- Assembly Relationships
- Independency or Unity
- One Body
- Keeping the Unity of the Spirit
- Unity of New Testament Assemblies
- Bound on Earth
- The Seven Churches of Asia
- Examples of Unity in Israel
- A "Circle of Fellowship"
- Maintaining Practical Unity
Having considered the Scriptural characteristics of a local Assembly of believers gathered on the only Biblical ground of gathering-the owning of the One Body of Christ-and to the name of Christ, the only divine center of gathering, we would now inquire as to the Scriptural relationship that should exist between such Assemblies.
Independency or Unity
There are two possibilities with regard to their relationship with each other. They may exist as independent Assemblies, as individual units responsible only to Christ the head in heaven, as some teach and practice, or they may function in unity with each other, carrying out collective as well as local responsibilities, as is taught and practiced by others. The question, in brief, is which of these two possible courses of action involving diverse principles is the Scriptural one. Which is the path laid down for us in God's Word? Which path did the New Testament Assemblies pursue? This is the question that must be settled by the Scriptures, for two distinct schools of thought and action, so to say, have developed on this point among those claiming to be Scripturally gathered Assemblies.
First of all, we would reiterate what we have stated several times in our previous chapter on the "Local Aspect of the Church," that since there is but one body of all true believers, each local Assembly is the representation or expression in that place of the whole Church of God. It is a part of a great unit "The Church of the Living God,"-and therefore from this standpoint alone there can be no thought of independent Assemblies.
If each local Assembly is a living part of that great Body of Christ on earth, then there must be a practical unity and a working together in fellowship among all these local representations of that One Body, otherwise the truth of the One Body is nullified both in principle and in practice.
Looking at it from a natural standpoint, if a great international company has branches or local representations in many places they must all function together as a unit and according to unified principles with local adaptations. If each branch or local unit acted independently of the other. they would not function as one company; there must be common action and unity to be efficient members of one company.
I Corinthians 12 teaches us the marvelous unity that exists among all the various and diverse members of the Body of Christ. "For even as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of the body, being many, are one body, so also (is) the Christ" (i. e. Christ and the Church) (v. 12, New Trans.). "But now are they many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you . . . God hath tempered the body together ... that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it., or one member be honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now ye are the body of Christ and members in particular" (Verse 20, 21, 24-27).
Just as there is perfect unity, common functioning, and dependency among the many and diverse members of the human body, so God has ordained the same for the spiritual Body of Christ. As there is no independency, but greatest dependency among the members of the human body, so there can be no independency among the members of the Body of Christ if there is to be proper functioning according to God's mind. One member cannot say to another member, "I have no need of you.,, There is to be no schism or division in the Body of Christ. The Corinthian Assembly at that time was the Body of Christ at Corinth and members in particular of the universal body, the Church.
Now if the foregoing is true for individual members of the Body of Christ, does not the same principle apply to local Assemblies, which are but groups of individual members of the Body gathered together in one place? Assuredly so. The truth of the One Body admits of no independency whatsoever, individually or collectively.
Keeping the Unity of the Spirit
Not only is there One Body, there is also one Spirit, and Ephesians 4:3-4 exhorts us to use "diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the uniting bond of peace. (There is) one body and one Spirit, as ye have been also called in one hope of your calling" (New Trans.). "For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body . . . and have been all made to drink into one Spirit" (I Cor. 12:13). This is the divine unity which was formed by the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost and into which all believers are brought. We have all been made to drink into one Spirit. This unity is formed by the Holy Spirit and He has the deepest and most intimate interest in carrying out and maintaining it for the fulfillment of the Father's counsels and the glory of His Son. We cannot break this unity of the Body of Christ which the Spirit of God has made, for it is formed once and for all and Christ ever sees His Church as one, no matter how divided it may be on earth. But we can fail to manifest this unity of the Spirit, therefore, we are exhorted to use diligence to keep it in the uniting bond of peace.
Another has written:
"`The unity of the Spirit' is that power or principle which keeps the saints walking together in their proper relationships in the unity of the Body of Christ. It is the moral realization of its unity: and endeavoring to keep it maintains our relations with all saints according to the Spirit of God and in the truth.
"We meet with others in the name of the Lord, on the principle of `one body and one Spirit.' We thus `endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,' and we seek thus to be in the `fellowship of the Holy Ghost,' who maintains the unity of the Body of Christ ...
"What, then, is this unity? It is the power and principle by which the saints are enabled to walk together in their proper relations in the body, and as members of Christ. It may involve my separation from one member because he is attached in practice, or religiously, to that which will not stand the test of the Word of God. It may call me to walk with another who is walking in godliness and in its truth. . .
"This unity, too, excludes individuality most fully. No one can take an isolated place. If he is called to stand alone in some locality because of the Word of the Lord, it puts him in communion, and on common ground, all over the world, in other localities, with all who are walking in such a truth. It excludes individuality, too, when together with others; one might be tempted to act in independency of other members of Christ-to take action himself, not in communion with the rest. It throws us outside every system of man, too, but keeps us in that unity which is according to God!
" . . . It is wide enough for all, because it embraces all in its breadth, whether they are there, or not. It is exclusive of evil from its midst, as known and accepted; to admit it would cause it to cease to be the unity of the Spirit. It is not merely the unity of Christians-which is the effort of the many to effect, often to the refusal of the truth of the Body of Christ ... God attaches unity to Christ, not Christ to unity! Then it must be true in nature to Him whose body it is; it must be practically holy and true (Rev. 3:7)." (F. G. Patterson).
