By John Angell James
"For lack of clear information on this head, there is, both before and after admission, in the minds of many people, a certain mystic obscurity hanging over the subject, which either repels them from seeking for admission, or fills them with disquiet. Christian churches have no mysteries--no hidden secrets. It is a pernicious policy which would exalt plain duties into secret rites, and transform the simple institutions of the gospel into enigmas." Nothing is more plain than the nature of Christian fellowship, yet nothing is less understood.
I. Church fellowship is the exercise of the social principle in matters of religion, and in obedience to the authority of Christ.
Many people seem to imagine that the only end and object of church fellowship, is the participation of the Lord's supper. Hence they attach no other idea to a church, than that of a company of Christians going together to the sacramental table; who having nothing to do with each other, until they arrive there, and whose reciprocal duties end with that Ordinance. The observance of the Lord's supper, it is confessed, is one design and exercise of fellowship; but it is not the only one. Man is a social being, by which we mean that he instinctively seeks the company of his fellows; is capable of enjoying their society, and derives from their communion no small portion of his improvement and felicity. The aphorism of Solomon is as just as it is beautiful, "As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend."
Social bliss was the finish of paradisiacal happiness; its influence has survived the shock of our apostasy, and will be felt amid the felicities of the heavenly state. It is not matter of surprise, therefore, that the Lord Jesus should recognize the social principle in the arrangements of his wise and merciful economy. He might have left his people unconnected by any visible bond, or at best with no other guide to each other than the natural workings and affinities of the human bosom. Instead of this, however, he has by explicit authority grafted the duties of his religion upon the propensities of our social nature. The identifying law of Christ's kingdom is love to one another; and in order that this love may be more perfect in its exercise, we are united in visible communion. When, therefore, we join a Christian church, we enter a society of believers for the purpose of giving and receiving every suitable expression of mutual love. We then associate ourselves with those towards whom we are to cherish, in consequence of a common relationship, the kindest emotions. We are not only to worship with them in the same place, not only to sit with them at the same sacramental table--but we are to consider ourselves as one of their fellowship, to identify our best feelings with theirs, and in all things to consider ourselves members one of another. Our fellowship is not intended for, nor is it to be expressed by, any one exclusive act--but it is to extend itself to every possible way of having communion with each other. We are to rejoice together in the common salvation; and to bring forth together the fruits of a like precious faith. Watts has very beautifully expressed the feelings which every church member, who understands his relationship, constantly recognizes.
"My soul shall pray for Zion still,
While life or breath remains;
There my best friends, my kindred dwell;
There God my Savior reigns."
The great end of Christian fellowship, and the impropriety of limiting its design to a celebration of the Lord's table, are strikingly represented by Mr. Hall, "Nothing is more certain than that the communion of saints is by no means confined to one particular occasion, or limited to one transaction, such as that of assembling around the Lord's table; it extends to all the modes by which believers recognize each other as the members of a common Head. Every expression of fraternal regard, every participation in the enjoyments of social worship, every instance of the unity of the Spirit exerted in prayer and supplication, or in acts of Christian sympathy and friendship, as truly belong to the communion of saints, as the celebration of the Lord's table. In truth, if we are strangers to communion with our fellow Christians on other occasions, it is impossible for us to enjoy it there; for the mind is not a piece of mechanism which can be set going at pleasure, whose movements are obedient to the call of time and place. Nothing short of an habitual sympathy of spirit, springing from the cultivation of benevolent feeling, and the interchange of kind services, will secure that reciprocal delight, that social pleasure, which is the soul of Christian communion. Its richest fruits are frequently reserved for private conference, like that in which the two disciples were engaged, in their way to Emmaus, when their hearts burned within them, while the Lord opened to them the Scriptures. When they take sweet counsel together as they go to the house of God in company, when they bear each other's burdens, weep with those that weep, and rejoice with them that rejoice--that is Christian fellowship."
The sacred historian has given us a very beautiful practical exhibition of the ends of Christian fellowship in Acts 2:41-47, "Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church--about three thousand in all. They joined with the other believers and devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, sharing in the Lord's Supper and in prayer. A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. And all the believers met together constantly and shared everything they had. They sold their possessions and shared the proceeds with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord's Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity--all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their group those who were being saved."
Here we see the social principle putting forth all its energies in a way of sacred fellowship, and with direct reference to religion. A new and holy brotherhood was set up, of which love to Christ, and to each other for Christ's sake, was the bond. There was the recognition of a common relationship, and the exercise of all that affection which it involved. The converts immediately gave themselves to each other, as members one of another, and not only performed acts of religious worship together--but exercised a reciprocal and most substantial benevolence, and afforded the most valuable mutual service.
"Imagination can scarcely delineate a scene more amiably interesting, than that which the infant church in reality displayed. Bound together by the fellowship of sentiments, feeling, and affection--having one Lord, one faith, one baptism--the believers in Christ found more than a compensation for the contempt, and hatred, and persecution of the world, in their common hopes, and mutual offices of kindness. Around them was a scene of crude agitation and wild confusion--but within the little circle of their society all was union, harmony, and love." Alas, alas, that this reign of love and peace should be of such short duration, that the apostles lived to witness, not indeed its termination--but its interruption, and had to interpose their authority to stop the progress of false opinions, and the alienation of heart to which error had given rise.
