Its Local Aspect
- Scriptural Ground of Gathering
- The Divine Gathering Center
- The Divine Leader
- The Divine Way of Ministry
- Elders, Overseers, and Deacons
- Divine Authority
A. Scriptural Ground of Gathering
Thus far in our studies we have been considering the Church of God at large in its universal aspect. We have seen from Scripture that it is one body on the whole earth with members one of another, joined together in the unity of the one Spirit and linked with Christ its Head in glory. It is also in its entirety the Bride of Christ and the House of God, His dwelling place on earth through the Spirit. Then, we have seen that the gifts for ministry, which the ascended Christ has given, are for the whole Church, "for the edifying of the body of Christ" (Eph. 4:12).
Having had the general features common to the Body of Christ or the Church of God as a whole before us, we come now to its local aspect, or the Church in a particular locality. For the unity of the Church was not to be invisible, but organic and manifest, "that the world may believe" (John 17:21). To be manifest in any particular place, it is evident that the Church must take some definite, visible form, . and this is what we shall now consider.
In the Scriptures we find the word "Church" used in three different ways. First, "the Church" unlimited, meaning the whole Body, as we have been considering it. Second, "the Church" limited to some special locality, as "the church which was at Jerusalem" (Acts 8:1; 11: 22), or at Antioch (Acts 13:1), at Ephesus (Acts 20:17) , etc. Third, we have the plural, "Churches," giving us the Assemblies collectively in any given country: as Judea (I Thess. 2:14; Acts 9:31), of Galatia (I Cor. 16:1; Gal. l: 2), of Asia (I Cor. 16:19) , etc., or more generally, including sometimes all assemblies of God as "the care all the churches" (II Cor. 11: 28) ; "the churches of God,, (II Thess. 1: 4).
In these last two references and usages of the word, we have the thought of local Assemblies or gatherings of believers, as distinct from the one Body of Christ viewed in its entirety. We shall now consider what constitutes a local assembly of the Church of God and the relation between these local gatherings and the entire Church.
The Church of God in a Place
A consideration of the opening of the First Epistle to the Corinthians will give us much instruction on this point. "Unto the Church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours" (ch. 1: 2). Here the apostle uses the name "Church of God" which is the title of the whole Body of Christ, and applies it locally-"the Church of God which is at Corinth." Then he describes those whom this title embraces-"them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called saints" ("to be" is not in the original). This means, then, that all the believers in the Lord Jesus Christ there formed the Church of God which was at Corinth.
Let us be clear about this point and notice from this Scripture that the Church of God in a given locality includes every born-again believer, every member of the Body of Christ. In the apostle's day all the believers in a locality were found going on together in one visible testimony and Assembly as the manifest expression and representation in that place of the whole Body of Christ. So Paul could write to the Corinthian Assembly, "Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular" (I Cor. 12:27).
But in our day of ruin of the visible testimony and multiplied divisions, it is no longer true that all the real Christians in any locality are found together in a visible testimony or united assembly as at the beginning. They are found scattered in many varying groups. Therefore, no one gathering of believers can claim today to be "the Church of God" in a certain place, for that title embraces every true believer in Christ in that community.
Ground of Gathering
However, while it may be impossible today, because of the Church's divided condition, to assemble together all the true believers of a locality, the only Scriptural ground of assembling (upon which all believers were gathered together in the beginning, and the only ground upon which they ever could be gathered together) still remains for us at this present moment. That ground is the practical owning of the truth of the one Body of Christ.
Whatever the ruin about us and no matter how many denominational bodies there may be around us, it is still true that "There is one body" (Eph. 4:4), and God still sees His scattered people as one body. Therefore, to faith, the truth of the one Body of Christ on earth still remains as the only Scriptural ground of gathering together. So while no group of believers today could claim to be "the Church of God" in a locality, those who recognize and act only upon the truth of the one Body of Christ, can truly say that they meet on the ground of the Church of God in their locality. The ground upon which they gather together being simply that of being members of the Body of Christ at large, and not as those adhering to certain doctrines, forms of church governments, or denominational parties and sects. Recognizing only all true members of the Body of Christ and receiving them as such is the only Scriptural ground of gathering together as the Church of the living God. This is the first vital principle of the Church in its local and visible aspect.
Represents the Whole Church
Each local Church or assembly of believers is but a part of the whole Body of Christ and is to be an exact representation of the greater Church. It should express the Church as a whole, even as a tiny dewdrop reflects, in miniature, the same sky as does the mighty ocean. The characteristics of the whole Church are to be seen in each local part. There must be nothing in the local Assembly inconsistent with the truths we have previously been considering as true of the whole Church. Each Assembly is a part of the Assembly at large and represents and acts for it in each local place. Therefore, the only basic platform upon which believers can ever Scripturally gather together anywhere is as members of the Body of Christ and as a local representation of the whole Church.
Thus believers gathered together in the first days of the Church and so they must gather today if they would act as members of the Church of the living God and obey and please their Lord and Head. Any other ground of gathering together, such as coming together as Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Pentecostals, Fundamentalists, etc., is a denial in practice of the truth of the one Body of Christ and recognizing other bodies instead.
Unity of the Spirit
If there is one Body of believers in Christ, which God recognizes why not refuse all other man-made bodies and gather together simply as members of His Body? This would not be making another body or unity, but recognizing the unity which the Spirit of God has made among all true believers who have been baptized by one Spirit into the Body of Christ. So Ephesians 4:3 exhorts us to endeavor to keep that unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
The error of Christendom has been in making a unity or union of their own, one larger or smaller than the unity of the Spirit, admitting unsaved persons who are not members of Christ's Body and not baptized by the Spirit into this unity, or of shutting out true, godly members of Christ's Body by their sectarian principles and platforms. Neither is to be the principle or the practice of God's Church.
