Someone, possibly Charles Spurgeon, once said that there is a sermon in every flower. That is, if we pay close enough attention to nature, we can often find illustrations of biblical truth. Some illustrations are stranger than others—like the Temnothorax ant and the parasites in its belly.
German entomologist Susanne Foitzik explains that the life of an ant is quite dull. An ant community is ruled by a single fertile queen whose legions of workers tend to her eggs and forage for food and other supplies. But Foitzik and her team of researchers discovered an astonishing anomaly in certain tapeworm-infected Temnothorax colonies.
Worker ants infected with worms experienced unusual benefits. For one thing, their life span increased drastically, enabling some worker ants to live up to twenty years, rivalling the longevity of the queen. The ants’ bodies showed no signs of aging. The researchers also discovered that infected ants were pampered by the rest of the colony.
They spent their days lounging in their nest, performing none of the tasks expected of workers. They were groomed, fed, and carried by their siblings, often receiving more attention than even the queen—unheard of in a typical ant society—and gave absolutely nothing in return.
At first, researchers struggled to understand the benefit to the tapeworm and the detriment to the ant colony. Prolonged study, however, answered their questions.
The particular species of tapeworm is incapable of reproducing until its insect host is consumed by a bird, a fate that alert ants carefully avoid. The parasite releases a flurry of chemicals and proteins into the ant’s body, which messes with its natural industriousness and its fear of predators. Researchers discovered that, when they cracked open an ant nest, non-infected ants grabbed eggs and scurried, while infected ants remained frozen in place, staring at the sky. Combined, the ant’s laziness and nonchalance around predators gave greater opportunity for birds to catch their prey and for tapeworms to reproduce.
Additionally, while the ants seemed at first to have stumbled on the proverbial fountain of youth, further study revealed the terrible cost for the colony. While infected ants received the benefits described above, uninfected ants were forced to work harder, showed signs of stress, and died sooner. The net result was the demise of the colony because not every ant pulled its weight. An ant biologist, not involved in the study, said that ants should not be thought of as individual insects but as interlaced members of a giant superorganism. When ants do not work for the good of the colony the entire colony suffers.
If there is a sermon in every flower, there is a lesson in every ant colony. The ant and the tapeworm illustrates the body principle of 1 Corinthians 12. As you read 1 Corinthians, it becomes apparent that there was something of a replication of Korah’s attitude in that church. Church members, who had been gifted by God to serve the church, were neglecting to use their gifts in service because they were clamouring for the more public gifts: prophecy and tongues. Those who longed to be noted for exercising the public gifts seem to have neglected using the gifts they had, which forced others to bear additional ministry weight in the church. Paul corrected this attitude by exhorting the Corinthians to recognise that every member of the body is uniquely gifted and must use his or her gifts in the context of the church for the good of the body.
A church in which members are consumers is a church in which other members are probably carrying additional weight, which always works to the detriment of the church. The challenge for each of us is simple: Am I pulling my weight in the church? Am I using the gifts that God has given to me to serve the church or am I just a consumer, offering nothing to the body and making myself vulnerable to predators?
What does it look like to be a meaningful, weight-pulling member? Here are some suggestions, lifted directly from our Basics of Church Membership material.
First, attend regularly. Meaningful church members prioritise the corporate gathering of the church (Hebrews 10:24–25; Acts 2:42).
Second, preserve truth. The New Testament assigns to every church member the responsibility to search the Scriptures and guard the truth of the gospel (2 Timothy 1:14; cf. Acts 17:11). Meaningful church members labour to know truth and so they can help guard the church from error.
Third, affirm members. Church members affirm and remove church members (1 Corinthians 5:1–13; 2 Corinthians 2:6–8; Matthew 18:18). Take the time to get to know member applicants so that you can meaningfully affirm them when the time comes.
Fourth, pray consistently. Meaningful church members unite with other members in prayer, seeking divine blessing on the work of the church and the gospel’s impact in the congregation, the community, and beyond (1 Thessalonians 5:17; Romans 12:12; Colossians 4:2).
Fifth, live communally. Meaningful church members forge intentional relationships with others in the church so that they may encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11), pray for one another (James 5:16), build one another up (Hebrews 3:13), and hold one another accountable as followers of Christ (Galatians 6:1–2). Romans 12:10–13 is a helpful summary of the responsibility of church members in this regard.
Sixth, submit humbly. Meaningful church members submit to the church’s leadership and teaching (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:12–13). This is not blind allegiance, but a commitment to support, pray for, and adhere to legitimate spiritual authority.
Seventh, preserve unity. Unity is essential to effective Christian witness (John 13:35). Meaningful church members overlook offences when appropriate (1 Peter 4:8), bear with and forgive one another (Colossians 3:12–14), and pursue biblical and God-honouring peacemaking when conflict arises (Romans 12:18).
Eighth, give generously. Meaningful members contribute to the financial support of the church and its ministries (1 Corinthians 16:1–2; 2 Corinthians 9:7).
Ninth, serve faithfully. Meaningful members look for ways to serve and make use of their spiritual gifts for the benefit of others (Romans 12:1; Ephesians 4:11–13).
Tenth, pursue holiness. Christians are called to fight sin, putting off excuses, and to pursue Christ wholeheartedly (Romans 12:1–2).
Other avenues of meaningful membership could be mentioned but I hope the point is clear. Like infected Temnothorax ants, consumeristic church members rob the community of spiritual vitality and force others to pull more than their allotted weight, to the detriment of the body at large. Will you be rid of the proverbial tapeworms and labour fruitfully for the benefit of the body?