The expression “the communion of saints” in the Apostles’ Creed follows the confession “I believe one holy catholic Christian church.” The words “communion of saints” are a further explanation of the church. These words teach us what the church is, as well as what she ought to be, namely the communion of saints. The saints are the children of God set apart by the Lord so that they may serve Him. These saints have communion, and that is what the church is all about. In this section we will look at how the congregation functions as the communion of saints.

The expression “the communion of saints” is taken in this chapter in a broad sense. At times you notice that it is used in a limited way, e.g. helping each other in situations of need. Certainly this is an important part of the communion of saints, but it includes much more, such as, encouraging each other, admonishing each other, worshipping together, studying God’s word together, etc.

1. Scripture

The LORD God made man to have communion with Him and with fellow human beings.

Genesis 2:18

Scripture also teaches that after man destroyed this communion by his fall into sin, the LORD God restored it again by His work of redemption. When the LORD redeemed Israel, He redeemed them as a nation. Israel walked through the wilderness as a people. Even the order in which they had to march and how they had to be camped showed this (See e.g. Numbers 10). The Lord is redeeming a nation.

Exodus 19:6

This has also consequences for receiving the new land. Together the people of Israel inherited the land.

Joshua 22:26-27; Judges 1:3

Within this nation each individual has a place. The Israelites are called to care for their brothers and sisters. The LORD gives laws to preserve the communion.

Exodus 21:2; Exodus 22:25-27; Deuteronomy 14:28-29; Deuteronomy 15:11; Psalm 16:3

Psalm 42:4; Psalm 55:14; Psalm 122:8

The communion showed in mutual discipline. The Israelites were called to protect the communion in making sure that the one who sins is punished, lest God’s wrath comes on the whole congregation. See e.g. Deuteronomy 13.

The Old Testament also speaks about the breakdown and rejection of this communion.

Genesis 4:9; Joshua 7:1; Psalm 10:2; Psalm 55:12-13; Micah 2:1-2

Psalm 133 sings of the beauty of the communion of saints.

Psalm 133:1-3

Christ came to restore the communion with God and with each other. Through faith in Him the communion can be enjoyed.

Matthew 5:7; Luke 8:21; John 13:13-14

The church after Pentecost put this in practice. Their communion was a fruit of obedience to the teaching of the apostles.

Acts 2:42; Acts 2:44-45

The apostles continue the teaching of the O.T. The church is compared to a house. Now a house is more than the total sum of stones used. It is a structure in which each stone has its own place. So the church is a communion in which the members support, help, encourage, protect and warn each other. In this way it becomes a house. The congregation is a holy nation and a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9). The members must care for each other. At the same time we must keep in mind that unity is not the same as uniformity. The congregation is a unity, but not a uniform group of people. The Holy Spirit gives to each member his own talents. The talents are to be used for the well-being of the whole congregation. The Bible uses the example of a body. It consists of many members, each with a different function. All these different members function together in the body. They need each other and support each other. We receive salvation within the communion of saints. (Hebrews 11:40: “that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”)  The Bible does not know of a dilemma between corporate and individual as if we had to chose the one or the other. They go together and complement each other. As a member of His body I have communion with Him and with the other members.

Romans 12:4-5; Romans 12:13; 1Corinthians 12:26-27; 2Corinthians 8:14-15

Philippians 2:4-7; 1Peter 5:5; James 1:27; James 2:13

Also in the New Testament we read of the duty to show care for each other in admonishing when necessary.  Because sin breaks down communion and drives people apart, mutual discipline is a gift from the Lord to protect the communion of saints. The rule which the Lord Jesus gave in Matthew 18 has as aim that we do not lose each other. The communion of saints is so precious that it needs to be protected against the destructive power of sin. The easiest thing to do is dessert leave the one who is sinning, and let him be in his sin. However, the Lord wants us to care for each other. The communion we have shows in admonishing one another in a brotherly manner. The expression “bear one another’s burdens” in Gal.6:1-2 shows this as well. (See also part 2 – 2 Church Discipline)

Galatians 6:1-2

Our future is the perfect communion on the new earth.

Revelations 7:9-10; Revelations 21 :3-4

2. Confessions, Church Order, Forms

2.1. Apostles’ Creed

The Apostles’ Creed connects the communion of saints to the church and mentions it in the section about God the Holy Spirit and our sanctification. This communion is a gift of God and comes about through the preaching of the gospel and by the powerful working of the Holy Spirit. The new life we may live as redeemed people we live in communion with God and our brothers and sisters. We receive this new life within the communion of the saints. We may even say that this communion is a tool to sanctify the life of the believers.

I believe one holy catholic Christian Church, the communion of saints

2.2. Belgic Confession

The Belgic Confession brings out that we are duty bound to be joined to the church, and this also means to serve the edification of the brothers and sisters. Participating in the communion is an obligation.

Article 28:

We believe, since this holy assembly and congregation is the assembly of the redeemed and there is no salvation outside of it, that no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, no matter what his state or quality may be.  But all and everyone are obliged to join it and unite with it, maintaining the unity of the Church.  They must submit themselves to its instruction and discipline, bend their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ, and serve the edification of the brothers and sisters, according to the talents which God has given them as members of the same body.

To observe this more effectively, it is the duty of all believers, according to the Word of God, to separate from those who do not belong to the Church and to join this assembly wherever God has established it.  They should do so even though the rulers and edicts of princes were against it, and death or physical punishment might follow.

All therefore who draw away from the Church or fail to join it act contrary to the ordinance of God.

2.3. Heidelberg Catechism

The Catechism brings out very beautifully that the relationship with the other members is founded in and motivated by the relationship with Christ. We should never separate the unity we have in Christ from the unity we have with each other.  It also brings out our calling in regard to discipline to protect the communion.

Q/A 55: What do you understand by the communion of the saints?

First, that believers, all and everyone, as members of Christ have communion with Him and share in all His treasures and gifts.

Second, that everyone is duty-bound to use his gifts readily and cheerfully for the benefit and well-being of the other members.

Q/A 82: Are those also to be admitted to the Lord’s supper who by their confession and life show that they are unbelieving and ungodly?

No, for then the covenant of God would be profaned and His wrath kindled against the whole congregation. Therefore, according to the command of Christ and His apostles, the Christian church is duty-bound to exclude such persons by the keys of the kingdom of heaven, until they amend their lives.

Q/A 85: How is the kingdom of heaven closed and opened by church discipline?

According to the command of Christ, people who call themselves Christians but show themselves to be unchristian in doctrine or life are first repeatedly admonished in a brotherly manner. If they do not give up their errors or wickedness, they are reported to the church, that is, to the elders. If they do not heed also their admonitions, they are forbidden the use of the sacraments, and they are excluded by the elders from the Christian congregation, and by God Himself from the kingdom of Christ. They are again received as members of Christ and of the church when they promise and show real amendment.

Q/A 111: What does God require of you in this (eighth) commandment?

I must promote my neighbour’s good wherever I can and may, deal with him as I would like others to deal with me, and work faithfully so that I may be able to give to those in need.

2.4. Church Order:

The communion of saints is connected to the work of the deacons and is protected by mutual discipline.

Article 23 Deacons:

The specific duties of the office of deacon are to see to the good progress of the service of charity in the congregation; to acquaint themselves with existing needs and difficulties and exhort the members of Christ’s body to show mercy … and promote with word and deed the unity and fellowship in the Holy Spirit which the congregation enjoys at the table of the Lord.”

Article 66 Church Discipline:

… which (=church discipline administered in a spiritual manner) can be done only when the rule given by our Lord in Matthew 18:15-17 is followed in obedience.

2.5. Forms

Form for Public Profession of faith

Fourth, do you firmly resolve to commit your whole life to the Lord’s service as a living member of His church?

Form for Lord’s Supper

By the same Spirit we are also united in true brotherly love as members of one body. For the apostle Paul says, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. As one bread is baked out of many grains and one wine is pressed out of many grapes, so we all incorporated in Christ by faith, are together one body. For the sake of Christ, who now so exceedingly loved us first, we shall now love one another, and shall show this to one another not just in words but also in deeds.”

Forms for Excommunication and Readmission

Form for Ordination of Elders and Deacons

The Ministry of Mercy

…the Lord impressed upon His people Israel the obligation to show mercy to the needy ….

They shall promote with word and deed the unity and fellowship in the Holy Spirit which the congregation enjoys at the table of the Lord. In this way God’s children will increase in love to one another and to all men.

Form for Marriage

The Duties of Marriage:

Work faithfully in your daily calling, that you may support your family and also help those in need.

3. Goal

For the sake of Christ, who so exceedingly loved us first, we shall now love one another, and shall show this to one another not just in words but also in deeds. The task of the overseers is to make the congregation aware of the treasures we have in Christ and to encourage them to use these readily and cheerfully for the wellbeing and benefit of the other members.

4. Communion of Saints and Lord’s Supper

The Apostles’ Creed uses the expression “the communion of saints” as a further explanation of the church. The church is and ought to be the communion of saints. It is both a gift and a calling. This is what we learn from the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The Lord Supper shows the unity we have with Christ, for we eat His true body and drink His true blood. The Lord’s Supper also shows that we have communion with each other, for we drink together. We eat from one bread and we share a cup. Rejoicing in God’s redemption is not something you do by yourself but together with others. The celebration of the Lord’s Supper is therefore a wonderful reminder of our bond with Christ and with each other. It also strengthens this bond.

5. Evaluation

  1. The discussion can deal with the Scriptural and confessional basis for this work, as well as the goal of it. Do we all agree on this? Are there points that have been overlooked?
  2. In evaluating the functioning of the communion of saints two things can be asked:
    1. Do the members of the congregation see the basis of this communion in Christ’s work of redemption?
    2. Do the members of the church use their gifts for the well-being of the other members?
    3. Of course, the question is also how we as office-bearers help the congregation in this?
  3. This can be worked out into the following questions:
    1. Are the members aware of the gift of the communion of saints?
    2. Is this gift explained in the preaching and teaching?
    3. Is the celebration of the Lord’s Supper seen as a means to strengthen and direct the communion?
    4. How do members help each other?
    5. Do all members participate in the communion?
    6. Are those in special circumstances remembered, helped and visited?
    7. Do new comers feel at home in our midst?
    8. Is there a tendency of peer pressure in the congregation?
    9. Do the lonely, elderly, or handicapped receive attention?
    10. Do the members see their calling to admonish if necessary?
    11. How does the rule of Matthew 18 function?
  4. We can also look at certain specific areas. Members can be overlooked or fall between the cracks. Do members make an effort to get to know the other members? There is always the danger that we make our own groups and forget about others. Are we aware of this? Do we warn against this? Do we teach this to our children? If a congregation consists family clans, then we should watch that the involvement in the immediate family hinders the involvement in the congregation.
  5. Most congregations have a committee in the congregation that arranges help for those in need. Often the sisters are involved in this work. But it need not be restricted to them. Such a committee would do well to have a good relationship with the Deacons. The purpose of these care committees is to organize help when needed. The committee members should not do all the work themselves, but ask and encourages other to help out. This help by a committee should never go at the expense of the individual initiative in the congregation.
  6. Are there points in this chapter that need our further attention? Why? How shall we do this?
  7. Are there any concerns that need to be addressed as a result of this evaluation?
    1. What are these concerns?
    2. Why are they a concern?
    3. What plan of action could be taken to address this?

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