B. The Divine Gathering Center
Having considered the divine ground of gathering, we shall now speak of the divine center around which God's Assembly is gathered. What center or gathering-point is the right one for believers to rally to and to meet around? What center properly become "The Church of the Living God," whose Head is Christ in glory? In a day like the present, when so many varying names are set up as gathering centers, and when almost every new idea becomes the center or gathering-point of some new religious association, it becomes us to earnestly search the Scriptures and to have divinely formed convictions as to what God's appointed center of gathering for His people truly is.
"Unto My Name"
Let us turn to Matthew 18, where we have the second mention of the Church by the Lord. Its formation was then still future, but here He laid down some great principles for His Church as to discipline and gathering together. He promised to ratify in heaven its decisions in His name and to grant them anything agreed upon and asked by but even two. And then He gave the great reason for it all in those sublime words of the glorious promise of verse 20: "For where two or three are gathered together unto my name, there am I in the midst of them" (New Trans.).
Here we have what has been called the great Magna Charta of the Church, guaranteeing its rights and privileges, and herein is presented the only divine gathering center for God's Assembly. "Gathered together unto my name"; this is the gathering-point which God has ordained for His children. He would have them gathered unto the worthy name of His beloved Son, the name of their Lord and Savior, the Name above all names. No other name would do and there can be no other center but Christ for those who truly love Him and would be loyal to Him.
To those thus gathering together unto His precious name alone, be they but two or three or two or three hundred, He vouchsafes His blessed presence "there am I in the midst of them." He is personally present and takes His place in the center of the gathered Assembly. And this is the place we should give Him, too, the place of pre-eminence, the place of presidency and of authority -the central place. Genesis 49:10 also gives us an instructive prophecy as to Christ being the gathering center for His people. "The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be." So also Psalm 50:5 says, "Gather my saints together unto me; those that have made a covenant with me by sacrifice."
And in John 20:19-26, when the disciples were assembled together on the first day of the week, we see the resurrected Savior coming and taking His place in their midst as their center and saying, "Peace be unto you." Here was the first fulfillment of His promise to be in the midst of His own gathered together unto His name, and multitudes through the centuries have experienced this since that day.
A Living Person
In later years Peter wrote to the believers about the Lord Jesus and said: "To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God and precious" (I Peter 2:4). And Paul wrote to the Hebrew Christians saying: "Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach" (Heb. 13:13).
It was around the Person of a living Christ, then, that God's people were gathered in the first century and around whom they all should gather today. It is not around a doctrine, however true; or around an ordinance, however important; or around a wonderful preacher, be he ever so godly; but around a living, divine Person that the Church is to gather. It is not said "To which coming," but "To whom coming." We do not come to a thing, to an organization, or to a human leader, but to a divine Person, our Lord and Savior.
The Holy Spirit leads only to Jesus and His precious name and not to the names of men or dead organizations. And the word is, "he that gathereth not with me scattereth" (Luke 11:23). Anyone leading souls to any other name but Christ's is scattering and not gathering, for when other names are introduced beside that blessed Name, the sheep of Christ are scattered. Gathering to the name of Jesus alone, around His blessed Person, then, is another great cardinal feature of the local aspect of the Church of God, and where this is not found God's Assembly cannot be.
Not Denying His Name It follows, then, that if we are truly gathered unto Christ's name and Person we will not hold up other names as banners around which we rally and under which we are enrolled or be called by names such as those of the denominations about us. Those truly gathered to Christ's worthy name will disown all other names which displace and dishonor that worthy Name, and will call themselves only by His precious name -Christians, or other names given in the Scripture which mean those belonging to Christ.
To call ourselves by the names of men and denominations is to deny His adorable name and grieve Him, our Lord and Savior. To the Church at Philadelphia Christ could say, thou "hast not denied my name" (Rev. 3:8), which shows how He values our being true to His name. If we are upholding other distinguishing names beside His wonderful name, or the names He has given us in His Word, and gathering under such names we cannot claim to be truly gathered together unto His blessed name. James 2: 7 speaks of "that worthy name by the which ye are called." Shall we set it aside for another name? God forbid.
Five names are given in the Word of God to describe the people of God and they fit each believer and are uniting names. They are Christians, Believers, Brethren, Saints, arid Disciples. These names are common to all believers and are not sectarian as are the many names which have been adopted by professing Christians in our day. For believers to adopt any name which does not include all true believers in Christ is to become a sect and to deny the truth of the One Body.
Truly the name of Jesus is all-sufficient for the Assembly of God. There is everything in that name, not only for our salvation and our individual needs in the Christian path, but for all the urgent wants and various needs of the Assembly, for worship, communion, ministry, discipline, everything. Reader, is that precious name sufficient for you as a gathering center, and are you gathered unto His worthy name and His adorable Person? If not, why not?
C. The Divine Leader
We desire now to dwell upon the important fact of the Lord being personally present in spirit in the midst of those thus gathered unto His Name, of the place which should be given Him as the leader of the Assembly, and of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Assembly.
"There am I in the midst"
These blessed words of the Savior guarantee without a doubt His personal presence to those gathered together by the Spirit unto His Name. This is not only a promise, but a living reality, as thousands have experienced who have acted in simple faith upon this promise and have gathered together unto His adorable Name alone. This precious promise is sufficient for faith. The presence of Jesus in the midst of the gathered Assembly is quite enough; He is all-sufficient.