We shall also shortly notice that there is a divine unity of teaching and practice laid down for us in the Epistle to the Corinthians by the Spirit of God. And this was not for the Corinthian Assembly alone, but for "every church." Thus, in order to keep the unity of the Spirit, there must be uniformity of teaching and general practice among Assemblies and a recognition of each other as being in this divine unity. There can be no carrying out of the "unity of the Spirit" if Assemblies stand and act for themselves in independence of each other. The truth of the One Body and One Spirit, then, demands that Assemblies stand on the ground of this divine unity and that they recognize this relationship of unity with each other and seek to practice it. The principle of independent Assemblies is therefore in sharpest contrast and collision with the divine exhortation to "keep the unity of the Spirit in the uniting bond of peace." It is therefore unscriptural and divisive.
Unity of New Testament Assemblies
Teaching of Corinthians
The Epistle to the Corinthians is preeminently the Epistle on Church order, as we have previously pointed out in chapter III. We shall therefore turn to this Epistle for instruction as to the question of what relationship should exist between Assemblies of believers.
In chapter 1: 2 we see the principle of the unity of Assemblies taught in the very beginning of the Epistle, for Paul addresses it "Unto the church of God which is at Corinth ... with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours." He does not think of the Assembly at Corinth as standing independently of Assemblies of believers elsewhere, but links them up with "all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ." And what is more, he meant that this important Epistle on Church order was to be, not only for those at Corinth, but for believers everywhere.
In chapter 4:17 the apostle says he had sent Timotheus to them "who shall bring you into remembrance of my ways which be in Christ, as I teach every where in every church." There was uniformity in the apostle's ways and teaching; he acted the same and taught the same in every Assembly and thereby set for the believers an example of the unity that should be among the Assemblies in teaching and practice.
Going on to chapter 7, where the question of marriage is taken up, the apostle says in verse 17: "But as God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches." There was to be one teaching and practice as to marital relationships in all the Assemblies.
Then in chapter 11:3-16 where the subject is woman covering her head when praying or prophesying, Paul says in verse 16, "But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God." There was one practice and order among all the Assemblies regarding women wearing a head covering.
In chapter 14:33 the apostle writes: "For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints." In all the Assemblies things were to be "done decently and in order" (v. 40), and in peace.
A further notice of unity is seen in chapter 16:1, 2. "Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye. Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him." Even as to the common matter of the collection there was to be a unified practice among the Assemblies of Galatia, and among all others, of the believers laying aside in store upon the first day of the week as God had prospered them.
In chapter 16:19 we read, "The churches of Asia salute you." Here again is the collective aspect.
Passing on to the Second Epistle to the Corinthians we find that it is addressed "unto the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints which are in all Achaia" (chapter 1:1) . Here Paul links them up with all the saints of the province of Achaia to which Corinth belonged. He thought of them, not as independent Assemblies, but as one in all Achaia.
In II Corinthians 11:28 we have a further touch of unity. Speaking of his pathway of suffering, Paul says, "Besides those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches." In the heart of this dear servant of God the Assemblies were all one and he cared for them all.
Do not these many passages teach conclusively that the inspired apostle taught and practiced the principle of the unity of Assemblies? Certainly one must be willfully blind not to see this from the foregoing verses of the two Epistles.
Here, then, we have from these two Epistles, as another has well said, "first the local assembly, the primary sphere of all practical fellowship with its responsibilities of discipline and the like; secondly, the surrounding assemblies of the province, the first to be affected when any breakdown occurs in the local assembly; thirdly, the whole Church everywhere, the ultimate boundary to which such breakdown may extend its influence" (F. B. Hole). There is first of all a local responsibility and then a collective responsibility with Assemblies of a province or country and with Assemblies everywhere to maintain a common and unified testimony for Christ.
Churches of Galatia
We also find that the Epistle to the Galatians was written, not to one Assembly, but "unto the churches of Galatia." Paul thought of them all as a united testimony for Christ which Satan was seeking to move away from the hope of the Gospel and he wrote his Epistle to them all.
In the many greetings of this chapter we see the close ties between the workers in Greece and the saints in Rome. And in the 16th verse we have in the expression, "The churches of Christ salute you," the same collective aspect of the Assemblies as we have seen in Corinthians and Galatians.
The Book of Acts
In the eighth chapter we see how the believers at Samaria were brought into happy fellowship with the believers at Jerusalem by the coming down of Peter and John and by their receiving the Holy Spirit by the laying on of the apostles' hands. Of old Jerusalem and Samaria were rivals and had the believers in these places now been blessed separately and independently, their rivalry might have been greater than ever. Samaria must own Jerusalem. No independency would be allowed.
In chapter 9: 31, after the conversion of Saul of Tarsus we read: "Then had the churches rest throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied." Does not this show a unity of Assemblies in all these provinces? How could it be otherwise if they were walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit?
Passing on to the 15th chapter, we find therein a vivid example of how the New Testament Assemblies acted in unity and what they did when that unity was threatened. Some from Judaea were insisting that the Gentile believers must be circumcised and keep the law of Moses. After Paul and Barnabas had much disputation with them, it was determined that these two brothers and certain others from Antioch should go to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question. There, in conference, the matter was settled and the mind of the Lord was ascertained for both Jewish and Gentile believers. Letters were written and sent by chosen men from the apostles and elders and the whole Church at Jerusalem to the brethren of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia. When the Epistle was read to the believers at Antioch, "they rejoiced for the consolation" (v. 31). A division among the Assemblies had been averted by united consultation and united action, and joy and consolation was the result.
