Rev. Garrett Eriks, pastor of Unity Protestant Reformed Church of Byron Center, Michigan

Where should we go?

Suppose there is a young man in your church—let’s call him Seth—who is struggling to do his personal devotions and occasionally watches porn. Or suppose there is a young woman in your church—let’s call her Sally—who struggles with anxiety and some bouts of depression. Again, suppose there is a young mother in the church—let’s call her Anna—who recently gave birth to her third child and is overwhelmed with caring for and disciplining three children under the age of five. Or there is a young couple—let’s call them Jack and Jill—who have been married for a few years, but feel distant from each other because of unresolved conflicts. The examples could continue of members struggling with grief, disappointments, sudden changes, being hurt by others, and many other grievous and complicated circumstances. These saints need help. Where should Seth, Sally, Anna, Jack and Jill go for this help? Should they make an appointment with their doctor first? Should they search Google for remedies for their problems? Should they join a Facebook group or follow someone on Instagram who has the same struggles?

An answer we give in the church is that they must first cast their burdens upon the Lord in their suffering and struggles because He is their refuge and strength (Ps. 46) and Shepherd (Ps. 23). Christ is identified in Isaiah 9:6 as the “Wonderful Counselor.” The Lord ministers to the saints through the word and work of Jesus Christ. There is no replacement for a vibrant devotional life of hearing God in the Scriptures and crying out to God in prayer. But is this all? Is it only you and your Bible when dealing with the multitude of trials and temptations in life?

God’s Word calls us to go to the church because the Wonderful Counselor gives hope and comfort through the means of fellow believers. We go to the church because the members of the church are called to bear “one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). This passage is one of many “one-another” passages in the New Testament emphasizing the calling of saints to love one another, pray for one another, forgive one another, be at peace with one another, not speak evil of another, and so on. These passages are worthy of reading and study because they remind us what the church is called to be in this world of suffering and sin. We go to the church because the God of all comfort comforts “us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God” (II Cor. 1:4).

After the Holy Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, the saints in Jerusalem compassionately cared for each other. Acts 2:42 records the following about this growing church, “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” And then in Acts 2:44-46, “And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart….” What a beautiful culture of compassionate care and fellowship was lived through the work of the Spirit.

The church is called to care for the spiritual lives of its members because this is the work of Jesus Christ. Because Jesus Christ cares for His redeemed people in their wounded and broken lives, the church must do the same with compassion and love. Jesus Christ cares for the brokenhearted and hurting through the other members of the church.

Does your church?

Does the church where you are a member have such a culture of compassionate care? I am sure that to a certain degree it does. Often when we do not know how else to help someone in need, we bring food or try to relieve other physical needs. Placing a card in someone’s mailbox at church or sending a text with a Bible verse can be encouraging. When there is a church activity like a church camping or a bowling night, participation is good. Everyone gets along well. But a culture of compassionate care should be deeper and better. How can we actually share and bear each other’s burdens?

The reality is that often when there are struggles of faith and sin, we are reluctant to let others in. Why is that? Why is the church not the first place, or even second place, people turn for help with their troubles? There is a variety of reasons for this. For one, the church has not always cared well for the members of the church. Members or officebearers in the church may have responded impatiently to suffering and hurting members, adding to their hurt and pain. Instead of sympathizing with the suffering of a member, maybe they strongly addressed a sinful response to suffering. Instead of coming alongside and listening patiently, maybe someone quoted Romans 8:28 (all things work for good) and sent them on their way. It is possible that in the past the church was not a safe place for people to open up about their faith and sin struggles because of a spirit of pride. Where we have failed, we must repent. But also, we must grow in caring for one another.

Another reason members do not turn to the church for help is that the culture of the world influences the culture of the church. The rugged individualism promoted in this world can seep into the church so that we become more distant from each other. Recently, this individualism and separation grew, in my opinion, through the isolation that took place during the covid -19 pandemic. The church is still recovering from this.

