The church is one. She is one in Jesus Christ her Lord. This is one of her most beautiful attributes. The unity of the church is from eternity. She is one because she was chosen as one body in Christ Jesus from before the foundations of the world. She is one because she has her life and salvation out of the one Jesus Christ. She is one because she is called and gathered by the one Word and Spirit of Christ. She is one because she is gathered as one organism centrally from the line of the generations of believers according to the promise of God’s covenant. She is one because she is built upon the foundation of the doctrine of the Lord Jesus Christ. The church has one calling in the midst of the world: to confess, to proclaim, and to maintain that one true doctrine of Christ Jesus and by His grace to live according to that doctrine to His glory.
It is because the church is one that she is also a corporation. The church is not an aggregate of individuals who have little or nothing to do with one another. The church is one body the members of which are integrally related to one another and who are together responsible before God and to one another to fulfill the great calling of the church. God has made the church such a corporate unity and He always deals with her as such.
Corporate responsibility means that each member of the church has the responsibility to maintain and promote the essential unity of the church in Christ Jesus and to strive as member of the church in the one calling of the church: to proclaim the gospel, to defend the truth, and to walk worthy of the gospel of Christ Jesus. The calling that the church has to preach the gospel is one that belongs not only to ministers and missionaries and officebearers but one which belongs to all the members. Each member of the church must see to it that the church to which he belongs preaches the whole counsel of God, that she is faithful to the doctrine of scripture, and that in every regard the church fulfills her calling in faithfulness unto Christ Jesus and that she maintains and promotes true Christian living.
The apostle Paul speaks of this corporate unity of the church in two beautiful passages of scripture. In Ephesians 4:3-6 he exhorts the church thus: “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” Again in the same passage Paul emphasizes that all the special offices and gifts are given to the church unto the end: “Till we all come in the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God unto the perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Verse 13) In Philippians 1:27 Paul expresses the desire unto the church that he may hear of their affairs: “That ye stand fast in one mind and one Spirit striving together for the faith of the gospel.”
The truth of corporate responsibility in the church implies that each member must guard and watch over his church that nothing is allowed to enter that destroys the unity of the church or the one true doctrine which is the foundation of that church. The chief means that God has given to the church as a corporation to do this is the exercise of the keys of the kingdom. Through the proper use of the keys of the kingdom, the preaching of the Word and the exercise of Christian discipline, the church as a whole must be kept pure and holy and the life and confession of each member of the church must be guarded. The keys of the kingdom must be exercised against all those whose confession and life is contrary to the doctrine of Christ Jesus. This is the corporate responsibility of all the members of the church. It is the obligation of each member of the church to see to it that teachers of false doctrine, if they do not show repentance after the proper exercise of Christian discipline, are expelled from the church. The member of the church who does not fulfill his corporate responsibility toward the false doctrine that is maintained in the church of which he is member necessarily makes himself guilty of that false doctrine. When unconfessed public sin is openly tolerated in the church without discipline the whole church and each member becomes guilty of that sin. No member of the church may rest at ease in his church while there are those who openly promote false doctrine or practice in his church. If we remain silent under such circumstances we bring the judgment of God upon ourselves and upon the church to which we belong.
Positively, corporate responsibility means that each member of the church must strive to confess and to promote the truth of Christ Jesus in all of its fullness and purity and glory. We may indeed say that the church does this chiefly through her officebearers and through those in particular who have the high calling to be leaders in the church, such as ministers and professors in the seminary. However, this is also the calling of each member of the church. He must zealously study the truth of the Word of God and the heritage of the understanding of that Word of God as it was delivered to him of God in the church. He must seek to grow in that truth and seek to stand together with His fellow saints in the defense and proclamation of that truth in the world and to live according to that truth to the glory of God.
Corporate responsibility exists first of all of course on the level of our own local congregation. We believe in the autonomy of the local congregation. We believe that each local church is the complete manifestation of the body of Christ Jesus. When we make confession of faith we confess also the truth of our corporate responsibility in the church when we answer the questions: “Do you acknowledge the doctrine contained in the Old and the New Testaments and in the Articles of Christian faith and taught here in this Christian Church to be the true and complete doctrine of salvation? Have you resolved by the grace of God to adhere to this doctrine; to reject all heresies repugnant thereto and to lead a new, godly life?” The calling of each member of the church is exercised particularly in that he is a living member of the local church, that he faithfully attends the worship services and that he takes an active part in all of the rest of the life of the church. This is his responsibility as member of the church of Jesus Christ. He cannot exercise that responsibility by staying at home, much less by never becoming a member of a specific local church. One person is not and cannot be the church of Jesus Christ by himself. This is of course obvious. Yet there are many in our day who profess to be Christian who have little or no regard for membership in a local church of Jesus Christ.
Corporate responsibility extends also to the level of our denomination. A denomination is a federation of churches that agree in doctrine with one another. Denominations are formed because various local churches have a common faith and desire to manifest the broader unity of the church of Jesus Christ by banding together in a federation where they can be of assistance to one another in fulfilling their common calling. Although in the apostolic era there were as yet no denominations as such, there is in scripture indeed the mandate for churches to form into denominations to manifest thereby the broader unity of the church. The resultant denomination is then also a corporation. Each church is responsible for the other. Furthermore the fact that we are in such a denomination and profess to agree in doctrine means that we all as members of that denomination are corporately responsible to one another in the same way as we are in our local church.
