WCF 26: The Communion of Saints

Dear Church Family,

Years ago, when I began these midweek church emails and “Reflections from the Pastor,” I gave some thought as to what to use as an address and as a signature. I decided upon “Dear Church Family” and “In Christ” as these seemed to be an appropriate reminder of the fact that we as believers in Christ and in the church are part of a spiritual family. We are a “Church Family” precisely because we are united to Christ (“in Christ”) and thus united to one another.

This union with Christ and with one another was the topic of our most recent adult Sunday school class on chapter 26 (“Of the Communion of Saints”) from the Westminster Confession of Faith.

WCF 26.1 – Union with Christ and with one another

In describing “the communion of saints,” the confession begins by pointing out that all saints, by faith, are united to Jesus Christ, their Head (Ephesians 1:22-23; 5:23; Colossians 1:18). Thus, they have fellowship with Him in His graces, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory: “For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection” (Romans 5:4). For John Calvin, union with Christ was of the utmost importance (for the believer’s experience as well as for his understanding):

…I confess that we are deprived of this utterly incomparable good unless Christ is made ours. Therefore, that joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our hearts – in short, that mystical union – are accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body – in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him. (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.11.10)

 

As a result of our union with Christ, all saints are thereby united with one another in love (1 Corinthians 12:7; Philippians 2:1-4). On a side note, we know from Scripture that marriage is a temporal institution and not eternal (Matthew 22:30), but the bond that Christians share through union with Christ lasts forever (Ephesians 2:5-6). No doubt Jonathan Edwards was thinking of this difference between the bond of marriage and the spiritual union of believers, when he beautifully wrote to his wife, “give my kindest leave to my dear wife and tell her that the uncommon union which has so long existed between us has been of such a nature as I trust is spiritual and therefore will continue forever; and I hope she will be supported under so great a trial and submit cheerfully to the will of God.”

As a consequence of our being spiritually united to one another, all saints are obliged to help and serve one another in inward and outward ways. Inwardly (or spiritually), we are to encourage and admonish one another, help the weak, be patient with everyone, and gather together for worship as God’s people (1 Thessalonians 5:11-14; Hebrews 10:23-25). Outwardly, we are also to help one another with physical needs, loving one another in deed and truth (1 John 3:16-18; Galatians 6:10; Hebrews 13:16).

WCF 26.2 – The practice and extent of the communion of saints

Those who profess faith in the Lord Jesus Christ are bound to maintain holy fellowship and communion with God in worship (Hebrews 10:23-25). We are also bound to maintain holy fellowship and communion with one another in service, as was the practice of the early church in their sharing of goods and possessions with one another (Acts 2:42-47). Believers are not only bound to one another in their local congregations, but also to all the saints everywhere (1 John 3:17). Thus, in the early church, believers gave toward the relief of other believers from other parts of the world, even though they had never met them (2 Corinthians 8-9).

Reflecting on two passages from the Gospel of John (13:34-35; 17:20), Francis Schaeffer remarked, “Love – and the unity it attests to – is the mark Christ gave Christians to wear before the world. Only with this mark may the world know that Christians are indeed Christians and that Jesus was sent by the Father.” (Francis Schaeffer, The Mark of the Christian)

WCF 26.3 – What the communion of the saints is not

This chapter of the confession on the communion of the saints concludes with two points of clarification. The first clarification deals with our communion with Christ: union with Christ is not deifying (it does not make the believer a partaker of the substance of the Godhead or equal with Christ in any way (Isaiah 42:8; 1 Corinthians 8:6)). The second clarification deals with our communion with one another: union with one another does not necessitated communalism; that is, one does not lose his right to own property, goods, and possessions (Exodus 20:15; Ephesians 4:28; 2 Thessalonians 3:10).

