the communion of saints
Having addressed our affirmation of the church universal, we will now turn, in our study of the Apostles’ Creed, to the local church. As with the holy, catholic church, the communion of saints in its fullness is the collective sum of believers throughout time and space; however, we participate in that great assembly in this life via a local congregation. Our concentration, therefore, will be upon how local fellowships display and foretaste our eternal communion to come.
We will begin by explaining the communion of saints, then address why local gatherings are necessary for our walk with Christ before closing with what constitutes of a true church.
THE COMMUNION OF SAINTS
As we studied previously, theologians have long distinguished between two conceptions of the church: the universal church and the local church. The universal church is the full number of God’s people in Christ throughout the world and throughout time. Local churches, however, are the visible congregational gatherings which occur in a particular time and place. Throughout the New Testament, ekklesia most often refers to these local gatherings of saints (i.e. the church of Ephesus or the churches of Crete).
In Acts 2:42, we are given a glimpse of how the early church functioned after receiving the indwelling of the Holy Spirit: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Their devotion was upon the doctrine of the apostles, which are preserved for us within the New Testament canon. They gave themselves to praying to the God who rescued them. And they spent their time in fellowship and breaking bread, which likely refers to both the Lord’s Supper and ordinary meals together.
The word for fellowship is koinonia. We saw this word three times last year in Philippians. First, Paul expressed his thanksgiving to God for their partnership in the gospel (1:5). Second, he spoke of their participation in the Spirit (2:1). Third, he spoke of becoming like Jesus in His death by sharing in His sufferings (3:10). In 1 Corinthians 10:16, Paul says that through the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper we participate in the body and blood of Christ. In 2 Corinthians 13:14, Paul provides a Trinitarian benediction, praying that the love of the Father, the grace of Jesus, and the fellowship of the Spirit would be with them all.
This is just a sampling of koinonia’s usage throughout the New Testament. It is a fellowship, a participation, a partnership, a communion. The freshly Spirit-indwelt believers in Acts devoted themselves to this communion, in the same way that they devoted themselves to the Scriptures and to prayer. Their fellowship together, their gathering together, was a central component of the new church’s identity. In short, they practiced the saints’ communion.
Let us also take a moment to discuss the word saint. The term, like the church, is a familiar yet often misunderstood concept. At its core, saint means one who is holy. The Roman Catholic idea of sainthood is of an elite group of Christians who are exceptional in their piety. Even though we (and the New Testament) reject this notion, we can still slip into a Catholic framework whenever we describe someone as being saintly or being a saint. Such imprecise speaking may reveal that while we know that we should disagree with the Catholic understanding, we don’t really know why we disagree.
The biblical reality is that good works do not make a saint. We cannot become holy by our godliness. Our status as holy ones, as the saints of God, is given to us solely through faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. To be a saint is to be saved, to be restored to our communion, our fellowship, with God. Only Jesus could repair that divide through His atonement for our sins and the imputation of His righteousness to us. Our sainthood is an act of pure grace, which we receive by faith alone. Our good works contribute nothing to this effort. It is entirely the work of Christ. Of course, now that we have been justified as saints and adopted as sons and daughters, we are commanded to continually grow in holiness, which does require good works. Yet these good works in no way make us into saints. Our sainthood is rooted solely in the gospel.
As the Holy Spirit indwells us and applies the redemptive work of Christ to us, we will find the same devotions of the early church beginning to manifest themselves within us as well. The Spirit’s presence will inevitably cause us to desire prayer by enabling us to cry out to God as our Father (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6). He will be faithful to guide us into all truth, which is the Word of God (John 16:13, 17:17). He will also stir up within us a love for our fellow saints, our eternal brothers and sisters, which is, of course, why the communion of saints is listed here in Article 3 as a work of the Spirit. After all, why would we not want to grow in our love for one another? We will spend all eternity in community with one another, loving God together as one body. May we begin that heavenly work now!
WHY LOCAL CHURCHES?
And yet someone might ask: if we are all members of the church universal, why do we need local gatherings at all? Or perhaps, the even more pointed question is why do we “go to church” each Sunday? Why are we here?
