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The purpose of church-communion


by Dr John Owen


Dr Owen was a renowned Puritan minister of the Independent (Congregational) persuasion, whose profound and edifying works are published by The Banner of Truth Trust. C. H. Spurgeon in the 19th century said of John Owen, “It is unnecessary to say that he is the prince of divines. To master his works is to be a profound theologian.” He was born in 1616, in Stadham, Oxfordshire, England, and he died 1683 in London.



The first end of preaching the gospel is, the conversion of the souls of men unto God, Acts xxvi. 17, 18. This, we suppose, will not be questioned or denied. That the work hereof, in all churches, ought to be attended and pursued with zeal, diligence, labour, and care, all accompanied with constant and fervent prayers for success, in and by the ministers and rulers of them, is a truth also that will not admit of any controversy among them that believe the gospel, 1 Tim. v. 17, 2 Tim. iv. 1, 2. Herein principally do men in office in the church exercise and manifest their zeal for the glory of God, their compassion towards the souls of men, and acquit themselves faithfully in the trust committed unto them by the “great Shepherd of the sheep,” Christ Jesus. If, now, in any assembly or other societies professing themselves to be churches of Christ, and claiming the right and power of churches towards all persons living within the bounds or limits which they have prescribed unto themselves, this work be either totally neglected, or carelessly and perfunctorily  attended unto; if those on whom it is immediately incumbent do either suppose themselves free from any obligation thereunto, upon the pretence of other engagements, or do so dispose of themselves, in their relation unto many charges or employments, as that it is impossible they should duly attend unto it, or are unable and insufficient for it; so that, indeed, there is not in such churches a due representation of the love, care, and kindness of the Lord Jesus Christ towards the souls of men, which he hath ordained the administration of his gospel to testify,– it cannot be but that great thoughts of heart, and no small disorder of mind, will be occasioned in them who understand aright how much the principal end of constituting churches in this world is neglected among them. And although it is their duty for a season patiently to bear with, and quietly seek the reformation of, this evil in the churches whereunto they do belong, yet when they find themselves excluded,– it may be the very constitution of the church itself, it may be by the iniquity of them that prevail therein,– from the performance of any thing that tends thereunto, it will increase their disquietment. And whereas men do not join themselves, nor are by any other ways joined, unto churches, for any civil or secular ends or purposes, but merely for the promotion of God’s glory, and the edification of their own souls in faith and gospel obedience, it is altogether vain for any to endeavour a satisfaction of their consciences that it is sin to withdraw from such churches, wherein these ends are not pursued nor attainable; and yet a confidence hereof is that which hath countenanced sundry church-guides into that neglect of duty which many complain of and groan under at this day. 


The second end of the dispensation of the gospel, in the assemblies of the churches of Christ, by the ministers of them, is the edification of them that are converted unto God and do believe. Herein consists that feeding of his sheep and lambs that the Lord Christ hath committed unto them; and it is mentioned as the principal end for which the ministry was ordained, or for which pastors and teachers are granted unto the church, Eph. iv. 8-13. And the Scripture abounds in the declaration of what skill and knowledge in the mystery of the gospel, what attendance unto the word and prayer, what care, watchfulness, and diligent labour in the word and doctrine, are required unto a due discharge of the ministerial duty. Where it is omitted or neglected; where it is carelessly attended unto; where those on whom it is incumbent do act more like hirelings than true shepherds; where they want skill to divide the word aright, or wisdom and knowledge to declare from it “the whole of God,” or diligence to be urgent continually in the application of it,– there the principal end of all church-communion is ruined and utterly lost. And where it so falls out, let any man judge what thoughts they are like to be exercised withal who make conscience of the performance of their own duty, and understand the necessity of enjoying the means that Christ hath appointed for their edification. And it is certain that such churches will in vain, or at least unjustly, expect that professors of the gospel should abide in their particular communion, when they cannot or do not provide food for their souls, whereby they may live to God. Unless all the members of such churches are equally asleep in security, divisions among them will in this case ensue. Will any disciple of Christ esteem obliged to starve his own soul for the sake of communion with them who have sinfully destroyed the principal end of all church-communion? Is there any law of Christ, or any rule of the gospel, or any duty of love, that requires them so to do? The sole immediate end of men’s joining in churches being their own edification and usefulness unto others, can they be bound in conscience always to abide there, or in the communion of those churches where it is not to be attained, where the means of it are utterly cast aside? This may become such as know not their duty, nor care to be instructed in it, and are willing to perish in and for the company of others; but for them which in some cases shall provide, according to the rules of the gospel, for themselves and for their own safety, they may be censured, judged, and severely treated, by them whose interest and advantage it is so to do,– they may be despised by riotous persons, who sport themselves with their own deceivings,– but with the Lord Christ, the judge of all, they will be accepted. And they do but increase the dread of their own account, who, under pretence of church power and order, would forcibly shut up Christians in such a condition as wherein they are kept short of all the true ends of the institution of churches. To suppose, therefore, that every voluntary departure from the constant communion of such churches, is a schism from the church of Christ, is to suppose that which neither the Scripture nor reason will give the least countenance unto. And it would better become such churches to return industriously unto a faithful discharge of their duty, whereby this occasion of division may be removed out of the way, than to attempt their own justification by the severe prosecution of such as depart from them.




The Works of John Owen, Vol. 15, Banner of Truth 1991. p 115-118.