There was no thought that Antioch could act one way and receive Gentiles according to the free grace of God and Jerusalem would act in another way and not let in Gentiles. No such independency is seen. There is not a trace of such disorder and independency throughout the Scriptures, but every possible evidence in fact and doctrine insisted on, of there being One Body on earth whose unity was the foundation of blessing and its maintenance the duty of every Christian.
While we do not have apostles today, nor a "Jerusalem" as in Acts 15, yet an important principle is therein laid down for us to act upon at all times. That is, those questions which affect the Church as a whole should be considered in conference among representative brethren from the Assemblies who seek the Lord's guidance together in prayer and consultation. Assemblies or individuals have no right to act independently in such matters which affect the whole Church. We must use "diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the uniting bond of peace," using "all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love." "Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety" (Prov. 11:14).*
* We need to remember, however, that authority to act for the Lord according to His Word is given to the local assembly gathered unto His Name. While it is necessary for brethren to counsel together in conference, they are not given authority as such to make decisions binding upon all. This is the prerogative of a local assembly acting in the Name of the Lord in harmony with His Word
The above is what we believe we should learn from Acts 15. The reader can judge for himself the Scripturalness of the following comment on this chapter: "The Council at Jerusalem (Acts 15), where the apostles and elders decided a matter of Christian liberty for the Gentile believers, has no counterpart today; for we have the New Testament scriptures complete as our guide on all questions" ("The Church of God" by F. Ferguson). The same writer says, "Each local Church stands by itself ... Neither is there any `confederation of churches' of a country, province or district." This shows how much of Scripture is rejected and passed over by those who adopt the principle of independent assemblies. Another servant of the Lord, who also maintained the independency of assemblies, once told the writer that he didn't believe the apostles and elders were guided by the Holy Spirit in coming together in conference as they did in Acts 15. What audacity and rejection of God's Word to maintain a principle of self-will. The apostles and elders could say, "For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us" (v. 28)
Thus we see that there existed in the New Testament times a practical bond of active fellowship in the truth among the Assemblies, sustained and strengthened by the effective power of the Holy Spirit. There existed a circle of gatherings of God's children in fellowship with one another, to the exclusion of all not belonging to the fellowship of the One Body. There was not only the acknowledging of the truth of the One Body, but the positive outflow of love and affection in the One Spirit. No trace of independency is seen among the New Testament Assemblies in doctrine or practice, or any hint of the present day teaching that each local Assembly stands by itself. This teaching of independency is therefore of man's devising and must be rejected as not of God.
Bound on Earth
The principle of unity of action is also implied in the words of our Lord in Matthew 18:18: "Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." Christ was speaking in the previous verses of discipline and of one who would not hear the Church or repent of his trespass against his brother. Such an one must be put out of the Assembly and his sin bound upon him in discipline.
This governmental act of binding or loosing of sins by those gathered unto the name of the Lord Jesus Christ is bound on earth and in heaven according to the Lord's words. Notice the Lord did not say, "Whatsoever ye shall bind in the Church or Assembly shall be bound in heaven," but "Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven." This expression "on earth" certainly covers more than the local Assembly where the discipline is enacted. These words of Christ show that the disciplinary act of one Assembly in the name of the Lord is binding upon all other Assemblies on earth. What is bound according to His Word in one gathering is bound on earth and ratified in heaven and is therefore to be accepted as such by all Assemblies. To do otherwise would be a denial of the unity of the Body of Christ and acting as independent Churches in opposition to the Lord's words that an Assembly's act is bound on earth and in heaven.
If one is Scripturally excluded from one Assembly he is outside of the Church of God on earth and must be considered as excluded from every Assembly elsewhere. As we have previously stated, the local assembly represents the universal Church of God and acts for the Church as such and not just for itself locally. Thus unity of action in discipline among Assemblies is taught by the words of the Lord in Matthew 18:18.
Another has well written: "Suppose we excommunicate a person here, and you receive him at S., it is evident you have denied us here as a body gathered in Christ's name, and acting by His authority: for that is what discipline hangs upon. Further, the unity of the body is denied wholly. It is clear, if I have a part as faithful to Christ in excluding a person here, I cannot have one in another place in breaking bread with him there. Brethren united in the name of the Lord are not infallible, and remonstrance may be all right, but if a person is to be received in one place who is rejected in another, it is evident there is an end to unity and common action ... How could I hold with the rejection of a person here and his reception at S.? When deliberately done, it is evidently impossible. If I am out of communion with him here, and in communion with him there, the unity of the body is gone. And where is the authority of the Lord?" (J. N. Darby).
That an Assembly may fail in its disciplinary actions and rule amiss is possible. The mind of God may be missed through a low moral state and its action may need to be rectified. Nevertheless, the action of an Assembly, even if questionable, should be respected at first view by other Assemblies. No Assembly has the right to immediately set aside a judgment of another gathering because it deems it unrighteous. That would be acting independently. The pretended competency of one Assembly to judge another Assembly's acts and decide for itself whether it will accept its decisions or not is certainly a denial, in practice, of the truth of the One Body and outright independency.
We believe the following extracts from the writings of that esteemed servant of Christ, J. N. Darby, give the path of God which should be followed in regard to Assembly judgments and Assembly relationships. "I have always found that respecting the action of an Assembly prima facie (at first view) is the way of wisdom and what God owns . . . A judgment of an Assembly, even if I thought it a mistake, I should in the first instance accept and act upon. My experience has been that the path of God, is to respect the judgment of an Assembly of God, while free to remonstrate and beg them to review their judgment."-Letters, Vol. 2, p. 475, 156 (Old Edition).
