A STUDY IN CHURCH LIFE AND ORDER,
With special reference to Denominational federating.*
[* References are to the Revised Version.]
Nor is there need, nor can there be hope, of improving upon the Lords orderings. He knew perfectly the purposes which His Church is to serve on earth, and knew fully the conditions of human affairs amidst which the Church must work; and He instituted through His Apostles the very best arrangements and methods for doing the intended work under the given conditions. To assume otherwise is to impute folly unto God.
It is a fallacy that the conditions
alter essentially, or indeed at all, in relation to the business of the
As, then, all the essential factors abide as they were in the apostolic times, the apostolic plan of church life and of Christian service will be, and has been, found to be as divinely suited to this age as to that; indeed, Scripturally speaking, it is but one age.
Only when human purpose has been pursued have other methods been found needful. If the Church, in this period of her Lords absence from and rejection by the world, is to uplift the masses, to control and pacify the State, to reconstruct society on the basis of brotherhood, and to transform this modern world into a Christian society, then indeed new machinery, and other power than that of the Spirit of God, must be used, these not being purposes for which He is now on earth. But as long as Christians address themselves only to the God-appointed business of standing forth as witnesses to the claims of the Lord Whom the world crucified (John 15: 26, 27; Acts 1: 8), and of gathering out from the nations a people for His name (Acts 15: 14), in preparation for their serving Him at His return and His Kingdom, so long the New Testament church organization and the apostolic lines of service will be found entirely adequate.
For the ecclesiastical doctrine of development, by which it is held that the Church has both duty and right to adapt her institutions and to alter her methods to suit the times, there is neither spiritual necessity nor Scriptural authority.
An acute writer, contrasting the apostolic work with the more usual modern missionary methods, has said that we found missions, the Apostles founded churches. The distinction is sound and pregnant. The Apostles founded churches, and they founded nothing else, because for the ends in view nothing else was required nor could have been so suitable. In each place where they laboured they formed the converts into a local assembly, with elders always elders, never an elder (Acts 14: 23; 15: 6, 23; 20: 17; Phil. 1: 1) for each group, to guide, to rule, to shepherd, men qualified by the Lord and recognized by the saints (1 Cor. 16: 15, 16; 1 Thess. 5: 12, 13; 1 Tim. 5: 17-19); and with deacons, appointed by the assembly (Acts 6: 1-6; Phil. 1: 1) in this contrasted with the elders to attend firstly to the few but very important affairs, and in particular the distribution of the funds of the assembly. Apostles and evangelists went hither and thither, acknowledged and supported but not controlled by the assembly (Acts 13: 1-4; Phil. 4: 10; 3 John 5-8). It was required that one about to give himself to the work of the Lord should have a good report from the brethren in assemblies where he was well known (Acts 16: 2); but as they would know him sufficiently, and as the Spirit of the Lord was with them to guide as much as He could be with others, no district or other companies were created to approve or disapprove of his going forth. Such were sent out at the ordering of the Lord only, and directed by the Holy Spirit (Acts 16: 10); and all that these did in the way of organizing was to form the disciples gathered into other such assemblies. No other organization than the local assembly appears in the New Testament, nor do we find even the germ of anything further.
All [regenerate] believers were to be witnesses, and could spread the gospel message, as guided and used of the Lord (Acts 8: 1; 11: 19), and thus propagation was simple. And the assembly was at once the nursery, home, school, training institute, and hospital, where all in the Fathers family were developed, and in which each was to exercise his God-given gift for the good of all. Nothing more was requisite than the due working of each several part of this body (1 Cor. 12.; Eph. 4; 1-16).
It is evident that each local assembly
was intended to be self-contained.* This was
essential, especially considering that under ancient conditions of travel and
life much and prolonged isolation was often inevitable. The
[* The theory upon which the public worship of the primitive Churches proceeded, was that each community was complete in itself. Every such community seems to have had a complete organization, and there is no place for the dependence of any one community upon another. But there was no hindrance to their rendering apostolic service. G.H.L]
Meeting in the street a godly and beloved clergyman, a neighbour, he presently said, I was passing your place on Sunday, and, by the bye, to what denomination do you belong? I replied, Did you not look at the notice board as you went by? Yes, he said, I did; but I could not see there anything about it. That, I answered, indicates to what denomination we belong. Smiling, he said, I see! But are there no other folk who believe as you do? Yes, I said, I thank God that there are many such, Well, he inquired, why do you not affiliate with them? Can you, I asked, give any Scripture which suggests that it is the mind of God that we should do so? Yes, he replied, the passage, give diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit (Eph. 4: 3). But what is the unity of the Spirit? I next asked. Well, said he Yes, yes; hem! well, how would you define it? And I said, First of all the unity of the Spirit is a spiritual unity, and not an external organization. You and I meet here in the street; we know and love each other as brethren in Christ; we say a few words to cheer each other on lifes way; and that is what I understand by keeping the unity of the Spirit.
Of this holy and heavenly unity the Church was to be full. It is its chief present glory and distinction. By this shall all men know that ye are My disciples, if ye have love one to another (John 13: 35). See how these Christians love one another.
Regeneration, upon repentance and faith, accompanied or followed by baptism in the Holy Spirit, afforded entrance to the Church spiritually considered (John 3: 3; Gal. 3: 26, 27; 1 Cor. 12: 13; Acts 1L 5; 2: 4; 8: 14-17; 10: 44, 48; 19: 1-7; Eph. 1: 13, 14).