Conclusion

This last point helps to balance out the teaching of Scripture concerning our obligations to one another as believers in Christ. As we have seen, the Scriptures teach that all saints are bound to one another in love and therefore obliged to help one another in both inward and outward needs. Yet, there ought to be a voluntary desire on the part of the believer to do so; there is to be no forceful coercion or the taking of one’s property in the name of the church (Acts 5:4; 2 Corinthians 8:11-14). As G.I. Williamson writes:

In history there have been many attempts by Christians to create societies in which all things are common, including the possession of goods and property. Scripture warrant for such is sought in the book of Acts, which says that ‘all who believed were together, and had all things in common’ (Acts 2:44). Concerning this, three comments may be made. First, there is no indication that this practice was commanded by God as normative for believers. Second, there is evidence that even at that time the right of private property was still recognized by the apostles (Acts 5:4). And finally, this attempt at communal property did not work out satisfactorily even in the Apostolic Church (Acts 6:1). (G.I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes, 257-258).

 

Thus, this fellowship and communion of the saints in the visible church is a “voluntary obligation.”

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

WCF 25: The Church

Dear Church Family,

Evangelical Christians have, especially of late, been quite outspoken in the defense of the institution of marriage. We want the civil government and our society to recognize and maintain the biblical definition of marriage as being a contract or covenant bond between one man and one woman. Personally, I find it sadly ironic, however, that view of many Christians about the institution of the church are not nearly as well thought out, or passionately held.

Do we believe that as long as two people love each other and live together that that should rightfully be called a marriage? Do we believe that when two people privately profess their undying love to one another that that constitutes a marriage? Barring the ‘what if two people are stranded alone on a desert island’ scenario, I don’t know of any Bible-believing Christian who believes this way. The reason is because we believe that there is such a thing as a formal institution called ‘marriage’ in which two people recognize the authority of the church and/or the state to say who is married and who is not. Christians have been defending this formal institution of marriage for some time now, but it seems that we may have already lost the battle for the institution of the church. Fewer and fewer Christians believe that the institution of the church is important or relevant at all anymore.

That’s where the chapter 25 (“Of the Church”) of the Westminster Confession of Faith is helpful. This past Sunday, we studied this chapter by way of a summarizing what the Bible teaches concerning ecclesiology, the study of the doctrine of the church.

WCF 25.1 – The Invisible Church

The Westminster Confession of Faith defines the invisible church as “the whole number of the elect.” Thus, the invisible church includes all those who will be gathered together at Christ’s second coming at the marriage supper of the Lamb (Mark 13:26-27; Revelation 19:7-9).

WCF 25.1 – The Visible Church

The visible church consists of all those that “profess the true religion; and of their children.” This biblical definition of the visible church as described in this paragraph may be summarized under five headings:

(1) The Scope of the Visible Church (where it is): like the invisible church, the visible church is also catholic (or universal); it’s not confined to one nation as it was in the old covenant, but in the new covenant includes people from throughout the world (Galatians 3:28-29).

(2) The Sphere of the Visible Church (who it is): the visible church includes all of those who outwardly profess the true religion, or faith in Christ and their children (Acts 2:37-39; 1 Corinthians 7:14).

(3) The Sovereignty of the Visible Church (what power it has): this visible gathering together of God’s people is called “the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ” over which Christ is the King and Sovereign (Isaiah 9:6-7; Matthew 13:46-40).

(4) The Sonship of the Visible Church (how it’s related): this visible church is also called in Scripture, the house and family of God (Ephesians 2:19-22; Hebrews 10:19-21).

(5) The Salvation of the Visible Church (the ordinary place of salvation): In the Bible, whenever someone turned to Christ for salvation, they were immediately “added to the number” (Acts 2:41-47). A “lone-ranger Christian” or a “hermit Christian” is an oxymoron.

The distinction between the invisible church and the visible church is an important one, but we must also remember that we are not speaking of two separate churches, but one church viewed from two different perspectives. We might describe these two different perspectives by way of an illustration. When you and I look at a building with the naked eye, we can only see the outward appearance; however, when Superman looks at that same building using his x-ray vision, he can see not only the outward appearance, but also the infrastructure and the true nature of the building.

In a similar way, the distinction between the invisible and the visible church is one of perspective. When we look upon the church, we can only see the outward appearance (those who profess faith and their children); however, when God looks at that same church, He can see not only the outward appearance, but also the true nature of His church – not only those who outwardly profess the true religion and their children, but those whom He has chosen and called.

