By John Angell James
"The privileges of membership are, in a general sense, to bring Christians, as such, more closely together, to make them known to each other in that character, and to bind them by positive engagements to neighborly offices, godly communion, and brotherly kindness." But to descend to particulars, these privileges consist in,
I. The participation of the Lord's supper.
That a reception of the appointed memorials of the Savior's dying love, is indeed a privilege, requires no proof. As creatures, whose minds are instructed, and whose hearts are impressed through the medium of our senses, how affecting are the emblems of the body and blood of Christ! Enough of resemblance may be observed by the imagination, between the sign and the thing signified, to aid the exercise of the affections, while enough of simplicity remains to prevent the excursions of the imagination from interfering with the more sublime and scriptural operations of our faith.
That sacramental seasons are commonly the most happy and most profitable which a believer ever spends among the means of grace, is a fact not to be denied. It is no wonder that it should be so. It is at the sacred supper that the attention is more powerfully arrested and fixed, and the heart impressed and affected. It is there, that the scheme of redeeming mercy seems peculiarly to expand upon the understanding, and to excite the emotions of the bosom in a degree almost unknown elsewhere. It is there that the glory of the divine character has been most clearly discovered by our mind; there, that Jesus has unfolded to us the wonders of his mediation and there, that the eternal Spirit has descended into our souls, in the most munificent communications of his sanctifying and consoling influence. How have our icy hearts there melted beneath the ardor of celestial love, and flowed down in streams of godly sorrow! How have our groveling, earthly minds soared, on the wings of faith and hope, until we have lost sight of earthly scenes and sounds, amid the glory of such as are divine. It is there, that we have felt ourselves crucified with Christ, and have risen with him into newness of life. It is there, that brotherly love has glowed with its most perfect fervor, and the communion of saints has yielded its most precious delights. Happier hours than those which have been there spent, we never expect to know in this world. They have left a relish and a fragrance upon the mind; the remembrance of them is sweet, and the anticipation of their return is among the brightest hopes we have this side the veil.
II. Another privilege connected with membership is, the right of assisting in the choice of a pastor, in the election of deacons, and in the admission and exclusion of members.
It might indeed be said, that in many cases this right is enjoyed by those who are not church members--be it so--but as it is in every case enjoyed by those who are members, it may be very fairly placed in the number of their privileges. That it is also in a measure enjoyed by all people who, in a town where there are more places of worship than one, choose the minister whose preaching they will attend, is also granted--but still there is a great difference between choosing a minister to occupy a particular station, and merely going to hear him when chosen by others.
It must surely be accounted no inconsiderable privilege to have a voice in the election of an individual, on whose ministrations so much of our own spiritual welfare, and that of our families, depends; nor is it a light thing to be admitted to a participation of the other business connected with, and arising from, the history of a church.
III. A church member has the advantage of pastoral oversight and supplication.
"They watch for your souls," said the apostle to the ancient Christians, when speaking of their pastors; evidently implying that it was a great privilege to be the subjects of such inspection. A faithful friend, that will instruct, warn, comfort, or reprove, as circumstances may require, is a great treasure; and such a one a Christian will find--or ought to find--in his minister. In him he has a right to expect a steady, active, and vigilant guardian of his eternal interests; one who will follow the individuals of his charge, as far as can be, through all their spiritual career comforting them when in distress, rousing them when lukewarm, reproving them when their conduct needs rebuke, lending his ear to their every distress, and opening his heart to receive their every grief. A faithful pastor will consider himself as the guide and the shield of the souls committed to his care; a shepherd to provide for their wants, a watchman to observe the approach of their dangers. He will visit them in the afflictions which attend their pilgrimage; will hasten to their bedside when the sorrows of death encompass them; will disclose to the eye of faith the visions of immortality, which irradiate the dark valley itself; and will never cease his solicitude until the portals of heaven have closed upon their disembodied spirits.
