by T. B. Baines.
Section 3 of: The Lord's Coming, Israel, and the Church.
Chapter 1 The kingdom and the church.
Chapter 2 The body and the bride.
Chapter 3 The mystery.
Chapter 4 A Christian not of the world.
Chapter 5 The church on earth — its unity.
Chapter 6 Local assemblies, offices, gifts, worship.
Chapter 7 The church in ruins.
Chapter 8 Separation from evil the path of obedience.
Chapter 9 God's provision for the faithful.
The kingdom and the church.
We have now briefly traced God's dispensational ways. Up to the cross He was unfolding His plan of earthly government, trying man, first alone, then with Christ in his midst, to see whether he could carry out the Divine purposes of blessing to the world. The result was disastrous failure. Man could neither execute God's schemes himself, nor receive — or even recognise — the Anointed One by whom they are to be accomplished. The first man ruined all he touched; the Second Man was despised, rejected, and crucified. This brought God's plans to a close until the people who refused their Messiah shall repent, and He shall again appear for their deliverance and blessing. Meanwhile, even the count of prophetic time stops, the space between Christ's death and the resumption of God's earthly designs being treated as a blank.
How, then, is God filling up this interval? What purposes is He now carrying out? Till the cross the first man was under trial. But there all was changed. Man proved that, in his nature, he was hopelessly alienated from God, and could not even receive blessing from Him in whom all God's gracious promises and purposes await their fulfilment. It was not enough, then, for the Second Man to appear. The first man must receive a new nature, must be created anew, ere he could take the blessings which the Second Man came to dispense.
And how could God effect this transformation? How could man be drawn out of this pit of ruin? By the very thing which showed how hopeless his ruin was! The deed which proved man's ripeness for perdition brought out God's power unto salvation. The cross which demonstrated the irreconcilable hatred of man's heart to God, revealed the unquenchable love of God's heart to man. That which sealed the doom of the old creation opened the door for the new. The blood shed upon the cross laid the righteous basis for the reconciliation of all things. In Christ's death the old creation was judicially set aside, while His resurrection brought in the Second Man as the "last Adam," the first-born of a new creation, in each member of which God could find the same delight as in its risen Head. Instead of the single grain of wheat, He had fallen into the ground and died, so that now He could produce much fruit, as it is written — "Behold I and the children which God has given Me."
All blessing, then, for the Church or the world, is based on the death and resurrection of the Second Man. But the cross is regarded in Scripture from the side of man's guilt as well as from that of God's grace. All admit the punishment of the Jews for their rejection of Christ. But were the Gentiles without guilt? The Holy Ghost teaches that Christ came as the Light; that "He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not" (John 1:10). Jesus declares the world's condemnation to be "that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil" (John 3:19). The world, therefore, that is, man as a whole, is guilty of refusing the One sent from God to effect its blessing, and this crime still forms the subject of God's judgment both on Jew and Gentile. By this judgment, the Jews have been cast out, and the earthly blessings of the kingdom, whether to Jew or Gentile, postponed. Creation is still left groaning for deliverance, until the sceptre is given to Christ. And, in the meanwhile, God is carrying out other purposes, quite apart from His designs of righteous government and blessing for the earth.
These purposes may be looked at, first as regards the kingdom, and next as regards the Church. The kingdom in its Jewish form is postponed. In outward display, it cannot be set up till Israel shall say "Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord." But Jesus speaks of "the mysteries of the kingdom," and it is in this mysterious or unrevealed form, that the kingdom now exists. During this epoch, Christ, not having received His own throne, is seated on the Father's throne, waiting till God shall give him the nations for His inheritance. It is the day of His "patience," not of his "power." He is not taking vengeance on His enemies, but beseeching them to be reconciled. Satan is allowed to sow tares in the field without provoking immediate judgment; the leaven to work in the meal till all is corrupted. God still tarries in grace, not willing that any should perish, and seeking to gather out a people from the ruin and judgment which are impending. Such is the kingdom in its mysterious form. On God's side it is the display of perfect grace and matchless forbearance; on man's, it is but a sadder disclosure of his proneness to depart from God, and to corrupt the best gifts entrusted to his hands.
But while the kingdom drifts to hopeless shipwreck under man's pilotage, God has another thought in His heart, a mystery which, as Paul says, "in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit." This mystery was disclosed "to the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known, by the church, the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal purpose which He purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Eph. 3:5, 10-11). Here, then, is God's present work. His schemes of earthly blessing are suspended; the kingdom, in its mysterious form, is filled with corruption and hurrying to judgment; but He is carrying out purposes for Christ's glory which He formed before the world was — purposes which prophets had not heard, and angels desire to look into — purposes in which, whatever our dulness, the principalities and powers in heavenly places discern the manifold wisdom of God. And these purposes are fulfilled "by the Church," which thus stands forth not only as the object of God's most cherished delight, but as the brightest display of His Divine wisdom.
The void, then, between the suspension and resumption of God's earthly purposes is filled up by the kingdom in its present form, and by the Church. According to God's institution, these were co-extensive, consisting of the same persons, though viewed in a different way. Notwithstanding the divergence, therefore, which man's failure has introduced, the kingdom is still occasionally spoken of in Scripture under its narrower, as well as under its wider aspect — according to its institution by God as well as according to its administration by man. Both views appear in the discourse in which our Lord specially treats of the kingdom in its present form. (Matt. 13) When speaking to the multitude, He shows the kingdom as man makes it, tares growing among the wheat, leaven corrupting the pure meal. But afterwards He retires with His disciples into the house, and unfolds the mysteries which it was given to them only to know. In explaining the parable of the tares, He says — "The good seed are the children of the kingdom, but the tares are the children of the wicked one." Here, then, the kingdom is looked at in its narrower aspect as consisting only of the good seed. The two parables which follow regard it in the same light. "The kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field, the which, when a man has found, he hides, and for joy thereof goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant-man seeking goodly pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it" (Matt. 13:44-46).
We need not notice the usual interpretation, according to which these parables are regarded as describing man's search after salvation. Such an explanation, which clashes with the argument of the chapter no less than with the general teaching of Scripture, could only have originated in complete blindness to the unity of design which threads together the various parables. The purpose of the discourse is to show, first, the means by which the kingdom, in its present form, is spread — by the sowing of the word; next its history, viewed as an outward profession — worldly admixture and corruption; lastly, the kernel of reality which God sees through the gigantic shell of pretension in which it is hidden from the sight of man. Outside, Jesus had told the people what the kingdom would become in man's hands. Inside, He unfolds to His disciples what would remain, if viewed according to God's thoughts. Man would make it a leavened mass. But in its midst was a treasure on which the heart of Christ was set, and for which He would "sell all that He had," lay down his very life. The land was bought not for its own worth, but for the treasure it concealed. This is the kingdom according to God's institution, seen by His eye alone, amidst the field of barren profession in which it is hidden.
And as the kingdom is spoken of in its wider and narrower aspect, so is the Church. The Church, as drawn according to God's thoughts in the Epistle to the Ephesians, and the Church as seen in the second and third chapters of the Revelation, are sadly contrasted pictures. In the first case, the real Church, consisting only of true believers, and viewed in living connection with Christ, is the subject which the Spirit of God presents for our contemplation. In the second case, the Church which bears the name of Christ, and is responsible to God as connected with that name, is the theme on which the solemn verdict is pronounced. In the first there can be no failure, for it is all of God. In the second there is the same grievous departure from the thoughts of God as in everything else entrusted to man's responsibility.
Our inquiry at present is confined to the Church according to God's thoughts. Only two references to it are made in our Lord's own teaching. But though the Church is one of those subjects which were but partially revealed during Christ's lifetime, these references will help us to understand much that God afterwards made known "unto His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit." The first occasion on which the "assembly" or "Church" is expressly named, is that recorded in the sixteenth chapter of Matthew's Gospel. In the thirteenth, the kingdom has been spoken of in its mysterious form, first as to its historical development in the hands of man, and next as to that hidden circle which made it dear to Christ. The sixteenth takes up the kingdom again in its administrative form, and names in connection with it, the new "assembly" which Christ was about to build. Jesus asks His disciples, "Whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona; for flesh and blood has not revealed it unto thee, but My Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter (petros, a stone); and upon this rock (petra, a rock) I will build My Church, and the gates of hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Then charged He His disciples that they should tell no man that He was Jesus the Christ. From that time forth began Jesus to show unto His disciples how that He must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day. Then Peter took Him and began to rebuke Him, saying, Be it far from Thee, Lord; this shall not be unto Thee. But He turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind Me, Satan; thou art an offence unto Me, for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men. Then said Jesus unto His disciples, If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me." (Matt. 16:15-24).
This passage shows a great dispensational change, the presentation of Jesus in a new character, and His abandonment, as to present testimony, of that which He had hitherto borne. After John was cast into prison, Jesus had begun "to preach and to say, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt. 4:17). This public proclamation of the kingdom to the Jews was now to cease. Henceforth, instead of offering Himself to the nation as their Messiah or Christ, He charged "His disciples that they should tell no man that He was Jesus the Christ." Instead of pointing to national acceptance and an earthly crown, He speaks of national rejection and an earthly cross. Instead of the old hope of the prophetic kingdom, He mentions a new thing which He was about to establish: the assembly or Church. And instead of the abandoned name of Messiah, which connected Him with the throne of David, He assumes, in reference to the Church, the newly proclaimed, and infinitely higher, title of the "Son of the living God."
The kingdom, then, in its prophetic and national shape was no longer the object of testimony to the people, or the immediate purpose in the thoughts of God. Though not, of course, abandoned, it was postponed, and in the meanwhile, it was to be set up in quite a different form. In this form it was placed under man's administration, the keys being given to Peter, who also received authority to bind and loose. These were not the keys of the Church, much less of heaven, but "the keys of the kingdom of heaven." A key is that which gives admission. On Peter, then, was laid the trust of admitting, not into the Church, but into the kingdom. How he used it we see in the Acts. He it was who authoritatively proclaimed Jesus as "both Lord and Christ," calling on the Jews to own His rights and to be baptized in His name. Thus the Jewish door was opened, and through it, in one day, three thousand souls entered the kingdom. But the Church was never entrusted to man's hands, and the account adds that "the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved" (Acts 2:47). Afterwards another door to the kingdom was opened. Cornelius's prayers were heard. One might have supposed that the apostle of the Gentiles would be used to bring him in. But no; Christ had given the keys to Peter, and the locked door of the Gentiles could only be lawfully opened by him. Taught of God that in the new form of the kingdom, the earthly distinctions of clean and unclean were abolished, he went at the first summons, and seeing "that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost, he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord" (Acts 10:44 48).