Surely it naturally follows that if He, the blessed Savior and Head of the Church, is present in the midst, He is certainly there to direct and lead the Assembly and should rightly be given His place as the leader of the gathering and be depended upon as such. All eyes should be upon Him who has come to occupy the central place and every heart should be waiting upon Him to lead by the Holy Spirit. Let us not forget, also, that the One in the midst is Lord of all and the only one who has the right to exercise authority in the Assembly. "God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ" and "hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church" (Acts 2:36; Eph. 1: 22). Christ is Lord in the Assembly and should be owned as such and given His place as the only rightful leader and authority in the Church. Where He is owned as lord and leader, there will be subjection to Him and behavior consistent with His lordship; there will be rule and order according to the mind and will of God.
We would here quote the true and stirring words of C. H. Mackintosh: "If Jesus is in our midst, why should we think of setting up a human president? Why not unanimously and heartily allow Him to take the president's seat, and bow to Him in all things? Why set up human authority, in any shape or form, in the house of God? But this is done, and it is well to speak plainly about it. Man is set up in that which professes to be an Assembly of God. We see human authority exercised in that sphere in which divine authority alone should be acknowledged. It matters not, so far as the foundation principle is concerned, whether it be pope, parson, priest, or president. It is man set up in Christ's place. If Christ be in our midst, we can count on Him for everything. "Now in saying this, we anticipate a very probable objection. It may be said by the advocates of human authority, `How could an assembly ever get on without some human presidency? Would it not lead to all sorts of confusion? Would it not open the door for everyone to intrude himself upon the Assembly, quite irrespective of gift or qualification?'
"Our answer is a very simple one. Jesus is all-sufficient. We can trust Him to keep order in His house. We feel ourselves far safer in His gracious and powerful hands than in the hands of the most attractive human president. We have all spiritual gifts treasured up in Jesus. He is the fountain-head of all ministerial authority. He hath the seven stars (Rev. 1:16). Let us confide in Him, and the order of the Assembly will be as perfectly provided for as the salvation of our souls. We believe that the name of Jesus is, in very truth, all-sufficient, not only for personal salvation, but for all the exigencies of the Assembly-for worship, communion, ministry, discipline, government, everything. Having Him, we have all and abound.
"This is the real marrow and substance of our subject. Our one aim and object is to exalt the name of Jesus; and we believe He has been dishonored in that which calls itself His house. He has been dethroned, and man's authority has been set up.
Even in the Assembly of God at Corinth, where there was most grievous confusion and disorder, the inspired apostle never hints at such a thing as a human president, under any name whatsoever. `God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all the assemblies of the saints' (I Cor. 14:33). God was there to keep order. They were to look to Him, not to a man, under any name. To set up man to keep order in God's Assembly is sheer unbelief, and an open insult to the Divine Presence.
"Now, we have been often asked to adduce Scripture in proof of the idea of divine presidency in an assembly. We at once reply, `There am I'; and `God is the author.' On these two pillars, even had we no more, we can triumphantly build the glorious truth of divine presidency -a truth which must deliver all, who receive and hold it from God, from every system of man, call it by what name you please. It is, in our judgment, impossible to recognize Christ as the center and sovereign ruler in the Assembly, and continue to sanction the setting up of man." (The Assembly of God by C. H. M.).
Presence of the Holy Spirit
Not only is the Lord Jesus Christ present in the midst of His gathered disciples, but God the Holy Spirit is also there. We have spoken previously of the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in the Church and would now draw attention to this great truth in connection with our present subject. This new and special, personal presence of the Holy Spirit on earth indwelling the believer and the Church according to I Corinthians 6:19 and Ephesians 2:22, as a consequence of the great work of redemption and of the glorification of Christ in heaven, is one of the great foundation truths of this dispensation and a notable characteristic of Christianity. Yet the presence of this Divine Person in the Church is little thought of, recognized, or counted upon. The presence of the Spirit of God on earth has been ignored by Christendom and He has not been given His rightful place as leader and director in the Church. In fact, His presence is denied in practice by placing a man in the place of leadership and authority and thus setting aside the Holy Spirit.
When the Lord gave the disciples the promise of the coming to earth of the Holy Spirit, He said the Spirit would teach them all things and guide them into all truth. He also spoke of Him as the Comforter, or "parakletos" (Greek), one called alongside to help and manage our affairs (John 14:26; 16:13). In I Corinthians 12 and 14 we find the Spirit of God as the author of the various operations, manifestations, and activities in the Assembly. "All these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as He will" (I Cor. 12:11). These Scriptures surely show that the Holy Spirit is in the Assembly to guide and lead and teach and has the sovereign right to use whomsoever He will as His mouthpiece for prayer, praise, or ministry.
Liberty of the Spirit
If we further consider I Corinthians 14, which is the special chapter on order in the Assembly, we see therein the fullest liberty given for any man to be used of the Spirit in the meetings of the Assembly. There is praying with the spirit, singing with the spirit, blessing with the spirit (a man's own spirit led of the Holy Spirit), giving of thanks, speaking with a tongue, prophesying, teaching, and giving out of a psalm or a doctrine by various ones.
Such expressions as "If any man speak," "ye may all prophesy," and similar ones (v. 5, 13, 27, 31), show that there was liberty for any brother, not under discipline, to take part in the Assembly as led of the Holy Spirit. This is the way the early Christians gathered together in the liberty of the Spirit and under the sovereign guidance of the Divine Spirit.