"But while a local Assembly exists actually in a personal responsibility of its own; and while its acts, if they are of God, bind the other Assemblies, as in the unity of the one body, this fact does not do away with another which. is of the highest importance, and which many seem to forget, viz., that the voices of brethren in other localities have liberty, equally with those of the local brethren, to make themselves heard in their midst when discussing the affairs of a meeting of the saints, although they are not locally members of that meeting. To deny this would, indeed, be a serious denial of the unity of the body of Christ.
"And more than this, the conscience and moral condition of a local Assembly may be such as to betray ignorance, or at least an imperfect comprehension of what is due to the glory of Christ and to Himself. All this renders the understanding so weak that there is no lon;cany spiritual power for discerning good and evil. Perhaps in an Assembly, also, prejudices, haste, or, indeed, the bent of mind, and THE INFLUENCE OF ONE or of many, may lead the Assembly's judgment ASTRAY, and cause it to punish unjustly and do a serious wrong to a brother.
"When such is the case IT IS A REAL BLESSING that spiritual and wise men from other meetings should step in and seek to awaken the conscience of the Assembly, as also if they come at the request of the gathering, or of those, to whom the matter is the chief difficulty at the tune. In such a case their stepping in, far from being looked upon as an intrusion, ought to be received and acknowledged in the name of the Lord. To act in any other way would be to SANCTION INDEPENDENCY and to DENY the UNITY OF THE BODY OF CHRIST.
"Nevertheless, those who once come in and act thus ought not to act without the rest of the Assembly, but with the conscience of all.
"When an Assembly has rejected every remonstrance, and refuses to accept the help and judgment of other brethren, when patience has been exhausted, an Assembly which has been in communion with it is justified in annulling its wrong act, and in accepting the person who was put out if they were mistaken as to him. But when we are driven to this extremity, the difficulty has become a question of the refusal of fellowship with the Assembly which has acted wrongly, and which has thus of its own accord broken its fellowship with the rest of those who act in the unity of the body. Such measures can only be taken after much care and patience, in order that the conscience of all may go along with the action as being of God.
"I call attention to these subjects because there might be a tendency to set up AN INDEPENDENCEOF ACTION in each local Assembly by refusing to admit the intervention of those who, being in fellowship might come from other places." (Translated from the "Messager Evangelique" (1872).
In summing up what we believe to be the path of godly procedure as to the action of an Assembly in binding or loosing and any mistaken action therein, the following statement of principles is presented:
1. Normally what the Assembly binds on earth, God winds in heaven according to Matt. 18:18. If a man will not hear the Church, acting for God, he manifests stubbornness, which "is as iniquity" (I Sam. 15:23).
2. There is need of submission one to another and to the Lord in Assembly decisions (I Peter 5:5). If an Assembly is not united in its judgment, one faction should not press its judgment over the protest of the others. On the other hand, where an Assembly is largely of one mind, it is Scriptural for the others to submit to its judgment, even if they believe it faulty, unless something very vital is involved.
3. If, however, a judgment of an Assembly is definitely unrighteous and cannot be Scripturally sustained, we cannot believe that the Judge of all the earth, who does what is right (Gen. 18:25), would hold anyone responsible to bow permanently to what is unrighteous and contrary to Scripture.
The Lord's words, "Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven," are not unconditional and absolute or to be misconstrued as equivalent with '*approved in heaven." The throne of heaven can only approve what is righteous and according to God's Word and of His Spirit. An Assembly's act may be viewed as bound in heaven, but if it is not according to the Word and will of God, it will be a distressing bond bringing sorrow and confusion in its train, rather than being a uniting bond of peace which draws hearts together in happy, holy and free fellowship in the Spirit.
4. In such cases of mistaken and unrighteous judgment of an Assembly, there should be an orderly and Godly procedure. When every man does what is right in his own eyes, confusion results, as in the days of the Judges in Israel (Judges 17:6; 21:25), and authority is nullified or set at nought. "God is not the author of confusion, but of peace" (I Cor. 14:33).
The orderly procedure would be for individuals or Assemblies who are exercised about the wrong action, to present in grace their exercises to the Assembly and seek to show them "a more excellent way" (I Cor. 12:31). If our eye is single, we will seek God's glory and not selfjustification. Thus the principle of grace in government would apply to Assemblies as well as to individuals.
5. The Assembly in such a case must be willing to reconsider its judgment and action which does not commend itself as of God and according to His Word to brethren at large. God's Word is given for "correction" as well as for other purposes (II Tim. 3:16), and Assemblies as well as individuals must be subject to it.
6. In the finality of things, submission to supreme authority comes before submission to subordinate authority; and the call to "hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches" (Rev. 2: 7, 11, 17, 29), takes precedence over the command to "hear the church" (Matt. 18:17). This is in accord with the principle that "God must be obeyed rather than men" (Acts 5:29 New Trans.). When an Assembly acts in self-will or mistakenly, they are acting as men (I Cor. 3:3). Christ ever remains the Head of the Church and all must be subject to Him.
7. Hence if an Assembly maintains permanently a judgment which their brethren generally deem to be unrighteous and contrary to Scripture, that Assembly, by refusing correction from God's Word, manifests insubjection to the Lord, the Head of the Church, and loses its proper Assembly character. Such an Assembly might finally have to be cut off by the others from fellowship. This would be an extreme case, and such action should only be taken after all efforts of grace have failed to recover it.