Immersion in water was the method appointed by Christ by which one who professed to acknowledge Him as Lord was to make this confession publicly. This form of confession, meaning that one was dying out of a former circle of life and entering a new and different sphere of associations, as well known in both the Jewish and pagan world of New Testament times. The Gentile when professing to become a Jew, religiously speaking, was immersed. So when a candidate was initiated into one of the heathen religious orders, the mysteries, he was immersed. The meaning in either case was that he held himself to have died to the former sphere in which he had moved, to have been buried (in symbol) as one dead, and thereupon to have entered a new association, to the Head of which he was thenceforth utterly surrendered, and to the interests of which order he was to be devoted.
In any land and time where this is understood as among Hindus of Moslems, for example immersion should be insisted upon as a condition precedent to one being acknowledged as a Christian and admitted to the privileges of the house of God. But there are spheres where, by reason of false instruction, very many evidently regenerate persons, whose lives are markedly consecrated to Christ, sincerely believe that they have been baptized according to the Word of God, though they have not been immersed after conversion. They honestly think this latter act unnecessary because they were christened in earlier days. Directions as to how the Church should deal with these devoted but unenlightened souls cannot be found in Acts 2: 37-47, and similar passages, for these contemplate not this class but the former, those who do know the true nature of baptism, and are opposers of Christ. The needful instruction is given in Rom. 14: 1 to 15: 7: Him that is weak in faith receive ye, yet not for decisions of doubts, not even though that doubt be as to the place and force of a divine ordinance (circumcision; Gal. 6: 15, 16; 1 Cor. 7: 18, 19). Wherefore receive ye one another, even as Christ also received you, to the glory of God. Here are (1) the right angle of approach to see how many may be received, not how many ought to be excluded. (2) Those who are of the Fellowship ought to be received receive ye one another. The sole test is the persons attitude to Christ as Lord, manifested by obedience to what is known of His will, even baptism, if there is light on that command; but if there is not that light, but there is other evidence of obedience to all the light yet gained, then we should receive one another, and not penalize a true disciple for want of light. Fellowship with God, and therefore with one another is dependent upon walking in the light, that is, in that measure of light one has more than this cannot in love be demanded; and then the blood of Jesus is held to atone for involuntary ignorance (1 John 1: 7). (3) The pattern of reception is, as Christ received you; and this He graciously did as soon as ever our heart truly bowed to Him as Lord, without waiting to remove all our ignorance upon His perfect will. (4) The principle that should guide is the securing the glory of God, which is not done by shutting out of His house any whom He has already welcomed, but rather by our receiving them and helping them to walk with Him in holy fellowship with His people.
Further, as above mentioned, every company of saints was visibly organized, simply and almost loosely, after one type: with elders and deacons; with immersion in water as the public acceptance of the Christian standing and the public recognition of the same by others (Acts 2: 41); and with partaking of the one loaf and cup as a symbol of communion with Christ and each other (1 Cor. 10: 16, 17). These features, together with adherence to and teaching of the same body of divinely revealed truth, the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3; Phil. 1: 27) for which purpose the Holy Spirit qualified some as pastors and teachers (Eph. 4: 11; 1 Tim. 3: 2; Acts 13: 1) sufficiently marked the Christian communities as one circle, meeting locally, but universally one spiritual body. And this oneness was further exhibited by the fact that every member was recognized as already a member of any local assembly to which he might come by reason of lifes changing circumstances, no further formal reception being required (Rom. 14: 1; 15: 7; 16: 2; 1 Cor. 16: 10, 11; 3 John 5-8).
Of any scheme or form of interlocking of assemblies we see no trace. Neither racial, social, geographical or political groupings or divisions were to be found; yea, any such thought was wholly alien to the mind of the Lord as touching His Church.
There were the saints in the whole of a province (2 Cor. 1: 1), the church in a city (1 Cor.1: 2), the churches of Macedonia (2 Cor. 8: 1) and of Galatia (Gal. 1: 2), that is, situated in those territories, and we read of the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria (Acts 9: 31); but there was no church of Galatia or Judea or Macedonia, no combination of churches in a given area into the Church of that area, and thus by organization and locality a body corporate, distinct from the Church universal, a part only thereof.
It is remarkable to what extent this indefiniteness of outward ordering was carried. It is specially conspicuous in the sphere of public worship. Believers assembled when and where they found suitable. The first day of the week, as connected with the Lords resurrection, appears to have been preferred (Acts 20: 7), but any hour and any place were proper. Houses or catacombs were equally sanctified. And being gathered, no visible leader was in evidence, nor was a pre-arranged programme followed. Two or even three prophets might address the assembly; psalms, prayers and other exercises were introduced spontaneously (1 Cor. 14.).
Great emphasis is laid on this as
being the divine intention by the fact that upon gross disorders arising, and
the gatherings becoming unseemly and unprofitable (1
Cor. 11., 14.), the Apostle by no means
suggests any other form of service, but only lays down general principles, the
application of which would prevent disorder and promote edification, the method
of worship continuing essentially as before.
There was indeed a duty to restrain vain and deceitful talking (1 Tim. 1: 3; Tit. 1: 10-16); but there was no
legislative or coercive power; the authority of the elders was purely moral;
how then was it to be maintained? Let
the question be pondered and the New Testament be scrutinized, and much will
then come to light as to the proper spirit and method and control of the
All this is highly noteworthy, because unusual and unpromising. Surely so inarticulate a society will suffer speedy disintegration. So flimsy a structure will scarcely support its own weight, and still less will withstand the strain of outward tempests. What else but disorders can be expected in public assemblies in which apparently every man may do what is right in his own eyes?