True, there may be an abuse of this liberty of the Spirit, as there was in the Corinthian Assembly, which this 14th chapter shows-too much activity, the flesh active in some. What then is the Assembly to do? Correct it by the Word of God, using the very instructions which the Spirit of God has given in this 14th chapter. This is the simple divine remedy.
But notice that in spite of the disorder which came into the Corinthian Assembly, they were not told to change this order of the liberty of the Spirit and to appoint one man as the minister in charge and the leader of the Assembly. The inspired apostle simply teaches them how to take part with profit and exhorts: "Let all things be done unto edifying," "ye may all prophecy one by one," and "Let all things be done decently and in order" (v. 26, 31, 40).
Now these instructions were not only for Corinth but for every Assembly in every place, as this epistle was addressed "Unto the Church of God which is at Corinth ... with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord" (I Cor. 1: 2). So these directions as to the liberty of the Spirit, etc., are binding upon believers in every place today as well as then. And still the churches of Christendom go on with their man-made arrangements and programs of worship, etc., in distinct opposition to what is laid down for us in Scripture.
Is the reader associated with such systems of men where the Holy Spirit is thus set aside and not given His rightful place as leader and ruler? If so, let him heed the Word and "come out from among them." Let him "go forth therefore unto him without the camp" (II Cor. 6:17; Heb. 13:13) and gather only unto the precious name of Jesus where He is in the midst and the Spirit is owned as the divine leader.
New Testament Assemblies
Throughout the book of Acts, which records the history of the Apostolic Church established by Christ, we ever find the Holy Spirit as the leader of the Assemblies of Christians in every place and using whomsoever He would as His mouthpiece. Never in this book or in any of the Epistles is there even the slightest mention or hint of any one person appointed as the pastor, minister, or priest in charge of an Assembly of Christians. There was apostolic authority and those associated with the apostle Paul, as Timothy and Titus, in the establishing of the Assemblies, and there were the gifts of pastors, teachers, evangelists, etc., but nowhere do we read in Scripture of one man set up to be the minister and director of an Assembly, for this would have been a usurpation of the place and authority of the Holy Spirit.
Notion of a Clergyman
This is strongly rooted in the hearts of the multitudes today, that is, the idea of a humanly appointed office, a class of men having the exclusive privilege of preaching, teaching, ministering communion, etc. A great teacher and man of piety has well spoken the following concerning this practice: "I believe the "Notion of a Clergyman' to be the sin against
the Holy Ghost in this dispensation. I am not talking of individuals wilfully committing it, but that the thing itself is such as regards this dispensation, and must result in its destruction. The substitution of something else for the power and presence of that holy, blessed, and blessing Spirit, (is the sin) by which this dispensation is characterized, and by which the unrenewedness of man, and the authority of man, holds the place which alone that blessed Spirit has power and title to fill, as that other Comforter which should abide for ever" (J. N. Darby). Solemn words but true.
In Conclusion--Let us rejoice in the blessed truth that God, the Holy Spirit, is truly present in the Assembly of even the two's and three's gathered to the precious name of Christ, that He is the active agent and power to act in man and to lead and guide the Assembly, and that the Lord Jesus Himself is in the midst. What more is needed? May we have simple faith to believe it, act upon it, and walk in submission of heart to the Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
And is it not true, in view of all that has been before us from the Scriptures, that whatever does not own in practice the divine leadership of the Holy Spirit and maintain the liberty of the Spirit to use any member of the Assembly whom He wills cannot be owned as a true Assembly of God, Scripturally gathered?
D. The Divine Way of Ministry
Realizing that the statements of divine truth we have just given, which are so little known or believed, are just the opposite of the central principle of church organizations of our day, and are quite different from what is taught, practiced, and commonly accepted as right in Christendom, we would enlarge upon this subject, seeking to help the perplexed or exercised reader. Our desire is to clearly set forth from the Scriptures God's way of ministry in the Assembly, so that the divine way to carry on a testimony for Christ may be plainly seen in contrast to man's way. Perhaps some readers are saying, "How can these things be? How can meetings or services ever be carried on without having some man in charge?"
A careful study of the New Testament will answer these questions and all others that may arise. But if we would be helped and guided aright in this matter, we must turn our eyes and thoughts away from all that man is doing and saying and consider only what God has written for our instruction in His Word. We would urge our readers to search the Scriptures and to see whether these things are so, as the Bereans did in Acts 17:11.
Let us turn to this passage and notice a few things typified for us here. We especially desire to point out one point in particular which bears upon our immediate subject, but we shall dwell a little on the whole passage while these verses are before us since they are helpful in our present consideration of the local aspect of the Church.
When the Lord told Peter and John to prepare the Passover supper they asked, "Where wilt thou that we prepare?" So we may ask also today, "Where shall we go to worship?" The Lord then told them to go into the city and follow a man with a pitcher of water whom they would meet. This man may typify for us the Holy Spirit and the pitcher of water the Word of God. We are to go where the Spirit and the Word of God would lead us. Peter and John were then to go into the house into which the man went and to say to the goodman of the house, "The Master saith unto thee, where is the guestchamber, where I shall eat the passover with my disciples?" The Lord further told them that they would be shown a large upper room furnished and there they should make ready (v. 12). So they went and found as He had said and ate the Passover supper with the Lord in this room; therein the new institution, the Lord's supper, for the Church was also instituted following the Passover meal.