We trust the foregoing will help our readers to perceive more clearly the divine path in regard to Assembly judgments and the proper relationship that should exist between Assemblies, especially when failure and difficulties arise. May we be kept from extreme actions of all kinds, on one side or the other, and be preserved from independency in any shape or form.
The Seven Churches of Asia
Those who contend for the principle of independent Assemblies invariably refer to the messages to the seven Churches in Asia, as recorded in Revelation 2 and 3, as ground for their action. They point out that the Lord addressed each Assembly individually and did not charge Ephesus with Pergamos' faults and iniquity, or with Thyatira's, or vice-versa. Therefore they conclude that we are not responsible for what goes on in other Assemblies, but that each Assembly is only responsible to Christ, its head, for its own affairs. Let us examine this teaching and see if it is according to all the truth of Scripture.
First of all, we may say that the book of Revelation does not teach Church order or lay down for us Assembly principles. This is not the purpose of this book. While we can certainly learn much profitable truth on Assembly lines from these first three chapters of Revelation, which really give the prophetic history of the professing Church, we must go to the book of Acts and the Epistles of Paul for full instructions as to the Church and its order and principles of conduct and action. These we have already considered in previous pages and have noted that no independency of action is taught anywhere or was practiced, but that unity and corporate responsibility and action is found therein.
It is, of course, definitely true that each Assembly is primarily responsible to Christ its head for what goes on in its midst. There is first of all the local responsibility of each Assembly to maintain the holiness of the Lord and Scriptural order in its own sphere of accountability. Therefore, it is only natural that we find the Lord addressing the seven Assemblies of Asia separately and pointing out to each one what He approved of among them and what was not according to His holiness or His desires. But the whole truth of the matter is that responsibility does not end with the local Assembly.
There is a collective responsibility to maintain the truths of God's Word as well as a local responsibility. This flows from our being members of the One Body of Christ. Assemblies are part of that One Body, therefore they cannot exist as so many local, independent bodies. They are local representations of the One Body of Christ on earth and the interests of the whole body should be the interests and concern of each Assembly.
Coming directly now to the messages to the seven Churches of Asia, we find that the Lord did not only hold each Assembly responsible for its internal condition, but that He also added at the close of each message, "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches." Notice He did not say, "hear what the Spirit saith to you," or to "the Assembly," but "hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches." This is plural and indicates collective responsibility and unity of Assemblies. Ephesus was not only to hear what the Lord had to say to her locally, but what the Spirit had to say to all the Churches of Asia. And so with each Church; they were to hear what the Spirit said to the other Churches as well as to themselves. They were not to be ignorant of each other's condition or to be indifferent about it. Each was to know what the Spirit of God had to say about the wrong or evil in each Assembly and they had a corporate responsibility about it.
If the evil was not removed which the Lord pointed out as existing at Thyatira, could Smyrna or Philadelphia receive individuals from this Assembly or commend saints to it? Assuredly not, for to do so would be expressing fellowship and making a link with that which the Lord judged as evil. Association with evil defiles. "Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?" (I Cor. 5: 6).
In each message to the various Churches in Asia the overcomer. is addressed in connection with hearing what the Spirit saith unto the Churches. Such would heed the Spirit's message and purge out the evil or else purge themselves from the evil. If the Assembly did not judge itself and purge out the evil, the separated overcomers would be the only ones that fellowship could be extended to in righteousness and holiness.
After the Lord removed the candlestick from Ephesus, as He said He would if they did not repent, could it be recognized as an Assembly and individuals received from it or commended to it? Surely not. Only the separated overcomers could be recognized and fellowshipped by the overcomers elsewhere. This would meet the Lord's approval.
Thus we find nothing to support the idea of independent Assemblies in the messages to the seven Churches, but rather that the uniform teaching- of Scripture of the unity and collective responsibility of Assemblies is therein seen.
Examples of Unity in Israel
In the Old Testament God owned the nation of Israel as His people. They were His chosen ones and He was their God and dwelt in their midst. In the New Testament God forms a Church out of all nations and owns that as His dwelling place and as His people. We have previously pointed out that unity in principle and action is what characterized the New Testament Church. We shall also find that the principle of unity was God's mind for the nation of Israel and that the unity of the twelve tribes was always insisted upon in the Old Testament.
Since we are told in the New Testament that "whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning," and that things in Israel are ensamples for our admonition and types and a "shadow of good things to come" (Rom. 15:4; I Cor. 10:11; Heb. 10:1), it is important that we notice this principle of unity in Israel. For if the nation of Israel was one, how much more so is the Body of Christ, the Church, one! And if independency was wrong in Israel, how much more so must it be wrong in the Church of God!
In seeking to point out examples of the unity of the nation of Israel, we feel that we cannot do better than to quote the words of C. H. Mackintosh who has ably summed the matter up thus:
The Nation Was One
The cities and tribes were not independent; they were bound up together by a sacred bond of national unity - a unity which had its center in the place of the divine presence. Israel's twelve tribes were indissolubly bound together. The twelve loaves on the golden table in the sanctuary formed the beauteous type of this unity, and every true Israelite owned and rejoiced in this unity. The twelve stones in Jordan's bed, the twelve stones on Jordan's bank, Elijah's twelve stones on Mount Carmel - all set forth the same grand truth the indissoluble unity of Israel's twelve tribes.
"The good king Hezekiah recognized this truth when he commanded that the burnt-offering and the sin-offering should be made for all Israel (II Chron. 29:24). The faithful Josiah owned it and acted upon it when he carried his reformatory operations into all the countries that pertained to the children of Israel (II Chron. 34:33). Paul, in his magnificent address before king Agrippa, bears witness to the same truth when he says, `Unto which promise our twelve tribes, instantly serving God day and night, hope to come' (Acts 26:7).
"And when we look forward into the bright future, the same glorious truth shines, with heavenly lustre, in the seventh chapter of Revelation, where we see the twelve tribes sealed and secured for blessing, and glory, in connection with a countless multitude of the Gentiles. And finally, in Revelation 21 we see the names of the twelve tribes engraved on the gates of the holy Jerusalem, the seat and centre of the glory of God and of the Lamb.
"Thus, from the golden table in the sanctuary to the golden city descending out of heaven from God, we have a marvelous chain of evidence in proof of the grand truth of the indissoluble unity of Israel's twelve tribes.
"And then, if the question be asked, where is this unity to be seen? or how did Elijah or Hezekiah or Josiah or Paul see it? The answer is a very simple one-They saw it by faith; they looked within the sanctuary of God, and there, on the golden table, they beheld the twelve loaves, setting forth the perfect distinctness and yet the perfect oneness of the twelve tribes. Nothing can be more beautiful. The truth of God must stand forever. Israel's unity was seen in the past, and it will be seen in the future; and though like the higher unity of the Church, it is unseen in the present, faith believes it all the same, holds it and confesses it in the face of ten thousand hostile influences." (Notes on Deuteronomy, Vol. 2, pages 165, 166).
In the matter of the sin of Achan at Jericho, we see God acting in discipline with Israel on the ground of their national unity. When Achan of the tribe of Judah trespassed and took of the accursed things of Jericho, the Lord was angry against Israel and caused them to meet defeat in battle at Ai. When Joshua inquired of the Lord about it, He said, "Israel hath sinned, and they have also trespassed... they have taken of the accursed thing" (Joshua 7:11).
The evil was not just a matter that affected Achan or his family or his tribe, but it affected all Israel. God held all Israel responsible for it because all the tribes were one nation. In His sight the whole nation was identified with the sin of Achan and defiled by it. It was not Achan's family or the tribe of Judah that was defiled and held responsible, but all Israel. So "all Israel stoned him with stones" (Joshua 7:25), and put the evil away. Then the Lord's anger turned and He was with Israel again.
The same principle applies to the Church of God and to individual Assemblies today. If an individual in an Assembly has sinned, the whole Assembly is thereby defiled and is responsible to deal with it, otherwise God cannot go on with them. So also if evil is allowed in one Assembly, all Assemblies in fellowship with this gathering are defiled by it and must judge the evil. The Church is one as Israel was one and there is a corresponding responsibility. The principles of God never change, so the lesson God taught Israel at Jericho is a lesson for the Church also and is borne out by the teaching of the New Testament.
Evil in a City
In Deuteronomy 13:12-15 Israel was instructed as to dealing with a report of idolatry in one of their cities. It was to be investigated and if the report was true and certain, they must smite the inhabitants of that city and destroy it utterly. There was to be no such thing, for example, as any in the south of Israel saying, "What have we to do with the evil in the North or in such and such a city? There is no such evil taught amongst us. Each city is responsible for the maintenance of truth within its own borders. That is a local matter; we do not feel ourselves responsible to meddle with their affairs" etc.
To speak thus would have been a denial of Israel's unity. The evil was in a city of Israel and if another city belonged to Israel, the evil was considered to be amongst its inhabitants also. Furthermore, God's distinct commandment was - "If thou shalt hear say... Then shalt thou enquire" etc., so they were bound on the double ground of the nation's unity and the plain command of God to investigate the reported evil and to deal with it. They were told to inquire whether "such abomination is wrought among you" (v. 14). It was not merely a question of evil in a certain city, but among you - evil in Israel. Evil in one city was the concern of all Israel according to God.
If every city and every tribe were to take independent ground, the high-priest might take the twelve loaves off the golden table before the Lord and scatter them about here and there, for the unity of Israel would be gone. But no such independency was to be allowed in Israel and neither is it God's mind for His Assemblies.
Thus even the instructions to Israel stress the principle of unity and corporate responsibility and action, and coalesce with what we have found in the New Testament to be the path of God for the Church and for Assembly relationships.
"A Circle of Fellowship"
We have pointed out the unity that existed among the New Testament Assemblies in doctrine and in practice and we have seen that no trace of the theory of independent Assemblies is found anywhere in Scripture. The principle of the unity of Assemblies is what God's Word clearly teaches. This is sometimes spoken of as the truth of "a circle of fellowship." By this term is meant a circle of Assemblies holding the same truths, acting on the same divine principles, maintaining corporate responsibilities, and walking together in practical fellowship and unity with each other in order to carry out the principles which bind them together.
All the Scriptures hitherto considered relating to the common life and order of the Assemblies justify the thought and teaching of a circle of Assemblies. While the term is not found in Scripture, it expresses a truth clearly taught in the Word. Of course, such a circle of fellowship primarily includes all saints not Scripturally excluded, but in the present state of ruin and confusion in the professing Church the circle of actual fellowship of Assemblies must be reduced to those who are subject to the truth of God governing His Assembly.
If we have Scriptural authority for a single Assembly gathered in separation from what is contrary to God's Word, which we surely have, we have a circle of fellowship locally, and this circle would properly include all Assemblies likewise Scripturally gathered elsewhere.
