Much labour has been spent, and great pains have been taken, to destroy the distinction between ecclesiastical, and mere Christian communion. It is attempted too, to put the distinction to ridicule.
Those who maintain it, are represented, as if they held, that Christian communion and church communion are in opposition to each other—that Christian communion includes Christianity, while church fellowship excludes it entirely.
It is asked, “if the communion which, in public worship, saints hold with saints, as such, is not communion of saints—which Christians there hold with Christians, is not Christian communion—what is it? Do the Christians disappear when the church assembles? Do the saints become unsainted the moment they sit down at the Lord’s table?” [Plea, p. 227.]
Is this generous? Is it fair? Did ever any person who avowed the distinction, think of contrasting the two kinds of communion? Or is it necessary that there must be an opposition [Ibid., p. 233.]—a contradiction, in order that there may be a distinction? The powers or faculties of the human soul are distinguished from one another—must they therefore be opposite? A celebrated writer on the powers of the human mind, informs us “that the will always follows the last dictate of the understanding—that volition has always for its object that which appears most agreeable.” [Edwards on Free Will, Part I. Sec. 2.] It is apprehended this is far enough from opposition. A husband and wife are distinct persons; must they, therefore, necessarily be in a state of opposition? Church fellowship is distinguished from mere Christian communion, therefore Christians disappear, when the church assembles, i.e., when church fellowship commences! Church communion is distinct from what is termed, only Christian communion, therefore the saints must become unsainted the moment they sit down at the Lord’s table! We envy no man such extraordinary powers of reasoning.
It may be said, we have introduced qualifying words, such as mere Christian communion—only Christian communion, while the objection contemplates the distinction in an unqualified manner. To this we answer, if those who use the distinction, ever explained themselves, as intending to exclude Christianity, or Christian communion, from church communion, there might be ground to object. The manner in which the distinction has been uniformly used, is this, that Christianity itself, if, in the judgment of charity, we had ground to believe any man possessed it, was a sufficient warrant for us to hold private Christian fellowship with him, whether we agreed in our respective creeds, and ecclesiastical terms of communion, or not. So far as mere Christian exercises were concerned, we were agreed, and so far we might walk together. This has been called Christian communion, meaning that it was Christian communion only, and not ecclesiastical. It did not call up the public terms of church fellowship, in agreement with which, the members of a church hold public communion together, as an organized body.
That for this organical, ecclesiastical communion, something more than the mere fact of Christianity, is necessary. It also requires a specification of the faith once delivered to the saints, and an agreement therein, that they may all speak the same thing, and have no divisions among them. This necessarily requires a public test, or bond of ecclesiastical fellowship, and by this it is distinguished from mere Christian communion, which however it still includes, but adds thereto. And this is what is so triumphantly, perhaps I should say sneeringly, represented, as banishing Christianity.
After all, the distinction between ecclesiastical and mere Christian communion, appears necessary, while imperfection so far characterizes the visible church, that her members cannot see eye to eye, in doctrine, order, and worship. Before all real Christians will be ready, in a scriptural and orderly manner, to join together in ecclesiastical communion, the time must have arrived, when the Lord shall have turned to his people a pure language, and given them one heart and one way, and then shall they join sweet counsel together, and go to the house of God in company, serving the Lord with one consent.
Nor was the distinction unknown to the Apostle Paul, 2 Thess. 3:14, 15. And if any man, says the Apostle, obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother. “Even those that are under the censures of the church,” and so deprived of church fellowship, for the time, are still to be counted as brethren, and so entitled to Christian communion. The interpretation, that such an one, as the Apostle commands the Thessalonian Christians to withdraw from, to have no company with, was a man unfit for “personal intimacy—private and familiar intercourse” on account of his disorderly conduct, “living in idleness”—“disturbing his neighbours”—being a “lazy professor,” a person “of idle and impertinent habits,” but yet fit for the communion of the church, and still enjoying it, must be referred to the great liberality of catholic communion.