WCF 26: Of the Communion of Saints

The visible church is an institution. Like any other organization the church has structure. Anyone who takes the Bible seriously realizes that the gathered community of God has leaders, doctrine, and rules for membership. As unpopular as it might be to say, Christianity is a religion and the institutional church is an essential part of that faith (see ch. 25).

But Christianity is also essentially relational. The God-ordained organization of the church is also a living organism. And the religious and relational aspects of the church are not at odds. Scripture calls the church a body (1 Cor. 12:12); a human body has an intimate connection between its various parts and the head as the command center. To live well the parts must cooperate. The church is also a family (Mark 3:34, 35); in any well-functioning family there is both a form of government and loving communion.

To put it more personally, it isn’t enough to belong to the organization of the church—to be a member of what the Apostles’ Creed calls “the holy catholic church.” Within the church we must also practice “the communion of saints.” This raises two questions.


How Is Communion Possible?

Sin fractures every relationship. The works of the flesh are like acid that corrodes our mutual bonds; people given to enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions and envy do not make good friends (Gal. 5: 20, 21). To fellowship righteously we need to be changed. This means our most fundamental relationship needs to change. The key to holy communion is union with Christ. Nothing but the righteousness of Jesus could bring together people so naturally given to hatred and quarrelling (Titus 3:3–5).

Believers “are united to Jesus Christ their Head, by his Spirit, and by faith.” The call of faith is not simply to believe that Jesus is the Christ but, by believing, to gain life in his name (John 20:31). The gift of salvation is the gift of the life of Jesus. He has come to represent us, granting to us all that he possesses (Phil 3:10 Rom. 6:5, 6). Believers are also mystically united to Christ, like spouses who are no longer two but one. We are like branches that draw real life from our vital connection to Christ the vine (John 15:1–8). Jesus’ experiences are shared by believers. Baptism symbolizes our partnership in Jesus’ death and resurrection (Rom. 6:4). If we suffer with him, we will also be glorified with him (Rom. 8:17). And while Jesus is physically absent from us he is spiritually present. The faithful God gives his children the Spirit of Christ making us share his thoughts and desires and confirming that we are his children.

Union with Christ does not mean that believers are “partakers of the substance of his Godhead” or are “equal with Christ in any respect.” But by his promises we truly “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) in the sense that we share his “divine and blessed immorality and glory” and become “one with God as far as our capacities may allow.”[i]

Because of our fellowship with the Triune God believers are also joined to each other (1 John 1:3). We “are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another” (Rom. 12:5). From Christ the head “the whole body” is “joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped” (Eph. 4:16). As God is our Father and Christ is our brother, so we become true fathers, brothers, mothers, and sisters to each other (1 Tim. 5:1, 2). And we aren’t merely united to local church members but to “all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus.” We must see every Christian in Christ. We are true relations because of our joint union with him.


What Does Communion Mean?

Here are three traits of Christian communion that we might use as tests for self-evaluation, goals to strive toward, and reminders of the kindness that God shows his people in the church.


Believers Love Each Other

Believers are “united to each other in love.” When one believer comes into the life of another there is an immediate bond, even if the two are strangers. The apostle John was so sure of this reality that he could offer this formula for assurance: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers.” And the opposite is true too: “Whoever does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14). If you do not have a real love for all Christians you are not yet a Christian. If you are not patient with other believers’ faults you are falling short of God’s will for you. Every child of God must be in the heart of every other believer; we live and die together (2 Cor. 7:3).


Believers Help Each Other

Every body part works together to maintain the health of each part and of the whole. In a utilitarian sense, we need the other parts. Without a nose a body could not smell. Without your gifts the church family would be lacking. So we all need to look for needs, seek out hurting members, and insist on doing our part. In God’s church sharing isn’t forced—Scripture doesn’t teach communalism. Instead we give willingly and cheerfully (2 Cor. 9:7). And we must seek the good of both “the inward and outward man.” Outward needs are obvious—there are bills to be paid and meals to be offered (1 John 3:16–18). The inward needs are more subtle but as important. We must offer also our “spiritual services.” “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). Pray with those who are suffering (James 5:13). Beyond simply meeting needs church family interaction is essential for a sense of unity and cohesion. Believers “have communion in each other’s gifts and graces.” The church is not a machine where each part merely performs its function, but a loving, serving family. 


Believers Encourage Each Other through Corporate Worship

We must gather for worship out of duty to God. But we also gather to fulfill our duty to each other. Corporate worship is one of the ways we encourage each other to remain in the faith, holding “fast to the confession of our hope without wavering” (Heb. 10:23, 25). When we stand alone our convictions can more easily weaken, our courage wane, and our passion cool. But there is real power in a crowd gathering for the right reasons! When we gather we can also “consider how to stir one another to love and good works” (24). Regular worship is how you show that you believe in the communion of the saints. After all, what would we think of a family member who came to family gatherings only occasionally, when it was convenient? You might question whether they understood the meaning of family. You might wonder if they knew themselves.

These concerns are exactly what makes church communion so essential, and if we understand it, so inviting. Modern people suffer from a crisis of identity. We do not know who we are. And if we accept the naturalistic theory of the universe we are simply random accidents who truly owe nothing to anyone. Christians should never view themselves like this. If you are repenting of your sins and trusting in Jesus you are joined together with every believer who is now living, has lived, or will live. That amazing truth comes with responsibilities. And if we all perform our family obligations we will surely be more and more built up into mature people in Christ.

William Boekestein pastors Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He has authored numerous books including, with Joel Beeke, Contending for the Faith: The Story of The Westminster Assembly.

[i] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, 371.


William Boekestein