The idea of the churchman has a long history. While the term seems a bit antiquated today, connecting “man” to a word signified a completely sold out demeanor towards the thing it was attached to. A “man of letters” was a person who was devoted to academia and learning (a man whose occupation literally dealt with reading letters in books). If you were “the King’s man” you were a completely loyal and trustworthy agent of the king; sold to his cause and the promotion of his interests. Likewise, a churchman is a person who is sold out to the church, their life is devoted to it and they are dedicated to its advancement and cause. Now usually the term is reserved for clergy, especially those that have given binding vows of lifelong service and ordination for the church. There is a sense, however, that every Christian should be a churchman.
Now not every Christian can, nor should, be ordained pastors, but every Christian can and should devote themselves to the church. We can bristle at this idea for two reasons, first, because we live in a very anti-authoritarian and anti-institutional age. The idea of being devoted to the church, or anything really, seems like we are forsaking the all-important for our age value of individuality and the false sense of complete autonomy. Secondly, because it may sound too much to us like some sort of blind servitude devoid of reason or personal contribution. We may get images in our minds of a medieval Catholic monk, slaving away under the fear of his eternal soul and thus given to a life of servile obligations.
Both of these have their problems, the first one in that it is built on the wrong premise that seeking our own absolute autonomy is the highest virtue. Absolute autonomy is something that is impossible for anyone to actually achieve as we all have come from and rely on others. Not only is it impossible to accomplish, but even if it were possible, absolute autonomy would be unhuman. We are made and created for society and community. The road towards seeking absolute autonomy is not the road to happiness, but to misery, callousness, loneliness and self-loathing. We are not our own, we are bought with a price. Therefore we must give ourselves over to the one who bought us, and his love and cause is for the church.
The second objection has the problem of not understanding the nature of the church itself. When most people think of the idea that a Christian should be devoted and dedicate their life to the service of the church what they hear is, “you should be the slave to pastors who run the church.” While pastors are indeed part of the church, a pastor is not a church. The church is the Bride of Christ, the Household of Faith, the People of God, whose head is Christ. As head of the church Christ has organized and formed the church by his kingly rule in the scriptures. Often we don’t like the idea of being dedicated to the church because we don’t like the idea of being dedicated to mere men. First, dedication to the church means foremost dedication to Christ, who loved the church and gave himself up for her. Secondly, dedication to sinful people, even such as a spouse, is not dishonorable, but shows the sacrificial and godly love of Christ. Dedication does not mean that one must blindly follow, but that one puts the interests of what you are dedicated to above your own.
This is why every Christian should be a churchman, because every professing Christian is to be part of a church and every true Christian already has been united universally with the church. Our devotion to the church is the devotion to the Bride of Christ. One cannot claim devotion to merely the abstract idea of church, for true devotion is seen tangibly in the flesh and bone service of a local church. We must use our gifts, talents, abilities, intellect, resources and all that we are in the service of the congregation of people that Christ has put us in. As 1 Corinthians 12 shows us, we are placed in the body by the Spirit and given gifts appointed by him for the good of the whole body. Dedication to the church means that you are not merely looking out for yourself and your own interests, rather you are looking for the good of the body. This means humility in recognizing that your goals and ambitions must be subservient to the needs of the body.
Just as Jesus said in Mark 9:35, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Christ came to serve, and if we are truly his disciples that means we must be servants as well. The church is Christ’s bride, a term of such unity and love that perhaps no greater association could be made. He loves the church and gave his all for the church, is it really that strange to think that he expects the same from us? Philippians 2:5-8 says, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” If our minds are renewed as the scriptures tell them to be (such as in Romans 12 where the context is again the body of Christ), it means that we will think of the church with the same devotion and sacrifice that Christ does. Therefore, we must change our thinking. When we make plans for our life, does the church even come into our thinking? When we consider our future, our jobs, our homes, our goals, our resources, our dreams; is the church part of it? One of the ways we can obey Christ’s call to take up our cross and die daily is by giving up our lives to the service of the church. Being a churchman means that your life is characterized by your dedication to the church.
Such dedication may take different forms. It may be in love and benevolence to the church. It may be giving in service or in stewardship to the body. It may be in combating heresy and humbly carrying out church discipline. Sometimes it may even mean opposing ungodly leadership. It may be in spreading its mission of the gospel to the ends of the earth. It may mean taking out the trash and cleaning a toilet. It may mean giving your passions and talents or just doing something because it is necessary for it to be done. While those are things dedication may mean, there are a few things that dedication must mean. A Churchman whose life is characterized by their dedication to the church, will pray for the church. They will plead for the church before the throne of grace. They will be diligent for their own growth and the growth of others. They will form their decisions and thoughts based on the needs and benefit of the body. They will attend its meetings and participate in its fellowship. They will seek ways that they can further its cause and mission, given to it by Christ, in whatever ways they can.
You see, if being a churchman categorizes us, it’s not primarily about subordination or organization; it’s about love for what Christ loves and giving your life for what Christ gave his life for. While it will not always be easy, there is no greater cause to devote one’s life to that which the scripture says is, “the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). There are times when such devotion may look like a soldier, or a scholar, or a leader; but more often than not it looks like a prayerful and humble servant. Service to the church, properly understood, is service to Christ. The Church was not man’s idea, it is God’s and that alone should be enough for us to dedicate ourselves to her service.
A Churchman ‘til the day I die!