This blog post first appeared on the RFPA blog and is part of a series on church membership.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the communion of the saints? Often we think about things that other people have done for us. Sometimes you will hear a person say when they are sick or going through some trial that they have really experienced the communion of the saints through the care of other believers. And this is a good thing.
But when we think about the communion of the saints, we ought not think first of all about what others have done for us. We ought to think about how we are called to serve others.
This is the perspective of our Reformed confessions. When the Heidelberg Catechism describes what it means to confess “the communion of saints,” it says, “that every one must know it to be his duty, readily and cheerfully to employ his gifts, for the advantage and salvation of other members.” Article 28 of the Belgic Confession speaks similarly: “…and as mutual members of the same body, serving to the edification of the brethren, according to the talents God has given them.”
As children of God, we are united both to Christ and to the other members of his church. But our communion with each other does not mean that we are all identical. In our unity there is much diversity. There are differences between male and female, old and young, rich and poor, large and small, black and white. And there are also different God-given gifts and abilities, different stations and callings in the church.
One of the places where this truth is most clearly taught is in 1 Cor. 12. The inspired apostle compares the church to the human body. We have one body, but there are many different parts that make up this body: the eye, the ear, the hand, the foot, and so on. Each one of these different parts is necessary to make up a complete body.
The same thing is true of the church. The church is one body united to her Head, Jesus Christ, but the church is made up of many different members with different gifts and different places in the church. God’s choosing of us in election is also his choice of the exact place where you and I fit in the body. Some are eyes, and some are ears. Some are hands, and some are feet.
This reality implies a calling to use our gifts for others. But too often there is a wrong view of life in the church among the communion of the saints.
There can be a wrong attitude among those who may feel like they are not as gifted as others. The danger is that they become jealous of others who are more gifted, or who have different gifts that they think are better. They must also be warned against despairing and saying, “I don’t have any gifts. I can’t contribute anything, so why even bother. I’m going to withdraw and not even try to contribute to the church.”
There can also be a wrong attitude among those who may be more gifted than others. They must be warned against looking down on others who seem to be less gifted and who they think are not necessary or important. They must also be warned against pride and thinking that they are so important and indispensable that the church depends on them.
There is a danger for us all. Whatever gifts we have, whether great or small, we need to be warned against the pride of thinking that we don’t need the church. Maybe we think that we aren’t getting anything out of the church, so we are inactive and contribute at a minimum. Maybe we are so focused on ourselves, selfishly thinking about what other people do for me and what they do to make me feel loved.
Positively, we have the calling to use our gifts for others.
This means, first, that I must know what gifts I have. Each one of us has different gifts in different measures. We must discover what those gifts are. And we are also called to be content with the gifts and calling God has given to us. Don’t expect to have the same gifts as someone else, and don’t be jealous of their gifts. God makes us different, and those differences are good. This is proper self-esteem: God has chosen me and my place in the church, and I am necessary for that place.
This means, second, that I must know the needs of the other members. If I don’t know the other members, if I never talk to them, then I am not going to know their needs. But when I know the other members, then I can begin to know what needs they might have.
And then we are called to use our gifts to serve others. The communion of the saints is not about getting but about giving. Just as the love of Christ for the church showed itself in his coming not to receive but to give, just as the love of a husband for his wife is not about getting but about giving, so also as members of the church is our love for each other not about what we might receive but what we might give. We must use our gifts and abilities for the good of the other members of the church.
All this means that we must be active members of the church. This is not just for the person that is outgoing and sociable, but it’s for all of us. As those who have communion with Christ and know his love, so we must have communion with fellow believers and show our love for each other.