WCF 25.3 – The Mission and Gifts of the Visible Church

The mission (or purpose) of the visible church is simple: to gather and perfect the saints in this life to the end of the world. This mission is succinctly summarized and stated in what is often referred to as Jesus’ ‘great commission’ to make disciples of all the nations (Matthew 28:19-20).

The gifts that God has given to the visible church for the accomplishment of this mission are of three kinds:

(1) Ministry: evangelists, pastors, teachers, elders, deacons (Ephesians 4:11-13; 1 Timothy 3).

(2) Oracles: the Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

(3) Ordinances: the preaching of the Word, along with the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper (Matthew 28:19-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-25; 2 Timothy 4:1-2).

God ordains and blesses these gifts to effectually gather and perfect His saints by His own presence and Spirit (John 15:26-27).

WCF 25.4 – The Purity of the Visible Church

In the letters to the seven churches in the last book of the Bible (Revelation 2-3), we have detailed instructions and exhortations regarding what Christ desires for His church, what He defines as that which is pure and that which is impure. In summarizing and leaning heavily on these chapters from the book of Revelation, the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches that there are three biblical criteria by which we may evaluate the purity of particular (or individual) churches:

(1) The doctrine of the Gospel that is taught and embraced in it.

(2) The purity of the administration of ordinances (the sacraments).

(3) The purity of the performance of public worship.

WCF 25.5 – The Mixture of the Visible Church

The invisible church, because it is comprised of God’s elect, is pure; however, until Christ’s return, the visible church will always be subject to mixture and error (Matthew 13:24-30). There are no perfect churches, but all are on a continuum of being more or less pure. And, some churches have become so corrupt and degenerated such that they cease to be true churches at all; the Bible calls such churches “synagogues of Satan” (Revelation 2:9; 3:9). Yet, there will always be a church on earth, a remnant (Matthew 16:18; 24:21-22).

WCF 25.6 – The Head of the Church

While God has given certain offices for ministry in the church (see WCF 25.3, above), there is only one head of the Church: the Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23; Colossians 1:13-18).

Conclusion

This doctrine of the church – and its importance in Scripture and in the life of the believer – has fallen on hard times in our age of individualism and anti-institutionalism. For further reading on this important, but much neglected topic, I recommend this online article by Michael Glodo: Sola Ecclesia: The Lost Reformation Doctrine.

And, here are several books that I highly recommend, as well: The Enduring Community: Embracing the Priority of the Church by Brian Habig and Les Newsom; What Is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert; and The Church of God as an Essential Element of the Gospel by Stuart Robinson (a helpful review of this last book may be found online here).

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

WCF 24: Marriage and Divorce

Dear Church Family,

Throughout history, many have questioned the proper place and role of the institution of marriage. In our day, marriage – as ordained by God in the Scriptures – has come under attack with a renewed vigor. So, it is helpful to be reminded of what the Bible teaches about the special place of marriage and its purposes. This past Sunday, we studied this topic in chapter 24 (“Of Marriage and Divorce”) of the Westminster Confession of Faith.

WCF 24.1 – The Definition of Marriage

Marriage is to be between one man and one woman. This is how it’s been from the beginning (Genesis 2:18-25), and was confirmed by Christ in the New Testament (Matthew 19:4-6). Polygamy is condemned in Scripture (Deuteronomy 17:14-17; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6). And, this definition of marriage precludes any notion of “same-sex unions.” In the Scripture, homosexuality is clearly defined as sin (Genesis 18:20, 19:4-7, Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 1 Timothy 1:8-11). I’ve written previously on what our Biblical responses to the current attack on marriage ought to look like and the ‘givenness of human nature.’ You may also read our denomination’s official response to the Supreme Court ruling on “same-sex marriage” here.

WCF 24.2 – The Purposes of Marriage

While we may speak of the many benefits of marriage, including its illustration of Christ’s love for the church (Ephesians 5:22-33), the confession lists three specific purposes of marriage: (1) the mutual help of husband and wife, or helpful companionship (Genesis 2:18); (2) the raising up of godly children (Malachi 2:14-16; Acts 2:39); and (3) sexual protection (1 Corinthians 7:1-9).

