(This article embodies the substance of discussion on this subject at a conference of brothers at Chicago, Illinois, USA,November 28, 1952)
The Power of the Assembly
Now let us consider where the assembly's power lies to back up the exercise of its authority. It can be summed up in one word. It is the power of the Lord by His Spirit. So we read in 1 Corinthians 5:4-5, "In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, To deliver such an one unto Satan" etc. In this passage the apostle is speaking of what he would do in his own authority if he were present, in conjunction with the authority of the assembly. Yet the passage does define the power, and the only power to enforce discipline, whether it be that of the apostle or that of the church. It is the power of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is only as the Lord is backing up the action of His assembly with His power over the consciences of His saints by His Spirit and His Word, that there is moral and spiritual power in its acts.
In the King James version the same Greek word translated "authority" (exousia) is also often translated "power." Another Greek word (dunamis) meaning power or ability is also sometimes rendered "power." In English we think of authority as being the right or competency to act and power as being the force or energy that gives one ability to act. But since the same word (exousia) is sometimes translated "authority" and sometimes "power" only the context will enable us to determine what is the shade of meaning intended.
Of Christ it is said that, "He taught them as one that had authority, and not as the scribes" and, "With authority commandeth He even the unclean spirits, and they do obey Him" (Mark 1:22, 27). In Matthew 9:1-8 Christ heals the man who had palsy, which was an act of power giving evidence of His authority as "Son of man" to forgive sins. He had in sovereign grace taken His place as "Son of man" and so He had in His own Person both the right and competency to act and power by His Spirit to enforce His acts.
In Matthew 10 we read, "And when He had called unto Him His twelve disciples, He gave them power (or authority) against unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all manner of sickness and all manner of disease" (v. 1). Later He sends out the seventy. "And the seventy returned again with joy, saying, Lord, even the devils are subject unto us through Thy name" (Luke 10:17). The authority and power was through His Name and by His Spirit alone. The same is true in principle with both apostolic and assembly authority. Governments have a sword and parents a rod put into their hands to back up their authority with power, but neither the apostles nor the assembly had such power given them to enforce their acts. The assembly's authority to act is derived from the Lord in the midst in whose Name it acts, and the power to back up and enforce its acts of authority resides in the energy of His Spirit's working in the hearts and consciences of the saints.
All power in the church resides in the Spirit of God alone. Any other power is not spiritual power, but the power of the natural man and not of God. Even Christ as a dependent Man acted by the power of the Spirit, according to Scripture, both before and after His resurrection (Acts 1:2; 10:38; Luke 4:14, 18; Matt. 12:28).
As a glorified Man He is head over all things to His church. "Therefore, being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, He hath shed forth this, which ye now see and hear" (Acts 2:33). It is this presence and power of the Spirit that is the only power the church has. If the Lord does not sanction its acts by the power of His Spirit working in the consciences of the saints generally they will not have spiritual power. There is also the power of the Lord manifest in His direct dealings with the individual put under discipline, working by His Spirit and His Word in the soul and often using definite chastening in conjunction with it. This we see by comparing 1 Corinthians 5:4-5, 13 and 2 Corinthians 2:5-8.
It should not be necessary to say that if the assembly is not led of the Lord in its acts, it will not have His power behind its acts sanctioning it in the consciences of the saints generally and dealing with the individual. An assembly in a bad state may still insist upon its authority, but forget that it has no power to back up its authority except only as it is in dependence upon the Lord for it. If the assembly insists on its authority to act apart from dependence upon the Lord to sanction its acts with power in the consciences of the saints, it will only demonstrate its weakness. And if it persists in its claims to authority in the absence of the power of the Spirit working in and with it, it will fall under the power of the natural man, or, what is worse, under the power of Satan for the accomplishing of "his devices" (2 Cor. 2:10-11). This is what we see fully developed in the pretentious claims of the professing church depicted to us in its final state in Revelation 17 and 18.
Thus we see the grave responsibility of the assembly to keep itself in entire dependence upon the Lord in the exercise of authority, otherwise it will have no spiritual power.
The following extracts from J. N. D. are to the point: "Authority in the church is neither more nor less than the power of the Holy Spirit... This is the whole matter: this once departed from, some mere arrangement takes its place, and the Holy Spirit is in principle-namely, in faith-set aside, and weakness is soon apparent. The kingdom of God is in power; but that power is known only to faith" (Collected Letters, Vol. 1, page 127, old edition). "As to majority in discipline: I know nothing of majorities, but of Christ's authority connected with the action of the Holy Ghost" (Collected Letters, Vol. 2, page 534).
The Will of the Lord, Not Conscience, the Rule of Authority
A word of caution may be needed here. We should not confound this power of the Lord to sanction the assembly's exercise of authority by His Spirit in the hearts and consciences of the saints, with the authority itself. The authority flows from His Person in the midst of the gathered saints, in whose Name the assembly acts. The power is by His Spirit working in conjunction with the assembly, giving moral weight to its authoritative acts in the hearts and consciences of the saints.
Conscience is not the rule that governs assembly authority. The only rule of authority is the will of the Lord. Conscience may need to be enlightened or it may be in a bad state or need to be aroused from a dull, sleepy stupor. So the first responsibility of the assembly in the exercise of authority is to do the will of the Lord, regardless of the state of conscience of saints in general. Certainly the assembly should consider the consciences of truly exercised saints and seek to satisfy such if possible, but its primary consideration must be to discern and do the will of the Lord. It is only as it does this that it can be assured of the Lord's power backing up its acts by the energy of His Spirit working in the hearts and consciences of all who call upon the Lord out of a pure heart.