The power of adding to the Church, then, belongs to "the Lord" alone. The power of the keys, of admitting to the kingdom, was given to Peter. And with this Peter's history almost ceases. He had opened the door to the Gentiles; another brought them in. After Cornelius had entered, Peter no longer occupies the front rank, and Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles, becomes the leading figure in the history of God's future workings. There is another fact to be noted in beautiful harmony with this. Peter, who is specially entrusted with the keys of the kingdom, preaches the truth that "God has made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36), that is, he proclaims the titles and glories of Jesus in connection with the kingdom. Paul, on the contrary, to whom the "mystery" of the Church was committed, began immediately after his conversion to preach "Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God" (Acts 9:20). This, as we have seen, is the special title which He has taken for the foundation of the Church. The difference is all the more remarkable because, up to the time when Paul thus preached in the synagogues, Jesus is never spoken of in this character in the Acts of the Apostles, for the words, "Thy holy child Jesus" (Acts 4:27, 30), ought to be rendered "Thy holy servant Jesus," and the confession of the eunuch "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God" (Acts 8:37), is rejected, by almost all competent judges, as spurious. Peter's sphere, then, as contrasted with Paul's, is especially the kingdom, and in connection with this, to him alone were committed the keys. The power of binding and loosing, on the other hand, though in the above quotation given to Peter, was afterwards extended to a much larger company.
But let us look at what is here taught about the Church. Jesus says — "Upon this rock I will build My Church." This shows that the Church had not yet been founded. There had been, of course, as there were then, saved persons, but since the Church did not yet exist, it is clear that these saints formed no part of it. Thus in the Epistle to the Hebrews, "the Church of the first-born" and the "just men made perfect" are named as two quite different companies (Heb. 12:23). So, too, in the Revelation, where the Church is seen in glory, we find that besides "the bride, the Lamb's wife," there are others of whom it is said, "Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb" (Rev. 19:7-9). Evidently, then, the Church which Jesus was about to build was not the whole of the redeemed, but a particular class distinguished by certain definite characteristics from the rest — from the Old Testament saints, whose spirits are now in heaven, and also, as we shall see, from the saints who will enjoy the blessings of Christ's earthly rule.
This will plainly appear from the fact that the Church's foundation was a new one, and, therefore, could not be that on which the Old Testament saints had been set. Simon, who represents this class, had waited for "the Lord's Christ," and having seen Him could say, "Mine eyes have seen Thy salvation" (Luke 2:30). And so when the kingdom is established in its outward glory, the title of "the Christ" will again be the foundation of blessing — the Anointed of God will be the salvation of His people and the light of the Gentiles. But this title is now dropped, Jesus appears clothed in a new dignity, and another foundation is laid for the building of the Church.
What is this foundation? The Church of Rome has interpreted the text to mean Peter himself, and so far as the construction of the passage is concerned, the choice is between Peter, and Jesus in the newly-revealed character of "Son of the living God." Now Jesus does not say that the Church will be built on Peter (petros, a stone), but on this petra (or rock) — "thou art Petros, and upon this petra I will build My Church." The change in the word — both unnecessary and incorrect if Petros, or Peter, had been the foundation — shows that not he, but the thing he had mentioned, was the real petra, or rock on which the Church was to be built. This play on the name Petros — a name which had been given long before — is a common thing in Scripture, where names are often applied with reference to some important event. Thus, when the ark was taken, the dying Israelite mother named her child "I-chabod" (where is the glory?). So Jacob, blessing his sons, says, "Judah (praise), thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise." Esau, too, in his bitterness, exclaims concerning his brother — "Is not he rightly named Jacob (supplanter)? For he has supplanted me these two times." So here, Peter having laid bare the rock on which the Lord was going to build, Jesus says to him, in substance — "Thou art well named 'stone,' for thou hast showed the living stone, or rock, on which the Church will be founded."
The foundation, then, is not Peter but Jesus. This the passage itself proves, and Peter elsewhere expressly states, for, speaking of Jesus, he says — "To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed, indeed, of men, but chosen of God, and precious, ye also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood" (1 Peter 2:4-5). So, too, Paul writes that "other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 3:11) and again, he speaks of the Church as "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner stone" (Eph. 2:20). In all those cases, though the exact figure somewhat varies, Jesus Christ is spoken of as that in which the whole structure rests, and in none of them is Peter named as at all distinguished from other believers. The foundation, however, is not simply Jesus, but Jesus in the new character here brought to light. He drops the title of Messiah, the foundation of Jewish hopes, and of God's plans of earthly government. But He takes up the title of "Son of the living God," and on this declares that He will build His Church. Throughout Scripture the name by which God reveals Himself describes the character of His present dealings. He is Elohim in creation; God Almighty to the patriarchs; Jehovah to Israel; Father, to those who now believe on His Son. So Christ is Lord (Adon) to David; Son of man, as the executor of God's righteous purposes; Messiah to Israel; and "Son of the living God" to the Church.
There is deep significance in the word "living." When Jesus speaks of Himself as "the living bread which came down from heaven," He adds, "If any man shall eat of this bread, he shall live for ever" (John 6:51). Again He says — "The living Father has sent Me, and I live by the Father" (v. 57). In these cases the word conveys the idea of imparting, as well as possessing, life. It is the description of One who, having life in His own right and power, is beyond the dominion of death, and can communicate life to others. Thus Jesus says that He has life in Himself; that He has "power to lay it down," and "power to take it again;" also that He is "the resurrection and the life," and that those who believe in Him shall not die. The title "living God" is, then, most important here. Jesus was just going to tell the disciples of His death, and that they must take up their cross, and lay down their lives for His sake. What a stay, then, to have to do with "the living God," to be built into a structure which the gates of hades cannot touch, to be endowed with a life on which the second death has no power!
And this leads us to another revelation. As soon as Jesus drops the Messianic character, and takes up, as the foundation of the Church, the title of "Son of the living God," He begins to speak of His death and resurrection. It is quite true that this is the ground of blessing to the Jews as well as to the Church. But there is a broad difference. Israel owes its blessing to Christ's death, but is associated, as to its calling, with His earthly glory. The Church, on the contrary, is associated with His earthly rejection. As far as the world is concerned, Israel will know Him as the wearer of the crown; the Church knows Him as the bearer of the cross. Israel will own him when "girded with strength;" the Church owns Him "crucified through weakness." And so of His resurrection. His earthly power will doubtless be taken as the risen One. Still this is not the fact mainly insisted upon in connection with the kingdom glory; whereas it is always most prominent in connection with the Church. He is "determined to be the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from among the dead" (Rom. 1:4). He says to John, "I am He that lives and was dead, and behold I am alive for evermore" (Rev. 1:18). Believers are dead with Christ, and also quickened with him. They are to yield themselves to God "as those that are alive from the dead" (Rom. 6:13). Thus, while all are interested in Christ's death and resurrection, the Church is associated with them in a marked and peculiar manner.
How it is associated with them is seen in what follow — "If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it, and whosoever will lose his life for My sake shall find it." How unlike the language of Jehovah to Israel! For the Jews will know Jesus as their Messiah, seated on the throne of earthly power, and wearing the crown of earthly glory. The Christian knows him as the Son, "crucified through weakness," but living "by the power of God." How can the Jew have anything but blessing on the earth where his Messiah is ruling as supreme? How, on the other hand, can the Christian look for anything but rejection in the world where his Lord had nothing but a felon's cross? The Jew's confidence is the sceptre which will uphold his earthly rights. The Christian's is association in life with the One who has triumphed over death, and thus set him on a rock where the gates of hades are powerless against him.
This passage, then, shows the postponement of the kingdom in its outward form, and its existence, meanwhile, in another shape, under man's administration. During this time Jesus reveals Himself under a new name. On this He builds the new fabric of the assembly or Church, which, being founded on His own Sonship and Godhead, is beyond the power of hades. This Church is associated with Christ in death and resurrection. Earth is not the sphere of its blessings, but of its trials; and those who follow Christ must take up their cross. How admirably this character of the Church harmonises with the special hope held out before it of the Lord's return for His saints! The world, subject to Gentile rule, can only drift to more fearful judgment; the kingdom, entrusted to man, can only become a leavened mass; the Church, left amidst the nipping blasts of a godless world, and the stagnant gloom of a lifeless profession can look up to the mansions prepared in the Father's house, and await the hour when His shout shall be heard, and all the redeemed, changed into the likeness of Christ, shall be caught up to be "for ever with the Lord." When Christ takes his earthly dominion He will associate with Himself an earthly people, the sharers of His earthly glory and the objects of His earthly favour. But Christ is now the outcast of the earth and the joy of heaven. He has, therefore, associated with Himself a heavenly people, the partners of His earthly rejection but the objects of His heavenly delight. Down here, they are in the world, but not of it; and He has given Himself at God's right hand as the object of their present affection, their present occupation and their present hope. Are our souls up to this magnificent position?
Such, then, is our Lord's teaching in this first mention of the new fabric He was about to build. He afterwards further instructs His disciples on the same subject, telling them how to act in case of injury by a fellow-believer. Should all the means which grace can suggest prove ineffectual, they are to "tell it unto the Church." The Lord then adds, "But if he neglect to hear the Church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. 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. Again, I say unto you, that if two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of My Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matt. 18:17-20).
Here, then, the power of binding and loosing, before conferred on Peter, is given to all the disciples. The assembly is to act in cases of discipline, such as that of one of its members injuring another, and refusing to acknowledge his fault. The grace and gentleness of Christ are first to be shown. If these fail, the dishonour done to His name must be thought of, and the assembly must purge itself by putting away the evil-doer. This is the power of binding and loosing, which is given, not to the apostles, but to the Church or assembly. It is the authority to put away and to restore those who have sinned. Such, at least, is the particular case given, though the language itself would include a wider range, and doubtless does include the reception of believers into the assembly. The narrower authority, with its accompanying responsibility of dealing with questions of sin, is again bestowed after Christ's resurrection, where He says to His disciples, "Receive ye the holy Ghost; whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained" (John 20:22-23). This authority, conferred, not upon the apostles, but the disciples — that is, on believers as a whole — is not the power of putting away sins, which belongs to God only, but of exercising a divinely-guided judgment as to what offences demand the excision of the wrong-doers or what measure of repentance justifies his restoration. The power is given in connection with the Holy Ghost. While guided by Him, their authority could not but be rightly used. But the moment they ceased to be guided by Him, the sole ground of their authority vanished.