WCF 24.3 – Who Marriage Is For

The blessing of marriage is a gift for all peoples, for unbelievers and believers alike (1 Timothy 4:1-2), and the institution of marriage should be held in honor among everyone (Hebrews 13:4). It is for all who are able with judgment to give their consent (Genesis 24:57-58).

For believers – and especially for those who “profess the true reformed religion” – they are only to marry and be joined to other believers (Deuteronomy 7:3-4; 2 Corinthians 6:14). This is why the confession warns against believers marrying with “infidels, papists, or other idolaters.” To some, this may seem like overly harsh language, but as G.I. Williamson points out:

It may be argued that a person could conceivably be a true believer and yet be an adherent of a false religion. We believe that this is a false abstraction. A person’s faith is not to be judged part from his profession and walk, and in this case the profession and walk would be contrary to the judgment that he is a believer. We cannot so separate between personal and corporate responsibility. (The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes, 237-238)

 

WCF 24.4 – The Parameters of Marriage

The teaching of this paragraph is simple: incest is sin. Or, as the confession puts it, “Marriage ought not to be within the degrees of consanguinity or affinity forbidden by the word” (Leviticus 18:6-9; 1 Corinthians 5:1).

WCF 24.5 – Adultery, Divorce, and Remarriage

There are some who teach that the bond of marriage is insoluble. Yet, while it is true that the Lord hates divorce (Malachi 2:16), there are certain instances in which there are legitimate and biblical grounds for divorce. Adultery or fornication is grounds to dissolve an engagement to be married (Matthew 1:18-20); and, adultery after marriage is grounds for the innocent party to sue out a divorce (Matthew 5:31-32). In such a case, the innocent party may remarry (Matthew 19:8-9).

WCF 24.6 – Adultery and Desertion

Because marriage is both a creational ordinance (Genesis 2:18-25; Hebrews 13:4) and a concern of the church (1 Corinthians 7:39; Ephesians 5:22-33; Titus 2:1-8), both the State and the Church have a vested interest in upholding and protecting marriages. As I tell every couple in pre-marriage counseling, the two people who are the least objective about a marriage are those in the marriage; therefore, it is often necessary to pursue outside help.

As we’ve already said, God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16) and divorce is never required or mandated (1 Corinthians 7:12-13). At the same time, however, there are two Biblical grounds for divorce: adultery (Matthew 5:31-32; 19:8-9) ad willful desertion by an unbelieving spouse (1 Corinthians 7:10-15).

Conclusion

The last paragraph in this chapter of the confession points out that the corruption of man is such that it is “apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage.” Thus, we must be careful to not follow the way of the world by looking for any and every excuse to break the bonds of marriage. We must do all that we can to respect and uphold marriage, our own and others’.

For further reading on this topic, I recommend Jay Adam’s book, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the Bible. And, for those who find themselves in the very difficult position of seeking to reconcile a marriage that has been corrupted by marital infidelity, I recommend Dave Carder and Duncan Jaenecke’s book, Torn Asunder: Recovering From an Extramarital Affair.  But, I especially recommend that Christian couples not seek to ‘go it alone’ but seek the help of other believers in the church – especially the pastor and elders of the church who have the responsibility to shepherd the flock entrusted to their care (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-3; Hebrews 13:17).

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

WCF 23: The Civil Magistrate

Dear Church Family,

The Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes what the Bible teaches in this way, “The Scriptures principally teach, what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man” (WSC 5). That last part about “what duty God requires of man” includes what the Bible teaches concerning the duty of earthly governing authorities (the civil magistrate), as well as our duty to civil magistrates as those authorities appointed by God. This is the topic of chapter 23 (“Of the Civil Magistrate”) in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which we studied this past Sunday in the adult Sunday school class.

WCF 23.1 – The Role of Civil Magistrates

Three things are affirmed in this paragraph of the confession – three things that speak to God’s sovereignty over the whole world, and particularly with regard to His sovereignty over all earthly authorities. First, God is Lord and King of all the world. Second, God has ordained civil magistrates to be under Him and over the people for His glory and the public good. Third, God has given the civil magistrates the power of the sword (physical violence and coercion) to protect and encourage people who do good and to punish evil doers.

