The past two issues of Equip to Disciple have focused on the church and the important role it must continue to play in growing and expanding the kingdom of God. In this particular article, I want to focus your attention on the theme expressed in the title above; the church as a believing community learning to live in communion. As our Westminster Confession of Faith says in 26-1, “All saints that are united to Jesus Christ their head by his Spirit, and by faith, have fellowship with him in his graces, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory: and, being united to one another in love, they have communion in each other’s gifts and graces.”
A CONNECTED COMMUNITY
In the last issue of 2007, Dr.Charles Dunahoo stated in the editor’s section that the church is more and more being marginalized. In this connection he referred to J.I. Packer and John R.W. Stott’s descriptive term the “stunted ecclesiology” of the church. Some of the reasons for the church’s being pushed from the center of life are the lack of focus on community, the emphasis on individualism, and self-interest. Phil Ryken describes in his book The City on a Hill the problem of our culture as twofold: relativism and narcissism.1 The postmodern society rejects absolute truth; the only truth is what you discover for yourself; you have your story and I have mine. Self-love and instant gratification are driving forces in this day of radical individualism. These are the types of issues that fly in the face of the theology of the Communion of the Saints as stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 26. Ryken points out in another chapter, “Christianity has never been a private religion. It is personal of course, because it involves a personal relationship with Jesus Christ… But in coming to Christ…every single Christian gets connected to every other Christian. Our union with Christ brings us into communion with His church as members of a local congregation.”2
In a book entitled A Peculiar People, Rodney Clapp writes, “It is important for the church in each time and place to embody and communicate the life of Christ exactly where it is. Christianity is not about compartmentalization or withdrawal: it is radically and relentlessly life encompassing. Christianity understood as culture is about a living tradition, a continuing argument, a still unfolding history.”3
In a similar vein Dr. Edmund Clowney in his book The Church writes, “When Peter describes the impact of Christian righteous deeds in a pagan world, he is thinking not of isolated saints, but of the people of God, called out of darkness into God’s light. Christian witness that is limited to private religious experience cannot challenge secularism. Christians in community must again show the world, not merely family values, but the bond of the love of Christ.”4 In other words it is not about “me and Jesus” or “you and Jesus,” but it is about us as a community of believers united to Jesus and to one another. The church is in need of continually being reminded of the connectedness it has both to Jesus Christ and to each other. Some in the church have failed to understand the meaning of community, and consequently have failed to experience the benefits of their salvation. There are others in this post-modern world looking for a place to connect and belong that will give meaning to their lives. The church today needs to demonstrate to the world what our Confession says.
In the article “Keeping the Church Front and Center” Dunahoo wrote, “The PCA has a great opportunity to make a difference for Christ and His kingdom but only if we practice our theory… We must come together with a working connectionalism that enables us to be all that God would have us to be.”5 This is where the Westminster Confession of Faith in Chapter 26,”Of the Communion of Saints,” teaches the church the practicality of a “working connectionalism.” Paragraph one states that saints are “obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, as do conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man.” In verse 7 of I Cor. 12, Paul writes of the “varieties of gifts given by the Spirit and to each given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good, Paul then refers to the church as one body with many members. He says that “God has composed it [the church] that there be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.” In verse 27 Paul writes, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” How often do leaders ask themselves and the church how they are doing in the public and private caring for one another for the common good of the community of believers? How well connected are the saints in the local church? Who are those on the fringe, the seemingly friendless? What should the church be doing to correct conflict that may cause division and lack of care for its members?
LEARNING TO LIVE IN COMMUNION
In the Westminster Confession of Faith 26-2 “Saints by profession are bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification; as also in relieving each other in outward things, according to their several abilities and necessities. Which communion, as God offereth opportunity, is to be extended unto all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus.” In an age which demeans authority and devalues accountability, it behooves the church to instruct the congregation in the responsibility of being “obliged to the performance of duties,” and “bound to maintain a holy fellowship and communion” because of profession in Christ. The “profession” is the public profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and the commitment to live a life of holiness, as well as to support the work and ministry of the body and be subject to the authority and government of the church. In an age of post-modernism, individualism, and privatization of faith, such profession as described is quickly forgotten as members settle into their life in the church. Any obligations and binding as had been vowed seem to fall by the wayside as time moves forward. Maintaining a holy fellowship and communion in worship can often get squeezed as priorities change. Weekend schedules of work and entertainment become excuses for not participating in fellowship and communion. Sundays become a time of personal relaxation and pleasure.
