It doesn’t take long for me (a mere two miles, in fact) as I drive the streets of my neighborhood to find an assortment of signs all espousing a common conception. From signs welcoming people into the village in which I live, to the sign bearing the name of one of the local churches, the concept of community is pervasive. And this little town is certainly not alone in its desire to cultivate the idea of community as a fundamental component of its existence. Community is everywhere. But what is community? What do we mean when we refer to our neighborhoods, our schools, our social clubs, our churches, etc…as communities? Of course, it’s simple enough to open a dictionary and find community defined for us there. For example, Miriam-Webster defines community as “a unified body of individuals.” Yet, recognizing the insufficiency of its own definition to fully encapsulate the idea, Webster’s goes on to provide multiple examples of what’s meant by a “unified body of individuals.” If we cared to take the time to peruse all of those subdivisions, we would notice a common theme emerging. That theme is “interests”. A community is a “unified body of individuals” that is unified around common interests, whatever those interests may happen to be: social, political, religious, etc… Unsurprisingly, the unified body we are concerned with here is the unified body of individuals that have Christianity as their central unifying interest. Following the lead of some of my fellow A Standard For Living authors, I am throwing my hat into the multi-part ring in order to examine fully the idea of Christian community from the perspective of the Westminster Confession of Faith. In particular, I’ll be examining Chapter 26: Of the Communion of the Saints.
Before we consider what it means to live in community in terms of its practical outworking, we must understand what our community is. What is the heart of our communion? What is that makes us a community? The Confession wastes no time in providing the foundation of our unity, declaring in paragraph 1 of Chapter 26 that:
All saints, that are unified to Jesus Christ their Head by His Spirit and by faith, have fellowship in His graces, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory: and, being united to one another in love, they have communion in each other’s gifts and graces…”Westminster Confession of Faith. Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 2009.
That’s quite a mouthful, isn’t it? There’s a good deal of information packed into just roughly two-thirds of a sentence (granted, it’s a decently long sentence). Yet, unpack it we shall and, hopefully, in a clear, concise fashion.
The first thing we see the Confession providing for us is the grounds of our communion and community. Namely, Jesus Christ Himself. He is the principle of our union. We are united to one another because we are all, “by His Spirit and by faith”, united to Jesus Christ. He is, as Paul so beautifully puts it in his letter to the Ephesians, the head of the body and we are members of that body. We all together comprise the body of Christ (Eph. 2:22; 4:1-16). In the gospel, we all have common fellowship in Jesus’ graces, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory.
Second, the Confession tells us that, as a result of our union with our common Head, we have a common fellowship with one another. Each of us united to Christ in faith holds the promises and blessings of the gospel in common with one another and, just as we share in Christ’s gifts and graces, we share in one another’s gifts and graces. After all, it is Christ Himself who gives us our gifts and graces. He gives them precisely so that we might use them, not for our individual benefit alone, but for the benefit of the body, the community of believers (Rom. 12:3-38, Eph. 4:7-13).
This reality of communion with one another in Christ and in our individual gifts and graces forms the essence of what it means to be a Christian community. What we must realize, then, is that our community is different from all other communities. All other human communities have, as their unifying principle, some worldly, temporal commonality. We have, as our unifying principle, a heavenly, eternal commonality. Our fellowship, the way in which we engage in and live out our community, should reflect the principle of our unity. That is to say that what we do when we gather, how we interact with one another, how we care for each other, how we “do” community should have at its heart a desire to honor our Head and to strengthen His body. What this looks like in the particulars will be more fully fleshed out in subsequent articles. In the meantime, let the following questions marinate as we seek to live out life as members of the Christian community:
- What does our community look like?
- Does it reflect Christ?
- Can the outside world look in the window of our communion and see the bond of love that Christ Himself says so clearly expresses our union to Him as His disciples (John 13:34)?
- What does our fellowship look like?
- When we gather together to enjoy each other’s company, what is our principal concern and our chief aim? Are we more engaged in the temporal pleasures of fellowship than the eternal ones? Would we rather spend our time in community chasing after the ephemera of earthly life than seeking to use our gifts and graces to edify one another and spur each other on into Christian maturity?
To be sure, the simple pleasures and joys of life aren’t sinful and we may certainly enjoy them together, but so often the fun of fellowship swallows up the function of fellowship that should be ever present in our gatherings – growing together as a body joined to one another through our union with Christ in order that we might faithfully serve Him. After all, that’s what the Christian life is all about, what Christian community is all about; living life together as new creations created in Christ Jesus for good works and to declare God’s praise (Eph 2:10, Is. 43:21).