An increasingly dominant idea is that we go to church in order to mature in the faith. We begin our Christian life with little understanding of Christianity’s fundamental doctrines and practices, so each Sunday we surround ourselves with fellow Christians for the purpose of learning the ropes. Like children, we need the support of our family until we are mature enough to live on our own. While the training in sound doctrine is certainly a key function of the local church, making it the primary reason can be quite hazardous. Alan Noble captures the danger of this mentality well:
And if the purpose of church is to learn about God the way we learn about any other subject, we shouldn’t be surprised when people stop showing up in church once they feel they’ve learned everything. I’ve heard this sentiment expressed many times, and have felt the same way myself. After a while, particularly if you remain in one church for several years, you feel like you’ve heard everything the pastor has to say. After that, going to church feels like attending the same Christianity 101 course semester after semester. Why bother? Well, we’re told, because we need to be reminded of these basis facts. And that’s true. One of the major themes of the Old Testament is that humans are forgetful, almost hopelessly so. But if I’ve heard all the main variations of sermons and I just need a reminder, it’s not necessary to drive all the way to church. Downloading the sermon later in the day and listening while I do the dishes should be sufficient. Besides, my tithe is automatically donated each month from my checking account, and we only celebrate Communion the first Sunday of the month. (I don’t want to put too fine a point on this, but for a parent with three small children, going to church is a huge challenge.) The weekly gathering together of saints is only justified if attending church is about much more than intellectual growth. (130-131)
But if growing in the basics of the faith is not the main reason for gathering together each week, what is? Is it the worship of God? We absolutely gather to worship God! And yet, the same logic as before can be applied again. If I feel more worshipful toward God in bed or in a boat on Sunday morning, why should I force myself to do anything else?
Or perhaps we gather in order to encourage one another. Amen! We are commanded to do so by the Scriptures, loving and stirring one another up to good works (Hebrews 10:24-25). But does this make Sundays where you leave discouraged still failures? Couldn’t we just find an online support group that encourages us more?
Indeed, I think we need to arrive at an even more basic reason for why we gather. Our continual gathering with God’s people is a visible sign of our belief that God is indeed building His church, assembling a people for His own possession out of the world.
Christianity is full of such physical signs. The most obvious are the two ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These two rites are symbolic acts of obedience and profession. Baptism does not wash away sin, but it is an outward display and proclamation of our faith that Jesus’ blood cleanses us of all sin and makes us into a new and resurrected people. Likewise, the Lord’s Supper does not provide us with a fresh supply of grace; instead, it is a regular reminder that our need of grace continues beyond our initial cry for salvation. Paul even goes so far as to declare that a lack of reverence toward the bread and cup makes us “guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27). The symbols are bound to the actual object. Both of these rituals, therefore, provide a physical declaration of faith in the inward workings of the gospel. Through baptism and the Lord’s Supper, we affirm that Jesus alone can save us from our sins and sustain us until the end of our journey.
In a similar way (although I am by no means making church attendance into an ordinance), our gathering together is an outward testimony of our belief in the great future gathering that is to come. Revelation portrays the glorified and united universal church as being New Jerusalem. One day, we will be that city, heavenly and radiant with the glory of God. Until that day, our local gatherings are an image of that heavenly Jerusalem. Each week, we gather into a miniature Jerusalem, an imperfect and sin-riddled taste of what is to come. Yet we should rejoice because of what we are affirming. Like David, we should declare, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’ Our feet have been standing within your gates, O Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:1-2)! We celebrate this little, flawed gathering because it testifies to the ultimate gathering for which we long.
H. B. Charles provides a great example of this belief in practice.
A Christian was going blind and deaf, yet he never missed corporate worship on the Lord’s Day. Someone finally asked why he regularly attended church, since he could hardly see or hear the service. He answered, “I just want people to know which side I’m on.” In a real sense, regular church attendance is a statement to the world. It is an act of obedience that builds up other believers (Heb. 10:24-25).
Each of our actions provides the world around us with a glimpse of who we are and what we believe. Someone who picks up a coffee every morning on their way to work is by their actions revealed to be a coffee drinker. Whether that person goes to McDonald’s or to a locally owned coffee shop sheds even more light on what kind of coffee drinker they are. Furthermore, our love for God’s Word can only be evidenced by our actual time in His Word. In the same way, our habitual gathering with the people of God is a subtle, but primary means by which we declare to the world which side we’re on.
