In Heidelberg Catechism 55 we say:
55. What do you understand by the “communion of saints”?
First, that believers, one and all, as members of the Lord Jesus Christ, are partakers with Him in all His treasures and gifts; secondly, that each one must feel himself bound to use his gifts readily and cheerfully for the advantage and welfare of other members.
One of the great benefits of being an American is that we say, in the Declaration of Independence (1776), that there are “self-evident” truths, among which are that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness….” Americans take as basic civil liberties that are denied in other nations, to which other people aspire, and which still others hate and hope to extinguish even by force and terror. As wonderful as this charter is for civil life (if Americans are still willing to assert them to their own governments) it is vital to the life of the visible church and to the Christian faith and life that American believers learn to distinguish between their civil liberties, which traditionally have been defined as something like the relative absence of restraint, and their relationship to the visible, institutional church.
Typically and historically, however, American Christians have had considerable difficulty making this distinction. However valuable self-reliance is in civil life or, more broadly, in the secular sphere (and it is to be highly valued), that same spirit of independence must be severely curbed when it comes to the life of the church or, more broadly, in the sacred sphere.1 Believers were not redeemed to live their Christian lives in isolation or independence from other believers. They are redeemed with the intention that they should become part of the visible expression of the catholic church, the Christ-confessing covenant community. Since I have already sketched a doctrine of the church elsewhere and frequently in this space I will not repeat all that. It’s enough to say here that the Scriptures everywhere assume and teach that believers are ordinarily redeemed in community and for community and that community is called the church. The history of redemption in Scripture is also a church history. Adam and Eve and their children not only formed a civil society but also a church. Sometimes the visible church has been great (millions cross the Red Sea) and sometimes almost invisible. Only 8 people were in the Ark. Our Lord Jesus gave the keys of his kingdom to a representative of officers in his visible church (Matt 16:19). To his visible, Christ-confessing covenant community he gave the responsibility of church discipline.2 When he said “tell it to the church” he was assuming, as we should, the divinely ordained covenant community gathered around the Word and sacraments. Acts describes the apostolic period of the history of the visible church. The Epistles were written to known, visible assemblies, congregations, churches gathered around the ministry of the Word and sacraments.
There is no way to understand Paul’s language that we are “one body” and “members of one another” (Rom 12:5) apart from a robust doctrine of the visible, institutional church. Paul did not send those words originally to individuals but to a congregation meeting at one time, in one place where they were read to the congregation. 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 describe public worship services held by the congregation. One might make an entire study of Paul’s “one another” language in Galatians, Ephesians, and Colossians. Surely the clear assumption in those cases is that he’s writing to congregations with members to instruct them about the gospel, about grace, and the moral and spiritual consequences of the gospel. How can we “encourage one another” (1 Thess 4:18; 5:11) as Paul exhorted the Thessalonian congregation unless the gathered together? To put it briefly, membership matters.
It was against this great backdrop that the early medieval church confessed the “communion of the saints (communio sanctorum). Though it did not appear in the Apostles’ Creed until c. 550 AD it expressed was long believed and taught by the post-apostolic church.3 Like the New Testament, many of the earliest documents in the early church were letters to congregations offering guidance and instruction. The fathers did not know about a Christian faith formed or a Christian life lived in isolation from the Christ-confessing covenant community. Cyprian may not have said the words, “outside the church there is no salvation,”(extra ecclesiam nulla salus est) though he said things like it. Nevertheless, that maxim captures well biblical, catholic, and Reformed doctrine and piety.
Written in 1559, the Belgic Confession explains that truth when it says in art. 28:
We believe that since this holy assembly and congregation is the gathering of those who are saved and there is no salvation apart from it, no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, regardless of his status or condition (emphasis added).
But all people are obliged to join and unite with it, keeping the unity of the church by submitting to its instruction and discipline, by bending their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ, and by serving to build up one another, according to the gifts God has given them as members of each other in the same body. And to preserve this unity more effectively, it is the duty of all believers, according to God’s Word, to separate themselves from those who do not belong to the church, in order to join this assembly wherever God has established it, even if civil authorities and royal decrees forbid and death and physical punishment result.
And so, all who withdraw from the church or do not join it act contrary to God’s ordinance.
When Heidelberg 55 says “communion of the saints” it is thinking in precisely the same categories as the Belgic Confession. Believers are bound together by the Spirit, into a visible assembly. In that assembly they give up their autonomy, their independence, even as Christ gave up his prerogatives—he might have called down legions of angels but he did not—for our sakes. Yes, we have liberty charted in the Word of God (sola Scriptura). The visible church may not impose as required any ceremony in worship or any doctrine that is not taught explicitly in Scripture or deduced by “good and necessary consequence” (WCF 1.6; Belgic Confession art. 7; 32) but within that liberty there is order, there is structure, there are offices and there is a communion divinely instituted and to which we are all obligated.
Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.
1. Though oft maligned, some sort of distinction between sacred and secular is both biblical and essential. The word secular is derived from the Latin noun saeculum. In non-Christian usage it refers to an generation. In biblical usage (i.e., in the Latin translations of Scripture) it can signal “forever” (Exod 21:6; Rom 1:25; Gal 1:4). It also refers to a generation (Gen 6:4). It was also used for Jesus’, Paul’s, and James’ expression “this age (Matt 12:32; 1 Cor 1:20; 2:6)” and “the world” (Mark 4:19; James 4:4) which are negative. A derivative is used in Heb 6:5 to refer to the eternal state. It is also used, however, in 1 Cor 6:3 to refer to “this life” and in 2 Tim 2:4 to daily life, which is common to believers and unbelievers. It is in this last sense that I am using it here. Remember, even in creation, before the fall, there was ordinary time (6 days) and a sacred day set aside (the seventh day). As a matter of logic, if everything is holy then nothing is holy because nothing is set aside or distinct from anything else. The secular/sacred distinction does not necessarily imply that God is sovereign over over some things and not over others. There is a Christian worldview(defined correctly) but there is also Christian liberty. A proper Christian worldview not only recognizes Christ’s sovereignty over all things but also that, in his ordinary providence, believers live in this world with unbelievers and that, as image bearers, we share much in common with unbelievers. However different our interpretation of the significance of creation is (and it is quite distinct) nevertheless, God the Father makes the sun to rise and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust (Matt 5:45). It’s the same rain. It’s the same sun for believers and unbelievers. If we express the antithesis between believers and unbelievers so that the sun and rain become essentially different for believers than unbelievers we run the risk of falling into a sort of Gnosticism (a sect that boasted of secret knowledge).
2. It is true that in Matt 16:20 our Lord commanded his disciples to tell no one but that command expired with his death and was superseded by the command to make known his name to the entire world (Matt 28:18-20).
3. See Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes: The Greek and Latin Creeds, with Translations, vol. 2 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1890), 56.