And yet we say that the Church is a divinely ordered institution, and that very plainly these are methods and features that marked it in its earliest and palmist days. Then upon what principles did the Head of the Church proceed? and why did He ordain such conditions?
The answer is not difficult to discover, and is found in four main considerations.
The Church is a society to be gathered out from all the world, and is to include men of every tribe and tongue and people and nation (Mark 16: 15; Rev. 5: 9, 10). Therefore its construction and methods must be easily capable of universal application. Methods and forms which have only local or racial or class suitability are contrary to the genius and the need of the Church. The simple apostolic instructions have been found entirely workable to-day as in the first century, amongst converted savages and cultured Europeans, by every race and in every country. Of no other form of organization can this be said unreservedly.
Degenerate Christendom, upon becoming
the State religion, modelled its institutions in the elaborate and rigid iron
mould of the
The principle of universality applies to many questions, for example, to that of Church discipline. Believers have often been excommunicated on the ground of divergence of doctrine. How far does the Word of God justify this course? It is clear that if one deny the truth of the person of Christ, that He is truly God come in flesh (2 John 9, 10), or the necessity for the sufficiency of His death for reconciling men to God (Gal. 1: 6, 9), he is not on Christian ground at all, has no place in the Church of God, and should not be received, not even to social fellowship if he is one who professes to be a brother. Also, one practising moral evil is to be put away (1 Cor. 5: 9-13), and those who defy the united judgment of the whole assembly in a manner of wrong-doing, are to be treated as non-Christians (Matt. 18: 17). Further, no company is to be kept with a brother whilst he refuses the authority in the house of God of the Apostles and their writings (2 Thess. 3: 14, 15), though in the two last instances discipline need not necessarily proceed as far as formal excommunication.
But what Scriptural warrant is there for excommunicating a true disciple for error in doctrine? The shutting of the door of the house against a member of the family, thus forcing him out from the one sphere on earth in which God is known into the outer world-realm of darkness and danger over which Satan rules, is so solemn an act, fraught with such serious consequences in this age and the next, and is withal so sorrowful a reproach upon the whole family, that we ought to have the same clear mandate from the Head of the house for taking this course on the ground of doctrinal error as is given in the case of evil living. In the latter case 1 Corinthians 5: 13 is explicit: put away the wicked man from among yourselves: where is the equally plain command for the former case? The instances (Rev. 2.) of the Nicolaitans, Balaamites, and Jezebel will not suffice, for in each of these not only teachings but hateful works, as fornication and idolatries, are in question, bring them under 1 Corinthians 5: 13. It is thus also in the cases mentioned in 1 Timothy 1: 19, 20. For those persons had definitely thrust from them (1) faith, as the principle of holy living; (2) a good conscience, so that their works would not be good: and (3) they had gone on to blaspheming. They had ceased from any Christian profession as entirely as a sailor ends his voyage by shipwreck. Indeed, they seem to have gone out, and did not need to be put away.
Let now the rule of universality be applied. Converts from paganism or Islam constantly bring over into their converted life many wholly erroneous notions, and it is ofttimes long ere these are banished from their minds. If discipline were exercised until those only were left who were presumed not to differ from any orthodox dogma the most alarming and cruel havoc would be made in the assemblies in mission spheres.
The New Testament exhibits this
feature, and shows how the Holy Spirit through the Apostle Paul dealt with the
situation. In the Corinthian assembly
were both moral vices and false doctrine.
Believers were retaining and
spreading the general pagan denial of a resurrection of the dead (1 Cor. 15.), involving,
of course, their annihilation, with, by implication, that of Christ
Himself. That Paul taught the
everlasting [age-lasting] punishment of them that obey not the Gospel we hold as beyond
question, which makes his attitude on this occasion the more noticeable. He gives positive command that the evil liver
shall be excommunicated, but does not so much as hint at this course in the
other case, though the doctrine was a fundamental error, fatal to the Christian
faith. He argues the question fully,
demonstrates the truth, and ends by including the errorists amongst his beloved brethren and exhorting them, as the others,
to persevere in the work of the Lord!
And so far was the Apostle from refusing to visit the assembly because
of such teaching being allowed, and such evils being tolerated, that he was the
rather fully proposing to go (1 Cor.
11: 34; 2 Cor. 13: 1). They were a
Thus there are measures suited to the case, such as firm but loving remonstrance (1 Cor. 15: 12); a full, public exposure of the error (1 Cor. 15: 12-19), as to its nature, and its evil connections and consequences (1 Cor. 15: 33, 34); plain setting forth of the counteracting truth, for the recovery of the misled and the safeguarding of all; together with a definite restraint upon the teaching of the false doctrine. These measures, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, will result either in the happy deliverance of the errorist, or in the creating of an atmosphere and situation so intolerable that he will be likely to withdraw. They went out not, were cast out is said of even antichrists (1 John 2: 19). Casting out was the method of such as loved the pre-eminence (3 John 10; John 9: 34). The long exercise of love and patience will be very good for the assembly, and particularly for the elders; the investigation and exposition required will conduce to general confirmation in the faith; and the risk of friction and disruption will be generally reduced.
But these measures require much spiritual vigour for their successful application, whereas excommunication is too often but the resort to force by those who are officially powerful but morally impotent, and this not by any means in the Church of Rome alone.
The bitterness, strife and chaos which have been the direct outcome of mutual excommunications challenge the method as being not of the Lord. The misguided brother is seldom recovered; most frequently the evil is aggravated rather than cured, and so other conditions are induced worse than the error itself.
