Christian Fellowship, With Its Duties And Advantages.

Adapted From A Sermon By

The Rev. Isaac Watts, D. D.

That together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. Romans 15:6-7

This morning, with Isaac Watts as our guide, we will consider what the Word teaches us concerning Christian Fellowship with its Duties and Advantages.

The Apostle Paul writes to the Romans in Chapter 15 Verses 6 and 7: That together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

For Christians to join themselves in particular societies or congregations, in order to carry on the great interests of religion, appears to be both a duty and a privilege: It stands upon just foundations as a duty, and as a privilege it comes with excellent advantages.

Now admittedly, the words of our text chiefly aim to teach us what is the particular rule whereby this practice should be conducted, and who should be the persons thus joined together in holy fellowship, even the gentiles who are converted to Christ, as well as the Jews: Yet the general duty is plainly declared, that is to say, that those who profess the name of Christ, and have reason to hope that Christ has received them, should also receive one another into mutual communion in all the social parts and privileges of the Christian religion, that with one mind and with one mouth they may glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In exploring this subject, these several things, under five headings, will be set before us:

I. The reasonableness of this practice.

II. Some special advantages that arise from it.

III. The characters of the persons more particularly of whom this is required, and in what numbers they should unite together to make a Christian church.

IV. The duties of persons thus united in Christian societies or churches.

V. We will consider the officers which Christ has appointed in his churches to perform peculiar services in it.

I. First, We are to consider the reasonableness of this practice, in which it will be apparent that it is the duty of those who profess the religion of Christ to agree together, and form themselves into particular societies.

i) The first reason is this, That without such an agreement to unite together in the practice of Christianity, there can be no such thing as public worship regularly maintained among Christians, nor public honors paid to God in the name of Jesus.

Now the worship of God in public assemblies is so necessary for his honor in all ages, and under all dispensations, and was so carefully practiced among the early Christians by the authority of Christ and his apostles, that we cannot be excused from it, if we profess ourselves to believe in Christ. And if there is to be such a thing as public worship maintained, the light of nature shows us there has to be some certain time, and some certain place appointed by agreement among such worshipers, since no one Christian has any authority given by the Scriptures to appoint precise times and places, and to impose them upon his brethren.

As for the place under the Jewish dispensation, God himself appointed the tabernacle in the days of Moses, and the temple in the time of Solomon, as sacred places for public sacrifices, and some peculiar solemnities of worship; but the sacredness of place is now at an end, as our Lord informs us in John Chapter 4 when he tells the Samaritan woman at the well: The hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father; and God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. John 4. 21, 24. and even during that dispensation, the synagogues throughout the land, where God was worshiped week by week by the people, were built and frequented by the agreement or consent of the people, as the light of nature directed; and the worship of Christian churches more closely resembles that of the synagogues than that of the temple.

As for the time, the first day of the week is the Christian day of worship by apostolic appointment: But Christians must still agree together on the hour, as well as the day, in order to unite in the several parts of worship.

Without such an agreement of Christians among themselves, there could be no celebration of public ordinances in a proper manner, no united prayers and praises could ascend to heaven, there would be no social attendance upon the Word preached, no participation of the great ordinance of the Lord's Supper, which is a part of social religion, a sacred feast or representation of the blessed communion which Christians have both with Christ their Lord, and with one another. For this reason they must agree on the place to meet in, that the whole church may come together in one place, as in 1 Cor. 11. 20. which speaks of coming together, and they must agree upon one hour, as implied in the command to wait for one another; 1 Cor. 11. 33.

ii) The second reason for such a practice is this, that Without an agreement to keep up such societies for worship, the doctrines of Christ and his gospel could not be so constantly and so extensively held forth to the world, and there would be no rational hope of the continuance or increase of Christianity among men.

Individual Christians die out of this world from day to day, and there would be few rising up in their place to support this religion, if there were not public assemblies appointed or agreed upon: It is in these assemblies the gospel, with all its duties and blessings, is published to the world; it is here unbelievers may come and hear the glorious truths of the gospel proclaimed in a proper light, and the name and memory, the person and offices, the graces and glories of our great Redeemer are displayed among men; 1 Cor. 14. 23. When the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter; and when the important affairs of Christianity are managed with proper order and decency, and the doctrines of our salvation are wonderfully proclaimed, unbelievers are convinced, the secrets of their hearts are made manifest, they will worship God together with us, and declare that God is really among us; verse 25. And also, those that are convinced of their sin and danger, and have fled for refuge to lay hold on Jesus as their only hope, are encouraged to come and join themselves to the church, when they see the beauty of the Lord in his gospel-sanctuary, and the appearances of his power and glory there.