It should be noted that the main teachings of this paragraph – and for much of the rest of this chapter – is based on two main texts of Scripture: Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-14. In these passages, the Apostle Paul and the Apostle Peter speak to the proper divinely ordered role of earthly authorities. And, we should also note that, in contradistinction from the church which bears the spiritual power of the keys of the kingdom, the state bears the physical power of the sword. [More on this when we get to chapter 25, “Of the Church.”]

WCF 23.2 – Christians may serve in the office of a magistrate

Reasoning from the teachings of Romans 13, we may say that if the civil magistrate is ordained by God, then a Christian may serve in this office. So serving, Christians ought to follow and enforce the wholesome laws of that commonwealth or government in which they serve – especially in maintaining piety, justice, and peace (2 Samuel 23:3-4; Proverbs 31:1-9; 1 Timothy 2:1-2).

When I was a chaplain in the army, soldiers who were also followers of Christ would sometimes ask if – according to Scripture – they were allowed to serve and go to war. Of course, the Bible explicitly forbids murder or the taking of innocent life (Exodus 20:13); however, the Bible also teaches that those who follow Christ may, in their capacity as magistrates (or in service to those earthly magistrates), wage war or serve in the military (Luke 3:14; Acts 10:1-2; Romans 13:4).

Rooted in the teachings of Augustine, we also have a long tradition of what is known as “the just war theory.” It is too much to go into at this time, but you may find a summary of the seven principles of the just war theory in the appendix of our handout from the Sunday school class (you can download a pdf of that handout in the “notes” section here).

WCF 23.3 – The Church and the State

As we mentioned above, the New Testament teaches that since the coming of Christ, the state is given the power of the sword to promote justice and protect its citizens; the church is given the power of the keys of the kingdom of God to promote the gospel and the glory of God. Thus, civil magistrates have no ecclesiastical (or church) power; nor may they interfere in matters of faith (Matthew 16:19; 1 Corinthians 4:1-2; John 18:36). Instead, civil magistrates are to be like “nursing father” – protecting the religious liberties of all peoples (Isaiah 49:23; Acts 16:35-40).

In the church, Christ has appointed a regular government and discipline (Ephesians 2:19-22; Philippians 1:1). Therefore, the magistrate is not to interfere with the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians (Psalm 105:14-15). Of course, some earthly governments have done this better than others, yet the fact remains that God has appointed governing authorities in this world for the purpose of protecting the dignity and person of all the people living in their realm, and to protect all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies regardless of their faith or infidelity (Romans 13:3-4; 1 Timothy 2:1-2).

On an historical footnote, the original formulation of this paragraph on the relationship between the church and the state was almost entirely replaced by American Presbyterians in 1787. In the original formulation of 1646, the state was said to have authority over the church to preserve the unity, truth, purity in worship, and obedience of her members; and, the state was also said to have the power to call church synods or councils and preside over them. With the separation of church and state in the new world, American Presbyterians rewrote this portion of the confession to be more in keeping with the teaching of Scripture.

Again, if you’d like to learn a little bit more of the historical context and the reasons for which this paragraph was rewritten, you can download a pdf of the handout from the Sunday school class from the “notes” section here. For further reading on this issue, I recommend the book by Darryl Hart, A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State.

WCF 23.4 – The Duty of Subjects to the State

As subjects of the state, the Word of God exhorts the followers of Christ to pray for, honor, pay tribute to, obey the lawful commands of, and submit to the magistrates – regardless of their infidelity or difference of religion (Romans 13:5-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-2; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13-17). This includes all “ecclesiastical persons” (or religious leaders), as well (Acts 25:9-11).

Conclusion

John F. Kennedy famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” In a similar vein, we often ask, “What is the governing authority’s duty toward me?” That’s a legitimate question, but we should also be quick to ask, “What is my duty to the governing authority?” As followers of Christ, it is necessary for us to be in subjection to earthly authorities, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake (Romans 13:5). Several years ago, I tried to summarize what the Bible teaches concerning the Christian’s duty to the magistrate which you may read online here.

May we serve our God with a clear conscience as we seek to submit to those earthly authorities that He has appointed over us 

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch