After having been regaled with promises of an exposition of what Christian community does for two articles now, readers of this series on community may well be skeptical that such an exposition, in its most practical terms, is soon to be forthcoming. We’ve been treated to the foundation of Christian community, as well as the necessity of active participation in Christian community. However, we’ve not yet come to treat of that burning question: “what does Christian community look like?” You may be wondering, “will we ever have an answer?” Well, wonder no more, faithful reader. This article and the closing article to follow intend to set forth how that necessary activity founded in our common purpose in Christ is to play out in the practical element of Christian life. In other words, we’ll finally move from the head and the heart to the hands.
Turning once again to the Confession, we read:
Saints, by profession, are bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification…Westminster Confession of Faith 26.2
It shouldn’t be surprising given our previous discussion of how Scripture and the Confession conceive of Christian community, that the spiritual element of Christian community would kick off the practical side of its unfolding. The Confession makes no bones about the fact that Christian communion and community is not primarily about simply enjoying one another’s company. Rather, enjoying one another’s company should have a distinct purpose in mind. Namely, the mutual spiritual edification of the saints. We gather together in order that we might build each other up in our most holy faith. Our fellowship is centered around our faith.
Central to our fellowship, the Confession states, is our duty “to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God.” Such a declaration should be common sense to the Christian. After all, the chief expression of our common union to our common head, Christ, and through Him our common Father, is the public gathering together of the people of God in worship. This reality has been the case for the entirety of church history. In Genesis 4, what demarcates the godless line of Cain from the godly line of Seth is the public worship of God and common confession of his name: “then men began to call upon the name of the Lord (Gen. 4:26).” That public confession of the name of the Lord in His worship finds itself expressed in the beginning of the history of the people of Israel as Abram, after receiving and heeding God’s call to “get out of your country, from your family, and from your father’s house…” (Gen. 12:1), builds an altar and “calls upon the name of the Lord (Gen. 12:9).” Likewise, a central part of the religious system for ancient Israel was the gathering together for the purpose of worshiping God on the Sabbath day, as well as other appointed days in the ceremonial system. The centrality of worship in the life of the community of God’s people hasn’t ceased with the New Testament church. Quite the contrary, the establishment of the New Testament church as a worshiping body is the outworking of Old Testament prophecy itself. Isaiah 43, a prophesy declaring the new thing that the Lord will do ultimately fulfilled in Christ, declares that He will form a people for Himself to “declare My praise (Is. 43:21).” Peter confirms as much in I Peter 2:9, saying of the New Testament church in words reminiscent of the Lord’s declaration concerning Old Testament Israel: “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praise of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light;“. Worship is at the heart of our communal life. If we neglect the assembling of ourselves together as the people of God to call upon the name of the Lord and declare His praise, we neglect the chief purpose for our re-creation in Christ. What does Christian community do? Christian community worships.
As central as fellowship and communion in the public worship of God is to the activity of Christian community, it is not the only activity of Christian community. In addition to worship, Christians are to be engaged in activity outside of worship that “tend[s] to [our] mutual edification.” The public worship of God is the heart and beginning of mutual edification, but what begins in the worship of God should spill over into the everyday life of the Christian community. Helpful to understanding the thrust of the Confession at this point are the proof texts the Divines used to seat this duty of “mutual edification” in the Scriptures themselves. They call attention to several texts, but let’s examine two texts in particular to aid our understanding: Acts 2:42; 46-47 and Hebrews 10:24-25.
In Acts 2, we are treated to a description of daily Christian life that is, to be frank, quite shocking to us in our hectic, frenetic modern Christian society. Verse 42 tells us that the early church “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” So far so good, but if we scroll down a little further to verses 46-47 we read something of the manner in which they “continued steadfastly” in these things: “So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people.“ Now, let’s be honest with ourselves. What’s our gut reaction to seeing that these early Christians had as a central element of their community the frequent eating together in each other’s homes for the express purpose of praising God? Maybe at first blush we find it neat. But what about if we begin to think of it in terms of following their example? That’s a little different, isn’t it? After all, we’re simply too busy to spend this much time eating together in each other’s homes with the praise of God as a central feature, aren’t we? Add to that the reality that the apostles’ doctrine and prayer were another key component of these meals and the practice seems downright onerous, doesn’t it? If we doubt whether or not we are all that far from the practice of these early Christians, let’s ask ourselves several questions. When’s the last time we broke bread in our homes with fellow believers? If it’s been recently, how much time passed between that recent meal and the meal before it? How frequently do we gather together from house to house and break bread? More importantly than the frequency with which we gather together from house to house, how often are we gathering together to break bread in order to praise God, continue in the apostles’ doctrine (i.e. Scripture), and pray? We are all too willing to gather together around any number of things: the big game for our favorite sports team, board game nights, book clubs, etc… But how often are we willing to gather together for the purpose of mutual edification surrounding the praise of God, Scripture, and prayer?
Too often we are so lost in the busyness of our lives and the pursuit of leisure and entertainment that we forget our duty to be a source of spiritual comfort, encouragement, and growth to one another during the course of the week. As we struggle to hold up under the spiritual warfare that characterizes the life of faith, we neglect one of the chief means by which we win the victory. Notice what our second proof text, found in Hebrews, tells us is a primary function of gathering together: “and let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25). We have a duty, as the people of God, to stir one another up in love and good works, exhorting one another to that end, and the context in which we do that is our assembling together. The primary assembling for this purpose is undoubtedly public worship, but it’s not limited, or exclusive to public worship. Christian community should be gathering together frequently in public worship and in everyday life for the express purpose of stimulating one another to grow in love and good works (the “so much the more” of the thing). In short, to become who we are; those re-created in Christ Jesus to perform the good works ordained for us to walk in beforehand (Eph. 2:10). What does Christian community do? Christian community gathers regularly for the purpose of mutual spiritual edification to strengthen one another in the life of faith.
Now, none of the above is intended to propagate the notion that enjoying the simple joys and blessings of life provided for us by the Lord is wrong. It is no sin to gather together in some activity of leisure or another (provided the activity isn’t inherently sinful). Christians are certainly free to gather together and enjoy games, books, sports, etc…Rather, the purpose of what’s been said above is to encourage us to keep these things in their proper place and to remember the chief function of our fellowship as the Christian community – encouraging one another to praise and serve our Lord. By all means, let us gather together and enjoy one another’s company around these simple joys and common interests. But let us do so in pursuit of our defining common interest: worshiping, glorifying, and serving our Triune God.