Dear Church Family,
Years ago, when I began these midweek church emails and “Reflections from the Pastor,” I gave some thought as to what to use as an address and as a signature. I decided upon “Dear Church Family” and “In Christ” as these seemed to be an appropriate reminder of the fact that we as believers in Christ and in the church are part of a spiritual family. We are a “Church Family” precisely because we are united to Christ (“in Christ”) and thus united to one another.
WCF 26.1 – Union with Christ and with one another
In describing “the communion of saints,” the confession begins by pointing out that all saints, by faith, are united to Jesus Christ, their Head (Ephesians 1:22-23; 5:23; Colossians 1:18). Thus, they have fellowship with Him in His graces, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory: “For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection” (Romans 5:4). For John Calvin, union with Christ was of the utmost importance (for the believer’s experience as well as for his understanding):
…I confess that we are deprived of this utterly incomparable good unless Christ is made ours. Therefore, that joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our hearts – in short, that mystical union – are accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body – in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him. (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.11.10)
As a result of our union with Christ, all saints are thereby united with one another in love (1 Corinthians 12:7; Philippians 2:1-4). On a side note, we know from Scripture that marriage is a temporal institution and not eternal (Matthew 22:30), but the bond that Christians share through union with Christ lasts forever (Ephesians 2:5-6). No doubt Jonathan Edwards was thinking of this difference between the bond of marriage and the spiritual union of believers, when he beautifully wrote to his wife, “give my kindest leave to my dear wife and tell her that the uncommon union which has so long existed between us has been of such a nature as I trust is spiritual and therefore will continue forever; and I hope she will be supported under so great a trial and submit cheerfully to the will of God.”
As a consequence of our being spiritually united to one another, all saints are obliged to help and serve one another in inward and outward ways. Inwardly (or spiritually), we are to encourage and admonish one another, help the weak, be patient with everyone, and gather together for worship as God’s people (1 Thessalonians 5:11-14; Hebrews 10:23-25). Outwardly, we are also to help one another with physical needs, loving one another in deed and truth (1 John 3:16-18; Galatians 6:10; Hebrews 13:16).
WCF 26.2 – The practice and extent of the communion of saints
Those who profess faith in the Lord Jesus Christ are bound to maintain holy fellowship and communion with God in worship (Hebrews 10:23-25). We are also bound to maintain holy fellowship and communion with one another in service, as was the practice of the early church in their sharing of goods and possessions with one another (Acts 2:42-47). Believers are not only bound to one another in their local congregations, but also to all the saints everywhere (1 John 3:17). Thus, in the early church, believers gave toward the relief of other believers from other parts of the world, even though they had never met them (2 Corinthians 8-9).
Reflecting on two passages from the Gospel of John (13:34-35; 17:20), Francis Schaeffer remarked, “Love – and the unity it attests to – is the mark Christ gave Christians to wear before the world. Only with this mark may the world know that Christians are indeed Christians and that Jesus was sent by the Father.” (Francis Schaeffer, The Mark of the Christian)
WCF 26.3 – What the communion of the saints is not
This chapter of the confession on the communion of the saints concludes with two points of clarification. The first clarification deals with our communion with Christ: union with Christ is not deifying (it does not make the believer a partaker of the substance of the Godhead or equal with Christ in any way (Isaiah 42:8; 1 Corinthians 8:6)). The second clarification deals with our communion with one another: union with one another does not necessitated communalism; that is, one does not lose his right to own property, goods, and possessions (Exodus 20:15; Ephesians 4:28; 2 Thessalonians 3:10).
This last point helps to balance out the teaching of Scripture concerning our obligations to one another as believers in Christ. As we have seen, the Scriptures teach that all saints are bound to one another in love and therefore obliged to help one another in both inward and outward needs. Yet, there ought to be a voluntary desire on the part of the believer to do so; there is to be no forceful coercion or the taking of one’s property in the name of the church (Acts 5:4; 2 Corinthians 8:11-14). As G.I. Williamson writes:
In history there have been many attempts by Christians to create societies in which all things are common, including the possession of goods and property. Scripture warrant for such is sought in the book of Acts, which says that ‘all who believed were together, and had all things in common’ (Acts 2:44). Concerning this, three comments may be made. First, there is no indication that this practice was commanded by God as normative for believers. Second, there is evidence that even at that time the right of private property was still recognized by the apostles (Acts 5:4). And finally, this attempt at communal property did not work out satisfactorily even in the Apostolic Church (Acts 6:1). (G.I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes, 257-258).
Thus, this fellowship and communion of the saints in the visible church is a “voluntary obligation.”
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch