The Communion of Saints

October 26, 2014 / No. 3747

Dear Radio Friends,
As believers we confess together, in the Apostles’ Creed, a holy, universal church. That is quite the confession. Not only do we express our great love for and commitment to God and to Jesus Christ, but we express our love for and commitment to the church as well. Not that we are placing the church on a par with God and our Savior. We believe in God and in Jesus Christ, whereas we only confess that there is a holy, universal church. Nevertheless, we still express our commitment toward that church. If we have no love for the church, then we are not true believers.
We have now considered what membership in the church means. It means that we are, by virtue of our election and salvation, made members of the church by God Himself through Christ. It means, secondly, that we are called upon to join ourselves to the church institute in this world that faithfully exhibits the marks of the true church. It means that we commit ourselves, devote ourselves, to that church where we are members. We rejoice in that church! And every day we express our thankfulness before God that He has made us living members of that church.
But there is more implied in our confession that we are living members of the church of Christ in this world! We have thus far considered the church only from the point of view of her organizational life. We have taken a close look at the offices and the functions of the church institute. We have looked at the truth that we must become members of the church institute. But there is something more to our being members of the church than merely being on the membership roles of the church. That is a very easy thing to do. Thousands of people have their names on church rosters. They even think that this very act is meritorious. But just being members of a church institute is nothing. There is a life that goes on within the church institute that is all important for our lives in this world.
And it is that life within the church institute that concerns us as well. This is why the believers also confesses with the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe the church is a communion of saints.” With this confession the church is seen from a little different point of view. She is seen also from the viewpoint of her organic life. The church is an organism. Do you remember the Reformed confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, that we referred to a couple of weeks ago? Well, that confession has another Q & A that applies in this regard. Q & A 55 reads, “What do you understand by the communion of saints? First, that all and every one who believes, being members of Christ, are, in common, partakers of Him and of all His riches and gifts; secondly, that every one must know it to be his duty, readily and cheerfully to employ his gifts, for the advantage and salvation of other members.” It is this that we intend to deal with in the next couple of broadcasts. We want to examine the truth of, and our calling toward, the church as an organism.
Church Organism
It is important that we understand what we mean when we speak of the church as an organism. An organism, first of all, has life. A rock is not an organism. A piece of gold is not an organism. These have no life. A plant, an animal, a man—these are organisms because they have life in them. This is why the church is often compared to a vine or olive tree or the body of a man. It is an organism that has life. Secondly, an organism is one structure made up of many different parts—all of these parts working harmoniously together to serve the function of the whole. A plant has many different parts. It has branches, leaves with stems and veins, and so on. But all these parts work together toward the life of the tree as a whole. The church is just such an organism. It has many different members serving different functions in it, but all working harmoniously toward the function of the whole. Thirdly, an organism grows. Just as a sapling becomes a tree, so also the church grows throughout the ages until the end of time. God adds daily to the church such as should be saved. The church is an organism. How this is true of the church, however, cannot be separated from the blessed truth of our salvation in Christ. It is true that the church is the body of the elect. But we noted, a number of weeks ago, that even our election is rooted in Christ. From eternity we have been chosen in Christ. The church has never been viewed apart from Christ. Christ was chosen as the Head of the church in the eternal counsel of God. Christ was also sent into this world as the head of the church.
That truth stands before us today as we consider the church as organism. The church, fellow believers, is alive! It always has been alive. It will live unto all eternity. And the life that is in the church is the very life of Jesus Christ Himself—a life that is in Him and a life that He has earned for His people who are in Him. To understand the communion of saints we must understand that all who believe are members of Christ. Faith is that work of God in us by which God in His grace grafts us into Jesus Christ. Christ is the vine. In Him is life. There can be found eternal life in none other. By faith we who are wild branches are grafted into our vine Jesus Christ. When this happens, the life that is in Christ flows forth into us and we become alive. All the riches and blessings of the life of Christ become ours at the cross.
This means that all believers, all of God’s elect, become living members of the church of Jesus Christ in this world. This is true not only in an abstract way. Out of that life in us we indeed join ourselves together with the church institute in this world, and within that church institute the life of Christ in us becomes manifest to others by means of our confession and walk. When we look at each other in the church, therefore, we see in each other the life of Jesus Christ. The church consists of different families and individuals all having their own set of struggles, all looking at life from a little different perspective, but all having in them the life of Christ.
The result of this life of Christ in us is the organic life that exists in the church as a whole. Notice what Paul writes in Ephesians 4:4-6: “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.” Do you see, there, the organic whole of the church? It is one living organism—one body, with one faith and one confession. It has one God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! We are one body, having the life of Jesus Christ flowing through us. Because He is Head of the church, His mind is in the church, His desires are in the church, His heart is the church’s heart! The church fulfills the will of its Head—the one who is the life of the church. But the body of Christ, the church is also made up of many individual members. Many of them. And each member of the church has his own personality, his own circumstances of life, his own place in this world. But together they make up the body of Christ—all the members working out of that one principle of the life of faith in them. And again, this is true of the church institute as well, where that church comes to manifestation. Each local congregation is a manifestation of that church organism. Each functions under Christ through its officebearers. And each reflects the life of Christ. Christ dwells in each local church as the Head, and He works in her midst by means of faithful officebearers. In our local churches we are members of Christ and members of one another!
Now, certainly we can apply that more broadly too. We are grateful that we can. Each local church joins itself together with other churches in denominational unity. After all, we are of like faith with others too. The church of Jesus Christ is not limited to one little or large church. We confess that there is a universal church of Christ. When local churches join together with a denomination of churches we confess that we are one body with them too! There is a certain organic unity that exists within a denomination as a whole. Then too, the church universal comes to manifestation in this whole world. There are mission fields, and sister churches, spread over the world, as well as other denominations with whom the church has contact, even handfuls of people scattered here and there.
Living Members
The chief calling of every member of the body of Christ is this: verse 3 of Ephesians 4, “Endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” That is the chief calling we have toward the church institute where we are members: we must endeavor—work diligently—to maintain the unity of the body. And that unity we must strive for is a unity of peace and harmony between ourselves and the church and between ourselves and our fellow saints. There is nothing more pleasing to our chief enemy, Satan, than to see the church divided and quarreling. He knows that he can divide and conquer the church institute that is characterized by strife and hatred. In fact, our chief foe strives to do that in the church in any and every way possible. Did you ever see a person with muscular dystrophy? His mind is perfectly normal. He can think and reason just as well as any of us. But that perfectly healthy mind is in a body that will not obey the commands of the head. The muscles will not carry out the impulses the mind sends to them. And the result is that such a person cannot walk. His arms, hands, and fingers will not always do what they are told do. So, little can be accomplished. Such people cannot even speak much beyond a few sounds and words. Not because their minds are not sound and whole, but because the members of the body do not function in harmony.
Do you get the point? The church is a body, and when the members of the body disobey the command of Christ to keep the unity in the bond of peace, then the church becomes dysfunctional. It is no longer a place where one can live in joy and pursue his Christian life in happiness together with his fellow saints.
Above all things, therefore, members of the church of Christ, you and I, must endeavor with all that is in us to keep the unity! No, I do not mean that we must compromise the truth in order to ensure unity. That we may never do. True unity and peace come from reliance upon and development in the truth of God’s Word! When members together walk in truth, there is blessed unity and peace. But sometimes when there comes a sharp disagreement in the church, the members are so apt to polarize. They go to opposite extremes and refuse even to listen to others. They become bitter and cruel in their dealing with fellow saints. They become suspicious and doubtful even of the salvation of others.
What does it mean that we must endeavor to keep the unity in the church? From a negative point of view it means that we may not cut ourselves off from the life and communion of the congregation. Endeavoring to keep the unity means that we actively live within the sphere of the church. We are living members of the body of Christ right here. We need each other therefore. And we need the church. Each of the members of the church has a responsibility toward the church as a whole. In our selfish age many ask, “Well, what can I get out of the church? What will the church give me? How can I benefit from the church institute?” And when the church institute does not make them feel good about themselves, or does not entertain them enough, they leave it and go somewhere else. “I was just not getting anything out of that church!” That is a very selfish attitude. The question is not: what will this church do for me? The question is: what can I do for the church? What is my responsibility toward my church? What can I give to the church? What can I contribute? How, as a member, am I endeavoring to keep the unity?
And that can come down to some pretty concrete issues. One such issue is that of financially supporting the church. So much as I love the church, so also will I give to supply her needs! When I view its needs, I do not withhold to satisfy my own needs first. I do not go out and flip a five dollar bill on a restaurant table for a waitress, when I have not contributed to the cause of the church. I am a living member of the church and I remember the command of my Lord,“Seek ye first the kingdom of God!” That is my priority in life. Why? Because I am forced to give to the church? No, not at all, but because I count it a distinct privilege to be a part of the life and organism of the church! And as freely as Christ has given me the life that I now possess, so freely I give to the cause of the church. I love the church! Ask yourself the question once? What do I contribute to the church? How much do I love the church? How much do I want my life to be a part of the church? I freely support the church where I am a member.
And that is just one example we can bring up about our organic life in the church. If I am indeed a living member of the church, there is also the whole matter of seeking to be a part of the communion of the church. I come to church, not because I have to, but because (and this is just one of the reasons) I love to be with God’s saints! I love to worship with them! I love to be with them. They are my family! They are my love. I attend Bible studies with them because I know it is an intimate part of the communion of saints. It is a part of the organic life of the church. I go to various functions of the church because there I can fellowship with God’s saints around the Word of God. I am not an island who exists by myself. I do not divorce myself from the church because I just do not like being with my fellow saints. I want to be with God’s people because we are fellow members of the church of Christ.
You see, there is this whole life that goes on within the church. And sometimes we neglect the communion of saints simply so that we can carry on a life outside of the communion. We do nothing for the church! We do nothing with the church. We simply go our merry way and find ourselves carrying on our lives outside of the church rather than within it. Then we begin to seek our friends outside the fellowship of the church. We begin to date outside the communion of the saints. We marry outside of the church and we hang around with other couples outside of the church. All we do is attend what we have to, and we do not believe we need the rest. Especially is this true when it comes to some of the social affairs of the church, which, of course, are not essential for communion, yet nevertheless flow out of our desire to be with the church and our fellow saints. It is possible to attend a church institute and fulfill all its requirements but fail when it comes to our organic life within the church. Have we failed? How much do you love the church?
Blessed Communion
True unity within the church results in a blessed communion. Suspicion and criticism do not characterize a good member of the church. A judgmental disposition toward everyone and everything that goes on in the church does not make for a good member of the church. A person who has next to nothing to do with the church and her members does not make a good member of the church. A healthy church has active living members, who give their all for the sake of the church itself. And when that unity is experienced, then the church is happy. Her members are happy! And that is exactly the way Christ meant it to be! Joy and peace in Him, and that among the saints. May God grant that to you and me as members of the church.
Then we can properly make the confession: I believe an holy, universal church, the communion of saints! I am a living—not a dead—member of the church of Christ. As the psalmist sings in Psalm 122:6-9, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee. Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces. For my brethren and companions’ sakes, I will now say, Peace be within thee. Because of the house of the Lord God I will seek thy good.” I pray that song will be on your lips too. May we not only sing it but also live out our confession. How beautiful is the church!