Category Archives: Church

The Communion of Saints

Often, this line is separated from the other lines connected with the Holy Spirit. I am quickly changing my thoughts about this. I do believe in the communion of saints. However, this line seems fitting as a description of the Church. The Church consists of the Saints. There is a communion, not simply a fellowship, but a relationship between all Saints of all places and all times.

It is truly impossible to mention or to conceive a conjunction, more beautiful, more close and intimate, or more endeared by mutual love, than that which subsists between God and his people, between Christ and the Church. Here beauty and comeliness appear in full perfection. In Christ indeed it shines with a transcendant lustre; and hence it is said in the Psalms, “Thou art fairer than the sons of men;” where the doubling of the radical letters in the Hebrew word rendered “fairer,” adds to the energy of the signification. But the beauty even of the Church is so great, that he whose province it is to judge, pronounces this eulogy upon her: “Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair, thou hast doves’ eyes.” Nay, “Thou art all fair, my love; there is no spot in thee.” Again, this union is so intimate, that hardly any similitude is sufficient to express its closeness.

Herman Witsius and Donald Fraser, Sacred Dissertations, on What Is Commonly Called the Apostles’ Creed, (London: Khull, Blackie & Co., 1823), 2:346. (emphasis mine)

Culturally speaking, I think we shy away too quickly from the word intimate. As with so much in our day, words have been co-opted by sex. Intimacy is one of those words. But intimacy is “in•ti•mate \ˈin-tə-mət\ adjective [alteration of obsolete intime, from Latin intimus] 1632. 1 a: INTRINSIC, ESSENTIAL,
b: belonging to or characterizing one’s deepest nature; 2: marked by very close association, contact, or familiarity 〈intimate knowledge of the law; 3 a: marked by a warm friendship developing through long association 〈intimate friends〉; b: suggesting informal warmth or privacy 〈intimate clubs〉; 4: of a very personal or private nature 〈intimate secrets〉. (Inc Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary., 2003.)

All of these aspects are present in the Church. We are individual members of one body, as Paul would put it. Yet, there is a clear connection between the Saints, true members of the Church.

Becoming a Christian is not really about institutional membership or about adopting a system of ideas. To become a Christian is to be included in the circle of Jesus’ followers. I am washed with the same bath that Jesus and all his followers have had. I get to share the same meal that Jesus shared with his followers. Four of Jesus’ followers left written records of what he said and what he was like, and I get to spend my life continually pondering those four accounts. I read them not because I am studying ideas about Jesus but because I am studying him. I want everything in my life, right down to the smallest and most disappointing details, to enter somehow into communion with the life of Jesus.
I share the holy bath and the holy meal, and I read the holy stories, because I am seeking Jesus. But when I do these things I am also seeking myself. I want to find myself among the circle of Jesus’ followers. I want to be wherever Jesus is—and he is in the company of his friends. I want my whole life to be “hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). I want my life’s small story to be tucked into the folds of Jesus’ story.
When this happens, my life acquires a meaning beyond itself. I begin to see myself as part of a great company, an ever-widening circle of people who have handed their lives over to the pattern of Jesus’ life. This great company of disciples seems to speak with one voice, to breathe with one Spirit, to cry “Abba, Father!” with one unceasing prayer (Rom 8:15–16).

Ben Myers, The Apostles’ Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism, eds. Todd Hains, Jeff Reimer, and Sarah Awa, Christian Essentials, (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018), 110–111.

If this is a description of the Church, I might ask why is there so much division, fighting, political maneuvering, and downright hostility in our churches? First, there is no true intimacy among the local church members. I have known many parents whose whole view of theology changes when one of their children strays from the faith. They think that love requires them to become different parents to keep their child’s love. “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” (Hebrews 12:6, ESV) Think about the prodigal son. His father knew he was making a terrible mistake, but he let his son go and be chastised by the world.

This situation, though, does not play out the same way when these parents discover some sin in the life of others in the church. “I saw Henrietta go into that bar down the street. Shame on her for drinking alcohol! We’ve got to do something about this, or we will be known as the church of the drunkards.” And so, the gossip mill begins to churn. How quickly the judgment is made. No one took the time to find out that Henrietta was not a drunk. She was meeting a friend for a drink and spent the evening sharing the gospel. Who do you think God would chastise now? In both scenarios, faith was lost, love was lost, and people were hurt. The sinful son led the parents to lose faith. The parent who lost faith because of love for a sinful son acted like those in the world when it came to jumping to conclusions, judging a fellow believer, and spreading false information that would lead others to judge poor Henrietta.

