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ON TERMS OF COMMUNION.
WHOEVER forms his ideas of the Church of Christ from an attentive perusal of the New Testament, will perceive that unity is one of its essential characteristics; and that, though it be branched out into many distinct societies, it is still but one. “ The Church,” says Cyprian," is one, which by
“ reason of its fecundity is extended into a multitude, in the same manner as the rays of the sun, however numerous, constitute but one light; and the branches of a tree, however many, are attached to one trunk, which is supported by its tenacious root; and when various rivers flow from the same fountain, though number is diffused by the redundant supply of waters, unity is preserved in their orgin.”
Nothing more abhorrent from the principles and maxims of the sacred oracles can be conceived, than the idea of a plurality of true churches, neither in actual communion with each other, nor in a capacity for such communion. Though this rending of the seamless garment of our Saviour, this schism in the members of his mystical body, is by far the greatest calamity
which has befallen the christian interest, and one of the most fatal effects of the great apostasy foretold by the sacred penmen, we have been so long familiarized to it as to be scarcely sensible of its enormity; nor does it excite surprise or concern, in any degree proportioned to what would be felt by one who had contemplated the church in the first ages. Christian societies regarding each
. other with the jealousies of rival empires, each aiming to raise itself on the ruin of all others, making extravagant boasts of superior purity, generally in exact proportion to their departures from it, and scarcely deigning to acknowledge the possibility of obtaining salvation out of their pale, is the odious and disgusting spectacle which modern christianity presents. The bond of charity, which unites the genuine followers of Christ in distinction from the world, is dissolved, and the very terms by which it was wont to be denoted, exclusively employed to express a predilection for a sect. The evils which result from this state of division are incalculable: it supplies infidels with their most plausible topics of invective; it hardens the consciences of the irreligious, weakens the hands of the good, impedes the efficacy of prayer, and is probably the principal obstruction to that ample effusion of the Spirit which is essential to the renovation of the world.
It is easier however, it is confessed, to deplore the malady, than to prescribe the cure : for however important the preservation of harmony and
peace, the interests of truth and holiness are still more so; nor must we forget the order in which the graces of the Spirit are arranged. “The wisdom which is from above is first pure, then peaceable.” Peace should be anxiously sought, but always in subordination to purity, and therefore every attempt to reconcile the differences among christians which involves the sacrifice of truth, or the least deliberate deviation from the revealed will of Christ, is spurious in its origin, and dangerous in its tendency. If communion with a christian society cannot be had without a compliance with rites and usages which we deem idolatrous or superstitious, or without a surrender of that liberty in which we are commanded to stand fast, we must, as we value our allegiance, forego, however reluctantly, the advantages of such a union. Wherever purity and simplicity of worship are violated by the heterogeneous mixture of human inventions, we are not at liberty to comply with them for the sake of peace, because the first consideration in
every act of worship is its correspondence with the revealed will of God, which will often justify us in declining the external communion of a church with which we cease not to cultivate a communion in spirit. It is one thing to decline a connexion with the members of a community absolutely, or simply because they belong to such a community, and another to join with them in practices which we deem superstitious and erroneous. In the latter instance, we cannot be said absolutely to refuse a connexion with the pious part of such societies, we decline it merely because it is clogged with conditions which render it impracticable. It is impossible for a protestant dissenter, for example, without manifest inconsistency, to become a member of the established church; but to admit the members of that community to participate at the Lord's table, without demanding a formal renunciation of their peculiar sentiments, includes nothing contradictory or repugnant. The cases are totally distinct, and the reasons which would apply forcibly against the former, would be irrelevant to the latter. In the first supposition, the dissenter, by an active concurrence in what he professes to disapprove, ceases to dissent; in the last, no principle is violated, no practice is altered, no innovation is introduced.
Hence arises a question, how far we are justified in repelling from our communion those from whom we differ on matters confessedly not essential to salvation, when that communion is accompanied with no innovation in the rites of worship, merely on account of a diversity of sentiment on other subjects. In other words, are we at liberty, or are we not, to walk with our christian brethren, as far as we are agreed, or must we renounce their fellowship on account of error allowed not to be fundamental, although nothing is proposed to be done, or omitted, in such acts of communion, which would not equally be done, or omitted, on the supposition of their absence. Such is the precise state
of the question which it is my intention to discuss in these pages; and it may possibly contribute to its elucidation to observe, that the true idea of christian communion is by no means confined to a joint participation of the Lord's supper. He who in the words of the apostles' creed expresses his belief in the communion of saints, adverts to much more than is comprehended in one particular act. In an intelligent assent to that article, is comprehended the total of that sympathy and affection, with all its natural expressions and effects, by which the followers of Christ are united, in consequence of their union with their Head, and their joint share in the common salvation. The kiss of charity in the apostolic age, the right hand of fellowship, a share in the oblations of the church, a commendatory epistle attesting the exemplary character of the bearer, uniting in social prayer, the employment of the term brother or sister to denote spiritual consanguinity, were all considered in the purest ages as tokens of communion; a term which is never applied in the New Testament exclusively to the Lord's supper. When it is used in connexion with that rite, it is employed not to denote the fellowship of christians, but the spiritual participation of the body and blood of Christ.*
When we engage a christian brother to present supplications to God in our behalf, it cannot be doubted that we have fellowship with him, not less real or spiritual than at the Lord's table. From
* 1 Cor. x. 16.