Upon this question we have dwelt somewhat at length, both because it is germane to this branch of our subject, and because, if we mistake not, it will become increasingly urgent in the near future. For the affiliation of denominations to which reference will be made later, will be wholly not of God, and it will result that the enlightened and faithful children of God now in the bodies in question will be forced out of the same in loyalty to Christ. At that time, when Satan will have united thus his own religious forces, he will work untiringly to divide further the people of God by hindering the unity of those who are really Christs; and one of his old and trusted weapons will be mightily employed, even the persuading saints that agreement in creed is more important than brotherly love, that seeing eye to eye must take precedence over the possession of a common family life, that orthodoxy is of greater moment than devotion to Christ and His interests. It deserves to be most widely known, as a fact not open to question, that the requiring acceptance of doctrinal propositions as a test for Christian fellowship did not obtain until several generations later than the Apostles. Dr. Hatch has indicated that the practice was derived from the Greek schools of philosophy.*
[* Hibbert Lectures The Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages upon the Christian Church (399, et seq.)]
For ourselves we hope that we are wholly and strenuously orthodox on all fundamental doctrines; it is our desire to contend earnestly for the faith, nor would we countenance the teaching of error in the assemblies; it is here only a question of what is the Scriptural attitude toward those who do differ in belief, whilst true to the Lord Jesus as the Son of God and the only Redeemer. And it seems to us that any rule which was not applied in apostolic times and assemblies, and which could not be applied profitably in all assemblies, is not warranted in any assembly.
To this rule of universality the Apostle refers in 1 Corinthians 7: 17 and 11: 16, applying it to aid the settlement of two vexed questions; and again in chapter 14: 33, where the Nestle Greek text puts the period after peace: God is not the author of confusion, but of peace., and then commences a new sentence: As in all the assemblies of the saints, let your women keep silence in the assemblies, etc.
A second reason for the primitive type of church life was that the Lord and the Apostles contemplated the rapid dissemination of the gospel and expansion of the Church; and this was seen. Diffusion, not concentration, is the law of the Churchs activities. GO is our Masters key word as to method (Matt. 10: 5, 6, 7; 28: 19). The Church was to be a mobile force, like the Greek phalanx, not an unwieldy mass like the Persian hosts. Such a force dispenses with all possible impedimenta. Now complex machinery takes much time to construct and erect; it is long it can be in running order. This forbids rapid extension, and speedy removal. The work in hand needed a form of instruction which could be quickly planted, would rapidly take root, and form the first flourish in every soil and clime. The simplicity of the apostolic assembly met this necessity. Forms of church life which converts can only slowly and dimly comprehend, which take long to institute, and remain to the end cumbersome and complicated, and neither suitable nor Scriptural.
Statesmen have ever to bear in mind the possibility of war, and to order the state accordingly, even in times of peace. In the delimiting of frontiers, in setting routes of railways and roads, and in many other matters, this dread eventuality must be a determining factor. Similarly, the Lord knew that His Church must be so constructed as best to endure the severe strain of extended periods of persecution.
An interesting hint of this is the
very small place that is given in the epistles to singing, which is in very
marked contrast to the general modern western practice. In the worship of
The extreme simplicity of assembly
organization was admirably suited to periods of oppression. Fearless elders could persevere in tending
the sheep, and devoted deacons in caring for the poor, though the storm
raged. Assembly worship could proceed,
and the holy ordinances be observed, wherever two or three could meet in His
name. This machine could keep running
when an elaborate mechanism would collapse.
The rubber ball yields to the blow and survives, when the stone would
smash. The forest dweller hides till the
cruel raider has passed, and then easily replaces his simple tools and returns
to his simple life, whereas the strong complex and artificial affairs of
civilization are long in recovering from war.
The more imposing the edifice the more easily it is found by the gunner. The more obvious and obtrusive an
organization the more readily it is attacked and ruined, and all shattered that
depended upon it as a structure. This
the proud and painted
This consideration never will be obsolete in the experience of the people of God in this age (Luke 21: 12; 1 Pet. 4: 12-19), and least of all as its end approaches. Satan will then become the more wrathful as his time of liberty nears its close (Rev. 12: 12; 17: 6). The wise lay plans today, and adopt methods, which will bear the strain of to-morrow. He is the worst prepared who is least prepared for the worst.
By this is meant a state of heart dominated by the realities of heaven, the spirit world. Such a heart therefore is characterized by a supreme regard to things immaterial and invisible. It serves the Creator rather than the creature, and counts upon Him for energy and order; it is more concerned with moral quality than material circumstances; it lives in the present in the light of eternity.
In the sphere of the Assembly of God the spiritual man has regard first and always to a momentous but physically undiscoverable fact, even that the Lord the Spirit is personally present (1 Cor. 3: 16), and, as reverence requires, is to be habitually owned, deferred to, and depended upon. His will concerning the House of God is set forth in His writings (1 Cor. 2: 13); behaviour in that House is to be as befits His presence (1 Tim. 3: 14, 15); the exercises of public worship are to be directly controlled by Himself, He moving each heart (1 Cor. 12: 7-11); offences in the House are committed against Him (Acts 5: 1-11); and He it is Who orders and makes effective the labours of the Lords servants who go forth from the House to constrain others to come in.