Or consider technology. How has technology affected the culture of the church? Today relationships “develop” behind a screen. Face-to-face contact is out and impersonal screens are in. Can we really “___ one another” with our thumbs through cyberspace?

In addition to these cultural influences, we live in a culture constantly pushing to find answers for spiritual struggles in the world. All of this can affect the church, so that outside of worship on Sunday or an occasional gathering during the week we may have less meaningful fellowship devoted to discussing the messiness of life through the lens of Scripture and praying together. With all the busyness of life (we often say it as if it just happens and we cannot help it), family worship, family time, and church life are squeezed out. With all that we have going on in our lives who has time for caring for the hurting members of the church?

To whom do we go?

To whom should we go in the church in our times of distress and struggle? We might think that the first responders we call are the pastor or the elders. In times of great crisis and distress, certainly call the elders or pastor, as James instructs the church to do. James 4:14 says, “Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” There are times to call the elders and pastor. But not with everything.

The members of the church also have a calling to help and serve each other with biblical counsel and prayer. The first place to go for help is often found in our homes. A wife seeks the help of her husband or a husband seeks the help of his wife. Children go to mom and/or dad when they are struggling. This may not always be the first place to go because sometimes the spouse or the parents are part of the problem. But normally this is our first option.

Broadening out from there, we seek help from wiser, more experienced members of the church. When we go to these fellow saints, we expect that they will come alongside of us with the riches of God’s Word, with compassion, and pray with us and for us. This is the beauty of the communion of the saints in the church. The members of the church are ready to serve. In 1 Thessalonians 5:14 Paul calls all the members of the church to care for each other: “Now we exhort you brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men.” May this be our vision for the way we support and help each other as we struggle with suffering and against sin. We should want and seek a culture of care in which the members of the church are helping each other.

The title of this rubric is “Ministering to the Saints.” Ministering is the translation of a New Testament word that means serving. This rubric addresses the way saints in the church are to be served or cared for. Recently I searched articles written for this rubric in the new RFPA online search (rfpa.org) and discovered that most of the articles over the years focused on the calling of elders, deacons, and pastors to minister to the saints. The men Christ appoints to the special offices have a calling to serve the members of the church, especially in their times of overwhelming distress and need. But this service is not only the responsibility of your officebearers. It is also the calling of the entire church.

Years ago, Prof. R. Decker wrote the following in this same rubric (I quote because I certainly could not say it better myself):

The purpose of this rubric is to help the believer grow in the knowledge of Christ, especially as regards his calling to “minister to the saints.” In the light of Holy Scripture and our Reformed confessions we shall study the principles and the practice of ministering to the saints. This will involve an examination of the meaning and significance of the office of believer, and the special offices of minister, elder, and deacon. Included will be, the Lord willing, discussion of such subjects as the preaching of the Word, Christian discipline, family visitation, sick visiting, marital counseling, comforting the sorrowing, caring for the emotionally disturbed, and more.

The fundamental question we face is, who is called to minister to the saints? Who has the right or authority to minister to the saints? And, who has the ability to minister to the saints? The answer is, Jesus Christ! Jesus is the minister of the saints. Christ chooses to minister to the saints through men and by means of His Word and Spirit. Christ ministers to the saints through those men who are lawfully called by the church and, therefore, by Christ Himself to the offices of minister of the Word, elder, and deacon. Christ also ministers to the saints through the saints themselves who share His anointing and thus are, in Christ, prophets, priests, and kings.1

In the future articles, I want to focus on this last point made by Prof. Decker: how saints minister to fellow saints in the service of Christ. You can look for future articles on the covenant basis of this calling, establishing meaningful relationships, and what this ‘one anothering’ looks like. For now we have seen that among the saints there must be a culture of compassionate care.

1 Robert Decker, “Christ Jesus, Our Minister” Standard Bearer 72, no. 1 (October 1, 1995), 8, 9.