So, too, in the Gospel of Matthew the authority to bind and loose, and the title to ask that anything shall be done for them, rests simply on the presence of Jesus in their midst, "For, where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them." Now, in the New Testament, the name stands for the person acting in the character which the name indicates. Thus Jesus says, "I have manifested Thy name (the Father's) unto the men which Thou gavest Me" (John 17:6). Again, "He that believes not is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God" (John 3:18). So, the Philadelphians are commended because they had "not denied My name" (Rev. 3:8). Being gathered in the name of Jesus then, is being gathered to His person, owning His authority, and in accordance with His mind. If the meeting, though called by His name, should really be to some other centre, should own some other authority, or should be contrary to His directions, his presence is not promised. Doubtless, even in this case, there may be the presence and working of the Holy Ghost, blessing the preaching or teaching of the Word, and where there is truth of heart, all allowance will be made for ignorance and failure. There may, therefore, be much blessing where there is even wide departure from the Lord's mind, for we have to do with a God who knows our weakness and pities our ignorance. Thus, in the days of Israel's ruin, we read of those who through ignorance "had not cleansed themselves, yet did they eat the passover otherwise than it was written; but Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, The good Lord pardon every one that prepares his heart to seek God, the Lord God of his fathers, though he be not cleansed according to the purification of the sanctuary; and the Lord hearkened to Hezekiah, and healed the people" (2 Chron. 30:18-20). Grace, then, both can and will come in where failure is the result of ignorance, and where there is a true heart towards God. But we may be sure that the Lord's way is better than man's; nor can the grace, which blesses in spite of ignorance, excuse indifference as to what the Lord's mind really is. The Holy Ghost's action will not be granted to sanction the ignorance arising from culpable neglect any more than to give approval to the wilfulness and disobedience of those who use His name to carry out their own thoughts.
We are then responsible to learn what is meant by meeting in the Lord's name. And surely the matter is of the intensest interest to all believers. The power to bind on earth so that it shall be bound in heaven is a trust of the deepest solemnity; and to profess to exercise such a trust without divine sanction is a fearful responsibility. "My glory will I not give to another," says the Lord; and it is surely clear that Christ will not be robbed of His own glory and His own rights in the assembly. Is it possible, then, that the solemn trust above mentioned could be placed in the hands of a number of believers meeting together in voluntary associations, and according to rules of their own devising? Where Christ is present there must be room for all who are Christ's — subject, of course, to divinely-appointed discipline — to be present also; and His authority must be supreme and exclusive, utterly setting aside all the systems and constitutions, all the restrictions and regulations, of men. Only to those thus assembled are given the presence of Jesus, power with God, and the authority to bind and to loose. Nor, if we understand what it is to be gathered in that name, will these magnificent promises and powers fill us with wonder. Let believers be really assembled in obedience to the Lord's directions, and with hearts bowed to His authority, owning, in simple faith, His presence in their midst, and where is the room for self-will? Where the possibility of mistake? How could anything be bound or loosed but according to His guidance? — anything asked but according to His mind?
The neglect, whether wilful or ignorant, of these conditions, has caused the wide divorce between the kingdom and the Church. Men have claimed to bind and to loose, to remit and to retain, regardless of the terms on which this authority was bestowed. In the passages which give this power, the Church and the kingdom are viewed as one, according to God's institution. So long as the assembly was in such a state that it could enjoy the presence of Jesus and the guidance of the Spirit, the kingdom, administered by man, remained co-extensive with the Church. The moment self-will, self-dependence, or self-interest crept in, Christ's presence and the Spirit's guidance ceased to lend sanction to their acts, and the decrees of the body on earth were no longer ratified in heaven. The Church, and the kingdom as seen by God, became severed from the kingdom as ordered, or disordered, by man; the door was flung open for self, the world, and Satan to come in; the name of Christ was made to sanction every abomination and blasphemy which human or diabolic wickedness could devise; and, though the treasure still remained, dear as ever to the heart of God, Christendom, the field in which it was hid, became that hateful thing whose annals the infidel historian has justly described as "the annals of hell."
The body and the bride.
In our last chapter we learnt some important truths about the Church from our Lord's own teaching. Occupying the interval between His rejection by man and His public manifestation in the glory of the kingdom, it has an entirely exceptional position in God's dealings. It is associated with Jesus in the place He now holds as rejected by the world, so that believers are promised no other earthly portion than the cross which He bore. It is also associated with Him, however, in His acceptance as the risen One; being founded, not on His earthly title as the Messiah, but on His heavenly dignity as "Son of the living God;" and standing in the eternal security of that life which He possesses as the One who was dead and is alive again, so that the gates of hades cannot prevail against it. Even as to administration, while subject to Christ's authority, what it bound and loosed on earth was ratified in heaven.
But the character of the Church was only fully revealed after Christ's ascension. It may be asked, When did the Church come into existence? It was not founded when Jesus first named it, for He spoke of it as a future thing; and being associated with His death and resurrection, it could not exist till these had taken place. There is no trace of it during Christ's lifetime, nor till the day of Pentecost. Then, however, an event occurred which we must now consider.
The Holy Spirit had worked in all ages. Souls were quickened by Him; "holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost." Besides these ways of acting, Joel had foretold the pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh, and John the Baptist had pointed out Jesus as the one who should baptize with the Holy Ghost. These predictions will have their complete fulfilment when Christ appears in His glory. Jesus Himself, however, speaks of a coming of the Holy Ghost, in connection, not with His return, but with His departure; not with His earthly glory, but with His heavenly; as poured out, not upon all flesh, but upon His own disciples. "If any man thirst, let him come unto Me and drink. He that believes on Me, as the scripture has said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. But this spake He of the Spirit, which they that believe on Him should receive, for the Holy Ghost was not yet; because that Jesus was not yet glorified" (John 7:37-39). Here the Spirit was only to those who believe in Jesus, and after He was glorified. So, before His departure, He says — "It is expedient for you that I go away; for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send Him unto you" (John 16:7).
There is, then, here brought out a new work of the Spirit, connected with Christ's absence and heavenly glory. In this new character, He was to abide with the disciples for ever (John 14:16), to dwell with them and to be in them (v. 17), to teach them all things, and bring all things to their remembrance whatsoever Jesus had said unto them (v. 26), to guide them into all truth and show them things to come, glorifying Christ by receiving of the things that are His, and showing them to His disciples (John 16:13-14). His presence was also to "convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment."
But this coming of the Spirit has still another aspect. Before His ascension, Jesus bids His disciples "wait for the promise of the Father, which, says He, ye have heard of Me. For John truly baptized with water, but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence. When they, therefore, were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt Thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel? And He said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father has put in His own power. But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost has come upon you; and ye shall be witnesses unto Me, both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth" (Acts 1:4-8). Here Jesus promises his disciples a "baptism" of the Holy Ghost. This recalls the prophecies of Joel and John the Baptist and as their prophecies are connected with national deliverance, they ask whether He would then restore the kingdom to Israel. Jesus replies that the time for this was hidden in the Father's counsels, but that as the immediate effect of the Spirit's coming, they would receive power, and should be witnesses for Him in all parts of the earth. There are, then, three things here named, the baptism of the Holy Ghost, the giving of power to the disciples, and the fitting of them to be witnesses for Christ.
In the next chapter we read that "when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place; and suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it [or they] sat upon each of them; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance" (Acts 2:1-4). This was, clearly, the fulfilment of Christ's recent words, that they should "be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence." It was also, no doubt, the coming of the Spirit spoken of in the Gospel of John. Indeed the three things named by Christ in the previous chapter — the "baptism" of the Spirit, the conferring of "power" on the disciples (of which the miraculous gift of tongues was the first manifestation), and the fitting of the disciples to witness for Jesus "unto the uttermost part of the earth" — were all simultaneous in their performance, and were all results of the same event, the sending of the Holy Ghost to take his abode in the world. But though simultaneous, they must be carefully distinguished from each other.
The "power" received was shown in the gift of tongues. Joel had foretold certain powers as the results of the Spirit's outpouring in the age to come. The age to come has not arrived, but the "powers of the age to come" were given, in a measure, to the Church. Those outwardly connected with it are described as persons who "were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the age to come" (Heb. 6:4-5). Joel's prophecy was, therefore, partially fulfilled at Pentecost, and hence it is quoted as explaining the marvels noted by the multitude. This is the real force of our Lord's language also. When He had spoken of the baptism of the Spirit, the disciples, connecting it with the age named by Joel, asked if that age had yet come. Jesus replies that He cannot tell them about the commencement of that age, for it is a secret, but that they should receive the "power" of which the prophecy had spoken. This, then, is one of the things which were accomplished in the next chapter.
Another thing foretold was, that they were to be fitted by the Spirit to act as witnesses for Christ, and here again the Lord's words were remarkably fulfilled. The testimony borne by the disciples on that day when the Holy Ghost descended upon them was owned to an extent without parallel in any other age. It was "in demonstration of the Spirit and of power," so that three thousand persons were pricked to the heart, and bowed down to own the authority of the crucified Jesus, and to be baptized in His name. This qualification to bear witness to Jesus, though in a manner derived from their own converse with Him, was always connected with the sending of the Spirit, as Jesus had said — "When the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth which proceeds from the Father, He shall testify of Me, and ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with Me from the beginning" (John 15:26-27). The same association between the testimony of the Holy Ghost and that of the apostles, is seen also in another passage, in which Peter testifies of Jesus before the Jewish council, that "Him has God exalted with His right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins; and we are His witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost whom God has given to them that obey Him" (Acts 5:31-32).
Here, then, are two results of this sending of the Spirit; the one, in partial fulfilment of Joel's prophecy, conferring miraculous gifts, "the powers of the age to come," upon the disciples; the other, in fulfilment of our Lord's words, qualifying the disciples to be witnesses for Him in the world. But these are accompaniments of the baptism of the Spirit, not the baptism itself. There are only two events thus described. The one, the complete fulfilment of Joel's prophecy, is what happens with "blood and fire and vapour of smoke," before "that great and notable day of the Lord come" — an outpouring, not of grace only, but of judgment — a baptism, not merely of the Holy Ghost, but of fire. The other, a partial fulfilment of Joel's prophecy, though widely different in character and consequences, is what took place on the day of Pentecost, and is related in the passage above cited. Since, then, this is the only baptism of the Spirit which has yet been, or which will be while the Church is on earth, it is important that we should rightly appreciate its character.
The Church, as already shown, was not founded when Christ first spoke of it to His disciples, nor is any trace of it seen before His death, or after His resurrection, until this time. In the first chapter of Acts, the disciples are assembled, but merely as a number of individual believers. Nothing as yet indicates that they were gathered in any corporate character. At the close of the next chapter, however, which describes the baptism of the Holy Ghost we read that the Church, till then spoken of only as a future thing, was already in existence, for "the Lord added to the Church daily such as should be saved" (Acts 2:47). The baptism of the Holy Ghost foretold by Joel and John the Baptist is connected with the establishment of the kingdom in power and righteousness. The baptism of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost is connected with the establishment of the Church. As the kingdom in its mysterious form is a partial fulfilment of the prophetic kingdom, so the baptism of the Spirit at Pentecost is a partial fulfilment of the baptism of the Spirit foretold by the prophets.