II. The second thing proposed, was to describe some of the advantages of such an agreement for Christian fellowship; and here are some that might be mentioned among others:

1. It gives courage to every Christian to profess and practice his religion, when many persons are engaged by mutual agreement in the same profession and practice.

We do not love to be alone, and to be pointed at by the world, as standing and acting alone, especially in the affairs of God and religion; but when a good company unite themselves together for such a sacred purpose, this takes away the reproach of singularity; they all strengthen one another’s hands in the ways of the Lord, and they bear up with more firmness of heart against the reproaches of the world.

2. It is more for the particular edification of Christians, that such societies should be formed, where the word of Christ is constantly preached, where the ordinances of Christ are administered, and the religion of Christ is held forth in a social and honorable manner to the world.

In this way, every Christian knows where to go to hear the gospel preached, and many are instructed at once in the great things that relate to their eternal peace: In this way, those who have known the things of Christ more easily call to mind what they have learned, and are encouraged in their daily duty by the public preacher: Here their prayers and their songs of praise are united; and such a union of prayers and praises is delightful and acceptable to God who encourages us to strive together in prayer. Rom 15:30. United devotions are much more likely to obtain success.

3. Such a holy fellowship and agreement to walk together in the ways of Christ, is a happy guard against backsliding and apostasy; it is a defense against the temptations of the world, and the defilements of a sinful age.

Having given my name up to Christ in a public manner, how can I dare to renounce him? Having joined myself to the followers of Christ, how can I break those bonds, and leave them, or disgrace that holy fellowship by any known sin? Having made a public profession of my avowed obedience to Jesus as a Lord and King, how can I dare decline his service, or indulge myself in those iniquities which his gospel forbids?

4. Christians united together by mutual acquaintance and agreement, can better assist each other in everything that relates to religion, whether public or private:

They warm one another's hearts by mutual holy conversation; they support one another when ready to fall, and raise and restore those that are fallen in a spirit of gentleness; Gal. 6. 1. But as Solomon warns us, Woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! or how can one keep warm alone?; Eccles. 4. 10. Hand joining in hand adds force and strength, assistance and stability, to any purpose or design whatsoever; and frequent meeting together gives fellow-Christians opportunity of exhorting one another to maintain their common Christianity, as in Heb. 10. 25. Not neglecting to meet together… but encouraging one another, and stirring up one another to love and good works.

Christians, when they grow together in this way, can better help one another, when under difficulties, by advice, and under sorrows they relieve each other by Christian consolation and social prayers. They offer greater help and strength to each other against temptations and dangers, because they are better informed of each other's circumstances and disposition. They know one another's needs and weaknesses more, they pity one another with more tenderness, and they guard each other against the common injuries and insults of men. Happy the persons who are so united in the fellowship of the gospel, and who, by practicing these duties, and communicating and enjoying these advantages, cast a glory upon the gospel of Christ.

III. The third general heading leads us to the particular question of, Who are the persons who should, in this way, receive one another in the Lord, or join together in Christian fellowship?

The general direction of the New Testament is contained in the words of our text, that we should receive into this sacred communion all that Christ has received to partake of his salvation, and that we make no other test by which to receive persons into our particular congregations, than a credible profession of those things which Christ has made necessary in order to partake of his benefits. Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you; Rom. 15. 7. whether you be Jews or Greeks, whether you be bond or free, whatever different character you wear in the civil life, or whatever different nations gave you birth. Whoever makes a credible profession to have received Jesus Christ and his gospel, and their practice corresponds to their profession, they are to be received by us, though they may differ in particular opinions, or in particular practices, which are of less weight and importance.

This is one of the great goals of the apostle Paul's 13th chapter to the Romans. In his day there were some Christians that paid attention to Jewish ceremonies, there were others who thought themselves entirely delivered from all those requirements; some ate meat freely, while others would not; some observed particular days as holy, while others neglected to observe them; some were weak in the faith, and others strong; but they were all called to receive one another into Christian fellowship, and not to make these personal opinions an impediment to their sacred fellowship; For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men, and therefore he should not be excluded from Christian societies; Rom. 14. 1, 2, 3, 17, 18.

This is the general rule: But it has to be acknowledged, that there are some Christians whose sentiments are so directly contrary to others, in matters of worship or discipline, that it is hardly possible they should unite in public worship; as, for instance, one that believes prescribed forms of prayer to be an unlawful thing, cannot join with a society, who never pray but by prescribed forms: or one who thinks no man can be a minister, unless he is ordained by the hand of an appointed bishop, cannot unite in worship with a society whose ministers never had, nor desired such an ordination. But let each be very careful how they embrace such limiting principles.