In addition to this, the pastor bears the church in the arms of his affection, and presents them in his prayers before the throne of grace. Like the high priest of the Jews, he approaches the mercy seat, not with the names of the people merely engraved upon his breastplate--but written upon his heart. Nor does he confine himself to general supplications for the society in the aggregate; its individual members, in their separate capacity and peculiar circumstances, are often the subjects of his intercession before the fountain of life. As he takes a deep interest in their personal, no less than in their collective capacity, he expresses his concern by definite and special supplication. Not only are sermons composed--but prayers presented, which are adapted to the various cases of his flock. The afflicted, the backsliding, the tempted, the novice, are all in turn remembered in his holiest moments before God. Nor can any of these individuals say to which they are most indebted, to his labors in the pulpit, or to his supplications in the closet; for if "the effectual fervent prayer of the righteous man avails much," we certainly may believe that the entreaty of the righteous minister is not less availing.
IV. The watchfulness, sympathy and prayers of the church, are no inconsiderable privilege of membership.
In what way these duties should be performed, will be matter of consideration hereafter; and therefore we shall not enter minutely into the subject now, any farther than to show how great a mercy it is to enjoy an interest in the affection and the intercession of a Christian society. We are commanded to exhort one another daily; and amid such temptations, such weakness, such corruptions as ours--is it not an unspeakable mercy to be surrounded by those who will watch over and assist us? With every help, how hard a thing is it to be a consistent Christian! How difficult to maintain the purity and vigor of true godliness! How often do our steps slip, and our exertions relax! And sometimes, through the deceitfulness of the human heart, others may perceive our danger before we ourselves are aware of its existence. It may often be said of us, as it was of Israel of old, "Strangers have devoured his strength, yet he knows it not; grey hairs are here and there upon him, yet he knows it not."
In such cases, none can estimate the value of those Christian friends, who with faithful love will remind us of our danger, and affectionately admonish us. How inestimable the privilege of having those who will tenderly reprove us, and draw us back with the cords of a man and the bands of love. In the case of our soul's salvation, more than worlds are at stake; and he who will give himself the trouble to admonish us and exhort us to diligence, performs a service of infinite value, for which, if we improve by it, we shall offer him our gratitude in eternity.
And then think of the value of Christian sympathy. How consolatory it is in our troubles to recollect, that there are those who are thinking of our situation and pitying our distress! Even when they visit us not, they are probably talking to each other about us. We have their affectionate remembrance, their tenderest interest.
Nor are their prayers withheld when they meet in the temple, or when they retire to the closet. When they join with one accord in supplication, and when they pray to their Father in secret, they mention their suffering brother or sister, to Him who loves the church. Ah! how often has the troubled believer felt it lighten his load, and irradiate his gloom, as he groaned away the hour when the church was assembled, to believe that they were thinking of him, and blessing him with their prayers! It has been as if an angel were dispatched to inform him that supplication was being made for him, and that therefore he ought to dry up his tears. Yes, and the sweet remembrance has in some cases made the tears forget to fall, and the half uttered groan to die away with silent submission. He has laid down upon his restless couch again, and it seemed as if it had been smoothed afresh for him by some viewless agent; and so it has, for God has heard the prayers of the church on his behalf, and has made "all his bed in his sickness."
* It has been said that the last two particulars are not the privileges of members exclusively, nor of them as members of a particular church--but as Christians in general. It is unquestionable, however, that church members have a prior and a stronger claim upon their pastors and each other, for these expressions of sympathy, than any others have; and it has been admitted, even by those who object to the author's statement, "that churches were originally formed only to secure and promote the social objects of their union--that is, to bring Christians, as Christians, more closely together, to make them known to each other in that character, and to bind them by positive engagements to neighborly offices and brotherly kindness;" if this be correct, as it unquestionably is, then certainly church members, as such, have peculiar claims upon their pastors and each other for neighborly offices and brotherly kindness--and who will doubt if this be a privilege? One great end of membership, is to found a peculiar claim for these manifestations not merely of Christian--but of brotherly love. If there be no peculiarity of claim above what we have upon each other as Christians, why are we formed into separate churches? It appears to me, then, that in addition to the obligation which rests upon me to pray for and watch over my members as Christians, I am bound to take a special interest in their spiritual affairs as members of the church under my care. They stand in a relation totally different from that of people not in communion--and are entitled far beyond the latter to my sympathy, prayer, and vigilance.