All this is full of meaning for us. The Lord met with His disciples and celebrated the Passover in a separate upper room in the house. So now it is true spiritually that the place where the Lord meets with His own is a separated place-separated from all that grieves and dishonors Him in Christendom as stated in II Tim. 2:21. It is also a large upper room. So also the Assembly of the living God, where the Lord is in the midst, should meet in an heavenly atmosphere as members of the Body of Christ with a large heart that makes room for all the members of that body, who wish to come as such in all sincerity, purity, and truth. When Christians meet thus in simple dependence around the Lord as their center and leader, He will furnish them with all that is needed to carry on a testimony for His name. He who is in the midst is the head of the Church and has given gifts unto men for the work of ministry, as we quite fully considered in our previous study on gifts and ministry. He is presented to the Church at Philadelphia as the One who has the key of David to open and shut (Rev. 3:7). He also has the key of the treasure and storehouse of God and can richly supply His people who depend upon Him in simple faith.
The Lord furnishes His people with ministerial gifts (Eph. 4:11-16), and where the Holy Spirit is depended upon and free to act, He will call forth. energize, and use the gifts that are present in each local Assembly for the edification and care of the saints and for the preaching of the Gospel to the unsaved. There is no need to go out and hire a preacher, etc. Whereever believers come together around the Lord, there He has given talents and provided some ability for ministry. Though it may be given forth in all simplicity and feebleness, it is of the Lord, for five words in the Spirit are better than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue, or of man's eloquence and not of the Spirit (I Cor. 2:1-4; 14:19).
The gifts of the Lord are various and each believer has a gift of some kind and a function to perform as a particular member of the Body of Christ. "Unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ" (Eph. 4:7). These gifts may need to be discovered, stirred up, and developed by use, but they are there and are given for the help and blessing of all. When believers meet in the name of the Lord alone, recognizing the liberty of the Spirit to use whom He will, each believer is made to feel his responsibility to do his part in maintaining a testimony for the Lord, and so gifts and abilities are discovered, called into activity, and developed. Whereas, when one man is appointed to take over the entire responsibility of ministry, there is not this activity and development of all the gifts which may be present in the Assembly. The Scriptural path, then, for the Lord's people is for them to gather together around the Lord simply as Christians in dependence upon the Holy Spirit to use the gifts in their midst and to raise up others. He may also send some gifted servant of God to them on a visit, whoever and whenever He chooses, for their building up, for the preaching of the Gospel, or for any special spiritual help which may be needed.
The Lord nourishes and cherishes His Church, and, as its Head and Bridegroom, He will furnish every local gathering with all that is needed if He is depended upon. This we have seen again and again and many have proven it to be true. Thus it was with the New Testament Assemblies. They met together as believers, edifying one another and receiving whatever servants of the Lord were sent to them by Him. Search the book of Acts and the Epistles and see if this is not so.
Teaching and Admonishing One Another
Paul wrote to the Assembly at Rome: "I myself also am persuaded of you, my brethren, that ye also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another" (Rom. 15:14). He also desired to visit them to impart unto them some spiritual gift (Rom. 1:11) . To the Assembly at Colosse he wrote: "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another" (Col. 3:16, New Trans.). This they, as brethren in Christ, were able for, and so also are brethren in the Lord today. Even though no distinctive gifts may be present in a small Assembly, this simple service of teaching and admonishing one another as the Spirit of God directs and enables is always possible for Christians who will meet in all simplicity around the Lord to study His Word. The great failure of the Church has been that of which the apostle warned the Colossians, "not holding fast the head, from whom all the body, ministered to and united together by the joints and bands, increases with the increase of God" (Col. 2:19, New Trans.). Joints and bands are not great members of the body, but they minister to and unite the members and thus the body increases. If Christians will only hold fast the Head, keep their eyes on Christ, and lean on Him, they will be edified and blessed in meeting together. If this is not done, they will not be thus blessed and human means will be resorted to, as one can see has occurred all about us today.
Necessary Gifts not all in One Person
Thisis further emphasized for us in Romans 12:5-8. "Thus we, (being) many, are one body in Christ, and each one members one of the other. But having different gifts, according to the grace which has been given to us, whether (it be) prophecy, (let us prophecy) according to the proportion of faith; or service, (let us occupy ourselves) in service; or he that teaches, in teaching; or he that exhorts, in exhortation; he that gives, in simplicity; he that leads, with diligence; he that shews mercy, with cheerfulness" (New Trans.). Different gifts are given to different ones and all are needed for the edification of the saints and the carrying on of an Assembly testimony. Let each one do the work which he is gifted for; this is God's way for ministry in the Church. So Peter also writes: "As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another" (I Peter 4:10). When the Corinthians were making parties around various servants of the Lord, choosing one gifted man as their favorite, Paul wrote them: "all things are yours; Whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas ... all are yours" (I Cor. 3:21, 22). They would shut themselves up to one gift, whereas the Lord had given them all these gifted brothers with their different gifts for their blessing. So we should desire the ministry of all the various gifts which the Lord has given us and not choose one gift to be our "minister" to the exclusion of others. Scriptures speaks of "a minister" in the Church at large, but never of "the minister" in a local Church; the difference is apparent. The Assembly is bound to receive Christ's ministers that may be sent to them and to recognize them with thankfulness, that is, when all is in godly order.
