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Reading the Hymns: Blest Be the Tie that Binds

May 29th, 2010 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

John Fawcett was a Baptist.

If you listen to critics of Baptists (and evangelicals), he should have had no idea about the role that community played in the Christian life.  The emphasis on individual salvation, personal piety, and going to heaven when you die leaves little to no room for the church.  And Fawcett was living in that dreaded 18th century, when such themes were at their highest.

But don’t tell that to Fawcett, whose hymn “Blest Be the Tie that Binds”  is oriented toward the extolling the beauty of Christian community within the Church.  Fawcett understood that beauty, and the sacrifice required to attain it.  He turned down the 18th century equivalent of Saddleback or Mars Hill to remain with his tiny, bad-paying parish simply because of the strength of his ties there.

It’s the sort of legacy we should remember, and probably recover.

The words are taken from Google Books’ earliest copy of the hymn, which is from 1800.

Blest be the tie that binds, our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

Notice, of course, that there is only one tie that binds.  Though Fawcett doesn’t name the Spirit, his meaning is clear.  Beneath the verses lies Paul’s words to the Phillipians:  “If there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in [the] Spirit, intent on one purpose.”

The Spirit’s role is to establish the “as above, so below” relationship.  It is a relationship that is like, which carries with it the inevitable unlike, for ours is not a unity intrinsic to our being, but established only by the God who is outside of us.

Before the Father’s throne we pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one, our comforts and our cares.

Paul’s words continue to ring even more clearly here.  And as Paul hints at elsewhere in Phillipians, it is the invocation of the community that establishes and confirms our unity, for it is before the throne where we are made one.

We share our mutual woes; our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows a sympathizing tear.

Weep with those who weep.  Bear one another’s burdens.  Fawcett is right to turn to the experience of sorrow and pain first as the expression of Christian community, for such sorrow is its foundation.

When we asunder part, it gives us inward pain
But we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again.

Locating our union in the working of the Spirit inevitably points to its incorporeal roots.  While the physical union is very much better, it is only established by the joining of heart, mind, and purpose that Paul suggests is the working of the Spirit.

This glorious hope revives our courage by the way;
While each in expectation lives and longs to see the day.

We are, of course, now accustomed to thinking about the pain of separation being overcome by the resurrection.  But we are less accustomed to thinking about the fact that the pain of separation precedes the hope of the resurrection.  In that sense, our life within the Christian community and the pains and sorrows we experience there is a life meant to train us in hope, to teach us longing for the day when we shall be reunited with those we love.

From sorrow, toil, and pain, and sin, we shall be free;
And perfect love and friendship reign through all eternity.

This is a classic statement on the goodness of the resurrection for a “classic evangelical.”  Like Billy Graham, Fawcett is primarily focused being with the one’s we love–not having the ability to cultivate the ground properly or be “culture makers.”  And in one sense, that’s not surprising:  his world was shaped by close, personal connections in a  way that mine has not been.  And so the resurrection becomes a means of restoring that which he felt the greatest sense of sorrow about.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.