Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

Loyalty to Your Own Congregation: How Important Is It?

Written by Rev. C. Pronk
Editor's Note: The following editorial first appeared in the September 1992 issue of our magazine. It is reprinted because the subject it deals with has lost nothing of its urgency and relevance, not only for our young people, many of whom are making confession of faith this month, but for many older church members as well.
Characteristic of modern thought is the notion of human autonomy. Unlike people in centuries past, modern man feels he is free to think what he wants and do as he pleases. He is no longer intimidated by authority structures such as the church, the family, government, social customs and cultural mores. He has been liberated from all such outward constraints; he is emancipated; he has come of age.

This sense of freedom or autonomy--a word which means literally being a law unto oneself--started with the Renaissance or the rebirth of ancient (pagan) thought and came to fuller expression during the so-called Enlightenment of the 18th century. During that "Age of Reason" man passed out of his childhood stage into maturity and became confident that he could find his own way through life without relying on the authority of the Church and on the revealed truths of Scripture. Reason alone would serve him as a reliable guide and compass!

The results of this new thinking can be seen everywhere. Man's autonomy has come to mean not just a rejection of revealed truth, but increasingly also a renunciation of all natural and civil laws including those promoting good taste and common decency.

My purpose, however, is not to demonstrate how this spirit of "freedom" is working itself out in society in general. Rather, I feel constrained to call attention to what I fear is a manifestation of essentially the same spirit in the churches, our own not excluded. I am referring to the independentistic way in which people often go their about church-life, the lack of respect shown for office bearers, the reluctance to accept even mild and loving admonition, the refusal to submit to any form of discipline and the ease whereby one can stay away from the worship services in one's own church in order to attend somewhere else.

To elaborate a little bit on this latter point, church-hopping and shopping is becoming a problem in some of our congregations. It seems that for some of us denominational and even congregational loyalty is an outdated concept. Time was when our people knew why they were Free Reformed. Our immigrant fathers certainly did. They had convictions. They realized that belonging to a church brought with it certain responsibilities and not only privileges. They understood that even if everything was not always to one's liking, you didn't just get up and leave. You worked things out. Just as in a marriage, you don't say good-bye to your spouse if something about him or her bothers you. You try, with God's help, to resolve your difficulties. The commitment to each other is total.

So it should be with our commitment to the church in which we were born and raised, as is the case with most of us. But increasingly, one sees this commitment being eroded. Without any qualms some can leave the church in which they made solemn profession of faith to go where the grass seems to be greener. But do such "church swappers" receive any real benefits from this? Do they grow spiritually? Hardly.

I'm reminded of what an aged visiting Dutch minister once told me years ago. He said, cows who always jump the fence for greener meadows seldom get fat. Sometimes people who are in the habit of such fence-jumping defend their action by saying it does not matter what church you go to, as long as the truth is preached there. That's only slightly better than saying, do you think that God will ask you on judgment day what church you belonged to in life? They are quite sure the answer can only be: of course not! What matters is not membership in this or that visible church, but whether you are a living member of the true church, by which they mean the "invisible" church" comprising the elect whose names are written in the book of life.

This sounds very pious, but let no one think that this is all that needs to be said here. It is true, of course, that people who are more concerned about the particular denomination or congregation to which they proudly belong than about their spiritual relationship to the King of the Church, are sadly mistaken; they are deceiving themselves. Membership in the truest church on earth is no substitute for true conversion and saving faith. But this does not mean that the question as to where our membership records are kept is unimportant. As Prof. G. Wisse* once wrote, "Next time someone asks you whether you think the Lord is going to ask you to which church you belonged, you should answer that person: Certainly the Lord will ask me this. Do you think that this is a matter of indifference to God? If we will have to give an account of every idle word spoken in this life, would we not be held accountable for such an important matter as church membership?"

Wisse considers it a sign of very shallow spiritual life when people think that God has the same low opinion of His church on earth as they do. "Then your confession of faith must have been a very superficial exercise... Everyone needs to know before God and his own conscience, why he belongs to this particular church rather than that one. He who downplays the importance of the church as institute need not talk to me about his spiritual life. True piety is as much a matter of salvation as walking in the way of God's ordinances ... and the way I view the church and conduct myself in it is no small part of the new obedience."

The writer to the Hebrews warns us not to forsake "the assembling of ourselves together" (Heb.10:25). Apparently, some were already doing this in those early days of Christianity. Some commentators (Grosheide, e.g.), explain that the apostle is not just warning against giving up church attendance altogether, but that he has in mind the practice of skipping one's own worship services and attending similar services held in other parts of the community. Where your membership is, there you "belong," there is the place where you ought to worship God in fellowship with brothers and sisters of the assembly or congregation. It is in that part of the Body of Christ where the Lord has assigned you a place, so that there He could feed you and guide you through men appointed by Him as overseers of His flock (Acts 20:28). There you are expected to "employ your gifts for the advantage and salvation of other members" (Heid. Cat. L.D. 21, A.55).

Our Catechism, in its explication of the meaning of the fourth commandment, says that on the sabbath, that is the day of rest, we should "diligently frequent the church of God, to hear His Word, to use the sacraments, publicly call upon the Lord, and contribute to the relief of the poor as becomes a Christian." (L.D.38, A.103). Again, the reference is to the local congregation to which one belongs and has made a solemn commitment, and the emphasis is on worshipping God in and with that congregation. To quote Wisse again: "We do not come to hear this or that popular minister known for his faithful preaching of the truth. Of course that is part of it, but the focus of our Catechism is on our diligent coming to the congregation [gemeente] of God, in order that there, in her midst, we may hear His Word."

Because the Holy Spirit dwells in the church, which is His special workshop, we have to be there if we hope to receive spiritual blessings. To absent yourself therefore from the worship services without a valid reason is a sin whose fruit is spiritual barrenness. Whether it is a minister who preaches or an elder who reads a sermon, it makes no difference. As long as the congregation, the body of Christ and institute of the Holy Spirit, is gathered together in Christ's name, the Lord's presence is there and His blessings are experienced.

According to Wisse, it is no less sinful to stay home from church because a certain minister scheduled to preach that Sunday is not to your liking. If this preacher is so bad that you cannot possibly "sit under him," then it is not you who should stay away but that minister. I mean this: then you are in duty bound to admonish that minister in a brotherly manner and should this yield no results, there is an ecclesiastical procedure in place for dealing with such matters. Merely to complain about a minister's alleged deficiencies behind his back and never to confront him in love is dishonest and unchristian.

Of course, it need not always be the minister who is seen as the problem; sometimes a consistory decision may create so much disharmony and dissatisfaction that staying home or leaving the church seems to be the only solution. While in some cases it may be legitimate to take such drastic action, I think that often such decisions are made in anger, frustration and in haste, without first having tried in a loving and patient way to seek reconciliation. What is so often lacking, both on the part of the leadership and the congregation, is the spirit of humility. If only Paul's admonition in Philippians 2:3 and 5 would be taken more seriously: "Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves... Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus..."

It should be clear by now that leaving one's church fellowship or absenting oneself from the worship services for petty and subjective reasons is a very serious matter. Unless one can demonstrate on objective grounds, that is, on the basis of Scripture and the Confessions, (Article 29 of the Belgic Confession which speaks of the marks of the true church), that the church one belongs to no longer is a true church, one cannot legitimately claim to have a divine warrant for separating from it (Art.28). I am afraid that in many cases such action, no matter how piously presented and defended, may well be the fruit of self-willed religion and a manifestation of the same autonomous spirit that so characterizes our modern, humanistic age.

"Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee... Because of the house of the Lord our God I will seek thy good." (Psalm 122:6,9).

* The book referred to is Schriftuurlijk Kerkelijk Besef and Moderne Religieuse Gemeeschapszin (Amsterdam: G. Van Soest, 1939)

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