The Communion of Saints
Over the last few months we have had a number of people join our church as members. What does it mean to join the church in this way? Do those who join understand what they are doing? Do they know what they are getting themselves into!? And what about members who have been a part of the church for a long time – do they still understand the responsibilities and obligations of membership?
I would hope so. But we are forgetful people and so a reminder will not go astray. That is the purpose of this article. As we proceed I want to define the subject, then give a brief description of the church and then spend most of the article looking at practical aspects of membership.
My focus is on those who are communicant members – that is, those able to take communion. We also call them confessing members – that is, those who have publicly confessed their faith in Jesus Christ. I am distinguishing these members from the baptised members of the church who are also members – but we expect more from those who have made a conscious decision to respond to God’s grace offered in their baptism as full, communicant, confessing members.
The Church as a community
The title for this article comes from the last third of the Apostle’s Creed where we confess; “I believe a holy catholic church, the communion of saints.” The Heidelberg Catechism gives a clear explanation of that statement in Question 55 when it asks; “What do you understand by ‘the communion of the saints?’” The answer comes back; “First, that believers one and all, as members of this community, share in Christ and in all his treasures and gifts. Second, that each member should consider it his duty to use his gifts readily and cheerfully for the service and enrichment of the other members.” These words accurately summarise some of what the Scriptures teach about being a member of the church.
They remind us that all believers, individually and corporately, share in all the treasures and gifts of the Lord Jesus Christ. Not only do we share in him but in all the benefits and gifts he has gained for us through his work on the cross. Everything we have and are and do comes to us in and through our union with Christ.
Our Lord Jesus also unites us with each other in a community of faith, in the body of Christ, and in a common union of love for God and each other. The Scriptures never picture the believer as an isolated individual but always as part of a larger body of people. Michael Green has written; “A Christianity which does not begin with the individual does not begin; but a Christianity which ends with the individual ends.” A believer is part of the covenant community of the Lord – part of the people of God. The prophets of the old covenant spoke to believers who belonged to the people of Israel and writers in the new covenant addressed believers who were members of churches. Consistently, throughout the Scriptures, believers are described as belonging to a body of people.
This corporate aspect of our faith is pictured most clearly in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. “Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1 Cor 10:17). The symbolism of the Lord’s Supper is a visible reminder that we are members of a community, parts of a body.
It is not easy to communicate this in our present society. New Zealanders, along with many in our Western world, are strongly individualistic. They prize their independence and are unwilling to be too deeply involved with others or to be accountable to others. Yet everyone needs other people. “No man is an island, entire of itself”, wrote John Donne. He was right. God created us for community. We have a longing and a need to associate with other people. Our society gives evidence of this with a proliferation of small sub-groups and specific interest groups. Even the popularity of sporting clubs and teams illustrates the desire of many to get together with others.
True community, however, can only be found in the Church. One of our members testifies to this. He had been an active member of a rugby club for many years, yet before coming to faith he had never experienced the level of honesty, intimacy and support he found in the Church. In this way the Church ought to be a demonstration of “God’s New Society”. (This is the title John Stott chose for his commentary on the letter of Ephesians, a letter that has the church as its major theme.)
If we are to have churches that give genuine evidence of “the communion of the saints” we have some work to do. Someone has observed that the church needs more labourers, not layabouts. Belonging to the Church involves significant responsibilities. Let me elaborate on some of these.
Worship God together
To worship the Lord together is one of our primary duties. The corporate gathering together of God’s people is the most visible expression of the reality of the Church and is commanded by God. Again and again the Psalms call God’s people to worship him:
Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise. Give thanks to Him and praise His name. Psalm 100:4
Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker. Psalm 95:6
Our motive for coming together for the worship of God ought to be obedience to his command but also gratitude for such a great salvation. That was the desire of the writer of Psalm 116:
How can I repay the Lord for all His goodness to me? I will lift up the cup of Salvation and call on the name of the Lord. I will fulfil my vows to the Lord in the presence of all His people. Psalm116:12-14
If that was the response of an Old Testament believer, how much more should we as New Testament Christians want to praise God? If you have been rescued from sin and Satan through Christ you will want to thank the Lord! Furthermore, once won’t be enough! You will want to use both opportunities to worship, at the beginning and at the end of the day.
It is good to praise the Lord and to make music to your name O Most High. To proclaim your love in the morning and your faithfulness at night. Psalm 92:1-2
Be regular in worship in your own congregation. Sure, you can worship the Lord with his people wherever they are, but you are a member of a local church and you have an obligation and commitment to that group of people. There will be occasions when you will worship elsewhere for some reason but your regular commitment ought to be to the church of which you are a member. Don’t flit around from one church to another.
Are you regular and faithful in worship?
Participate in the fellowship of the Church
Believers in the early Church met together for fellowship (Acts 2:42). They were keen to be together. Their eagerness is a good example to us. I have already mentioned the opportunity for this is in worship and in conversation with others before and after the services. Another excellent means of seeking this fellowship is to participate in a small group in the church. This could take a variety of forms. It could be a catechism class for young people or for adults, or a Bible study group organised for women, or men, or youth or for a geographical district. Any of these groups provide a forum for studying the Bible, asking questions and learning from others. They are also a means of fellowship and of keeping your faith alive and hot. Just as an ember on its own will not glow so too a member on his own will not grow.
Meeting in a small group through the week also provides a chance to get to know others in the church more intimately than is possible in relatively brief conversations before and after worship. If you feel lonely in the church it may be a result of not being involved in a setting additional to Sunday worship. If you don’t participate in a smaller group it is difficult to build a genuine community.
Are you involved in a Bible study group?