The effect, then, of the baptism of the Holy Ghost was to gather into one body or assembly those who, before this event, were nothing more than individual believers. Up to this time they had been, like the Old Testament saints, "just men," each having life, each quickened by the Spirit, each the object of God's favour and grace. Now, by the baptism of the Holy Ghost, they are formed into God's assembly or Church. Nor is this merely an inference from the fact that the Church is first named immediately after this baptism had taken place. The Apostle Paul speaking of the Church as the body of Christ, expressly says that "by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free, and have been all made to drink into one Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:13). In whatever other ways, therefore, the Spirit acts, the effect of the "baptism" of the Holy Ghost, promised by our Lord just before His ascension, and fulfilled on the day of Pentecost, was to form into one assembly the isolated, and even antagonistic, elements composing the Church; so that, instead of merely being a number of individual believers, they become, in Scripture language, members of the same body, as closely connected with each other and with Christ, as limb with limb, or as all the limbs with the head.
This, then, is the real character and effect of the "baptism" of the Holy Ghost. To apply the name to a great work in the way of conversions is simply a mistake. No doubt the two things happened together at Pentecost, and no doubt the conversions then wrought were the result of that testimony which the coming of the Spirit fitted the disciples to bear. But the coming of the Holy Ghost promised in John's Gospel, and the baptism of the Holy Ghost promised in the first chapter of Acts, are quite different in character and object, though both form parts of the same great transaction, the descent of the Spirit to abide on earth as the representative of Christ during His absence. The coming of the Spirit gave power for testimony; the baptism of the Spirit formed the disciples into one body or assembly. The two things were quite distinct — simultaneous, but not synonymous.
And not only is it a mistake to ask for a "baptism of the Spirit," which confounds the baptism with the coming, but it is equally a mistake to pray for a descent, an outpouring, or a coming of the Spirit. Such petitions as that contained in the hymn — "Come, Holy Spirit, heavenly Dove;" and other kindred expressions often used by devout and godly men in prayer, are not merely errors of language; they indicate how sadly Christians have lost the sense of the Holy Ghost's presence on earth. The Spirit has come and is already here. All the three results of the Spirit's descent at Pentecost were results attained once for all. The powers were conferred once for all, the fitness to bear testimony was bestowed once for all, the assembly was formed once for all. It is true, of course, that persons individually receive the Spirit and individually become members of the assembly, as they themselves believe in Jesus. Thus when Peter went to Cornelius, "The Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word" (Acts 10:44). This, however, is not the result of another sending or baptism of the Holy Ghost, but of the individual being brought into the sphere of the Spirit's operations. A company may today be exercising the powers conferred by a charter granted more than a couple of centuries ago. It is not necessary to the validity of their acts that the charter should be renewed with each generation of those who exercise the authority it bestows. So the baptism of the Spirit forming and indwelling the Church, is an act performed once for all; and every person who, by grace, believes on Jesus as his Saviour, is as much baptized by that one act, as completely incorporated in the body of Christ, as though he had been one of the hundred and twenty on whom the Spirit sat, like cloven tongues of fire, on the day of Pentecost.
By the baptism of the Spirit, then, the Church has been formed into a body, consisting of many members, but yet one, "for as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ" (1 Cor. 12:12). This is, perhaps, the most striking, and certainly the most frequent, figure used in Scripture to describe the Church. In the passage just cited, the length to which the metaphor is carried is very remarkable. Not merely is the body said to be united with Christ, but to be Christ Himself — "so also is Christ." The limbs, so to speak, are regarded as being merely attached to the Head, which gives motion, life, and character to the whole, so that it is all spoken of under the name of the Head. It is not perhaps, easy to grasp the full force of this remarkable language, which appears so to lose the Church in Christ, that He alone is seen, and it is regarded merely as a part of Him. But though our minds may fail to mount to the full height of blessing revealed in the figure, it is at least manifest that a closeness and completeness of union is here made known which may well fill the soul of the believer with wonder and adoration.
This closeness of union is used elsewhere in the same epistle, not only to set forth the privileges, but also to define the responsibilities, of the believer, and that even as to matters of the most ordinary morality. Amongst those who had recently emerged from a licentious heathenism, considerable doubt might still exist as to how far it was lawful to go in the gratification of their lusts. The question is settled at once by recalling the relationship into which the Christian is brought with Christ. "Know ye not," says the apostle, "that your bodies are the members of Christ?" This determines the whole matter. The unseemliness of using the body for the indulgence of the lusts, becomes manifest the moment it is seen what the believer has become through the baptism of the Holy Ghost, for "he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit" (1 Cor. 6:15-17). Here the point is, not merely that we "have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man." This is true, and deeply practical. It implies new creation, a life, not drawn from the first man, but from the second, life of the same order as that of the risen Christ. But the passage quoted from the Corinthians goes beyond this. These believers not only have a new life, a new nature in which Christ "is not ashamed to call them brethren," but they are "joined unto the Lord," so that their very bodies, though not yet redeemed, "are the members of Christ," so divinely perfect is the union into which the Christian is brought with Christ by the baptism of the Holy Ghost.
In the Epistle to the Romans, which regards the believer in his individual rather than in his corporate character, the same metaphor is used, not as a doctrinal exposition of the nature of the Church, but as enforcing the obligation of every Christian to act according to the gift bestowed upon him. This makes its use the more striking, because it shows how familiar the idea was to the early converts, even before the full unfolding which it received in the later Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians. The apostle says to the Romans, "For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office; so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another" (Rom. 12:4-5). In these passages it must be noted that the members are individual believers, not different local assemblies, much less different voluntary associations, self-styled "Churches," divided from each other on points of doctrine, discipline, and order. The idea of different sects being the different members, and forming the one body, is not found in these passages, and can only have originated in a culpable negligence as to their real import. Whether this division into sects and denominations is in harmony or in conflict with Scripture, is honouring or grieving to the Spirit of God, we shall inquire hereafter, but the slightest attention to the passages quoted will show that, at all events, it is not the state of things to which allusion is here made. These passages, on the contrary, teach that there is but one body; that this is the body of Christ, or even, in the words written to the Corinthians, Christ Himself; that each individual believer is a member of that single body; and that all believers, being thus united, are members one of another.
In the Epistle to the Colossians the same figure is frequently used. Speaking of Christ, the apostle writes — "And He is the Head of the body, the Church; who is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in all things He might have the pre-eminence" (Col. 1:18). In the very first shadowing forth of the Church, Jesus associates it with himself as the "Son of the living God," and as the One who should die and rise again. This is in beautiful harmony with the text just quoted. The passage from which that text is taken unfolds the varied glories of Christ as at once "the image of the invisible God," and "the first-born of all creation." But besides being the only One, who, while taking His place in creation, ever was, or could be, "the image of the invisible God;" He is also "the Head of the body, the Church," and, in association with his glory, He is further entitled "the beginning, the first-born from among the dead." Thus we again find His headship of the Church brought out in connection with His Divine nature on the one hand, and His death and resurrection on the other.
Another passage in the same chapter presents the truth of the believer's union with Christ in a touching manner. The apostle speaks of himself as filling "up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for His body's sake, which is the Church" (Col. 1:24). The first lesson which Saul of Tarsus, the bitter persecutor, had been taught by Christ was in these words — "I am Jesus whom thou persecutest" (Acts 9:5). The Lord was going afterwards to "show him how great things he must suffer for My name's sake" (v. 16). Both these lessons Paul had learnt. If "the excellency of the power" of God was to be manifested in him, he must have the treasure in an earthen vessel; he must be "always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest" in his body (2 Cor. 4:7, 10). The working of the flesh needed to be kept down by these sufferings. But how does Paul speak of them? He speaks of them, even as Jesus had spoken to him, as "the afflictions of Christ." He had learnt on the way to Damascus how Christ the Head, suffers with the feeblest of his members, and now, when called to suffer for Christ's sake, he delights to retrace that scene, and to remember how He on whose behalf these afflictions were borne, felt them as though each pang were inflicted upon Himself. No language could more beautifully show the living union between the believer and Christ.
Nor is it merely that Christ feels with the members, but that the members are nourished by Christ. Thus the Colossians are warned against the seductions of those who are "not holding the Head, from which all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increases with the increase of God" (Col. 2:19). The teaching of this passage will come before us presently. I would only just notice, in passing, the variety of forms in which the same figure is used, and the variety of purposes to which it is applied. It is again employed in exhortation: "Let the peace of Christ [not God] rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body" (Col. 3:15). Why are the Colossian saints here reminded of this truth? To give point to the preceding exhortations, in which they are entreated to put on "bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering," to forgive like Christ Himself, to show "love, which is the bond of perfectness," and to "let the peace of Christ rule" in their hearts. In like manner the Ephesian believers are exhorted to put away lying, and "speak every man truth with his neighbour, for we are members one of another" (Eph. 4:25). This oneness of the body was no theoretical creed, received as a doctrine, but rejected as a fact; no visionary abstraction, to be realised in heaven, but unsuited for earth. It was a practical thing, for the maintenance and display of which believers were made responsible down here, a living truth to be recognised and acted upon in daily life. The Christian's conduct is to be conformed to his relationships. Why, then, is he to show kindness, forbearance, and love, to his fellow believer? Why is he not to lie to him, but to speak the truth? Because they are called into one body. So real was the oneness in and with Christ to the hearts of the early disciples!
In the Epistle to the Ephesians the figure again appears. Speaking of the condition of the Gentiles, who had formerly been "aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise," he says — "But now, in Christ Jesus, ye who sometimes were far off, are made nigh by the blood of Christ. For He is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of partition, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances, for to make in Himself, of twain, one new man" (Eph. 2:12-15). What is this "new man"? It is not a literal man, of course, for how could a literal man be composed of two men, Jew and Gentile? Besides, this "one new man," made out of twain, is formed "in himself," that is, in Christ. It can, then, be none other than that "new man," or that "one body," spoken of in Corinthians as Christ, or the body of Christ. It is the Church, in which all earthly distinctions, even those instituted by God Himself, disappear. Here the Church and Christ are again regarded as forming "one new man," a mystical unity which blends together the most discordant materials, Jew and Gentile being made one in Him with whom they were both joined and in whom they were both accepted.
The complete effacing of all natural and artificial distinctions, when believers are looked at as members of this one body, is, moreover, strikingly illustrated by the language of Paul to the Galatians, in which he declares that "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). And in a similar strain he writes to the Colossians that "there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free, but Christ is all, and in all" (Col. 3:11). When individual conduct is in question some of these distinctions are not only recognised, but expressly provided for. But when regarded simply as members of the body of Christ all differences merge, all believers "are one in Christ Jesus," and Christ becomes "all and in all." Such is the practical way in which Paul, in other epistles, applies the truth concerning one body which is doctrinally unfolded in his letter to the Ephesians.