There are others who differ so widely in some of the most important doctrines of Christianity, that they cannot worship together with any meaningful edification or comfort; For example, those who believe Christ died as a proper sacrifice of atonement for sin, and found their whole hope of salvation upon it, and wait for sanctifying influences from the Holy Spirit, cannot comfortably unite with such sort of Christians as suppose Christ to be only a messenger and prophet sent to restore natural religion to men, and who deny any atoning virtue to his death, or any influences from the Spirit to change their hearts, and make them holy.

These are articles which are so important in the religion of the gospel, that one should not unite in societies for worship, where they are no better agreed in their principles: The humble and sincere believer of the gospel of Christ would find his devotion and his edification continually interrupted by such jarring opinions and arguments, and the whole work of preaching, prayer, and praise, would be very offensive to one part, while it pleases the other. Do two walk together, unless they have agreed to meet? Amos 3. 3. They agree indeed in the name of Christianity, but their real religion seems to be of a different kind.

The general advice which most conforms to the sentiments of the great apostle, is this: “Let every person be careful that he does not too much enlarge, nor too much narrow the principles of Christianity; that he does not make any article of faith or practice more or less necessary than Scripture has made it; and that he does not raise needless barriers in his own heart, nor in the hearts of others, by too great a separation from such as our common Lord has received.”

We go on now to consider, how great the number of persons should be, which may properly form such a Christian society?

And this is left very much to the liberty and prudence of men. In general, there should be so many as to give it the name of a public assembly: And yet if there are but a few Christians within reach of one another, who can conveniently meet once a week, at the same time and the same place, for religious purposes, these may join themselves in Christian fellowship, and the promise of our Savior belongs to them, Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them; Matt. 18. 20

Now a company of Christians agreeing in the most important articles of faith and practice, and consenting to unite together to worship God through Jesus Christ in all his ordinances, and to keep up the Christian interest in the world, are properly a church of Christ. Such was the church of Corinth, such the church at Philippi, such the several churches of Galatia, and the churches of Asia, of which mention is made in the New Testament; and their agreement to worship and walk together in Christian fellowship, is that church-covenant, which in the very nature of things is necessary to constitute a regular Christian society, and to maintain the gospel in the world in the principles and practices of it: Nor can there be any Christian communion maintained in an orderly manner, without such a covenant or agreement as this is, either more plainly expressed, or necessarily implied.

IV. The fourth subject proposed, was to represent some of the duties which plainly arise from such an agreement of Christians to walk and worship together, for the support of their religion.

1. May we not say, that all the duties which the disciples of Christ owe to their fellow-Christians throughout the world, apply more particularly to those who are united by their own consent in the same religious society?

Such as to love one another, to assist, comfort, and support one another in things that relate to this life, or the life to come; to watch over and warn one another, for fear that any fall into sin; to admonish one another in love, and to restore those that are fallen with holy gentleness; and in general to fulfill all kind and friendly services to each other, in support of their common faith, and in the practice of pure religion.

We are commanded to do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith; Gal. 6. 10. and what is due to all the churches of Christ on earth, seems more particularly due to the church of which we are members, because these are within the reach of our notice and our assistance, and we expect the same friendly support from them, since we have mutually given up ourselves to one another in the Lord.

2. Those who are united by such an agreement, should most usually endeavor to attend the public assemblies and ministries of that church, where it can be done with reasonable convenience, since we have joined ourselves in society for this very purpose.

Now it is granted, that many particular circumstances in life may give a just occasion for persons, more or less frequently to join with other churches in their services, which we cannot go over now; but if upon every trivial whim we absent ourselves from that worship, and those ministries which we have agreed to support, it has a tendency to destroy that very fellowship which we engage to maintain and if each behave in this way, without just reason, to wander where they please, the minister may preach to the bare walls, nor can any ordinances be celebrated with constancy and honor.

It should also be added, that the regular attending the same ministry, is the way to obtain a more uniform and regular knowledge of the whole scheme of Christianity, since it is to be supposed, that there is more uniformity in the sentiments of the same preacher on the several parts of the Christian doctrine, and that in a course of years he will run through the various articles of faith and practice.

3. It is the duty of persons thus united, to maintain their church or society, by receiving in new members amongst them by a general consent.

Now when persons profess that they believe all the necessary and most important articles of the Christian faith, when they declare they have solemnly given themselves up to Jesus Christ as their Savior and their Lord, according to the requirements of the gospel, and when they engage to walk in all the ordinances of Christ, and desire to join with that particular society, it is the business and duty of its members to receive such professors, supposing always that their good character in life gives a probable witness to the truth and sincerity of their profession. Our text commands the converted Romans welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, and every church should receive those who desire to join with them on these principles.

