(Principles of Fellowship—The Nature of Church Communion 1)
I speak as to wise men; judge ye what I say. The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion [κοινωνία] of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion [κοινωνία] of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread. (1 Cor. 10:15-17)
Question.—What is the relation of church communion to societies in general?
Answer.—We should understand that the church has everything essential to society, in common with societies of any kind. It is not enough to contradict this by asserting that the church, as Christ’s kingdom, is not of this world, John 18:36. Just because the principle of the church is from above, does not deny its real earthly existence and organization any more than Jesus’ claim of the same origin denied his earthly existence and life, John 8:23. The activating principle of the church, though divine, does not negate her organizing principles of natural social fellowship which she holds in common with all societies. For this reason, she can be represented under images borrowed from natural civil societies:—a city, Heb. 12:22; a house, 1 Tim. 3:15; a kingdom, Matt. 13:31; a family, Eph. 3:15. These terms make no sense if there are not common principles of organization held. Therefore, with the Westminster Confession (I.6), we hold, “that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed. (1 Cor. 11:13, 14; 1 Cor. 14:26, 40)” In such points as are common and essential to every society, the church shares principles of organization and conduct.
Question.—What is the peculiar characteristic of those who belong to this church fellowship?
Answer.—Those who belong to this fellowship (i.e., the visible church) are all those who profess faith in Christ, and obedience to him (i.e., these constitute true religion), together with their children, cf. WCF XXV.2.
We acknowledge that there may be many insincere or even hypocritical in their profession. For example, Judas as reckoned amongst the twelve, Mark 14:10; Simon, who had been a sorcerer, is baptized upon his profession of faith, Acts 8:13. There is reason to believe that this will be the case as long as the world stands, Matt. 13:24-30. Though enough of their hypocrisy exposes them to the resentment of omniscient jealousy, it is such that, at least for a time, remains hidden to the eye of man and cannot exclude them from membership in the visible church, 1 Sam. 16:7; Matt. 23:28. God has reserved to himself the prerogative of judging the heart, 1 Kings 8:39. Nonetheless, he has pointed out certain appearances, which may prove false and deceitful, to be the rule of human judgment, thereby precluding infallibility of this judgment as to the constitution of this fellowship, Matt. 7:16.
There are few and simple things which are sufficient to answer the ends and purposes of gospel fellowship: 1.) They must have some knowledge of the perfection of God, of the spirituality of his law, of the sovereignty of his grace, and of their need of Christ, with his universal suitableness and sufficiency, Rom. 10:3, 4; Eph. 2:8. 2.) They must profess their belief of the chief articles of the Christian faith, upon which the whole system of its privileges and duties is built, Acts 8:37; Rom. 10:9, 10. 3.) They must depart from all known iniquity, 1 Cor. 6:9-11; 2 Tim. 2:19; Tit. 1:15, 16. 4.) They must express their esteem and love of the truth, and, as evidence of this their resolution to yield a cheerful obedience to all divine institutions according to the Scriptures, 2 Cor. 8:5. Wherein these concur, we must presume there exists real Christianity and charity forbids us to entertain unworthy suspicions concerning such persons.
Question.—What kind of fellowship are Christians called by the Gospel to constitute and what should be their attitude in this endeavor?
Answer.—That Christians should constitute a holy fellowship with zeal and ardor of affection is cleared by the following considerations: 1.) The description of the church as a flock, Luke 12:32; as well as the other terms noted that hold forth the idea of a social communion. 2.) The uniting influence of the Gospel means the saints have joint interest and concern in such things as direct them to be united in heart and affection, and in fellowship and practice, Eph. 4:3-6. 3.) The fellowship is exemplified in such instances that have the force to direct and bind the conscience. From the beginning saints have been the companions of all them that feared God; as soon as any believed, in the apostolic age, we find they immediately joined themselves to the saints and continued steadfast, Acts 2:41, 42, 47. 4.) It is expressly commanded as a duty that a Christian conversation becomes the Gospel by a steadfastness characterized by a striving together in one mind, Phil. 1:27.
The manifold advantages of this holy fellowship greatly recommend it. Because: 1.) It gives courage to every Christian to profess and practice his religion, when others are engaged by mutual agreement in the same profession and practice, Ps. 12:1. 2.) It is more for the particular edification of Christians, that such societies be formed, here the word of Christ is preached, the ordinances administered, and the religion of Christ is held forth to the world in a social and honorable manner, 1 Cor. 11:18-22; John 13:35. 3.) It is a guard against backsliding and apostasy, defending against the temptations and the defilements of a sinful age, Isa. 35:3, 4; Job 4:3, 4; 1 Thess. 4:18. 4.) Christians thus united together, by mutual acquaintance and agreement, can give each other better assistance in everything that relates to religion, whether public or private, Eccl. 4:9-12.