherish the people in this society who also have joined and united themselves to him. 1. See Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 31.
2. Of course this does not negate the usefulness of this technology for those who are providentially hindered from being at the service. This would especially apply to those who are physically incapable of being present.
3. See also Nehemiah 8:1–6; Luke 4:16; Acts 13:14–41; and 1 Timothy 4:13 for the importance of hearing God’s voice in the public reading of his Word.
4. Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 35.
Rev. Daniel Kok is pastor of Grace Reformed Church (URCNA) in Leduc, AB.