This exercise of the social principle is conducted with direct reference to the authority of Christ. He who is our Lord has commanded it. It is his will that his people should not live solitarily and unconnected--but in visible association. To the question, therefore, Why are you a church member?--the first answer must be, Because Jesus Christ has commanded it. Independently of the advantages arising from this practice, the true ground of it is the authority of our divine Lord. It is not only a privilege which he has permitted us to enjoy--but a duty which he has commanded us to perform. If we were unable to perceive its advantages, it would still be our duty to comply with it. Church fellowship is no less a duty than the observance of the first day Sabbath, as the same reasons may be advanced for one as for the other.
From not viewing it in this light it is, that so many refuse to join themselves to the church--they consider membership merely in the light of a privilege which it is at their option to receive or refuse. This is a very great and very injurious error. If a believer remains outside visible connection with some Christian society, he is guilty of direct disobedience against his rightful Lord.
II. Fellowship is the instituted way of making a public profession of the faith and hope of the gospel.
A man may hold the opinions and approve the practices of some voluntary, worldly society--but until he has united himself with it, he is not considered, either by its members or the public, as one of their number. His actually joining himself to them according to the established usage, is his profession. Thus a man may be a sincere believer of the gospel, and, so far as respects his own private conduct, an exemplary example of genuine piety--but until he has connected himself with a Christian church, he has not professed himself to be a Christian. It is by that act he declares to the world his faith and hope as a believer in Christ. It is thus he virtually says, "I receive the opinions, possess the dispositions, submit to the obligations, and observe the practices of the church of God with which I now connect myself." Jesus Christ has made it our duty not only to receive his truth into our hearts--but to confess him before men; and it is a duty on which very considerable stress is laid. This is to be done, not in any ostentatious way--but by joining ourselves to his people--which is a confession, that both the church and the world clearly understand. Hence it is apparent, that church membership is no trifling matter, since it is calling heaven, earth, and hell, to witness our solemn declaration of submission to the authority of Christ. It is saying, in the hearing of more worlds than one, "I am a Christian."
III. Fellowship is the visible bond of union with the disciples of Jesus.
Christians are not only to be united--but are to exhibit their union. Their oneness of sentiment, of affection, of purpose, is to be seen. We are not only to love one another--but our love is to be known, which is impossible without membership. In its collective capacity, a church concentrates, as in a focus, the light and love that exist in her individual members. Without being combined in a visible union, its splendor would be only as the dim and scattered light which was diffused over the chaos in the twilight of creation, while the fellowship of the saints is the same light gathered up and embodied in the solar orb. We are indeed united in spirit with the church of Christ, from the moment we have believed his gospel--but our union is neither expressed nor recognized, until we have joined it in the usual way. We are citizens in feeling and intention--but not yet known from enemies, aliens, and spies. Membership, therefore, is the bond of visible union with the brethren in Christ.
IV. Fellowship is an explicit declaration of our determination to submit to the government and discipline of the church.
Every society has laws for the regulation of its affairs. Without these it could not exist; and to which every member professes, at the time of his entrance, his determination to submit. The church of the Redeemer has in like manner its social rules, which respect the members in their associated capacity. We are therefore not only amenable to the direct authority of Christ--but also to that authority expressed by the voice of the church; we must submit to all its regulations, observe all its injunctions, support its decisions, or we can no longer remain in its communion. If we are called before it, we must appear; if required to explain any part of our conduct, we must comply; if censured, we must submit. We are in no case haughtily to exclaim, "What is the church, that I should obey it? to my own master I stand or fall." Our act of joining the society is an explicit declaration of our willingness to submit to the laws by which it is governed. We can voluntarily secede when there is just occasion, or in case of a false decision, we can mildly protest--but as long as we continue members we must submit, for our very membership professes and requires it.
V. Fellowship is designed to exhibit upon a smaller scale that sublime and glorious union and communion which exist, not only between all real Christians of every country, name, and age--but between the whole redeemed church and their Divine Head.
Passages of a very striking importance speak of this most comprehensive confederation. "That in the dispensation of the fullness of times, he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth; even in him." Ephes. 1:10. "There is one body and one spirit." Ephes. 4:4. "That which we have seen and heard, declare we unto you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ." 1 John 1:3. From these passages we learn that the aggregate of believers, united to Jesus Christ, and through him to the Father, form one vast harmonious fellowship of holiness and benevolence. They are united in the same pursuit, which is the divine glory; in the same means for the attainment of that object, which is the salvation of the soul.
The church universal will ever remain the one grand monument on which are recorded the praises of the living God. Of this general assembly every particular society is the miniature resemblance. By its public worship, its beautiful subordination, its mutual affection, its truth, its holiness, its peace, it is an exhibition to the world of that fellowship which has God in Christ for its head, all believers for its members, heaven for its temple, and eternity for its duration; while every time it assembles for worship, it shows forth the unity of the church, and the communion of saints.