By David B. Garner; PLACE FOR TRUTH; May 16, 2016
Church is Not a Volunteer Organization
Several months ago, I wrote an article entitled “Jesus is Head of the Churches,” in which I sought to describe the practical implications of Christ’s headship in our churches. Over the course of this last year, worship in various places and conversations with pastors and congregants have compelled me to revisit vital aspects of the church and membership in it. Not withstanding relentless prompts flowing from the past year’s conversations, one could hardly speak too often about the importance of the church: that body for which Christ Jesus died and about which the all wise God set his affection from before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:3–6).
Prior to creation itself, almighty God purposed to secure a family of people for himself. Carrying out this heavenly predetermined plan bore a humanly inconceivable price tag. According to divine plan, the eternal Son of God was to take on human flesh (Rom. 8:3), to suffer the humiliation of human existence in a cursed world (Heb. 2:10-18), and to face the indignity of the cruel cross (Gal. 3:13). So he did. What God determined, he delivered. The cry from the Savior’s lips boldly announced the impenetrable mystery and the unfathomable cost to redeem you and me: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46; Ps. 22:1).
This blessed Son delivered us from darkness to light. He retrieved us who were dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1) and gave us his resurrected life. We were transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of the Beloved Son of God (Col. 1:13). In Christ’s holy sacrifice, we who were children of wrath became the children of the heavenly Father. Objects of divine displeasure became the prized and precious family of the Almighty. The sovereign God turned us who “were not his people” into “his people.”
Redeemed sons and daughters of God, we now enjoy our place in God’s family by the Son’s curse-crushing work. We are the people of God, loved, forgiven, and cleansed. We are those called, united by one faith in one God, washed by the blood of one Savior. We are body of the redeemed. We are Christ’s church. As the people of God, we have taken on a new identity, bear a new name, and enter a new set of relationships, privileges and obligations. Every facet of our existence is now defined by membership in God’s family, identity with Jesus and solidarity with his people.
Gospel grace and gospel truth can never be severed from Christ’s vital, visible, and kingship over his people, his church. The glorious Spirit-genetic connection enjoyed by the people of God—united to their Savior, in communion with him and others of his people—literally surpasses every other institution, including the human family. The work of Christ creates irrevocable bonds and an indissoluble identity for his newly created people. Stunning in every respect, the beauty and bounty of Christ’s church should captivate us.
But mere interest and intrigue fall well short of a gospel response. Christ’s work surely impresses us, but it accomplishes infinitely more. It creates—and therefore, demands—far more than a grateful heart and recalculated motivations. While it surely wows and woos, the work of Christ builds a new household with a heavenly set of family honors and duties.
Here then is the point. To situate church membership in our thinking as one welcome facet of our lives or a compelling option among a myriad of others, makes a mockery of the elective love of God, the redeeming work of Christ, and the gospel’s hegemonic scope. The gospel does not add the church to our priority list; it subjects every one of our endeavors to our new identity in God’s family. The gospel does not snuggle with our prior existence and religion-ize our thinking; it captures us in the glory of Christ forever. The gospel swallows us whole; it does not nibble around the edges.
All too often we think of the church—our attendance in its worship and our service to its people—as discretionary. Oh, it’s a good and even important option, but it remains still an option. We may speak glowingly of our church building, its ministries, its pastors, and even the gospel’s exclusivity, but our lives rubbish our profession. Honest assessment evidences that we treat Jesus and his church as valuable, but as non-essential. As a holy microscope illumines, King Jesus must adapt to our lifestyles, our work habits, our vacation commitments, our sporting interests, and our own preferences, likes, and idiosyncrasies. Jesus gets a place, but he occupies the closet we choose in our own kingdoms.
One dangerous manifestation of such church trivialization is volunteerism. Many of us volunteer at the local charity. We volunteer to serve our political parties and candidates. We volunteer at our children’s schools. We sign up to send brownies, to chaperone school trips, and even to host international students. We agree to do fill-out a poll at the mall, to wash the team jerseys, or to learn a few words of Mandarin for our visiting missionaries. Not to let the church down, we volunteer to serve the nursery, to be greeters at the door, to make meals for the sick, to do sports at VBS, and even to teach a Sunday school class.
But herein lies the problem. Membership in the Church comes by the call of almighty God, and he does not post an offer on Facebook to see if we are interested in helping out. Christ’s Church is no volunteer organization; Christ’s kingdom does not have an opt-in or opt-out clause.
To whatever degree that we see our service in Christ’s church as volunteerism, we fail to serve the church according to the gospel’s redefinition of our very existence and priorities. One does not view membership in Christ’s kingdom as membership at the local YMCA: “I’ll use my pass when I feel like going.” One does not volunteer to serve a king, let alone the King of kings. One redeemed in the cross does not treat Christ’s visible kingdom with visible—or even invisible!—disregard. To treat the church of God, secured by the crushing and resurrecting of his Son, passively, flippantly, or voluntarily is unconscionable.
Let us repudiate the notion that our participation in Lord’s Day services is our gift to God (or our pastor). Let us repent of thinking that membership in the church “has its privileges” for us to enjoy when we are good and ready. Let us renounce service in Christ’s church as volunteerism, labeling such an orientation the rebellion that it is.
Rather we must remember who we are and whose we are. We must live in the power of Christ’s resurrection as if he really lives, reigns, and dwells with us. We must honor the name of Christ Jesus in our view of his church—that our membership and service to his visible family are glorious and privileged obligations. Such a statement make strike harshly upon antinomian ears. But grace never entitles me to self-absorption or autonomy; it blessedly draws me into all that Christ is and has done. The purpose and power of Christ’s death and resurrection outrightly dismiss any trivialization of his church.
Should you volunteer at church? Never! Should you serve in every way possible, ministering and serving, loving and leading, shepherding and instructing, sacrificing and blessing? Absolutely! You must join your church, serve your church, and manifestly love your church. Anything less is unthinkable.
Dr. David Garner is professor of New Testament at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia and blogs regularly at PLACE FOR TRUTH.