Necessary for Order and Discipline
A circle of fellowship is a necessity and we must own it and the discipline connected with it if we would be free from the charge of independency. How else can the order and discipline established through the apostle Paul for God's house, the Assembly, be carried out? On the same principle that we recognize a local company of believers gathered in separation from evil, we must recognize a general company of believers-a circle of gatherings.
This is not forming a confederacy or setting up a central governing body. In owning a circle of gatherings we make no terms with each other, but simply seek to walk together in obedience to the Word of God. A circle of fellowship is a practical oneness of fellowship which the Spirit of God produces through obedience to the Scriptures. It is the only practical representation of the Body of Christ. The only alternative is to recognize independent Assemblies which would be a denial of the truth of the one body of all believers. Of independency another has well said: "The principle of independent Assemblies leads to latitudinarianism, which allows of every one's will and tries no one's conscience."
By many a clamor and cry is raised against the teaching of a circle of fellowship as being sectarian and not of God. But if Christians everywhere are owned as members of the Body of Christ and received into communion wherever a Scriptural hindrance to their reception does not exist, and no sectarian name or certain teaching is adapted as a party badge, but saints are gathered simply to Christ's name alone, such an Assembly of believers is not a party or sect though refusing independency and owning a circle of Assemblies with which they fellowship.
Another has well written: "The more we lament and refuse the sectarianism which exists, the more we are compelled, and shall rejoice to own the Body of Christ wherever possible. And this circle of fellowship, while it is not the body, furnishes us with the means of owning this in a truthful and holy way, so far as the state of ruin in which the Church exists permits it to be done. With love to all Christ's own - with an open door for the reception of all according to the conditions of truth and holiness - such a circle is not sectarian, but a protest against it, while the meeting that refuses connection with it is sectarian in fullest reality" (F. W. Grant).
We are to recognize the whole Body of Christ, but not the unscriptural associations of believers. In the interests of the Body of Christ, we refuse denominations as not of God, but in the same interests we are bound to accept the circle of unsectarian fellowship. Every Christian has a right to the Lord's Table in a certain way, but he may not in every case be entitled to sit at it: his ways, his associations, or his state of soul may hinder it, for it is the table of the holy and true One.
The breaking of bread together at the Lord's Table is the fullest expression of fellowship and fellowship means community of interests and of judgment. Where these do not exist true fellowship is impossible. We cannot fellowship with those who oppose and make war upon the principles which God has given for our guidance. Fellowship can only be extended by an Assembly in one locality to Assemblies in other localities which take up their privileges and act upon their responsibilities according to God's Word while walking in holiness, truth, and unity.
We have discussed the truth of a circle of fellowship and have contended for it as a Scriptural precept. That those who have sought to hold and practice this principle have greatly failed and broken up into various circles is sadly admitted and gives cause for humiliation and confession before God. But this does not prove that the principle of a circle of fellowship is wrong. Man's failure to maintain God's truth does not change divine principles or excuse us from upholding or practicing them. It is rather a reason for humbling ourselves before God in identification with all the ruin and the failure of our fathers and ourselves and should cause us to seek His face for grace and strength to keep His Word and to walk aright.
Those who practice independency of Assemblies and label the teaching of the unity of Assemblies as that which causes divisions have not fared any better - perhaps worse. The baneful fruits of independency are clearly seen.
Maintaining Practical Unity
The truth of the One Body of all believers and of the one Spirit which has formed this divine "unity of the Spirit" necessitates that there must be a practical relationship of unity between local Assemblies of Christians. This is the relationship which the Word of God marks out for Assemblies, as we have seen, and it is the only Scriptural one. In the first Epistle to the Corinthians, which embraces "all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ" (ch. 1: 2), the apostle writes: "Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment" (ch. 1:10) .
Satan is ever busy seeking to destroy this practical unity of judgment and happy fellowship between believers and Assemblies and to promote independency and division among God's people. So we are exhorted to use "diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the uniting bond of peace". We must make an earnest effort to promote unity and fellowship amongst believers in the local Assembly and amongst the Assemblies in various localities, provinces, and countries. We purpose now to consider some of the things that help to foster and maintain practical unity between Assemblies of believers.
Examples from Scripture
We have but to follow the pattern given us in the divine account of the Apostolic Church in this matter. In the Epistles of Paul, Peter, and John, we notice that at the close Christian greetings are sent, through the apostle, from all the saints of one Assembly to all the saints of the particular Assembly (or to the individual) to whom the Epistle was written. Paul sent salutations to the Corinthians from the Churches of Asia and from Aquila and Priscilla and the Church which was in their house at Ephesus (I Cor. 16:19).
The apostle Paul also told the saints in Rome of the work of the saints in Macedonia and Achaia for the poor saints at Jerusalem (Rom. 15:26). And he would stir up the Corinthians and all the saints in Achaia by telling them of the devoted, sacrificial giving of the Churches of Macedonia for the work of ministering to the needy saints (II Cor. 8:1-5) . He also told the saints at Corinth of the great opening for the Gospel that was granted unto him at Ephesus and of the many adversaries there (I Cor. 16:9). We note, too, that he requested the Assembly at Colosse to see that the Epistle he had sent to them be read also to the Church of the Laodiceans, and that they read the Epistle from Laodicea (Col. 4:16).