Individual and Apostolic Authority
The power and weight that an individual has in the exercise of gift is spiritual and moral. He must depend altogether upon the power of the Spirit to work through his ministry upon the hearts and consciences of the hearers, otherwise his words have no weight at all and he has no external power to enforce what he says. (See 1 Cor. 2:13, "Communicating spiritual things by spiritual means," J.N.D. Trans.). This power of the Spirit is a real power. It is a power for edification and for manifesting and rebuking evil. Further than that the individual cannot go in the exercise of moral authority, though the Lord may and has been known to back up the exposure of evil by some devoted servant of His, with providential discipline.
Apostolic Authority and Power
This direct providential power of the Lord working in conjunction with the authority given to His apostles was one mark of apostolic authority. Witness the case of Peter with Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) or Paul with Elymas (Acts 13:6-12) or Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Tim. 1:20).
What especially accompanied apostolic authority was not an external display of power so much as moral or spiritual power, that is, the power of the Holy Spirit over hearts and consciences working in conjunction with the apostle. It was this the apostle Paul relied on in dealing with the evil in the Corinthian church. He purposely refrained from going there so as not to have to use his personal authority, while dealing with them in the exercise of this moral or spiritual power over the conscience through the Spirit and his inspired epistle.
There was the power of the Lord working miracles through the apostle in his first visit to the Corinthians (see 2 Cor. 12:12), yet he did not rely upon this but upon the moral authority of the Word preached, brought home to the heart and conscience through the power of the Spirit. "And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. (Here we have the setting aside of the first man with all his will and natural resources). And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling (having nothing of man to lean on in himself or others). And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God" (1 Cor. 2:1-5).
This moral authority or power remains the same today in the exercise of the gifts the Lord has given; the only difference being in the degree of power manifested, not in power itself.
Weakness and Failure in the Exercise of Assembly Authority and God's Provision for It
Now we come to a practical point. Is there not much room for weakness and failure in the exercise of authority? Yes, there is. But on the other hand, the weakest assembly truly gathered to the Name of the Lord has the guarantee of all the power of the Lord to back up its decisions, as long as it keeps in the place of dependence.
Whatever failure does come in is due to lack of dependence-to man acting in his own will in the place where he is to have no will at all. He is held responsible to discern and act upon the will of the Lord alone, who has promised His presence in the midst to guide the meek in judgment (Psa. 25:9).
Failure in the Exercise of Authority Does Not Invalidate Authority
This is an important point. Failure will weaken its moral and spiritual power over the conscience but does not invalidate the authority. If so, the husband or father would lose his authority as head over the house, for he may often fail in the exercise of his authority.
The Lord, Our Resource in Failure
Perhaps an assembly is weak or there is ignorance as to principles, or it acts hastily without proper investigation of facts or with poor discernment as to the spiritual state. Or as is possible when an assembly falls into a low or divided state, it may act in the flesh or by party spirit. Are all such acts binding and irrevocable? If yes, then every assembly in a bad state can become a Pope, so to speak, to bind its prejudices and fleshly acts upon the whole church of God? If no, then who is to decide whether the act is binding or not?
We have no apostolic authority to give its authoritative pronouncements in such cases, nor have we any delegated body with authority to pass judgment on such cases, nor is there any authority to delegate such a body. If there were such a body this would relieve us of the necessity to walk by faith and also of the many exercises the walk of faith requires. But even suppose we had such a body, that could fail, as everything committed to man is liable to failure, and then we would be left without resource. No, the Lord in His infinite wisdom has not given such an order for His church. He has not delegated any authority to His church to act independently of Himself, or to which one could have recourse without dependence upon Himself. He remains our full resource and our only recourse in the midst of failure, whether it be individual or assembly failure. He is there in the midst of the gathered saints to back up with His power by His Spirit and through His word what is of Himself in the hearts and consciences of His saints everywhere. Also to manifest what is not of Himself, and to exercise their hearts and consciences as to it, where there has been serious failure. And when He brings failure to light He is there also to give grace to confess and rectify it, or to deal in chastening with those who fail to do so. The ruin and failure of the church can never take this away from those gathered to the Name of the Lord in their midst, be they reduced to but two or three.
He may use brethren with discernment and whom He has exercised as to the failure, to labour with the failing assembly and by the ministry of the truth and the pointing out of the failure, to exercise the conscience of the assembly that it might acknowledge it and rectify it. Another assembly also may labour with it with a view to leading it to rectify its wrong acts. If the assembly refuse all such ministry and insist on maintaining its wrong action after it has been definitely manifested to be wrong, it demonstrates thereby self-will and insubjection to the Lord. If such a course is persisted in after all efforts in grace to recover it, it would finally have to be disowned as an assembly truly gathered in the Name of the Lord.
It is not a question of cutting off an assembly. There is no authority to cut off an assembly gathered to the Name of the Lord. But by a course of self-will and manifest insubjection to the Lord and the authority of His Word, it has given up the essential character of the assembly, namely, subjection to the Lord, who is Head over all things to the church (Eph. 1:22; See also 5:23-24). Therefore, having lost the character of an assembly, its claims of being an assembly with the Lord in the midst and having His authority for its acts, must be disowned. But such a step should not be taken till all efforts of grace seeking its restoration have failed.
This act of disowning an assembly can only be done authoritatively by another assembly gathered in the Name of the Lord and acting in the unity of the body in subjection to the leading of the Spirit and the supreme authority of His Word. Such an act by the authority of the Lord and His Word would be ratified by His own power working by the Spirit in the hearts and consciences of those who call upon the Lord out of a pure heart.
Any independent rejection of an assembly action, whether it be by an individual or a group of individuals, would not have the sanction of the Lord working in power with them in the consciences of His saints. Nor would such independent rejection of assembly decisions rectify anything, but would only spread the confusion that always comes in where self-will and independent action are resorted to.