Hence the exhortation is afterwards addressed to them, that they should endeavour "to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace," for, adds the apostle, "there is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all" (Eph. 4:3-6). Here, again, we find the truth practically applied in a way which shows that this oneness of the body was not regarded as an invisible, impalpable thing, never intended to be discerned on earth save by the eye of God, but as the normal condition of the Church, for the outward preservation of which believers were responsible. The Holy Ghost teaches that there is but one body, and that for this reason we are to endeavour "to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." How is this to be done? By breaking the one body, as to its outward manifestation, into fifty or a hundred different and rival bodies? If not, then Christendom has failed, and this divided condition of the Church is in direct contradiction to the express teaching of the Word of God.
But the dignity and glory of this one body are further unfolded in a striking manner in this epistle. It is said of Christ that God "has put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be the Head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fulness of Him that fills all in all" (Eph. 1:22-23). Here it will be observed, we have two headships of a very different character. That He is the Head of the Church is obvious, because the Church is spoken of as His body. But, besides this, He is presented to the Church as "Head over all," that is, as the One whom God, having already exalted and set in the highest place at His own right hand, will make Heir of all things, the acknowledged and undisputed Head of the whole universe, reigning "till He has put all enemies under His feet." In this character, as Head over all things, He has associated with Him, not as part of the realm over which He reigns, but as part, so to speak, of Himself, "the Church, which is His body, the fulness of Him that fills all in all."
And this carries the mind forward to another figure used to illustrate the same relationship, a figure closely connected, and indeed inseparably intertwined, with the one we have just been looking at. Among the practical exhortations at the close of the epistle, the writer says — "Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church, and gave Himself for it; that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the Word, that He might present it to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, even as the Lord the Church; for we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones" (Eph. 5:25-30). What a wondrous unfolding of the tender love of Christ to the Church! What a blessed revelation of the nearness and sacredness of the union subsisting between them! Here we see enacted in the last Adam that which is so beautifully typified in the first. The first Adam was head of creation, but he was alone, with no help meet for him. "And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him. . . And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; and the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made He a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman (Isha), because she was taken out of man (Ish). Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife; and they shall be one flesh" (Gen. 2:18-24).
The last Adam has gone through all that is here divinely prefigured. He, too, was alone; the Head, by God's anointing, of everything; but as long as He lived, He abode alone. The deep, deep sleep of death has passed by God's ordinance upon Him; and now, having fallen into the ground and died, He can bring forth much fruit. But what is the first-fruit of this deep sleep? God has formed out of His very self, bone of his bones and flesh of His flesh, the bride, the object to which His heart can cleave, which He can take to be one with himself. Can He hate it? Surely not, it is "His own flesh," and as such He "nourishes and cherishes it," Truly He is the Head; but does He class His bride with the subjects over whom He reigns by God's anointing? Was Eve in the same relationship with Adam as the creation over which he ruled? No more is the Church in the same relationship with Christ as the other subjects of His dominion. He is Head to the Church, and Head over all things. But to the Church He is Head as the husband is head of the wife; to all things else He is Head as a king is head over his subjects. Adam was head to Eve, but Eve was the partner of Adam in his headship over creation. In like manner Christ is head to the Church, but the Church is the partner of Christ in His headship over all things.
And this shows us the difference between millennial and Church blessings. The millennial saints will enjoy every advantage that a redeemed earth can yield under Christ's government. The saint now is set in a groaning creation, in a world lying in the wicked one, and is called to be a partaker of Christ's sufferings. But the millennial saint will only know Christ as a benign and gracious sovereign, as the Anointed of God carrying out His thoughts of blessing to the earth. The saint now knows Christ as His companion — he is at present the sharer of His sufferings, and when He comes in His glory he will be the sharer of His throne. Such is the faithful word. "If we suffer, we shall also reign with him" (2 Tim. 2:12). "To him that overcomes will I grant to sit with Me in My throne, even as I also overcame and am set down with My Father in His throne" (Rev. 3:21). Where is anything like this stated of the millennial saints? Take the most favoured people during that blessed epoch, and mark what is said about them. "He shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever" (Luke 1:33). Christ reigns, then, over Israel as a king. The Church, on the other hand, reigns with Christ. He is never called king of the Church, but of Israel. Reigning with Him on the contrary, is never ascribed to Israel, but to the Church.
The assembly of God, then, the body and the bride of Christ, occupies a higher place than either the Old Testament or the millennial saints. The "just men made perfect," however blessed their lot, are not brought into that nearness of relationship which is accorded to the "Church of the first-born," the first-fruits of His redemption toil. The millennial saint, too, surrounded with all that ministers to delight here below, with the law written in his heart, and rejoicing in all the blessings of the new covenant, will never be in the same sacred intimacy, the same hallowed oneness, with Christ, into which the feeblest member of His body is now brought. In heavenly glory we see the bride, the Lamb's wife, in all the perfect beauty she will possess when Christ shall "present it to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing," but "holy and without blemish." "And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in line linen, clean and white, for the fine linen is the righteousnesses of saints" (Rev. 19:8).
But this heavenly bride is still more fully presented to us afterwards under another figure. An angel addresses the apostle, "saying, Come hither, I will show thee the bride, the Lamb's wife. And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper-stone, clear as crystal" (Rev. 21:9-11). Now this description is manifestly figurative. We have already seen how different it is from the somewhat similar vision in Ezekiel's prophecies, where a real city is portrayed. The city in the Revelation is not a place in which the Church dwells, but a symbolical presentation of the glory of the Church itself. And as such, what are its leading characteristics? It shines with "the glory of God." It is like "a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal" Now in the fourth chapter of the same book is seen "a throne set in heaven, and One sat on the throne, and He that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone" (vv. 2, 3). It is in this glory, in this likeness — the glory and likeness of God Himself — therefore, that the bride shines in her heavenly brightness. Believers now "rejoice in hope of the glory of God" (Rom. 5:2); at the time described in this vision, the hope will have become reality, and they themselves will be the display of that glory.
And the city "had a wall great and high," the symbol of security, "and had twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and names written thereon, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel; on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates" (vv. 12-13). The Church shall judge the world; saints shall reign over the earth with Christ. Here, then, in the vision, we have symbolised the connection into which the Church is brought with Israel, as the chosen centre of God's earthly government. "And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb" (v. 14). Believers are said to be "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner-stone; in whom all the building, fitly framed together, grows unto an holy temple in the Lord" (Eph. 2:20-21). Here the figure is somewhat different, for it represents not the building of a temple on earth, but a complete city in heavenly glory. We have, however, the common feature of the foundations. This city, which is the display of God's glory, is built on foundations, on which are engraved the names of the twelve apostles. And here let us note the difference between the gates and the foundations. Both have to do with administration, and therefore the perfect number of twelve characterises each. But there is this distinction. Where it is a question of the structure of the city itself the apostles are named. Israel has no part here. But where, on the other hand, it is the going forth of activity and power from the city, or of intercourse between the city and what is outside, the gates are named after the tribes of Israel. The roads leading from a city are not called after the city itself but after the place to which they lead, and often the gates are named in the same manner. So it is here. The city is in communication with Israel, as those who rule with Christ must be, but it is distinct from Israel, and built on a foundation which exclusively characterises the Church.
"The city lies four-square, and the length is as large as the breadth, And he measured the city with the reed, twelve thousand furlongs: the length, and the breadth, and the height of it are equal. And he measured the wall thereof, an hundred and forty and four cubits, according to the measure of a man, that is, of the angel" (vv. 16-17). Here we have divine symmetry, bringing out, in a striking manner, the oneness of the Church, in which there is no rent and schism, in which all is formed into harmony and order, in which everything is set in its right place by God to contribute to the unity and perfection of the whole. "And the building of the wall of it was of jasper: and the city was pure gold, like unto clear glass. And the foundations of the wall of the city were garnished with all manner of precious stones . . . and the twelve gates were twelve pearls, every several gate was of one pearl: and the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass." (vv. 18-21). Jasper as we have seen, is a figure of divine glory; gold is a well known symbol of divine righteousness. The pearl is always used in Scripture as a type of purity and preciousness. The Church itself is the "one pearl of great price" which Christ found, and for the purchase of which He sold all that He had. All these symbols, then, signify the glory, the holiness, and the preciousness of the Church.
It is so united with Christ, that it receives constantly from His fulness, and needs neither temple nor light. "I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it. And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof" (vv. 22-23). Not merely, moreover, is the Church joined with Christ in judging the world. It is also his companion in dispensing to the people of the millennial earth the blessings of His reign, and in receiving the homage which they will then render to their acknowledged King. "And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour unto it. And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day; for there shall be no night there. And they shall bring the glory and honour of the nations unto it. And there shall in no wise enter into it anything that defiles, neither whatsoever works abomination or makes a lie; but they which are written in the Lamb's book of life" (vv. 24-27). How fitting for the bride of Him to whom "the kings of Tarshish and of the Isles shall bring presents, the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts, yea, all kings shall fall down before Him, all nations shall serve him."
But though the earth shall then "be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea," though the Lord shall then judge the world with righteousness and the people with equity, though He will write His law in the heart of Israel and all nations shall obey Him, man will still be a fallen creature, and sin and suffering will still have a place in the world. Hence towards the earth there must still go forth the stream of life, and healing power. How striking to see that here again the bride is associated with Christ in this blessed work. "And He showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations" (Rev. 22:1-2).
But while the Church, as the bride, is thus one with the bridegroom in the rule He exercises, the blessings He bestows, and the healing He dispenses, it has no need of life-giving or healing power itself; for to it "there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and His servants shall serve Him: and they shall see His face; and his name shalt be in their foreheads. And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God gives them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever" (vv. 3-5). It is of the overcomer that Christ says, "I will write upon him My new name" (Rev. 3:12), and again, "to him will I give power over the nations" (Rev. 2:26). Here, then, in this magnificent figure, we see the Church, as it will be displayed in glory during the period of Christ's reign.
Nor is its glory or blessing confined to this millennial period. When Christ's reign is ended, all enemies overcome, and the kingdom given up to God, even the Father, the Church is still seen, the heavenly help meet for Christ, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband "(Rev. 21:2). Such, then, are God's thoughts concerning that marvellous thing, that "mystery which from the beginning of the world has been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ, to the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known, by the Church, the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal purpose which He purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Eph. 3:9-11). We now know these as the purposes of God. In the vision in the Revelation we see them gloriously typified in their reality, and the bride discovered in all her beauty, in all her fitness for the heavenly bridegroom.