In the divine history of the early Church we observe, also, how the apostles, Titus, Timothy, Apollos, and other servants of the Lord visited the Assemblies and in passing from one place to another conveyed news of joy and sorrow to the saints, thereby linking the Assemblies together in a practical way. Peter "passed throughout all quarters" and Barnabas rehearsed to the Church at Antioch all that God had done with them on their first missionary tour and how the door of faith was opened unto the Gentiles and Assemblies formed (Acts 9:32;14:26, 27). Later, when they were sent by the brethren at Antioch to Jerusalem, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, "declaring the conversion of the Gentiles; and they caused great joy unto all the brethren." When they came to the Church at Jerusalem they declared the same (Acts 15:2-4).
The foregoing examples from the inspired record of the Apostolic Church manifest the common life, divine affections, and common interests which throbbed throughout the Assemblies and the whole Church. There was the practical demonstration of the truth of the One Body. By exchange of loving greetings, by visits of the Lord's servants from one Assembly to another, and through communications concerning each other's welfare and activities the saints and Assemblies were drawn together and maintained in practical love, fellowship, and unity.
Let God's people do likewise today; let there be interchange of loving greetings and visits between Assemblies. May diligent efforts be put forth by the Lord's servants and by local brethren in visiting and ministering among the Assemblies and making the saints acquainted with the activities, joys, sorrows, and needs of the various gatherings. Then let us all feel and share these joys or burdens and pray for each other. The work of those who give themselves to the service of the Lord and travel about among the Assemblies in the ministry of the Word is a very important and necessary service towards maintaining unity and promoting fellowship between Assemblies. Satan would also seek to use them in sowing discord. Of this they must beware.
Fellowship Meetings and Conferences
The convening of special meetings for fellowship, meditation on the Word, and prayer, or conferences, to which nearby and other Assemblies are invited, are a great help in the promotion of practical love, fellowship, and unity among Assemblies. They tend to draw saints closer together and to give new interest, energy, and zeal for the Lord's work. Hearts are refreshed in prayer, by the ministry of the Word, and by spiritual intercourse with other believers and gatherings are thereby strengthened and revived, especially the smaller ones. Isolated saints are also encouraged. Unity of teaching and practice is better maintained by such mutual meditations and discussions in conference and the link of fellowship between Assemblies is made stronger thereby.
Assemblies should be encouraged to conduct such special fellowship meetings and conferences of short duration or of several days length as opportunity affords. National holidays have often been taken advantage of for such general gatherings and much blessing has resulted to the saints.
Letters and Periodicals
Where personal fellowship and visitation of the saints and gatherings is not so easily accomplished because of great distances and lack of time and freedom from duties, the writing of letters of brotherly fellowship and encouragement is a great help in promoting practical unity, common interests, and fellowship among saints. Another valuable aid to this end is the publication and circulation of periodicals of ministry and of those giving items of interest concerning the saints and the Assemblies both at home and abroad.
Formation of New Assemblies
When a gathering of believers is to be formed in a place, it is well to seek the fellowship of one or more nearby gatherings or at least the Assembly closest to this place. This promotes unity and happiness and the spirit of independency is avoided. Then, if all is in Scriptural order, the older, nearby Assemblies can make known to the Assemblies elsewhere the formation of this new gathering and commend it to their prayerful fellowship. The nearby Assembly or Assemblies should show practical fellowship with this new gathering in their beginning a fresh testimony for the Lord on the ground of the One Body and should help them on in the path by visits and ministry from time to time.
By this way of acting in fellowship with another gathering, the new Assembly learns what it is to act practically on the truth of the One Body and the One Spirit and is taught in the very beginning that it is not an independent unit and cannot act independently of the Church elsewhere.
In this connection we would bring to the reader's attention a truth well stated by another: "It is quite clear if two or three are gathered together it is an Assembly, and if Scripturally assembled, an Assembly of God ... But if there be one such, and another set up by man's will independent of it, the first only morally in God's sight is the Assembly of God, and the other is not at all so, because it is set up in independency of the unity of the body" (J. N. Darby).
Thus in forming a new Assembly we must be sure that it is not an independent act, but an action according to the unity of the Body of Christ. Of course, if an Assembly, because of following a continued path of evil and self - will, finally has to be set aside and cut off from fellowship as a leprous house by other Assemblies, it can no longer be considered a Scripturally gathered Assembly. The establishment of a new gathering in such a place, done in fellowship with Assemblies elsewhere, is not an act of independency, but according to the holiness and truth of God's house which demands separation from evil (II Cor. 6:17; II Tim. 2:20, 21). To say, as some do, that there is no Scripture for cutting off an Assembly from fellowship is to say that there is no Scripture for separation from evil.
Letters of Commendation
From Acts 18:27, Romans 16:1, II Corinthians 3:1, and Colossians 4:10, we learn that it was a practice among the early Christians to give letters of commendation to saints who went from their midst to Assemblies where they were unknown and that they required the same from strangers who came to them for fellowship. Such letters authenticate the bearer as a true believer and as one whose walk is godly. They are a valuable means of introducing a believer to a gathering and assure him a welcome. They are also a safeguard against receiving false brethren. They tend to promote confidence and fellowship between Assemblies and are a great help toward the maintenance of godly order and unity. The letter should be from the Assembly and addressed to the Assembly which is to receive the person.
Great care should be taken not to omit this letter when going to an Assembly where one is a stranger. However, it is clear from II Corinthians 3:1 that such letters of commendation are not required of one who is known by a number in a gathering.
May the Lord help us as individuals and Assemblies to walk in practical unity as members of the Body of Christ and to maintain "the unity of the Spirit," in the bond of peace. May the true and Scriptural relationship of unity and corporate responsibility and fellowship be maintained between Assemblies.
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