The truth of corporate responsibility is widely neglected or denied in our day. There are in denominations and even local congregations widely divergent confessions and different teachings on matters of Christian living. These differences are not merely a matter of different perspectives on the same truths of scripture. They are differences even of opposites with regard to the fundamental doctrines of scripture. They are differences that involve obvious heresies and false doctrines. I hardly need mention examples. One need only consider the differences that exist in the same denominations on such fundamental questions as the doctrine of scripture, the doctrines of sovereign grace, the doctrine of predestination, to name only a few. There are differences on questions of Christian practice such as on marriage, on homosexuality, and on women in office in the church. There is public disagreement with the confessions and the historic faith of the church. In many of these churches there are professed conservatives who disagree with much that their own church teaches. Yet they for the most part remain silent. Through the years there is less and less militancy against error in these churches. Thousands seem to be able to justify themselves that they can remain in churches that are very clearly tolerating very serious denials of the doctrine of Christ Jesus and refuse to exercise discipline. These seek to justify themselves by saying that they themselves do not hold to such false doctrines or that the particular local church they belong to does not maintain such false doctrine.
There is, furthermore, current in many churches that call themselves Reformed a rank individualism. Along with apostasy from many other doctrines of scripture has gone apostasy from the doctrine of the nature of the church: Few today understand what the church is and what it means to be member of the church. The inroads of Arminianism and Fundamentalism are to a large extent responsible for this. Salvation is considered a wholly individualistic matter. There is really no such thing as a church especially not a church that comes to manifestation to the gathering of believers and in the God ordained offices. The church as an institution is regarded as having very little importance. Each individual is responsible therefore only for himself and for his own salvation.
That God always deals with His church as a corporation is very clear from the scriptures. The history of Israel testifies of this over and over. Think of all the times when Israel was punished in the wilderness. Though almost always there were only a certain number in Israel that sinned, yet God’s wrath came upon the whole congregation. Think of the sin of the golden calf, how Moses was called to separate out of the camp of Israel all those who were on the Lord’s side before judgment and executed. Think of the cursing mongrel in the camp of Israel, how all those who had had heard him blaspheme had to lay their hands on his head and then all the congregation had to stone him. Perhaps one of the most striking examples of corporate responsibility in the Old Testament is the sin of Achan and the consequence of this sin for all Israel. Through the history of Israel in the land of Canaan they were again and again punished as a whole nation for the sin of only part of the nation. In the Old Testament it was impossible for anyone to separate himself from apostate Israel. The godly remnant always had to suffer with the wicked.
In the New Testament we have many evidences of this same truth of corporate responsibility in the church. Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth is an example of this. In this letter he severely admonishes the church, the whole church, because she tolerated those who held false doctrine and one who was a fornicator in her midst. In chapter 11 of the first letter Paul shows the church how God’s anger was kindled against the whole church because some were desecrating the celebration of the Lord’s supper. The letters to the seven churches in the book of Revelation exhort the churches to exercise their corporate responsibility and discipline wicked sinful members lest the wrath of God fall upon the whole church. In the letter to the church of Laodicea we read of Christ standing at the door of the church and knocking to call out the faithful lest the wrath of God fall upon them with this apostate church.
This matter of corporate responsibility is indeed a very urgent matter. One cannot remain silent in a church that maintains false doctrines or that fails to discipline members who continue in public sin without becoming partaker of the guilt. The calling of the Christian is clear. He must protest against errors in the church and if these protests are not heard or they become impossible, he is under the solemn obligation to leave that church to join with another and if that is not possible to begin by the process of reformation another church. This is by no means an easy calling since it will sometimes mean he must leave the church he was long member of and that he must do something that will inevitably cause division even in his own family. This is nevertheless his calling if he is to escape the judgment of God. This he must do for the sake of the glory of God, for the maintaining of the true church of Christ and for the sake of his .own covenant generations.
There are also many positive implications to this matter of corporate responsibility. We all have a calling to confess, to maintain, and to develop the glorious truth of Christ Jesus which we as a church have received. There is a constant danger that we must guard against that we too deny the matter of corporate responsibility because we neglect our own calling in the church. How well are we acquainted with the Reformed heritage that is ours? How much time do we spend in growing and developing in the truth of the word of God? How much zeal do we have for the blessed Reformed truth that God has given us? How much do we know about what our denomination stands for? How much do we read in the periodicals and publications of our church? How much of .an interest do we take in what goes on at our synodical gatherings? We have by the grace of God not had any major doctrinal controversies in our midst for some years now. This in indeed a blessing. But there is a danger that because of this we become complacent and careless. How much of a place does the church have in our lives? How much do we love that church and feel our obligation toward her? How zealously do we speak of the faith that is ours as Protestant Reformed people to one another and to those outside of our churches?
May it be true of us what Paul as a servant of Christ Jesus desired of the church of Philippi, namely that we strive together with one mind and one spirit for the faith of the gospel.