We continue our 2017 series examining each of the articles of the Belgic Confession, one of Faith Church’s confessions of faith.
I did not grow up in a church or a tradition that regularly confessed The Apostles’ Creed, so I really learned it and became familiar with it through the Rich Mullins’ song (and the remake of it by Third Day), “Creed.” One phrase towards the end of the creed and the song that I have always had a tough time understanding exactly what it means and how to explain it is “the communion of saints.” As a younger Christian, I wondered if this referred to taking communion together or something else related to that. Following the Apostles’ Creed, the Belgic Confession follows the discussion of the meaning of “one holy, catholic church” in Article 27 with a discussion about the meaning of “the communion of saints” in Article 28, with this article also being at times labeled “The Obligation of Church Members,” a title that might give more insight into what is meant in this idea of the communion of the saints.
Let me include the text of the article as a whole and then make some comments on it: “We believe that since this holy assembly and congregation is the gathering of those who are saved and there is no salvation apart from it, people ought not to withdraw from it, content to be by themselves, regardless of their status or condition. But all people are obliged to join and unite with it, keeping the unity of the church by submitting to its instruction and discipline, by bending their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ, and by serving to build up one another according to the gifts God has given them as members of each other in the same body. And to preserve this unity more effectively, it is the duty of all believers, according to God’s Word, to separate themselves from those who do not belong to the church, in order to join this assembly wherever God has established it, even if civil authorities and royal decrees forbid and death and physical punishment result. And so, all who withdraw from the church or do not join it act contrary to God’s ordinance.”
The overall idea of this article is that we need to be part of a local church; it is not an optional thing but the obligation of one who is a Christ follower — and it is not just that one should go to a church but identify with that church and serve to build up its other members and be guided by the leaders of the church (which best happens through some sort of formal membership when we make vows and then are held accountable). For many readers, I am guessing that this statement doesn’t seem overly shocking; of course a Christian is going to be part of a church. However, this sentiment is not shared by all; there are many people who claim to be Christians but actually don’t like the church (they might say that they love Jesus but not the church). We live in a day and age when you can get all sorts of teaching and even worship experiences along with videos and podcasts, so why would you even need to go to church; you can follow Jesus on your own. Such a belief, however, overlooks some elements explicit and implicit in the Bible that this article explains. We must always remember that Jesus didn’t just die for you, he died for the church to make and build a church. He calls the church his bride; if you love Jesus, you need to love his bride (which you are a part of). As the confession reminds us, the church is labeled the body of Christ; if you love Jesus, you need to love his body. In addition, as the confession states that we are called to serve and build up each other, we are reminded of the “one another” commands in Scripture, commands that assume we are in relationship with people in the church. You can’t fulfill these commands by listening to a podcast or just worshipping via video; you need a community of people to be obedient. Therefore, when we are part of a local church, we honor what God is doing and place ourselves “under the yoke of Jesus Christ.”
There are other elements of this article that people might find troubling. The idea that “there is no salvation apart from [the church]” might strike people as arrogant or against the principles of the Protestant revolution. Can people get saved without belonging to a church? Absolutely, but the normal way that one gets saved is through the ministry of the church as it is gathered and scattered. As others have said, the church is the hope of the world, as it has the message that changes the world. We don’t find this message elsewhere, so if we are looking for change in our world and our lives, for our salvation, we look to the church which will proclaim the gospel in Word and Sacrament, in Deed and Discipline.
Another element that people might find odd is the language about the need “to separate themselves from those who do not belong to the church.” Does this mean we are supposed to withdraw from the world? How then could we reach people with the gospel (and fulfill Jesus’s command to make disciples)? The language is less about saying that we are to be isolated from others and more in line with the idea that we need to renounce the world and cling to Christ (which we do in our membership vows at Faith Church). It is not that you will never interact with the world, but that you have separated from the values of the world and now have the values of Christ (not following him perfectly but having him as your Lord). It is that we should joyfully identify with the church and have that as a key part of our identity.
The ending of this article also reminds us a bit of the context of the confession and of many of our brothers and sisters around the world. In America, we can church hop and church shop, but in many parts of the world, and for the community in which the writer of this confession lived, to gather together is to risk your life. People in those cultures still gather out of obedience and necessity – they need each other. Do we not need each other as we seek to follow Christ? Are we not also living in a hostile world, one that seeks to oppose our faith? How foolish we would be not to get the support and encouragement we can get from gathering with other Christians. Refusing to be a part of a church (and not just attending, but committing yourself to the community, to serving and also submitting to the God-appointed leaders of that church) or separating from it is contrary to “God’s ordinance,” with his ordinances and commands being what is best for us. Let us not just confess our belief in the communion of saints with our mouth, but have its truth in our hearts, which will move out to our bodies in practice and conduct.
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