One short illustration paints a dark picture. Where is communion here?

Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’ A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.

John 13:33–34, ESV

Second, there has been a failure of the Elders of the church to discipline her members. There are traditionally three marks of the Church: preaching the Word of God; administering the Sacraments; and disciplining her members. When the first is not done, there can be no communion. “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” (Ephesians 4:11–13, ESV, emphasis mine). All three marks of the Church work together to “build up the body of Christ” by “attaining unity of the faith.” I could say quite a bit about the first two marks, but it is the third that has disappeared from most churches.

This disappearance of discipline may come from a lack of teaching the Word of God. It may come from failure to seriously administer the sacraments. But, I believe it also comes because so many people view the church like they view every other institution in society. We live in a “me first” world, which should not surprise us as that attitude was the root cause of original sin. Unless we become intentional enough to fight against this sin, teach against this sin, and discipline those who continue to live in this sin, the Church will not matter. When Church does not rule the lives of people, there is no communion and no church.

The parents who allow their son’s errors transform their theology away from Christ have nothing to stand on. Their son may fall deeper and deeper in his sin, even to the point of his own physical harm, have nothing to offer. Their love became corrupted by their fear to discipline. The parent’s concerns that to discipline might end with the loss of their son become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When the church fails to discipline her members out of the fear they might lose some ends up losing everyone.

Now, a word about discipline. Such a nasty concept. Such a wrong idea, too. Discipline is not corporeal punishment. Discipline is training. When we devote ourselves to follow Christ, we begin to live a life ruled by Christ and his Word.

     “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD! Blessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with their whole heart, who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways! You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently. Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes! Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments. I will praise you with an upright heart, when I learn your righteous rules. I will keep your statutes; do not utterly forsake me!” (Psalm 119:1–8, ESV)

     “In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.” (Psalm 119:14–16, ESV)

     “Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes; and I will keep it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it.” (Psalm 119:33–35, ESV)

     “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119:105, ESV)

These verses come from only one Psalm, but their sentiment can be found throughout the Psalms and all of Scripture. We are to meditate on the Word of God. Meditation is not the same as taught in Eastern cultures. There, people are taught to empty their minds to enter the ultimate realm. Sadly, such a state or place, or ideal does not exist. Christian meditation is the process of focus on the Word. It is to memorize the Word, not just its words but the content of them. Great athletes practice and work hard to discipline their bodies so they can perform well even under great pressure and stress. Musicians practice their music, no, more than music but also the very sound they make with their instruments so that every note comes out clean and pure. When in a group, they practice together so they can get to know each other and play various notes and rhythms together with one another so that the end result is an audience that hears the whole piece, not its parts.

All of this is discipline. Athletes who whine about the exercises they are given are not athletes for long. Musicians who do not dedicate their lives to their craft will not remain musicians for long. They will fall into the category of musician that has a hobby, not a calling. The same could be said of wood workers, programmers, teachers, business men and women, and so on. And, Christians who do not hide God’s Word in their hearts, who do not study the Word, who do not count the errors of others in church, who fail to hear the Spirit’s message in the sermon instead of becoming bored with it, or offended by it are among those who use Christianity as a hobby, not a life.

I believe in the communion of saints. I believe because all of the saints will live in communion with each other, and with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit forever. What can I do to become a better Saint, to be knit more closely to Christ and all the Saints. That is my calling; that is our calling.

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The Holy Catholic Church

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:1–6, ESV

For years as a pastor, I encouraged the use of the Apostles’ Creed in worship. The Creed is one of the ways to unite the Church. Frequently, people would object to this one line. For clarity, the Roman Catholic Church is not the Holy Catholic Church. As you can see in the passage above, from the very beginning, there was a knowledge that there is only one Church, one Body, one Faith, etc. All of the New Testament writers observed many local assemblies. Nevertheless, these congregations were all a part of the Holy Catholic Church.

The word “catholic” means, “1 universal; relating to all men; all-inclusive. 2 comprehensive in interests, tastes, etc.” (Collins English Dictionary, 2000.) When applied to the church, catholic recognizes the whole Church consisting of all who are justified by faith throughout all of the world and all of time. The Roman Catholic Church was originally just the catholic church. However, the more powerful it grew and the more humanistic it became, eventually the term catholic was used opposite its meaning. Rather than being one church in the world, the Roman Church made itself that one church, and everyone else was not a part of it.