Here is a primary clue to Gods
methods. As is the power so is the
But when the Holy Spirit is grieved, when failure appears and edification is ceasing, it is the changeless tendency of the human heart to resort to visible, material and mechanical measures in order to maintain a semblance of the real. It is in sub-apostolic literature that we first read of a person unknown to the New Testament, a presiding officer at public worship. That Paul as an evangelist should have a preaching station (Acts 19: 9) where he habitually taught truth that he alone in that place knew is one thing, and it may be held to justify gatherings specially for the ministry of the Word by acknowledged teachers and preachers; that on the occasion of a rare and farewell visit (Acts 20: 7, 11) the Apostle, in assembly, might occupy almost the whole time with priceless exposition is fully comprehensible;* but never did even an apostle regularly conduct and monopolize the exercises of the assembly of saints as if the Lord were absent and His Spirit not there to lead as He saw fit. This was a device resorted to as the Spirits power was withheld on account of tolerated evil and waning faith.
[* It is to be noted that on that occasion ministry of the Word both preceded and followed the breaking of bread. Both are in order, as the Spirit leads. To lay down rules is to restrain Him.]
But the Spirit of holiness being resisted, rules of conduct will not conserve spirituality, nor even morality for long; the Spirit of truth being rejected, creeds will not preserve the faith inviolate; the Spirit of God being restrained, forms of service will not compensate; the body without the S[s]pirit is dead; the organism is now but an organization. If the coherent power of life is gone, the frame may be bound and moved by wires, but it is but a skeleton, however finely dressed.
By this process the Church steadily ceased to be a testimony to the existence, presence and working of the living and true God. Less and less often did unbelievers coming into the assembly, and beholding in the spirit and unity and conscience-searching power of the worship, the evidences of His presence and control, exclaim: God is among you indeed (1 Cor. 14: 24, 25). God was worshiped, but was absent: and presently the beauteous divine simplicity of the first days had been materialized into the lifeless magnificence of Roman ritual.
The true remedy for decline is repentance for sin, shown by humiliation and fasting before the Lord, with steadfast and expectant trust in His mercy; beseeching that He will again take His own place in the assembly, and again reveal His own sufficiency along the line of His own appointed methods. To resort to non-apostolic organization is but to sin more deeply against Him, to depart more thoroughly from His ways, and so more surely to confirm the un-spirituality and ineffectiveness of the Church. For the more subtle the force operating the more it is retarded by apparatus; as witness, in successive contrast, the steam engine, the telephone, and wireless telegraphy.
But if the due recognition of the invisible Lord as present to control His Church is a first mark of the spiritual man, very surely is it a second sign that the impotency, the nothingness, of man in himself is acknowledged (John 15: 4, 5). Spirituality implies humility; humility involves dependence. Elihu truly remarked that one clue to Gods ways with men is that He wishes to withdraw man from his own self-chosen purpose, and hide pride from man, that He may keep back his soul from the pit, toward which all mans progress takes him (Job 33: 17, 18).
Because distrust of God is the very root of sin, therefore salvation must of necessity be by faith in God; because pride is the very climax of wickedness, therefore all Gods methods must tend to humble man. Lest man should be confirmed in conceit of intellect God will not suffer the world by the wisdom of its own philosophising to discover Himself (1 Cor. 1: 21). Lest there should be boasting in birth or wealth or power, and so we be hardened in the pride that ruins, God has commonly chosen for His purposes persons that are accounted poor and base and weak (1 Cor. 1: 26-29). So that man shall of necessity be delivered from self-esteem, salvation reaches him through One Whom men crucified as a Malefactor (1 Cor. 2: 2): and so that no credit for the work should attach to the servant, but all glory ascend to the Lord, the mighty miracle of changing and cleansing the foul heart of man is wrought by so unlikely a means as a mere human testimony concerning that Saviour Who was crucified through weakness.
This principle is equally as needful
in the life and work of the assembly as in evangelistic labours. It is fatally easy for Christians to depend
upon and boast in the carefully planned and splendidly equipped organization of
their own devising. In the executive
officers of a great society there easily arises the spirit that says, Is not this great
In apostolic times the entire absence of inter-assembly organization effectually delivered from this danger. The mustard plant, had it remained that, had not been tempted to wave its lordly branches over the other trees, nor to thrust in its mighty trunk to defy the winter tempests. Conscious weakness both saves from the deadly peril of self-confidence and makes room for the mighty power of God. My strength, said Christ to Paul, reaches perfect display in your weakness: then, declares the true servant, Most gladly I glory in weaknesses, for when I am weak, then am I truly strong, and thus is served the whole end of my life, the full and final desire of my heart, even that Christ be magnified (2 Cor. 12: 9, 10).
Christ! I am Christs! and let the name suffice you:
Ay, for me too He greatly hath sufficed.
He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.
With these principles in mind it is easy to see why the Apostles, being in their Lords secret, founded local assemblies of so simple a type. The Head of the Church contemplated and prepared for universality, expansion, persecution, and spirituality, as essential, abiding conditions.
The evils that have resulted from departure from the apostolic pattern cannot be exaggerated.
A Welsh itinerant used to say that, as he traversed the countryside preaching, sometimes he was lodged like an apostle and sometimes like a bishop: as the former when a goatherd gave him a litter of straw at night the black bread and water for breakfast; as the latter when at the squires he fared sumptuously and reposed on a feather bed. It shall be freely conceded that not all bishops have incurred this humorous reproach. Some, for Christs sake, have endured the hardships of the pioneer missionary; some have lain in cold prison cells, and some have sustained the fiery ordeal of death at the stake. But taking the long centuries through, and viewing all countries, it cannot be denied that the satire is too well deserved.
And how came it that the lowly despised elder of the apostolic days, a man set forth as a spectacle of reproach, accounted the offscouring of all things, degenerated into the proud domineering hierarch? Merely as a psychological phenomenon the matter is of interest.
A learned church historian has offered this explanation. He remarks that the aforementioned presiding elder was already, in sub-apostolic times, the almoner of the gifts of the faithful for the poor. He thus became the centre round whom the vast system of Christian charity revolved. Of this vast system of ecclesiastical administration the [overseer, bishop] was the pivot and the centre. His functions in reference to it were of primary importance.* How wide a circle of the believers was involved may be gauged by the fact that alms were distributed not only to the general poor, itself a large class in those disordered times, but to orphans, widows, travellers, and the ever increasing army of ecclesiastical officials and servants. Thus the needy were a considerable section of the Christian community, and they became dependant upon the goodwill of the president; and the power of the purse being a most ready instrument by which a Diotrephes could gain the pre-eminence he coveted, more and more the financial and administrative influence was gathered into the hands of the bishop; and thus it was from so seemingly innocent a beginning that the upas tree started to grow, to be aided later by other influences that further centered authority in the bishop.
[* Dr. Hatch The
Organization of the Early
In many an English parish the same process is at work, and the resulting spiritual bondage is in force, by church funds and local charities being controlled by the vicar.
But how startling is this as evidence that every departure from apostolic details is pregnant with calamities. That one either should become the presiding official was one change; that an elder should handle assembly funds was another.
This latter was what the Apostles themselves had expressly refused to do (Acts 6: 2, 3). Final power was advisedly relegated to those who had no spiritual rule over the assembly. What divine wisdom was here; for thus the authority of the spiritual guides remained purely moral and morally pure.
And yet how easily could such alterations be justified. Was it not seemly that one whom God had been pleased to endow with special administrative ability should be the acknowledged leader? and particularly as thereby unqualified men were hindered from obtruding themselves in public. Then perhaps the deacon was a very busy person, and why should not the elder do the work quite as well? Indeed, was not the latter the more likely to be visiting from house to house? and is not economy of time and labour a virtue? Yet the sequel has shown that the foolishness of God is wiser than men.
Similarly, if in the observance of the Lords Supper there is preserved the essential features of an eastern social meal, the guests gathered around the board, and the bread and the cup passing familiarily from hand to hand, it is all but impossible that the office of the Mass, with its dogma of transubstantiation, should be attached to the ordinance. For in such simple, artless, yet withal solemn, observance there is obviously no room for an elevated altar with worshippers kneeling before it, and a consecrating celebrant with gorgeous and symbolic vestments. The external simplicity protects the internal essence.
In like manner evils manifold and great would have been avoided had the unaffiliated intercourse of apostolic assemblies been retained.
A few of these evils it will be well to consider carefully.
1. Some have been mentioned, such as the danger of humility and God-dependence being lost in pride of organization and confidence therein. Again, dependence upon the visible and material diminishes spirituality of heart. Of this we have before spoken. It is a process which begins very subtly, almost imperceptibly. Merely as an example of the small details through which danger may enter, and over which therefore a spiritual watch should be kept, we mention this case. At a conference of a certain movement it pleased God to give marked blessing. In consequence, gatherings were held in other centres, it being explained that the desire was that the conference message should be spread. Such a brief term is certainly convenient; yet lurks there not in it a danger of drawing too much attention to the Conference, to the channel of the truth rather than the Author thereof. If we mistake not, it is the never absent peril of an organization obtruding itself, and drawing the hearer to itself. It is a very fine edged rail that sidetracks the train.
2. Organization begets in man a sense of power eminently perilous to the work of God. Uzziah waxed exceeding strong he built towers and fortified them he had an army mighty men of valour that made war with mighty power And his name spread far abroad; for he was marvellously helped, till he was strong. But when he was strong, his heart was lifted up, so that he did corruptly (2 Chron. 26.). By contrast, Paul, when being most mightily used of God in pagan Corinth, is there, in weakness and in fear and in much trembling; and thus Hudson Taylor said that when God decided to open inland China to the Gospel He looked round to find a man who was weak enough for the purpose.
When in each early church a presiding bishop had usurped authority, it naturally followed that these should meet together to further common interests. It further followed naturally enough that the bishop who was head of the largest and richest congregation in a district should have most influence in such a council, especially as usually only a powerful personality would reach such a chief position. And because the church in a chief district city or the capital of a province was pretty certain to be the largest and richest, it inevitably followed, from this amongst other causes, that the city bishop became in time the Metropolitan of the province. And by that time Christianity had become the state religion and unregenerate members had multiplied exceedingly; and with such a backing and with such resources how powerful was the public influence the Metropolitan could exert, and how destructive of spirituality was the possession of such power!
Let there be remembered the all too faithful picture that Kingsley gives in Hypatia of Cyril of Alexandria early in the fifth century, a picture painfully true of what Christendom in general had then and thus become. Cyril can marshal his hordes of baptized heathen and let them loose to loot the Jewish quarter, and the Prefect dare not interfere. Cyrils subordinates shall barbarously and indecently murder Hypatia in the crowded basilica itself, and the Bishop will haughtily refuse the Prefects demand that he shall surrender the chief criminal for due punishment. Such lawless doings and such ungodly resistance of civil authority had been wholly impossible had not affiliation of churches superceded the Lords instruction.
But further, as local bishops came together under their metropolitan, so in turn these chief bishops would presently confer upon universal matters; and as the capital of each province gave prestige to its bishop, so the bishop of the imperial city first claimed, and presently received, primacy over all bishops. The Papacy had never ruled in the House of God had affiliation of churches not prepared the way.