4. In order to keep the church pure from sin and scandal, they should keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life, who is guilty of gross and known sins;” 2 Thess. 3. 6.

They should reprove them with just severity, as the offense deserves and if the crime be such as voids their profession, they should be cast out of the church, or excommunicated, as the Corinthian offender, who committed incest, was cast out by his brethren, when the church was gathered together at the order of the apostle; 1 Cor. 5. 4, 5, 7, 11, 13. They must purge the evil person from among themselves, lest they be charged with encouraging or indulging iniquity.

When there are settled elders or ministers among them, these ought to go before the church, in a way of advice and direction according to the will of Christ, and by their lips persons should be received into, or cast out of the congregation: This is called the “discipline of the church.” Yet it is still to be deemed an act of the church; for Paul's epistles, which are written to the churches, require them to receive worthy members, and they are required to cast out those who are proved to be unworthy: Therefore this sentence inflicted on the Corinthian sinner is called the punishment by the majority; 2 Cor. 2. 6. and in the 7th and 8th verses, the church is commanded to forgive and receive him again upon his deep repentance.

5. It is necessary that officers be chosen by the church, to fulfill several services in it, and for it.

Who will take upon himself constantly to speak in prayer, and be as the mouth of the people to God? Who shall preach, and be as the mouth of God to the people? Who shall baptize and administer the Lord's Supper? Who shall take care of a place for worship, or provide bread and wine for the Lord's table? Who shall collect and distribute the money of the church to the minister or the poor, if no particular persons are appointed for these purposes? But how many sorts of officers belong to a Christian church, and what their distinct services are, shall be considered under the next general heading.

6. It is the duty of those whose circumstances will afford it, to contribute of their earthly substance toward the common expenses of the society;

that is, for the provision of the place of worship, the maintenance of the minister, the support of the poor, and for every thing that relates to the outward preservation and interests of the church: And each one should give according to his ability.

7. And we should remember in the last place, That every thing of church affairs ought to be managed with decency and order, with harmony and peace.

So the apostle directs the Corinthians; 1 Cor. 14. 40. and chap. 16. 14. All things should be done decently and in order: Let all that you do be done in love: So in our text, together … with one voice, we are to glorify God. It is true, indeed, every man has a will, and particular sentiments and inclinations of his own; but the most common and peaceful way of determining public affairs, is by the will and inclination of the major part manifested by a vote: And in matters of lesser importance, it is generally wisest and safest to submit to such a determination of the majority, where it may be done without sin: But it is a very desirable thing, if possible, to do nothing without the unanimous approval of those that are concerned. If there are differences arising, those who dissent from the major part ought to be treated with all gentleness, in order to convince and persuade them to consent. But if any thing be determined by the majority, which they cannot comply with, they may peaceably make their objections; and if they please, be dismissed from that society, or depart.

V. The fifth general leads us to the question, who are the officers which Christ has appointed in his churches?

The names of the officers are these two, which probably include all the rest, overseers and deacons; so they are called; Phil. 1. 1.

Pastor, Bishops and elders, in primitive times, are all called overseers in the Greek, and seem to be the same officer. The apostle Paul, for example, gives Titus the several characters of an elders, in order to direct what sort of persons should be chosen for overseers. Their business is to teach and instruct, to go before the people in performing acts of worship, to devote themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word; Acts 6. 4. and to exhort and govern the flock, not by their own will, nor by rules of their own invention, but only by the general rules that Christ has given, which must be prudently applied to particular cases, and in weighty matters they should do nothing without the consent of the congregation. What the difference is between pastors and teachers, and whether there should be any elders who only are called to rule, but not in a stated manner to teach or administer ordinances in the church, are finer points which we will not touch upon this morning.

The other officers are called deacons, the institution of which we find in Acts 6. 1-6. and whose business it is to take care of the poor, and serve tables; that is, to see that the table of the Lord, the table of the poor, and the table of the minister are taken care of; for the apostle informs us that the poor must be taken care of, and that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel; 1 Cor. 9. 14. It also comes under the care of the deacons to take care of other miscellaneous things which relate the maintenance of public meetings.

When a Christian society is furnished with such officers, it seems to have everything within itself that is needed to the being or well-being of a church of Christ. Here are all things that are needful, which are within the power of man, for the preservation of piety and purity among them, and for the continuance of the same religion with decency and honor in a constant succession, so long as the gospel calls in new converts out of this sinful world.

And now, all that is left is to close with a few reflections upon the present topic.