The Bible is clear that God is forming a people for Himself, not a number of individuals. For all eternity, we will not be dwelling alone with God; rather, we will live forever in perfect and sinless community with Him and with each other. Our eternal state begins now. Within this messy and broken communion of saints, we glimpse with hope and longing for the communion of saints just over the horizon.
THE MARKS OF A TRUE CHURCH
Of course, in order to properly participate in this communion of saints, we must know what constitutes a true church from a false church.
Martin Luther’s excommunication from the Roman Church opened the flood gates. His founding of Lutheranism and rejection of papal authority paved the way for other Protestants to form their own church structures. From these early Lutherans, Reformed, Anabaptists, etc. came the plethora of denominations that we now have today. The magisterial reformers, such as Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, were particularly conscious about such seemingly inevitable fragmentations. They feared that Christians would be now more by their schisms than their unity, yet unity could also not be maintained at the expense of truth. Thus, identifying the marks of a true church became a critical discussion of the Reformation.
The topic is no less significant today. One quality of our digital age is that any disagreement that finds its way into the limelight becomes, for a moment, a matter of life and death, only to be virtually discarded within a short span of time. Therefore, we must be particularly vigilant not to identify what constitutes a true church by the latest trends and issues.
We should also note that a true church may not necessarily be a healthy church. Mark Dever wrote a book called Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, in which he identifies the following characteristics: expository preaching, biblical theology, conversion, gospel, evangelism, membership, leadership, discipleship, and discipline. While I full-heartedly agree with these marks, our present discussion is different. Many of the churches to which Jesus wrote in Revelation 2-3 were far from being healthy, yet Jesus still spoke to them as true churches. Granted, some of them were warned about being on a path to destruction, to becoming false churches. Good health keeps us living vibrantly, but poor health does not typically mean immediate death. By His grace, God gives many churches time to repent before He removes their lampstand from His presence.
What then should we identify as the marks of a true church? Two are consistently given with a third frequently appearing as well: 1) the preaching of the Word, 2) the administering of the ordinances (or sacraments), and 3) church discipline. I agree, though, with Turretin that submission to and preaching of the Scriptures is the principle mark: “it follows that the Scripture is not only a mark of the church but also the principle and primary of all marks since from it and by it the remaining marks are known” (92). Without a foundation upon the Word, baptism and Lord’s Supper are shells of their intended purpose. Likewise, administering church discipline without a reliance upon the Bible easily becomes a guarding of a man-designed religion.
A true church must submit to the authority of the Scriptures. The Word itself urges us to do so. Jesus called Himself the good shepherd and stated that His sheep would know and follow His voice (John 10:4). Peter later identifies Jesus as the chief Shepherd (or pastor) of the church (1 Peter 5:4). He is further called the head and husband of the church which is His body and bride. The reality, therefore, is that a true church submits and follows the leading of Christ. We are Christians because we follow Jesus as His disciples.
How then does Jesus lead us as His sheep, His disciples? We hear and obey His Word. Jesus leads and shepherds us through the Scriptures written by His apostles and prophets through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. By this written revelation, Jesus continues to govern and direct His people. Through the Word, we are taught, reproved, corrected, and trained by God (2 Timothy 3:16). Even the Apostles’ Creed, as we’ve said before, is only authoritative in so far as it aids us to better under the Scriptures. God’s people, His church, must listen and submit to His revealed Word.
Or as Augustine said, “Where is the church? What, therefore, are we to do? Are we to seek it in our words or in the words of its Head, our Lord Jesus Christ? I think we ought rather to seek it in the words of him who is the truth and best knows his own body.”
In many ways, our belief in the authority of the Scriptures is a baseline doctrine necessary for any hope of unity. Two Christians may have a large divide between some of their beliefs, yet if they both submit themselves to the authority of the Word, there is at least a common ground beneath their feet. Conversely, two Christians may hold to largely the same beliefs, but if they do not both yield to the authority of the Scriptures, they will inevitably drift away from one another.
No other source of authority will build and sustain a church. Just as we as Christians are sanctified in the Word, so the church must also be sanctified by the Word. We must, therefore, resolve to devote ourselves in our communion to the apostolic teaching, the Scriptures.
We believe in the communion of saints, the glorious day when all of God’s people will be united together to worship for all eternity, and we affirm this truth through our gathering together to worship and fellowship with the saints here.
Do you believe?