There will then be no need of cleansing, but now while still in the world, liable to contract defilement, or to be led away into false paths by the subtle craft of Satan, she requires the constant, tender watchfulness of her risen Head, to cleanse and to guard her. And how does He meet this daily want? Should she contract defilement by the way, He comes in to sanctify and cleanse with the "washing of water by the word." Should she be in danger of wandering through the false suggestions of Satan, He sends His faithful apostle to lift up the voice of earnest and affectionate expostulation, recalling her to her blessed place of privilege, and warning her against the snares of the deceiver. "For I am jealous over you," says he, "with godly jealousy; for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I fear lest, by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ" (2 Cor. 11:2-3). How exquisitely tender the love of Christ for His bride as brought out in these passages! Not less beautiful is the figure in which Scripture describes His mode of nourishing and cherishing her, exhorting believers to "grow up into him in all things, which is the Head, even Christ: from whom the whole body fitly joined together, and compacted by that which every joint supplies, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, makes increase of the body, unto the edifying of itself in love" (Eph. 4:15-16). Love is what builds it up, love flowing from the Head, and causing it to grow up "into Him."
It may be urged that the language applied to the Church in the passages above quoted is not literal, but figurative, and that it would be dangerous to build conclusions on such a basis. It is quite true, that where figures are used, great care should be taken to confine them to the subject immediately in hand, and not to go one step beyond Scripture in the mode and extent of their application. But figures are only used in the epistles to convey impressions which could not be adequately conveyed by ordinary language. They are not meant to obscure the sense, but to make it clearer, or at all events more vivid. And surely in this case there can be no question as to what the meaning of these figures is. If there is one figure which, more than any other, conveys the idea of oneness, it is the connection of the head with the body. This figure is used, then, because the Holy Ghost seeks to impress that truth in the most emphatic manner in which it can be presented. If, again, there is one figure which carries with it more than any other the thought of tender care and love, it is the relationship between the husband and wife. This figure is used, then, because the Holy Ghost would bring this care and love before the heart of believers in the vividest and most attractive colours. As to the extent to which the figures are applied, the first is used to show believers their oneness with Christ, their oneness with each other, their mutual dependence, and their responsibility as to walk: the second, to show the careful love of Christ to the Church, and the willing subjection of the Church to Christ. These truths, at all events, the figures set before us in the clearest and most emphatic manner.
Such, then, is the Church, as seen and known of God. Man was left responsible for preserving it according to God's thoughts, and in this, as in all else, he has mournfully failed. But man's failure, though it may shroud the true glory of the Church here, can never veil it from "the principalities and powers in heavenly places," or sink it to a lower level in the purposes of God and the affections of Christ. It still stands forth, and will to all eternity endure, the brightest display of God's wisdom and grace, the first and most glorious trophy of redeeming love. In a world that has both seen and hated both Christ and the Father, it remains to witness for Him in the scene of Satan's power; and to await his return to take it to the Father's house. Called, not with an earthly, but with a heavenly, calling; built upon Christ, not in His earthly, but in His heavenly, character; associated with Him, not in His earthly, but in His heavenly, acceptance; blessed in Him with all spiritual blessings not in earthly, but in heavenly, places; made meet, as seen in Him, not for an earthly, but for a heavenly, inheritance; and expecting His advent to bring it, not into earthly, but into heavenly, delights; it is altogether heavenly in its character, associations, and destiny, and the earth is to it only the place of its wilderness pilgrimage. It is formed by a heavenly Person, united with a heavenly Head, animated by a heavenly hope, and called upon for a heavenly walk. Fellow-believers, "what manner of persons ought we to be in all holy conversation and godliness!"
And deeply conscious as we are, and must be, of our own and the Church's failure, is it not most blessed, in the scene of ruin and shipwreck around us, to call to mind that God's love can never weary and God's purposes can never change — that where our eye can detect nothing but chaos, his can still find Divine order? Is it not most profitable too, to turn away our gaze from the tangled web of man's scheming to the clear and wondrous designs of God; and to seek, amidst the bewildering jungle which has overgrown God's divinely-appointed road, for His guidance still to trace the path that He would have us to follow? Certain we may be of this, that neither the failure of the professing Church, nor the intrusion of a godless world, nor the devices of a subtle enemy, can altogether obliterate — however sadly they may obscure — the highway which God's truth has traced for His children to walk in. And certain we may be, also, that the more difficult the way is to trace, the more need we have of diligent search in order that we may find it, and the richer will be the blessing and reward of walking faithfully in it. With the living Word of God as our rule, with the Spirit of God to unfold its wisdom to our hearts, and with a single eye to walk in obedience to His Divine guidance, the path through all this tangled labyrinth may still be found. We have long since exhausted our own resources; but we have not, and we never shall have, exhausted God's.
The Church is the body and bride of Christ. It occupies an exceptional place in God's dealings, being heavenly in character and calling, and thus differing from everything related or foretold in the Old Testament as to what preceded and will follow it on the earth. It did not exist till after Christ's resurrection, being associated with Him as the risen One at God's right hand. Not only, however, did the Church not exist in the Old Testament times, but it was not foretold. Though God's purposes about it were formed "before the foundation of the world," they were hidden "from ages and from generations" till His own time for revealing them.
These secret counsels of God are called in Scripture mysteries. We mean by a mystery something inexplicable, beyond our understandings. In the language of the New Testament, however, a mystery is simply a secret revealed only to initiated persons — such, for example, as the secret sign of the "Freemasons." God, then, had reserved a secret to be communicated to us — a secret which He had not made known even to the most favoured recipient of His thoughts in past ages. How sweet to see this! It is the privilege of the children to know the secrets of the family — of the wife to share the innermost thoughts of her husband's heart. God has adopted us as His children; Christ has purchased us as His bride; and the secrets, hidden even from the most honoured of his servants and friends, are now breathed into the ear and heart of that Church which is bone of His bones and flesh of His flesh.
These mysteries relate partly to the kingdom and partly to the Church. That there would be a kingdom of the heavens, in which evil would be allowed, was a secret unknown to the prophets. This is the mystery disclosed in the parable of the wheat and the tares. But there is also a secret connected with the Church or assembly. We read that God "did visit the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name" (Acts 15:14). This is said to be His present work, and the account goes on to show that it was in accordance with His revealed purposes, for He had announced by the prophets that His name would be called upon the Gentiles. But the Scriptures are quoted here only to prove that God had never intended to confine His blessings to Israel. On looking further into the Word, we find that there is a "mystery," or secret connected with this subject, which the Old Testament had not made known. Writing to the Romans, the apostle says — "I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in" (Rom. 11:25). It had been revealed that God would be merciful to the Gentiles; but that God was setting aside the Jews for the very purpose of gathering a people out of the Gentiles, and that until this was fully accomplished the blessing of Israel must be postponed, was a "mystery" on which the Old Testament Scriptures were wholly silent. The Epistle to the Romans is not, indeed, an epistle which treats of the Church, and therefore neither the name nor the character of the Church is to be found in this passage. But the people that God is gathering out of the Gentiles are believers, and it is for the completion of these, or the Church, that Israel is set aside as God's immediate earthly object.
The Old Testament, which unfolds God's plans concerning the world, shows the converse of this. There the Gentiles fill up the interval in God's dealings with His earthly people, Israel, and are used to provoke them to jealousy. But the New Testament reveals God's heavenly purposes. Here, therefore, the gathering of the Church, instead of occupying a mere gap in God's earthly designs, is the grand object of all His counsels. In the Old Testament, Gentile blessing is named, but as waiting upon God's thoughts about Israel. In the New Testament, Israel's blessing is named, but as waiting upon God's thoughts about the Church. The Old Testament shows a people who were the objects of God's counsels "from the foundation of the world;" but the New Testament shows a people who were the objects of God's counsels "before the foundation of the world" (Matt. 25:34; Eph. 1:4). In God's earthly plans, everything yields to the former; in His heavenly plans everything yields to the latter. But as the heavenly people had the first and highest place in God's thoughts, the earthly people must stand aside until His purposes concerning these are fully accomplished.
But, it may be asked, are not Jews now brought in also? Is not the Gospel as free to them as to others? Why, then, is it said that Israel is blinded in part "until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in?" It is because the apostle is here speaking of the Church dispensationally, as the thing which came in through Israel's blindness, and is incompatible with her national blessing. In this dispensational sense, the Church is Gentile, and does not cease to be so because individual Israelites enter. In doing so, they take the same ground as the Gentiles; as Peter says — "We (the Jews) shall be saved, even as they" (Acts 15:11); and become detached from the nation as here represented. Christianity, thus viewed, is the bringing in of the fulness of the Gentiles in contrast with God's still future work of restoring and blessing Israel. This is the "mystery," as seen in the Epistle to the Romans.
In writing to the Colossians, Paul speaks of "the dispensation of God which is given to me for you to fulfil [complete] the Word of God, even the mystery which has been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to His saints; to whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in [or among] you, the hope of glory" (Col. 1:25-27). The mystery was, therefore, needed "to complete the Word of God." It was the presence of Christ in or among believers, as the hope of glory. The word does not say, that the mystery was the presence of Christ among the Gentiles, but "among you;" that is, in the Church. Christ's presence among the Jews was foretold; but now His presence is revealed in an assembly outside Judaism, where Jew and Gentile were unknown. This was a mystery, which was now revealed to the Gentiles.
And not only was Christ's presence now vouchsafed to an assembly unknown to the prophets. There was also another new thing. His presence, foretold by the prophets, was not a hope of glory, but glory itself. When Christ reigns among the Jews, He will be their glory — "a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel" (Luke 2:32). Now, however, something altogether different is seen. Instead of glorifying those among whom He has taken His abode, He only gives them "the hope of glory." At present they are members of His body. But the sufferings of that body are not yet filled up, and believers are now called out to fellowship with His sufferings, though with the blessed and assured hope of soon sharing His glory. This is a thing unknown to the old prophets, another feature of the mystery now revealed to the saints.
We are here carried a step further than in the Romans. There the mystery is that God has set aside Jewish blessing until He has performed a work among the Gentiles, that is, in a sphere outside His earthly dealings. In the Epistle to the Colossians it is added that among those whom God is gathering as the result of His present work, Christ makes His abode, spiritually of course, and this, not as the bestower of present but as the hope of future, glory.
In Ephesians the mystery is thus described — "that the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ by the gospel" (Eph. 3:6). This is called "the mystery of Christ." What, then, does it teach? It is often understood as showing that the Gentiles are by the gospel brought into Jewish blessings. But this is simply to deny the truth of prophecy. The prophetic blessings of the Jews are essentially national, and would be absolutely extinguished if the difference between Jew and Gentile were abolished. Besides, the Word elsewhere expressly declares that the special Jewish blessings are postponed until God's present work, that is, the thing here described, has been accomplished. This passage, then, does not, and cannot, mean that the Gentile is brought into possession, through Christianity, of the blessings prophetically foretold for the Jews.