That there are leaders and chief men in the Church and local gatherings, whom God uses for the blessing and guiding of His people, Scripture assures us. Acts 15:22 speaks of Judas and Silas as "chief men among the brethren," and Hebrews 13:7 exhorts: "Remember your leaders who have spoken to you the word of God" (New Trans.) But notice that they are in the plural and that they were not officially appointed as leaders, but were those whom the Holy Spirit was using as such. The Holy Spirit must ever be the leader and must be left free to use whomsoever He will.
Distinction Between Meetings
We refer to the difference between meetings of the Assembly as such (for worship and the Lord's Supper, for prayer, or for any other purpose for which we may call Assembly meetings) and meetings in which Christ's servants exercise their ministry on their own personal responsibility, (Gospel meetings, Sunday Schools, and special meetings where addresses are given for teaching and ministering to the Lord's people). These last named meetings, which are convened or carried on by those individuals who have such work laid upon their hearts and are gifted by the Lord for such services, are of a different character from reunions of the Assembly and are under the responsibility of those who undertake them. Such meetings may be conducted by one person or several working together, while meetings of the Assembly for worship, prayer and Bible readings, or open meetings for ministry are open for any to take part whom the Spirit would use.
All God's people are priests and can draw nigh into the holiest for worship and prayer, therefore any brother (the women are exhorted to be silent in the Church-I Cor. 14: 34; I Tim. 2:11, 12-that is, they are not to speak), can praise the Lord audibly and thus lead the saints in worship or prayer. Peter tells us that believers are "an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ," and also "a royal priesthood" (I Peter 2: 5, 9). We trust these lines may help our readers to see more clearly God's way of ministry in the Church. If any should ask, "Is it practical? Will it work?" we answer, "Assuredly so. It worked in the New Testament Assemblies and it works today bringing blessing in thousands of Assemblies throughout the world where these Scriptural principles are acted upon."
"Elder" is a word that has descended from the patriarchal times of Israel (Ex. 3:16). The family was the model of government, and in the family the father, as the elder, had authority. This was transferred to the nation, where the heads of houses became the heads of the nation and in this sense we have frequent mention of the word in the Gospels and in the book of Acts (Matt. 26:3, 47; Acts 4: 5, 8). In Acts 11: 30 we have the first application of the word to the leaders in the Church of God and thereafter it is quite frequently so used.
Elder was, as we have seen, the ordinary title of the leading men among the Jews-the rulers. It simply means an older person, and is used apart from the idea of office in such passages as I Timothy 5:1, 19; I Peter 5:1; II John 1; III John 1. Older men were naturally qualified for the work of oversight and from them the apostles appointed bishops, or overseers, which has the same meaning as "bishop." Elder, then, designates the person, and bishop or overseer, the work or office to which he is called. (From "The Church and Its Order," by S. Ridout). I Timothy 3:1 speaks of the "office of a bishop," and Titus 1: 5-7 shows that elders and bishops, or overseers, were the same persons.
Overseers and deacons were local officials in the Church and must be distinguished from gifts. Elders and deacons might or might not have the gift of preaching or teaching. Such gift was quite independent of their special office. There might be, and were, many elders and deacons in any given church, and yet there was still the fullest and freest liberty for any one to exercise his gift in ministry when the whole Church came together in one place. Elders were not to preside in a public meeting, but to oversee, feed, and care for the flock of God (Acts 20:28).
In Acts 14:21-23 we have the first of the two instances recorded in Scripture where elders were ordained. This was in the Gentile Assemblies which were formed by the missionary labors of Paul and Barnabas. After preaching the Gospel in various places, they returned again to the scene of their former labors at Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch and confirmed the souls of the disciples and exhorted them to continue in the faith and "ordained them elders in every church." Elders were not ordained in an infant Church. Time had to be given for the development of spiritual and moral qualifications and the manifestation of those who were gifted with wisdom and competent for such work of shepherding or ruling the Church of God. The qualifications required for elders are given in the first Epistle to Timothy, chapter 3, and in the Epistle to Titus, chapter 1: 6-9.
But notice who it was that ordained or appointed elders in these Churches. It was not the Churches who chose and appointed their own elders, as is practiced today, but it was the apostle Paul and Barnabas who ordained them. They were appointed by apostolic authority. Notice, too, that in Titus 1: 5, the only additional place in Scripture where we read anything about ordaining elders, it was Titus who was to do the ordaining in the Assemblies in Crete, as Paul had appointed him. It is a probable inference that Timothy also ordained elders as an apostolic delegate since he was given instructions as to the qualifications needed for such, but there is no mention made that he did.
No Such Authority Today
We find, then, throughout the Bible that none but an apostle or an apostolic delegate was empowered to appoint elders. Moreover, we read not a word therein about perpetuating this apostolic power of appointment after the apostles left the earth. Not a word is given to Titus or Timothy about continuing this task, or that Titus himself was to continue it after the apostle was dead. Neither was Titus to appoint whom he pleased, but the apostle assigned him the sphere of his commission-in Crete only. He was apostolically commissioned to ordain elders in Crete and could produce an inspired letter of instruction to him personally. Who can do anything similar today?
Furthermore, we never find in any part of Scripture any such thought expressed as a congregation choosing and appointing its elders. Therefore, in view of the foregoing undisputable facts, we affirm that there is no man or body of men now upon earth possessing power to ordain elders, nor was that power or authority ever committed to the Church.
What then are to do? Are there to be no elders or overseers in the Church of God today? Thank God, there are, but they are not, and cannot be, officially appointed as such because there is no apostolic power or authority to ordain them.
The Holy Spirit Appoints
Acts 20:28 will help us as to God's path for us today. Paul, here addressing the Ephesian elders, said: "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers to feed the church of God." It is only God the Holy Ghost who can make and appoint overseers over His flock and He still does so today. We believe that when Paul or Titus ordained elders, they did so as acting by the power and direct authority of the Holy Ghost and their appointment was to be regarded by the Church as divine.
In the absence of such apostolic power or delegated authority, we can still rely upon the Holy Spirit to raise up qualified and able men and energize them to take the oversight of His flock and to feed His lambs and sheep. It was the Holy Ghost at work then, and it must be the Holy Ghost now. Il God raises up an elder or elders in an Assembly who go after the wanderers, warn the unruly, comfort those cast down, counsel, admonish, and guide souls, it surely becomes us to thankfully own such and to esteem them very highly for their work's sake. We are to love and acknowledge them as those who are over us in the Lord (I Tim. 5:17). Such are doing the needful work of overseers and are to be looked up to as such, though they cannot be officially appointed for there is no duly authorized power to do so.
Is it not becoming for us now to say that, not being apostles, we do not pretend to exercise their function in ordaining elders, though we do heartily recognize men possessed of the requisite qualifications for this local office and doing the work of overseers? This may seem very strange to some of our readers who have been used to churches appointing elders, but we ask you to search the Scriptures and see whether these things are so or not.
Instructions for Our Day
If we search the Bible, we will discover in the Epistles that a state of things substantially similar to our imperfect condition today is described for our help and profit. The Lord in His wisdom let such wants be felt in the early Church. Thus the apostle was inspired to write Epistles to churches where there were no elders ordained as, for instance, the Epistles to the Thessalonians and to the Corinthians. The last was distinctly a disorderly church, and elders might have been thought useful there. But there is not the least word or hint about elders throughout the Corinthian Epistles.
While the Assembly at Corinth abounded in gift, elders are seen nowhere among them. Yet the household of Stephanas devoted themselves regularly to the service of the saints and the apostle beseeches the brethren to submit themselves to such, and to every one who helped and labored (I Cor. 16:15, 16).
Likewise in I Thessalonians 5:12, 13 we have the very important instruction given to the saints who were a young church, yet they were told to own those that labored amongst them. "And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; And to esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake." The presence of ordained elders is not necessary in order to have and to own those who are over us in the Lord. There is much of importance for us now in that Scripture, for we, like they, have no official elders.
Thus God provided instructions for Assemblies where there would be no official oversight, and herein is seen His far-reaching wisdom in meeting the difficulties of days such as ours when a valid authority to ordain, as the apostles did, is not left on earth. We also see for our encouragement that at Corinth and Thessalonica, where there were no official elders, there were those raised up of God in the midst of the saints who showed spiritual ability in guiding and directing others and who manifested power to meet difficulties in the Church and to baffle the efforts of the enemy. In the one Epistle the apostle exhorted subjection to such and in the other Epistle he spoke of them as "over you in the Lord." This provision from the Lord we can expect even today and subjection to and esteem for such becomes every one in each Assembly.
As already stated, the qualifications for an overseer are given in I Timothy 3 and Titus 1: 6-9. They are clear enough and require no explanation here. Strong moral qualities are required as well as spiritual capacity for the work. But let us note in closing this subject that the apostle says, "If a man desire the office of a bishop (overseer), he desireth a good work" (I Tim. 3:1) . The work of overseer in God's Assembly is a good and most necessary work which should be desired by those duly qualified. Sometimes this good work is left undone in Assemblies which would indicate a lack of spiritual exercise and desire on the part of some whom the Holy Spirit would undoubtedly use. Thus perhaps some need to be exhorted to desire to do this good and needful work. This we find Peter doing in his first Epistle, chapter five. There he urges the elders to take the oversight of the flock willingly, setting an example for the others. A crown of glory from the Chief Shepherd will be the reward.
It remains for us now to briefly consider this branch of service in the Assembly. "Deacon" is an untranslated Greek word and always rendered simply "servant," or "minister.". The work of a deacon is to look after the temporal, -material things of the Assembly, while the elder has to do with the spiritual care of the Church. This word deacon is only found in Philippians 1:1 and I Timothy 3:8-13, the latter passage giving the qualifications required for such. We get an example of the service of the deacon in Acts 6:1-6 where seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and of wisdom, were chosen by the Church in Jerusalem and appointed by the apostles over the material business of caring for the widows in the daily ministration. Though they are not called deacons here, this is what they were servants of the Church in administering the material things. Here we notice that the Church chooses and the apostles officially appoint them. For if the Church gives money and material things it is God's will that she should have a voice in the selection of those whom she feels will, with wisdom and good conscience, distribute these offerings wisely. So today the Church can choose those it wishes to take care of its material things. But as to formal appointment and laying on of hands, this likewise can only be done by apostles if we would follow the divine pattern closely.
F. Divine Authority
In previous pages we have touched somewhat upon this subject, but it is perhaps necessary to speak a little more in particular on this matter of authority in the Assembly. We have pointed out that the Lord Himself, who is exalted in heaven as head over all things, is present in the midst of even the companies of two or three gathered to His name, and thus is the only rightful leader and authority in the Church. But we do not only have the presence of the Lord and of the Holy Spirit in the Assembly as authority; we have also His written Word, the Holy Scriptures, as our guide and authority, wherein the mind and will of God as to all things is clearly revealed. The authority of God is expressed for us in His Word and it is ours to follow that inspired and authoritative Word and to act upon its precepts and injunctions. "Thus saith the Lord" is the divine authority for the Assembly of the living God and, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is all-sufficient for any action required.