And what is the Free Church Council in
How utterly all this is at variance with the apostolic spirit and practice needs not to be demonstrated to the spiritually minded student of the New Testament.
Probably four chief elements entered into the resort to organization. First, Satans set purpose to paganized the Church, in which scheme he was ably served by certain of the church Fathers; second, lust of power by the ambitious and worldly-minded, like to that Pope who regarded Christianity as a profitable farce; third, the false, non-apostolic conception that it is the business of the Church to Christianize the nations, leading to the obliterating of that rigid line of demarcation between those regenerate by personal faith in Christ and those not so; and fourth, the desire to frustrate persecution, and so to avoid suffering for Christs sake. None of these ends could have been so well and easily served without inter-church organization.
3. Another chief peril to be pondered is the undue influence that church affiliation puts into the hands of a few masterful men.
The domination by the Jesuits of the hundreds of millions of Romanists is the chief modern example. But all the established churches illustrate the point. For the chief officers of these organizations being appointed by the heads of state an effective state control is easily maintained.
The nonconformist bodies reveal the same dangerous feature. At the first, truth loving disciples formed into congregations for the godly end of upholding and spreading the faith of the gospel, and then it was well indeed. Persecuted and reproached they flourished spiritually, and the work of God prospered. Presently delegates from such churches met for conference and business; inter-church organization resulted, and now, as in earlier times, was the great Enemys opportunity. For stealthily and steadily there have been introduced into chief places men of capacity and learning, but not devoted to the Lord and His truth; and do-day few are the Nonconformist bodies that as such are faithful to God and His Word, save perhaps in the formal retention of a disregarded or misexplained creed!
Under the apostolic arrangement a designing leader or a false teacher must be visited, either personally or by delegates, each assembly separately, so as to gain its adherence to his course or doctrines. Even under these hampering conditions danger was not wholly avoidable (Gal.; 2 Tim. 1: 15); but at least landslides so rapid and extensive as have been seen to-day were all but impossible. The fatal instrument has been church affiliation, with the resulting central organization, from which streams of thought, suggestion, and personal influence flow out at once to all parts of the affiliated body.
In even so seemingly unorganized a community as the Exclusive Brethren the same principle has worked disaster. For an organization exists in mens mind before and independently of a written constitution, and indeed its principles may be quite effectively worked without ever being reduced to formal propositions.
The apostolic conception was that each regenerate person, indwelt by the Spirit of life, was a member of a living, universal, invisible society, having no universal, visible, organized exhibition, but was also a member of such local, visible assembly as existed where he might be. Consequently a local assembly could shut out the individual from its fellowship; and if it did so on divinely warranted grounds that decision would be ratified in heaven (Matt. 18: 18), and should, of course, be accepted by all other assemblies fully aware of the facts. But the responsibility of such excommunication was with the local assembly only, and the endorsement thereof was by each other local assembly separately, if and when the one excommunicate presented himself for fellowship.
But the Exclusive Brethren developed discipline a stage further, even that if assembly B did not ratify the excommunicatory sentence of assembly A, the latter assembly must excommunicate the former assembly as such; and thus arose the cutting off by assemblies not only of the individual, which is Scriptural, but of an assembly as a whole, for which practice no example or warrant is found in Scripture.
Now whilst the individual, being in fact a member of the local assembly, could be cut off from that body, out of what body could an assembly as a whole be excised? Something cannot be cut off from nothing; the part implies a whole; and it is obvious that corporate excommunication of this sort involves the conception of all the assemblies being in their aggregate a body corporate, or there would be nothing out of which to remove an assembly. So that the non-Biblical notion of an affiliated, universal, visible church underlies, as a working conception, the unhappy world-wide divisions of these devoted Christians.
This conception being generally adopted, amongst them also it resulted that a few powerful personalities and writers dominated the whole circle of their assemblies.
4. But there is another, though kindred, type of affiliation which needs consideration.
This is not the affiliating of local
assemblies as a whole, but a group of persons in an assembly with similar
groups in other assemblies. For example,
in a certain local church there was formed an organization for assisting to
retain and develop young Christians. The
plan adopted approved itself, and presently was copied by another and another
church; and shortly these local groups were affiliated into a society, with
various agencies of inter-communication.
The result is a society within a
society. Within the
Clearly this circle is exposed to all the dangers before noted, even pride of greatness and influence; dependence upon numbers and organization; a consciousness of power, with risk of abuse thereof; a few gaining a dangerous influence; and the consequent peril of early and rapid decline of spirituality.
But there are other and special
perils. Of these one is that the presence of a great visible society
tends to hinder, or at least dim the perception of the majesty of the true
Then, as such a society becomes greater its claims upon the interest, time and funds of its members increase. Special literature must be read, and paid for; Society conferences must be attended, and paid for; the Societys social gatherings and its religious and philanthropic efforts receive precedence, or one is deemed negligent of the Societys advancement.
An honest endeavour to negative this peril may be made. Members may be exhorted to remember that the Society is strictly subordinate to the local church, and some older persons may perhaps succeed in maintaining this attitude. But the many, and especially the youthful, will find this difficult. It might have been otherwise if the local church had remained the only connection of the Society, but the affiliation of all the branches into one organization will result in practice, and for the many, in the Society having the preference, in it tending to become for such virtually their church.
We are not theorizing, but testify that which we have seen in years of close observation.