Use your gifts
The Holy Spirit has given you gifts – at least one and probably more – to use in the Church. In Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 the Apostle Paul compares the Church to a body. Both the Church and a body function in a similar manner. Both are one unit made up of many parts. Each part is different. Each part is essential to the proper working of the whole. Each part must fulfil its task if the body is to function effectively. In the Church each one of us is to work for the edification of the other members so all of us may be built up in our faith.
Often members find it hard to determine their gifts. This may arise from a lack of skill in self-analysis or from a false humility. If you don’t know your gifts try asking yourself; “What am I good at? Where are my interests? What are my talents and abilities? Where can I be of use to others?” Ask others the same questions about yourself. Another way to discover your gifts is to look for needs in the Church and the community and to respond to them. Ask yourself; “How can I help others? What are the needs in the church that I can respond to? Where are there opportunities for me to do good for other believers?” You’ll soon have more than enough to do!
In using their gifts people tend to go to one of two extremes. One is expressed in this little rhyme:
Mary had a little lamb,
It was given to her to keep;
Then it joined the local church,
And died for lack of sleep.
Some are inclined to exhaust themselves in works of service and to do too much. This may be to the detriment of their health, their children, their marriage or all three. Most, however, tend to the other extreme. We are all self-centred by nature and we know how to look after ourselves very well. We would rather stay in front of the wood burner on a cold night rather than venture out to a church activity. We are more inclined to watch TV for an evening rather than visit or phone someone in need.
What are your gifts and are you using them “readily and cheerfully for the service and enrichment of the other members”?
Practise the fruit of the Spirit
When I was a student at the Reformed Theological College (quite a few years ago) I bought a book with the title, “Building With Bananas”. It is a book about the Church.
While the Bible describes us as “living stones” being built into a holy temple, the author observed that we are often more like bananas – all different shapes and sizes – and we find it hard to fit in with each other. For this reason we must “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3). Achieving this goal requires that we practice the fruit of the Spirit. “Be completely humble and gentle, bearing with one another in love” (Eph 4:2). Love is the central characteristic of the Spirit-filled believer. Peter writes; “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). In my pastoral work I have often quoted this verse to members of the Church when one or another has been offended by what someone has said or done. Love requires that we forgive others. That enables us to cover over many sins – even seventy times seven!
As a member of the Church are you praying for and practising the fruit of the Spirit to keep the unity of the Church?
Deal honestly and truthfully with each other
God commands us to love other Christians and to forgive them. Often that means we must “cover over” their sins. That must not be a smokescreen for pretending to forgive them while actually carrying a grudge against them. The latter is a common problem in the church. On occasions I have come across people who have nursed resentments against another member of the church for years and years, all the while allowing that resentment to fester into bitterness. This is sin. If you are offended by what another person has said or done, and if you cannot cover that with love, then you need to go and see that person (Matt. 5:23-24, 18:15). You need to do that prayerfully, having asked God to heal the relationship; carefully, so that what you say is helpful for that situation (Eph. 4:29); and honestly, speaking the truth yet doing so in love (Eph. 4:16, 25). If two members of the church have had a serious disagreement, ideally they should meet each on their way to see the other to restore their relationship.
Are you dealing honestly with sin in your own life and in your relationships with others?
Prayer is the life-blood of the Church. It reminds us of our absolute and utter dependence on the Lord. “Unless the Lord builds the house its builders labour in vain” (Psalm 127:1). We need to pray that the Lord will preserve the unity of the Church, equip us for service, fill us with His Spirit, cause us to be a salt and light in society, make us faithful witnesses and ambassadors of Jesus and use us to extend the kingdom of Christ in this world. There are many opportunities for prayer in our own personal prayers and those of our family. Yet the Church also provides opportunities in specific prayer meetings, or in prayer following a Bible study meeting and in the prayers of public worship.
Are you praying for the Church and as a church?
Seek the lost
A man was late to church. As he rushed in the people were coming out. He asked; “Oh, is it all over?” Someone answered; “No, it’s just begun. We’re going out now to practise what has been preached.” This little anecdote introduces a key responsibility of church members because one of the truths preached in the church from the Scriptures is the command to be witnesses (Acts 1:8). Jesus commanded his disciples and us to “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:18-20). One of the primary tasks of the Church is to build up her members to maturity in Christ. The other is to seek the lost and incorporate them into the Church.
Again this is a subject all on its own but you should ask yourself; “What am I doing to spread the good news about Jesus? As a member of Christ am I confessing his name at school, university or work? How am I fulfilling the great commission the Lord gave to his church? Am I making disciples of Christ?”
Seek the kingdom of God
“The kingdom of God” is the broadest description of the work of God in this world and in history. His kingdom includes all He is doing in the Church and through the covenant. This term describes God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule. True members of Christ’s Church leave worship and disperse into society to extend the kingdom of the Lord in the specific place he has put them. Their life in the church strengthens them for kingdom service. The teaching they receive equips them to be good citizens of heaven on earth. Their fellowship in their local congregation motivates them to go into the world and “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness.” (Matt. 6:33).
A Final Question
When you profess faith in Christ and become a member of the Church or, if you were baptised into the church, and take up the responsibilities of full membership, you make solemn promises about following Christ, about your life in the Church and about your commitment to His kingdom. Too often too much is left to too few. Sometimes the church is like a rugby match with 25,000 people in the stands in need of exercise and 30 people on the field in need of rest! Is your church like that? What are you doing in the church and in the kingdom of Christ?
If you are a communicant member of your congregation you will have given your assent to the following question (I quote from the second form for public profession of faith):
Do you promise to do all you can, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to strengthen your love and commitment to Christ by sharing faithfully in the life of the church, honouring and submitting to its authority; and do you join with the people of God in doing the work of the Lord everywhere?
How would you answer that today?