In these days of creeds and church by-laws and rules, it is necessary to stress the fact that the Holy Scriptures are the all-sufficient guide and sole standard of authority for the Church. Since we have the inspired Word of God with complete instructions as to His mind and path for His people, what need have we of creeds and by-laws? Can man's words state truth more clearly than God's? Surely not. Nothing less than the whole Bible is sufficient for us and nothing more is needed. Also we have the Holy Spirit, the author of that Word, present with us to interpret it to us and to guide in applying it to present day difficulties and conditions. From Matthew 18:17-20, we learn that the Lord has also given authority to the Assembly gathered unto His name to exercise discipline and to bind and loose with heaven's ratification. "Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I, in the midst of them." Wherever they may be, the Lord is in their midst and gives His own weight of authority to the two or three gathered unto His name. Their acts are bound in heaven or loosed in heaven as the case may be. They are recognized there as binding and authoritative. This is the authority which the Lord has conferred upon His Assembly, the authority to act for Him in His name on earth. To quote the words of another: "What is the real power, the real source of authority, in discipline? The presence of Jesus: not simply that the discipline is the act of a voluntary society which excludes one of its members from its bosom, but that it is the act of an assembling according to God, assembled in the name of Jesus, and acting in His name and by His authority, to maintain the holiness which belongs to that name. The weight of an assembly's act is not from the individual voice or judgment of its members, but from the Lord's being in the midst of them when gathered together" (J. N. Darby).
No Absolute Authority
However, the Assembly is not infallible and therefore is liable to err in its judgments and actions. If it gets its eye off of the Lord it may act in the flesh and not in the Spirit and so miss the mind of the Lord in its midst. So it must ever be subject to the check of God's authority expressed in the Scriptures. The Lord has not given the Assembly unconditional and absolute authority to act independently of Himself or to set aside or go beyond His will as clearly expressed in His Word; the promise is, therefore, conditional. When He is waited upon and there is subjection in the Spirit to the written Word which casts its light upon facts and persons, He, who is there in the midst, will make good His gracious power, guide the meek in judgment, and teach them His way (Psa. 25:9). The words of Wm. Kelly on the foregoing subject are very opportune. We quote them here for our readers: "It was reserved for the anti-church to claim irrevocable authority along with immunity from error. Where difference exists among the faithful, it is folly to claim a character which attaches only to their agreement in the power of the Spirit. And the apostle disclaims what the Roman pontiff arrogates, that clave errant the decision binds. The inevitable effect, soon or late, will be destruction, not edification. It is not Christ, but human assumption, not to say presumption.
"Whether it be an individual's assumption or an assembly's, or whether as in one notable theory it be the chief along with that which represents the church as a whole, such a claim is fictitious and destructive of the Lord's glory. The promise is strictly conditional, not absolute; and never was there an apparent failure save when the condition was broken, and then in very faithfulness the Lord gave not His sanction. To be unconditionally true, there ought also to have been infallibility, which belongs not even to an apostle but to God alone. The meek will He guide in judgment, and the meek will He teach His way; and this now in the church by His own guaranteed presence and leading, though nothing seem harder to conceive where the several wills of so many would naturally act diversely. But He is there in the midst to make good His gracious power when truly waited on, with subjection in the Spirit to the written word which casts its divine light on facts and persons; that all without force or fraud may act as one in the fear of God, or those who dissent may be manifested in their self-will, whether they be few or many. "But the taking for granted that a given sentence is irrevocable, because it is the opinion of a majority or even of a whole assembly, in the face of facts which overthrow its truth or righteousness, is not only fanatical (I do not say illogical only) but wicked fighting against God. In such a case, humbling as it is, most humbling for an assembly to judge itself hasty and mistaken in pretending to the mind of the Lord, where it was only the illusive influence of prejudiced leaders or the weakness of the mass who prefer general quiet in floating with the stream at all cost, or both causes or others also, the only course at all pleasing to the Lord is, that the error when known be confessed and renounced as publicly as it was committed, being due to Him and to the church, as well as to the individuals or company, if there be such, more immediately concerned. To keep up appearances in deference to men, however respected, if mistaken and misleading, to give expression to high-sounding terms or to vague begging the question of truth and right, in order to cloak an evident miscarriage of justice, is unworthy of Christ or of His servants. This was far from the apostle who, as at the beginning of this epistle (Second Corinthians) he disclaimed lording it over the faith of the saints, at the end proves his sincere desire, even when grievously slighted, to avoid if possible sharp dealing with those who had afforded grave occasion, and to use the authority which the Lord gave him for building up and not for casting down." (II Cor. 13:10) . Notes on II Corinthians, pages 245-247. We shall not speak further here about discipline and the binding and loosing of the Assembly, as this will come before us when we consider the subject of discipline in the Church.
Seven Divine Things
We have previously dwelt upon this wonderful verse of Matthew 18:20, but while it is before us again in the above paragraphs we would like to point out a little more of the fulness of this golden verse of promise. It has often been said that there are seven divine things in this verse. They are as follows:
1. "Where ---------------- the divine place,
2. two or three the ------- divine number,
3. are gathered----------- the divine power, (gathered by the Holy Spirit)
4. together -------------- the divine unity,
5. unto my name--------- the divine name and gathering center,
6. there am I ------------ the divine Person and presence,
7 in the midst."----------- the divine center.
May our hearts be filled with the blessed fulness and sufficiency for us in this simple, yet magnificent promise of the Savior.
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