Nor are we condemning special attention being given to the young. Let each assembly, if it find it profitable, have a gathering for helping the youthful in their special problems, or for fostering missionary enthusiasm, or for furthering evangelistic labours at its doors. Only let such special efforts remain local, no matter in how many assemblies they may exist, and let there be no attempt to affiliate these local meetings or classes into an inter-assembly federation.
That affiliation affords impetus and
momentum is certainly true; but what if the direction be wrong? Of course the pioneer must by necessity be an
enthusiast; and each such will fondly believe that he will sail safely where
all before him made shipwreck. There
seems no inherent reason why the perils indicated should not be avoided, so let
another attempt be made! But the uniform
experience of long centuries and colossal experiments is a lighthouse not to be
disregarded. There must be some reason
why, in the affairs of the
It will now be easy to determine what should be the attitude of the godly to the gigantic movement for federation to-day fermenting and heaving in the western religious world.
The amalgamating of divided sections
of originally united bodies has long proceeded.
The federating in
For the parties concerned there is
urgent enough need of such amalgamation, there being dread danger ahead. Democracy in all
But if affiliating of assemblies into denominations is unscriptural, how much more an amalgamation of sects, seeing that sectarianism itself is not of God. An amalgam of base metals will never produce the pure gold of the New Jerusalem. For be it well noted that not in the slightest degree is this an attempt to return to God and His Word, so as to readopt His thoughts and methods for His house.
Again Bishop Welldon may be cited, noting especially the words we have put in italics: The Church of England indeed stands at the parting of the ways. There are two conceptions of her character and therefore of her destiny. The Bishop then refers to the Roman conception, and continues: According to the other she is properly wide, generous, sympathetic, comprehensive; the Church of the nation in its largest and truest sense, as embracing the greatest possible number of spiritually minded English men and English women, from sacerdotalists on the one hand, to modernists on the other (Ibid). Thus the coming anti-Biblical, soul destroying Church, it is desired, should embrace every variety of opinion and practice, from extreme priest craft to extreme theological infidelity: so that the birds of the heaven come and lodge in the branches thereof (Matt. 13: 32; cf. verses 4 and 19).
Yet again leading nonconformists and evangelical Churchmen, met expressly to further reunion, have publically accepted the doctrine of salvation by sacraments,* and some prominent nonconformists seem ready to submit to episcopacy itself, thus returning to the soul ruining dogmas and sacerdotal bondage in resisting which their forebears freely forfeited treasure, liberty, and even life. Nay, so little of the Lord is there in this project that a prominent religious journal long since wrote of this proposed Federation that not even an opinion as to the historicity of Jesus can be made into a test of membership.**
[* Report of World Conference on Faith and Order. Times, Feb. 23, 1916.
With such a shameless abandonment of the Son of God openly urged, and with so low a motive as the struggle for life a controlling impulse, what can be expected but that such a Federation shall duly exhibit in acme all the worst features of which church affiliation is the natural begetter? Pride of place; lust of power; dread of persecution, with a ready resort to force against nonconformers; reliance upon externalism and meretricious attractiveness; employment of the occult and superstitious, as in baptismal regeneration, transubstantiation, talking images, and the like; the few controlling, the many enslaved; civil authority dominated, or resisted on non-apostolic grounds; the divine Head of the Church ousted from control by a self-styled Vicar; these have been, are, and will be as revealed in the prescient Word of God among the characteristics of the religious combine now it would seem preparing for its final phase. Instead of the lowly herb, lo, the towering tree; in place of a little flock, behold, a vast corporation; instead of sheep ready to be slaughtered, there are hireling shepherds enough eager to fleece their flocks and fatten upon them.
But let us not mistake the situation that will thus arise. This gigantic conglomerate of sects is Christless in all but name; it does not by any right or means really present the Church of the living God of which the rejected Son of God is at once Founder and Foundation. In obscure spots the lowly herb still flourishes, though amidst storms; the little flock still waits upon the Great Shepherd; the House of God has not been razed; the gates of Hades have not prevailed. Weak and insignificant, the faithful followers of the Lamb are nevertheless triumphant, more than conquerors through Him that loved them. As God reckons victory, aye, and as the Devil reckons victory, if he hold the truth, they, and not he, are victors; for he has aimed to drive them from trusting in Christ and from witnessing to Christ, and he has failed and they have won. They overcame him (as the Accused before God) because of the blood of the Lamb, which they trusted and pleaded; and they defeated him before men because of the word of their testimony, in maintaining which they loved not their lives, but surrendered them even unto death rather than cease that testimony (Rev. 12: 10, 11).
Security and true success are assured to the disciple if he but hold fast the Head (Col. 2: 19). Let Christ be given His rightful place as the Lord of the individual and the Head of the body, the Church, and all shall be well. But this demands faith faith in Him as sufficient and in His methods as perfect. As faith is only genuine and saving as far as it constrains to ready obedience regardless of cost. Let disciples obey as children and love as brethren, pray as believers and serve as slaves, toil as warriors and suffer as witnesses, and they shall know of a surety that the risen Lord is indeed with them all the days even unto the consummation of the age, a help in distress, very readily found (Darby, New Translation, Psa. 46: 1). And in relation to the special topic here discussed obedience means that the child of God shall sedulously cultivate the fellowship and seek the soul prosperity of every individual member of the whole Church, shall earnestly promote the welfare of the local assembly, and shall reject, as being without divine warrant, every form of church affiliation.
Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world (Jas. 1: 27).
Thou hast a
few names in
He that hath an ear let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches (Rev. 3: 4-6).