At its most basic level, it was a power grab from which came all manner of heresy. The Papacy was not immutable. There is no Biblical teaching that defends the office of Pope. The papacy was nothing more than an organizational structure used to unify the church. But inerrancy? Infallibility? Ultimate spokesman for King Jesus? None of these can be found in the Bible. No matter how hard Roman scholars want the Pope to be the official passing the keys of the kingdom from Peter, it is just not there.

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Matthew 16:18–19, ESV

The translation most commonly found in English Bibles ignores the syntax of the Greek, and thus misleads the reader. R.T. France wrote in his commentary:

The insistence by the Roman Catholic Church that they are the only true church has not united Christianity. No, it has divided the church, first with the split from the Orthodox church of Constantinople, then with the Protestant church of the Reformation. What puzzles me is that the Roman Church for well over a thousand years has not been able to see their hubris and their error.

What I want to point out with the Creed’s reference to the Holy Catholic Church is that it falls within the third section, which is foundationally, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” The first important acknowledgment must be that to believe in the Holy Spirit, one must recognize that the Church is not something mankind does. From beginning to end, the Church from top to bottom, is a work of God, particularly God the Holy Spirit. This is why Jesus is so adamant with the disciples that if he did not go away, the Spirit could not come. This is why Jesus ordered his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit. This is why the coming of the Spirit on Pentecost was such a monumental event.

We need not look to the Roman Catholic Church for hubris. We must look to ourselves. When we gather for worship, it is not because it is the right thing to do. It is not because going to church makes us feel good. It is certainly not about being entertained with snappy music and an emotional massage. We gather to worship because God calls us and the Spirit gathers us. Those who think it is their own decision to go to church or not are deceiving themselves. The gathering of the believers is essential to life as a Christian. Anytime I give into laziness on Sunday morning or choose my kid’s soccer games over church, I give in to the flesh and walk not according to the Spirit.

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

Romans 8:5–11, ESV

The second observation is that what we do when we gather as the church is to worship God. That is our purpose. Communal worship is far greater than individual worship. I am so convinced of this that I often question whether the individual can truly worship without connection in time and space with other believers. Yes, you can read the Bible alone. You can pray alone. But you cannot baptize alone or participate in the Eucharist alone. If we cannot utilize the sacraments of worship, then we cannot worship. The old Roman Church was right to suggest that there is no salvation outside the church. Where they got it wrong was that the Roman Church was only an expression of the Catholic Church. The Church of Jesus Christ is much larger than the Roman Catholic Church.

One problem with individual worship is that it denies the work of God the Spirit, baptizing us into one body and keeping us in the unity of the body. “I don’t need anyone else.” But God said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” The closest human relationship anyone can experience is marriage, husband, and wife. Paul teaches us that even this relationship is preparatory for the ultimate one between Christ and the Church. It is a mistake to think that my personal relationship with Jesus Christ is the foundation of salvation. My relation to Christ as a part of the Church is ultimate. So, it is true that Christ died for the sins of the world, but the world is the world of believers baptized by the Spirit into his body.

Closely akin to the second observation is the third. Worship is not something we do. Instead, worship is who we are. Every emphasis in Scripture on obedience is not about doing something to be saved. It is not about doing something to prove our salvation. Obedience is simply what those who are saved do because they can’t even think of doing something else. Yes, Scripture recognizes our progress toward the goal, but the believer makes this progress by obeying Christ. But we don’t make the progress. It is the Spirit within that progresses us, which is called the ministry of Sanctification.

The ultimate goal is the one we had at the beginning. We were created in God’s image to glorify him (worship) and to ensure the rest of creation is nurtured so God may be glorified by it. This is why I say that worship is who we are. If it is something we do, then it is up to us to decide how to worship God. However, we are incapable of making such choices, just like we did not choose Jesus. He chose us and he tells us how to worship. Furthermore, as we worship God’s way, we are transformed ever more into who we were called and saved to be: God glorifiers.

All of this (and more) is the work of the Holy Spirit who had been poured out upon us. All of this is why the Holy Catholic Church is a ministry of the Spirit of God and Christ.

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