Let us examine its language a little more closely. It asserts that the Gentiles are "fellow-heirs and of the same body, and partakers of God's promise in Christ by the gospel." With whom are they fellow-heirs? They are, as we know from other scriptures, fellow-heirs, and of the same body with Christ; but is this what is meant here? Evidently not, for it could not be said that they are partakers with Christ of God's "promise in Christ by the gospel." In this last case it manifestly means partakers with the Jews, and if one portion refers to the common possession of Jew and Gentile, the others must do the same. The passage says, then, that the Gentiles are fellow-heirs with the Jews, of the same body with the Jews, and partakers with the Jews of God's promise in Christ by the gospel.
But this might be either by the Gentile coming into Jewish blessing, or by Jew and Gentile receiving some common blessing of quite a different kind. It cannot as we have seen, be in the former way, for the nature of Jewish blessing and the express teaching of God's Word forbid the thought of the Gentile sharing, on equal terms, the blessing foretold for the Jews, In this case, however, we are not left to inference, even to inference so plain as that which is thus thrust upon us. We learn from the immediate context what this body is, in which Jew and Gentile are incorporated, and find that it is none other than the body of Christ Himself. "He is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of partition, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances, for to make in Himself of twain one new man" (Eph. 2:14-15). Earlier in the epistle we read that in Christ "also we have obtained an inheritance" (Eph. 1:11).
What, then, is the apostle's reasoning? What the mystery which he here unfolds? Having spoken of an inheritance and of a body — the inheritance we have in Christ, and the body in which we are incorporated with Christ — he goes on to say, that in this inheritance, in this body, in the glorious promises unfolded in the gospel, the Gentile is fellow-heir, of the same body, and partaker of the promises, along with the Jew. It is not the Gentile coming into the Jewish hope, but Jew and Gentile being brought into the same hope, quite different from that of Israel. Where is the Jewish nation spoken of as being of the same body with Christ? This is not a prophetic hope at all, but a mystery now first made known. And how do any persons get into this same body? By those who are Gentiles becoming Jews? So far from it, that the wall of partition broken down is the special Jewish distinction, and if either could be said to approach the other, it is the Jew who approximates to the Gentile condition rather than the Gentile who approximates to the Jewish. But, in reality, there is no such approach on either side. Both are taken out of their old condition, and brought into an entirely new one. The two classes of Jew and Gentile still subsist in the world, but God has taken a number out of each, and has formed a new class, the body of Christ, in which all distinctions are done away. The three divisions which God now owns are the Jew, the Gentile, and the Church of God (1 Cor. 10:32).
Afterwards, in the same epistle, Paul writes — "We are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery; but I speak concerning Christ and the Church" (Eph. 5:30-32). Here, then, the mystery is expressly stated to be the union of Christ and the Church, so that they are "one flesh," and so that believers are "members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones."
In whatever light, therefore, the Church is regarded, it is spoken of as a mystery. Whether as the thing which God is now doing among the Gentiles during the time of Israel's rejection; as the place in which Christ now makes His spiritual abode, the pledge of coming glory; as the body in which Jew and Gentile are alike incorporated on an entirely new ground; or as the bride, joined in one flesh with Christ Himself; it is a new thing, a secret "hid from ages and from generations" — a mystery, outside the sphere of God's earthly dealings, and reserved for the ear of those whom God has brought into relationship with His Son in heavenly glory — those to whom He has made known by His Spirit the things which "eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man."
But was this mystery really hidden from the Old Testament prophets? Does not Paul speak of it as revealed to the prophets as well as to the apostles? Does he not expressly say that it was made known "by the scriptures of the prophets?" Let us look at his own words. He speaks of "the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, but now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets [properly, prophetic writings], according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith" (Rom. 16:25-26). So, too, he mentions his "knowledge in the mystery of Christ, which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit (Eph. 3:4). Surely no person of ordinary intelligence can read these passages without seeing that the prophetic writings, and the prophets here spoken of, are not those of the Old Testament, in whose days the text plainly shows that the mystery was not revealed, but prophets then living and the prophetic writings then issued — in a word, the prophets and prophetic writings of the New Testament.
Such, then, was the mystery now first revealed to the Church. Doubtless there are other mysteries disclosed in the New Testament also. There is "the mystery of iniquity," the present unrevealed form of that evil whose full and unhindered display was prophesied of by Isaiah, Daniel, and other Old Testament writers. There is "the mystery of godliness," the complete revelation of God in the person of the Son, as contrasted with the partial revelations previously made; God "manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory" (1 Tim. 3:16). There is the mystery of Christ's special and separate return for His saints — "We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump; for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed" (1 Cor. 15:51-52). In these as in other cases where the word is used, it is some new revelation suited to the heavenly character of the Church, or to the present nature of God's dealings viewed as an interruption of the course of earthly events foretold in the old prophets.
But the special mystery committed to the apostle Paul is that which we have just examined, the mystery of the Church as the body and the bride of Christ. Why, it may be asked, was this kept a secret? Because it is a heavenly thing, the subject of God's heavenly counsels; whereas the purpose of the Old Testament prophecies is to make known His earthly counsels. This is of great importance as showing how completely the Church lies outside the world. It has a different origin, it is revealed at a different time, it cherishes a different hope, it belongs to a different sphere. Instead of inheriting the Old Testament promises and fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies, it forms the most absolute contrast with them that the mind can conceive. So different are they that the two cannot exist together. While God's purposes about the earth were being unfolded, the mystery of the Church was hidden. When the mystery of the Church was unfolded, the purposes about the earth were suspended. The Church is associated with Christ in heaven; Israel is associated with Him on earth, The Church knows Him in His sufferings and patience; Israel will know Him in His exaltation and power, The Church rejoices in Him as the bride in her bridegroom; Israel will rejoice in Him as a nation in her sovereign. The Church looks for Him to take her to heaven; Israel looks for Him to establish her in the earth. Such is our blessed lot, such our heavenly portion in contrast with even the most favoured of the earthly people. Alas, that our hearts fall so far short of this wondrous position!
However we may slight it, the apostle Paul did not. Earnest as he was in seeking souls, full as he was in setting forth the simple truth of grace to the sinner, this magnificent subject of "the mystery of Christ" was never absent from his thoughts or heart. If he prayed for the establishment of saints, it was "according to the mystery." If he would have them "knit together in love, and unto all riches of the full assurance of understanding," it is "to the acknowledgment of the mystery." If he requests their prayers, it is "that God would open unto us a door of utterance to speak the mystery." If he would have the real character of the truth committed to him understood, it is that God had by revelation "made known unto me the mystery." And this mystery is the Church, as the body and the bride of Christ, already united with Him by the Holy Ghost sent down to dwell on earth, and awaiting the time when this blessed oneness will be publicly displayed; "when Christ, who is our life, shall appear," and we also shall "appear with Him in glory." Surely if our hearts were more in tune with the mind of God and with the affections of Christ, this wondrous theme would fill us with never ceasing worship and delight!
A Christian not of the world.
The Epistle to the Ephesians, after blessedly unfolding the mystery of the Church, continues — "I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called" (Eph. 4:1). Law made standing to depend on walk. Grace makes walk to depend on standing. It sets us in heavenly places in Christ, and then demands a walk worthy of the position. This is God's present way, as remote from legalism on the one hand as from antinomianism on the other; equally clear in rejecting good works as the ground of acceptance, and in demanding them as the result of acceptance; proclaiming with the same emphasis that there can be no fruit except we abide in the vine, and that there must be fruit if we abide in the vine.
In an army each soldier is personally responsible to his sovereign. If there is a mutiny, and each regiment, under a different leader, pursues its own ends, pleading the sovereign's commission, the course for one who would act loyally is to learn, if possible, what the sovereign's commands really are, and to separate from all who are not faithfully obeying them. Such a divided and mutinous army is Christendom, but happily the course which might be impossible for the soldier, is possible for one who would walk in subjection to Christ. To give ear to the jarring voices of man is to plunge into a whirlpool of confusion and contradiction. To follow, with a single eye, the teaching of God's Word is to ensure safety at every step of our journey.
The walk of the individual Christian, then, must be suited to his calling in Christ. As a member of His body, he must behave consistently. If the body is not of the world, he is not of the world; if the body is heavenly, he is heavenly. As the whole body should manifest its true character, so should each member. Now the Church is separate from the world, united with Christ in heaven, incorporated with Christ and indwelt by the Spirit. If, then, the believer is to walk worthy of his vocation, such is the character which he is to exhibit in the world. Looking at the matter from this point of view, what is the walk which would befit a Christian? Having a heavenly calling, how could he mix himself with the pleasures, the politics, the vanities, and the ambitions, of the world? The ball, the theatre, the concert, would be avoided, not because natural conscience condemned them, but as inconsistent with the believer's vocation. Are such scenes, he would ask, suited for one who is associated with Christ in death and resurrection, who belongs to heaven, and is waiting the return of the Saviour to take him there? How can I enjoy the pleasures and frivolities of a world from which I am severed by my heavenly calling — a world which hates my heavenly Head and contemns my heavenly hope — a world which is rushing on at express rate to the fearful judgments that precede the day of the Lord? Would the honours, the applause, or the high places of such a doomed world, attract his heart? Would he not say, like Daniel, as he saw the judgment of Babylon traced by God's finger on the wall — "Let thy gifts be to thyself, and give thy rewards to another; yet I will read the writing unto the king and make known to him the interpretation"? What would Belshazzar and his lords have thought of Daniel's interpretation, if they had seen him clutching at power and place in the city whose overthrow he had foretold? And what can the world think as it sees believers grasping at the empty distinctions of a scene on which the shadow of approaching judgment already rests? Surely it is for those who can read the handwriting to be solemnly warning the world, instead of chasing its fleeting honours or bidding for its worthless applause.
There are, doubtless, believers who take part in the world's concerns from generous and philanthropic motives — simply with a desire to do good, to relieve sufferings, or to check the aboundings of iniquity. We cannot question their benevolence, their high principle, or their sincere wish to do God service. But the purest motives will not lead a Christian right, if he fails to understand the heavenly calling; and the question still remains whether these believers, sincere and excellent as they are, have entered into God's thoughts about what He would have them to do.