Reflection I. How beautiful is the order of the gospel, and the fellowship of a Christian church! How strong and plain are the foundations, and the grounds of it! It is built on eternal reason, and the relations of things, as well as on the Word of God.

How happy it is, that the very light of nature dictates to Christians by far the greatest part of those duties which church fellowship requires, supposing still that the revealed doctrines and sacraments of Christianity are first known and acknowledged. The peculiar positive prescriptions relating to Christian churches are few; whereas the general duties are such as reason and the light of nature seem to propose and approve in all voluntary religious societies.

If a deist, who professes nothing but natural religion, once came so far as to receive the Christian faith and the sacraments, his reason would lead him into almost all the parts of Christian communion, which have been described.

It is the evil mixture of the needless and capricious inventions of men, with the plain and common dictates of the light of nature and Scripture in public religion, and the imposition of these things on conscience, that has been the disgrace and ruin of many Christian churches, and is a great offense against Christ, who is the Lord and King of his church. Reason and revelation are the only principles of his religion, and of the government of his kingdom.

II. The second reflection is: How little do they value the true interests of the Christian religion, the public honor of Christ and his gospel, or the edification and comfort of their own souls, who neglect this holy communion?

There are twenty little excuses that some people are ready to make against uniting themselves in fellowship: But let conscience do its office, and examine sincerely whether such excuses will be a sufficient apology in the great day.

Here Isaac Watts quotes the words of another eminent teacher who gives this direction to those who have given up themselves to God in Jesus Christ, an eloquent and searching summary:

Join yourselves,” says he, “as members to some particular church of Christ or other. For the better edification of his body, our Savior has appointed the erecting of particular churches. And wherever a sufficient number of persons were called, it was the constant practice of the primitive times, to unite in such societies as stated members of them, under the guidance and conduct of those pastors and teachers, which, with their own consent, the Holy Spirit had set over them to rule and feed them. This is a constitution of Christ, which is directly thwarted and opposed by a generation of loose and rambling Christians, that content themselves with bare hearing, and that too in a very odd way. For they are a sort of volatile auditors, perpetually frisking to and fro, who can fix nowhere. Were all men of this humor, there could be no such thing as particular churches, which Christ has appointed for the edifying of his members: And how they can rationally expect to flourish either in grace or peace, while they live in a direct opposition to a manifest institution of our Lord Jesus, which was not more an effect of his authority, than of his wisdom and goodness, I wish men would seriously consider. Are any of you so self-sufficient, that you need no pastor, nor the assistance of your fellow-Christians to watch over, admonish, rebuke, exhort, comfort, strengthen, and counsel you? Are there none of the churches of Christ that are pure enough? None of them that have latitude or strictness enough for you; none of them worthy enough for you to join yourself unto? When our Lord has given such variety of gifts to his ministers, is there none of them whose abilities suit you, and please your curious palates, that by settling under them you may be edified? I may say to such persons as Constantine once did to such a self-conceited man, ‘Take a ladder and climb up to heaven by thyself alone.’ In short, a society of believers walking together in gospel order, is like the excellent composure of syllables, words, and sentences, that have a great deal of sense and signification in them; but a separated and divided Christian, that will join himself to no church, is like a single letter or disjointed syllable, that is perfect nonsense.”

III. The next reflection is: How criminal are those persons who break the beautiful order and harmony of a church of Christ for trifles?

Whose extravagant moods, or whose imposing spirit raises up discord and controversy in a well-settled and peaceful church; some are irritated, because the church will not consent to let them have their own will, or because others will not obey their assumed power. Some try to make divisions on every little occasion, out of unreasonable pretenses of purity and order, where Scripture gives no plain rule. Whatever varnish may color over such practices in this world, yet such disruptive and unreasonable disturbers of the peace will receive no thanks from our Lord Jesus in the great day, whether they be pastors or members.

IV. And lastly : When we behold a society of Christians flourishing in holiness and honorably maintaining the beauty of this sacred fellowship, let us take occasion to raise our thoughts to the heavenly world, to the church of the first-born, who are assembled on high, where everlasting beauty, order, peace, and holiness, are maintained in the presence of Jesus our common Lord.

And when we meet with little inconveniences, uneasiness, and trouble in any church of Christ on earth, let us point our thoughts and our hopes still upward to that divine fellowship of the saints, and the spirits of the just made perfect, where contention and disorder have no place.

There the glories and the graces of the Redeemer, who is the head of the church, are diffused over all the happy assembly: They adore and love their God and their Savior with supreme fervor, and they love one another with pure affection; their hearts and souls are one, and they rejoice in the love of God, and in the presence of the Lamb for ever.