Mutual edification is lost as believers only think about their personal feelings of self-gratification. The shift from spiritual services (what can I do for others) to a consumer mentality (what has the church done or not done for me) begins to seep into the hearts and minds of those who have not been assimilated and taught what it means to be a part of the Body of Christ and family of God. Where does a “working connectionalism” come into play? How does the church bring such a connectionalism back into focus?
In Ephesians 4:15 the church is instructed by these words, “Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” Reformed Presbyterians are known for their knowledge and systemizing of truth. We are after all a creedal church. However, we must question where the love is as we proclaim the “doctrines of grace.” This love should be manifested as a self-sacrificing love where one looks not upon his own interests, but upon the interests of others. Encouragement of others in spiritual growth is the goal for the building up of the body in love.
Such speaking is not always easy when believers do not see themselves as needing instruction, correction, or reproof. Sometimes it takes on the character of “tough love.” The apostle Paul instructs Timothy in his pastoral epistles in this manner in II Timothy 2:24-26.”And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.” Our obligations and commitments should have growing in maturity in Christ as their goal.
The local church has a wider arena in which to practice its communion. In the PCA, there is a structural foundation in place to help local churches to demonstrate in a visible manner what it means to live in communion by sharing with one another the gifts and graces given by the Holy Spirit. “Communion as God offereth opportunity, is to be extended unto all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus.”6 This structure is of course the presbytery and general assembly. Calling the PCA a connectional church means the Communion of the Saints should be manifest for all the world to see. Churches should not just be interested in building their own congregations, but should be interested in displaying a concern for the wider metro and state communities by planting new congregations, joining in united worship services, pooling resources to minister to the needs of the poor and needy, and evangelizing and discipling people with the gospel. With the multi-ethnic society in communities growing so rapidly, the gospel speaks to breaking down the walls of hostility and bringing into existence the manifestation of the Communion of Saints as a foretaste of the glories of heaven.
Finally, the ministries of the General Assembly can aid and assist local congregations to experience the worldwide Communion of the Saints as they send missionaries out to the nations of the world. Today it is even more a reality for both young and old to experience the Communion of Saints as many groups travel for short term ministries to believers in other countries. Phil Ryken edited a book called The Communion of Saints: Living in Fellowship with the People of God, one of the best and most comprehensive studies on the subject. Ryken says, “A Christian can go anywhere in the world and immediately experience the love and embrace of brothers and sisters whom he or she has never met. Stronger than the bonds of blood relationships are the ties that bind one Christian to another, even when they cannot speak the same language. “Further along there is this statement regarding Revelation 7:9-10, “This is the culmination, the end toward which God is moving all human history-the worldwide community of saints worshiping before his heavenly throne… The history of the church is the story of the progress of the communion of saints.”7
Today, the church and the PCA have not been able to experience fully what it means to be in the Communion of Saints. Our challenge is to continue to pray and strive to bring it to fullness through the gifts and graces of the Lord Jesus Christ. A “working connectionalism” is hopefully the goal of every congregation in the PCA, so that Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:15,”we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,” provides impetus toward corporate maturing in true communion.
1 Philip Rykin, City on a Hill: Reclaiming the Biblical Pattern for the Church in the 21st
Century (Wheaton, IL: Moody Publishers, 2003), 18.
2 Ibid., 77.
3 Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People: The Church As Culture in a Post-Christian Society
(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 188.
4 Edmund Clowney, The Church: Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL:
InterVarsity Press, 1995), 16.
5 Charles Dunahoo, “Keeping the Church Front and Center,” Equip to Disciple, issue 4
6 Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, (Lawrenceville, GA: Christian Education
and Publications, 2007), 26-2.
7 The Communion of Saints: Living in Fellowship with the People of God, Philip Ryken, ed.
(Phillipsburg: NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001), 154-155.