Something to Think About: School Membership
I was given a light little book the other day entitled I am a Church Member by Thomas Rainer. I say it's light because it weighs a mere 160.8 grams (yes, I weighed it), and it takes only about an hour and a half to read through. After reading it, however, it weighs heavily on the mind. Because of this I cannot resist the temptation to write a little about Rainer's insights into church membership and apply them to what it means to be member of a school society.
Right off the top we should recognize that the church and the school are not on the same plane of existence. Scripture calls us to belong to the church so we can hear the proclamation of the Word, participate in the sacraments, and be a living member in the communion of saints. The same cannot be said about the school — at least not in such a direct way; however, I hope to reflect what Rainer relates about church membership onto the school system with which we have been blessed.
In his book, Rainer outlines how we are to be living members of the church. It is a brilliant explanation of what we already know deep down, but perhaps without considering what it really means. After all, when we profess our faith in the church, we confess with Lord's Day 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism that we are pledging to be, and forever to remain, living members of the church. Since we swear an oath to the Lord that we will be living members, we should know what a living member looks like. Unfortunately we are broken and sinful people; we often forget how to do the important and difficult things in our lives. While that may seem depressing, it is actually a beautiful reminder to admit that we are unable to do everything ourselves. We need the proverbial kick in the backside once in a while if we are to live our lives in a way that pleases the Lord. That includes learning how to be a living member of God's church, and Rainer's little book provided that kick for me.
In churches to serve Rainer points out that the church is not a country club; it is not an institution whose main purpose is to service the needs of members who pay their fees (we would call them "Regular Voluntary Contributions"). No, the church does not service the needs of the members; rather, the members — all of them — must service the needs of the church using the gifts with which the Lord has blessed them. Allow me to include one quote that sums up the book's purpose:
I am proposing that we who are church members need to look in the mirror. I am suggesting that congregations across America are weak because many of us church members have lost the biblical understanding of what it means to be a part of the body of Christ. We join our churches expecting others to serve us, to feed us, and to care for us. We don't like the hypocrites in the church, but we fail to see our own hypocrisies. God did not give us local churches to become country clubs where membership means we have privileges and perks. He placed us in churches to serve, to care for others, to pray for leaders, to learn, to teach, to give, and, in some cases, to die for the sake of the gospel (5).
These are powerful and poignant words. Rainer backs them up with scriptural references that leave no doubt as to the authenticity of his views about how to be a functioning member of the church.
As mentioned above, it is dangerous to equate the importance of school membership with the importance of church membership. There is no direct biblical imperative for parents to become members of any Christian school society, let alone a Reformed one. Yet there are two very good reasons why we, as functioning church members, should also be functioning school members — even if our children are not in the school. Both reasons find their basis in the oath we take when we profess our faith and baptize infants.
When we profess our faith, we bind ourselves to the Lord, his word, his church and its confessions. In the last part of the form for public profession of faith, we promise that we will subject ourselves willingly to the "admonition and discipline of the church, if it should happen, and may God graciously prevent it, that (we) become delinquent in doctrine or in conduct." On oath, we willingly submit to the admonition of the church when we do not act as we should. So the question is: how are we to act toward our schools? May I be so bold as to point to the Church Order? The Church Order is not Scripture, but since we become living members of our local church through our public profession of faith, we also willingly submit ourselves to the rules of the church as found in the Church Order.
Article 58 of our Church Order is fascinating. It reads: "The consistory shall ensure that the parents, to the best of their ability, have their children attend a school where the instruction given is in harmony with the Word of God as the church has summarized it in her confessions" (p. 638, Book of Praise). Unfortunately, I do not have the space here to lay out and prove a logical argument for why Article 58 does not only apply to parents but also to all members of the church. Suffice it to say that unless the whole church community gets involved, parents alone will not be able to (which speaks to their ability) have their children attend the school described. This counts not only for the financial aspect of running the school, but also for its volunteers, board and committees.
The more familiar baptismal vow
Perhaps you are not swayed by the Church Order. After all, who actually ever reads it? It is not given a position of prominence in our Book of Praise. I have even spoken with adult members of the church who professed ignorance of its existence. When you look up Article 58 to see if I quoted it correctly, you will note that the article above it, logically titled Article 57, speaks about baptism. This is no coincidence. The article on Christian schools stems from the vow taken by parents, which is witnessed by the congregation, when a child is baptized.
I am sure that church members are more familiar with that vow than with Article 58. It reads: "Third, do you promise as father and mother to instruct your child in this doctrine, as soon as he (she) is able to understand, and to have him (her) instructed therein to the utmost of your power?" The baptismal vow leaves a more powerful impression than Article 58. (Which makes sense since Article 58 gets its teeth only from this vow.) We promise God that we will have our children instructed in the doctrine of the church. We have to do this not just a little bit, but to the "utmost of our power" or, as we read it in the Church Order, "to the best of our ability."
Using the same logic as above, the communion of saints, having witnessed the baptism and the vows of their brothers and sisters, is duty-bound to help. Church members need to help not just to make general Christian education attainable, but more specifically to make Reformed Christian education within the power of all parents. To put it another way, the people whom Thomas Rainer would call "functioning church members" need to be involved financially and in leadership — so that Reformed Christian education continues to be attainable for all parents.
Thankfully all of this places a responsibility of care on the teaching and administrative staff of the school as well. They too are called to be living members of Christ's church; they too have an obligation to make sure that they are instructing children in a way that meets the standard of their parents' baptismal vows. What a challenge! What a joy! What a daunting responsibility! There is only one way they can make it happen. They need your prayers more than anything else. They also need to be and act as living members of God's church — who are also functioning members as Rainer describes.
Rekindle our love and passion
If you have made it this far in my diatribe, I commend you. Perhaps I am preaching to the choir. Also, I realize that people who feel they have finished with school do not need a principal to tell them how they ought to behave. Though I wonder, can a member of Christ's church every truly say they are finished with children's education? Be that as it may, if you are able, pick up the 160 gram book that weighs so much. I am a Church Member by Thomas Rainer will likely not teach you anything you did not already know. It may, however, rekindle your love and passion for your local church and its institutions, including the school.