by Ian Hamilton
Recently I attended the communion service in Magdalene College chapel in Cambridge. The service was rich in Trinitarian worship, in elevated God-centred prayers, in excellent hymns and a fine, if too brief, sermon. As I sat and shared in the worship, this thought came to me, ‘How diverse the church of Jesus Christ is.’ Here I was in a somewhat high Anglican college chapel, a head-to-toe Westminster Calvinist and a convinced Presbyterian. The seeming incongruity set me thinking and what follows is the substance of my thinking.
The Westminster Confession of Faith1 has a magnificent chapter entitled, ‘of the communion of the saints’:
All saints, that are united to Jesus Christ their Head, by His spirit, and by faith, have fellowship with Him in His grace, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory: and, being united to one another in love, they have communion in each others’ gifts and graces, and 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 . . . which communion, as God offers opportunity, is to be extended unto all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus. (WCF 26)
It is only too easy for Christians to exclude practically, and even principally, from the communion of the saints, people in churches and denominations who do not believe what they believe. There are, of course, foundational and non-negotiable gospel doctrines. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:1-3 of things that are ‘of first importance’. There is a core of truths that belong to the essence of the Christian faith. If people deny any of these core truths they exclude themselves from the communion of the saints. But if they believe these truths and trust the Saviour imbedded in these truths, they are ‘family’ and must be acknowledged and embraced as family. They may have defective views of divine sovereignty, not understand the priority of grace over faith, have uncertain views of Genesis 1, have fantastical views of the end times and promote the continuation of charismatic gifts; but if they hold to Christ the Head, they are family. If the Father has elected them, the Son has shed his blood for them and they are indwelled by the Holy Spirit, they are family.
Family life can be problematic and, sadly, can be dysfunctional. But family is family no matter how problematic and dysfunctional.
It is a huge and searching test of our gospel commitment that we recognize that the Lord has his people everywhere, often in what may appear to us the strangest of places. Recognising, accepting and embracing brothers and sisters in Christ, however different they are from us, was something Jesus strongly impressed on his disciples. Mark 9:38-41 is one of the most challenging episodes recorded in the Gospels. The disciples saw a man casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but they told him to stop, ‘because he was not following us’. Jesus immediately rebuked his narrow-hearted disciples, ‘Do not stop him’. The disciples could not see beyond themselves. If this man was not one of them he could hardly be one of Christ’s! How sad.
The moment we identify the Christian faith with our particular church or denomination or confession of faith, that moment we become a sect and not a true church of Jesus Christ. None of this means that we are never to try and correct our brothers and sisters and lead them into a richer, more biblical understanding of the faith. No. It does mean that our default is not, ‘They need putting right’, but, ‘These are my family, we are fighting under the same banner, we are heading for the same heavenly country, we are washed in the same blood.’
The communion of the saints is a precious and deeply biblical and God-honouring truth. In a justly famous letter to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, John Calvin wrote:
This other thing also is to be ranked among the chief evils of our time, viz., that the churches are so divided, that human fellowship is scarcely now in any repute among us, far less that Christian intercourse which all make a profession of, but few sincerely practice . . . Thus it is that the members of the Church being severed, the body lies bleeding. So much does this concern me, that, could I be of any service, I would not grudge to cross even ten seas, if need were, on account of it. (John Calvin, Tracts and Letters, ed. Jules Bonnet [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2009],2 5.347-348.)
Sometimes family disagreements become public and there may be a good reason why. Most of the time family disagreements remain within the family; not just because it is never good to wash your dirty linen in public. More importantly, God’s blood-bought children should always want to please their heavenly Father and the Saviour to whom they are united by the Holy Spirit. Like all fathers, our heavenly Father desires to see his children live in harmony. ‘By this’, said our Lord Jesus, ‘will all men know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.’
Ian Hamilton is Pastor of Cambridge Presbyterian Church, Cambridge, England. This article appeared on the BANNER OF TRUTH website, April, 2014.