If God were still carrying out His earthly purposes, if His design now were to bless or to improve the world, such a course as that indicated might be the right one for a believer to pursue. But this is not the case. The world is not going on to blessing, but to judgment, and a Christian is called to walk in separation from it. If he seeks to follow the guidance of Scripture alone, what would he say, then, to the idea of attempting, by political and social means, to improve the world? Would he not say God has reserved the blessing of the earth till Christ comes; am I, then, to attempt it earlier? or can I, by going on without God, answer any good purpose? Am I more conscious of the evil than He is, or better able to redress it? If He has clearly foretold that the world is hastening on to the judgment it has incurred by rejecting Christ, can I arrest the judgment by my efforts, or shall I entangle myself in the system which is thus awaiting its doom? I am called to fellowship with Christ, and if He has bid Christ wait, shall not I, his fellow-heir, wait with Him? If God is now calling a people outside the world, is not this my place, instead of plunging into the thick of its affairs, hoping to bless where God is purposing to judge? I cannot, by becoming responsible for the world's government, hope to avert the sentence. And as no man would paint and ornament a house whose foundations he knew to be giving way, the mere attempt to improve the world shows that I am not expecting its judgment, and helps to foster the delusion that peace and safety are ahead instead of the sudden destruction which God's Word announces. True benevolence demand that I warn those inside of its impending fall, instead of lulling them into security by joining in its decoration.
All this, however, it may be contended, is mere inference from the general principle that the Church is heavenly in character. Is this inference supported by the directions given in the Word as to the walk of individual Christians? It is clear that the early disciples were called to share their Master's rejection. "If any man," says our Lord, "will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me" (Matt. 16:24). He Himself was giving up the place of earthly power, and taking that of earthly rejection. So long as such is His attitude towards the world, that is, until His kingdom is established in glory, this is the fellowship into which He calls His disciples. It is no remote inference, but a direct, express statement. The cross was the punishment of felons and slaves, not only a cruel, but a shameful, death. To take up the cross was to assume a position outside the world, the object of the world's enmity and contempt. This, then, is what Jesus calls His disciples to do. Nor did this cease with His death. "If the world hate you," He said, "ye know that it hated Me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own; but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept My saying, they will keep yours also" (John 15:18-20).
This shows what the early disciples were to expect. Will it be said that the world has changed? that Christianity has so spread as to make such language inapplicable now? In the first of the passages just quoted, Jesus joins His followers with Himself in rejection. For how long? No time is named, but as He utters these words in taking up the Church character and laying aside the Messianic, it seems clear that the rejection of His followers lasts during this state of things. In his Messiahship, He will be exalted and His followers with Him. This conclusion is confirmed by the other passage cited, which contrasts two classes, the world and those who are "not of the world." These are spoken of as opposed, not for a time, but in character and principle, and therefore as long as the age lasts. It is asserted generally that believers are "not of the world," and are, therefore, the objects of the world's hatred.
I admit that the outward marks of this antagonism are much effaced. Religion has become worldly, and the world has become religious. Christians, forgetting their heavenly calling, have struck hands with the world, bid for its favour and places, plunged into its pleasures and pursuits, and earned its patronage and rewards. But does this alter the Word of God, which says that the believer is "not of the world," or that the world hates what is not of itself? Alas! we measure God's truth by our own failures, and because the world tolerates a worldly Christianity, conclude that Christ and the world are reconciled! They are not; and if there is a truce between the world and His followers, it proves no change of the world toward Him, but the lukewarmness of those who profess His name. Scripture, instead of teaching that the spread of Christian profession would soften the distinction between true believers and the world, makes it one of the heaviest charges against the professing Church, that it has committed fornication with the kings of the earth. The commerce between the Church and the world is infidelity to Christ. The enmity between them shows, not the conversion of the world to Christianity, but the conformity of Christians to the world.
Indeed, when we look at the descriptions uniformly given of the world in the New Testament, it is amazing that there can be any doubt upon the subject. What is the world as there portrayed? It is presented under two different, but kindred, aspects, as the place which has rejected Christ, and as an organised system of things with Satan at its head. Everybody admits that Christ was rejected, but that the guilt of His rejection still clings to, and characterises, the world, is a truth almost entirely overlooked. We are so accustomed to regard Christ's death from the side of God's grace, that we forget to regard it from the side of His government. The cross stands before our minds simply as the means by which sin was put away, and the rejection of Christ by the sinner is deemed nothing more than his own individual rejection of salvation. But Jesus is set forth in Scripture both as the author of salvation, and as God's Anointed ruler, and in each of these characters His rejection involves much more than the loss of personal blessing. It has a positive as well as a negative, a collective as well as an individual, aspect. It proclaims the world guilty before God and under His righteous judgment. "This is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil" (John 3:19). Such is our Lord's own statement as to the condemnation into which the world is brought by its rejection of Him. Afterwards He declares, in immediate reference to His death — "Now is the judgment of this world" (John 12:31). The same death which brings salvation to the believer brings judgment not only upon the individuals, but upon the world. So, also, Jesus says of the Comforter, "When He is come He will reprove [or convict] the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment; of sin, because they believe not on Me; of righteousness, because I go to My Father, and ye see Me no more" (John 16:8-10). This is not, as often understood, the work of the Spirit in converting the sinner, but the testimony borne by the presence of the Spirit against the world, demonstrating on the one hand its sin in rejecting Christ, and on the other God's righteousness in setting Him at His own right hand, where He is seen no more to the eye of flesh.
It is not only, however, for having rejected Jesus as a Saviour that the world is under condemnation. God sent His Son into this world as the Anointed one, the rightful ruler, and the world has cast him out. Can this be a matter of indifference to God? On the contrary, it is a matter of deepest moment. What God sees in the world, and what He expects the believer to see, is a place guilty of having rejected His Son as its rightful Lord. On the day of Pentecost Peter preached Jesus as the Son of David, concerning whom "God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, He would raise up the Christ to sit on his throne." This Anointed of God the Jews had "taken and by wicked hands had crucified and slain." "Therefore," concludes the apostle, "let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:22-36). Here the guilt urged home upon the Jews as a people was not that of refusing a Saviour, to their own individual loss, but of rejecting God's Anointed, to their own national condemnation. This guilt, however, is not confined to the Jews. In a subsequent chapter the Holy Ghost applies the language of the Second Psalm, where the powers of the earth are seen "gathered together against the Lord and against His Christ" to the conduct of both Jew and Gentile in condemning Jesus; "for of a truth against Thy holy servant Jesus, whom Thou hast anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together" (Acts 4:26-27). In both these passages the charge is, not of rejecting a Saviour, the light that came into the world, but of rejecting God's Anointed. Can this, however, be alleged against the world now? Assuredly it can, for although, in our days, Christ's title is owned in name by millions of so-called Christians it is recognised in fact by none but real believers. His lordship is practically denied by the world as much as ever; in other words, the world is just as guilty of rejecting the Christ now as on the day when Jew and Gentile combined for His crucifixion.
What, then, is the Christian's position? He owns the lordship of One whom God has anointed as the world's rightful ruler, but whom the world has cast out with every mark of hatred and contempt. Can he, then, go on hand in hand with the world in ruling that inheritance which belongs to his Lord, but from which his Lord is excluded? "Can two walk together unless they be agreed?" Can there be consent as to the world's government between those who admit Christ's rights and those who deny them? Let us look at the matter in the light of a parable, which defines with beautiful precision the present relationship between Christ and the believer on the one hand, and Christ and the world on the other. Jesus is the nobleman who has gone "into a far country to receive for Himself a kingdom and to return." He has entrusted His interests down here to his servants, and said unto them, "Occupy till I come." But His rightful subjects, the world, have "hated Him, and sent a message after Him, saying, We will not have this man to reign over us" (Luke 19:12-14). What is the condition of these citizens? They are in rebellion, and they are reserved for judgment. What is the duty of the servants? To occupy till their lord's return, but surely not to join their forces with the citizens in the government of the city, not to accept office and power in the place which has rejected the one whose rights they are left here to maintain and assert.
But there is another aspect in which Scripture presents the world. Besides being the place which has rejected its rightful Ruler, it is set before us in the Word of God as an organised system of things, with Satan at its head. When the devil took Jesus into a high mountain, and "showed unto Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time," his offer was — "All this power will I give Thee, and the glory of them; for that is delivered unto me, and to whomsoever I will I give it" (Luke 4:6). Of course the Son of God does not acknowledge his right to this dominion, but at the same time He does not deny the fact. On the contrary, He more than once acknowledges it. Thus, when speaking of His death, He says — "Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the prince of this world be cast out" (John 12:31). Here He is looking to the results of His death, which are regarded as immediately following, though in reality they have not yet been accomplished. Who, then, is "the prince of this world"? It cannot be Himself, for He says soon afterwards — "The prince of this world comes and has nothing in Me" (John 14:30). He also speaks of the Holy Ghost as convicting the world "of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged" (John 16:11). The prince of this world, then, here spoken of is not Christ but one who has nothing in Christ, one who is judged and cast out by Him. It can be none other than Satan, who had before made this claim without contradiction in Christ's presence.
Nor did the work of the cross immediately dispossess Satan of this usurped dominion, any more than it immediately brought judgment on the world or drew all men to Christ. After His death, Satan's power is still recognised. Thus we are told, by the Apostle Paul, that "the god of this world has blinded the minds of them which believe not" (2 Cor. 4:4). Writing to the Ephesians, he says — "In time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now works in the children of disobedience" (Eph. 2:2). Later in the epistle he writes — "We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against wicked spirits in heavenly places" (Eph. 6:12). What is the darkness of this world? Christ is the light, and that which rejects Christ is blinded by "the god of this world," and is in darkness. The world, then, as distinguished from believers, who "are not of this world," has a ruler, and that ruler is Satan. In writing to the Colossians (1:13), the apostle says that God "has delivered us from the power of darkness, and has translated us into the kingdom of the Son of His love." Who "the power of darkness" is, we see from the text last quoted. It is from his dominion that grace has delivered us, and the world, those who are not delivered, are still under him. John, too, in like manner, declares that "we are of God, and the whole world lies in the wicked one" (1 John 5:19). This is very solemn, for it shows not only that Satan has great power of evil in the world, but that the world is looked at in Scripture as an organised system of which Satan is the head, the prince, and the god.
We need scarcely say that this power is not absolute, that it does not prevent God working in His providence, or carrying out His great governmental purposes. To what extent Satan's power reaches, it would, perhaps, be very difficult to say, and it is no part of our object to discuss. Two facts are, however, to be noted — first, that his power is at present restrained by the presence of the Holy Ghost down here, "for He who now lets will let until He be taken out of the way" (2 Thess. 2:7) — next, that when this curb is removed, his boldness in wickedness and his dominion over the world will for a time be unchecked, and he will dispose of the dominion of the world, giving to the beast "his power, and his seat, and great authority" (Rev. 13:2). This will last but a short time, and will end in his own discomfiture and captivity. But until that time, however Satan's dominion may be restrained, Scripture owns him as being, in fact, the god and the prince of this world, the real instigating power in the hearts of men, the one in obedience to whose direction man's schemes are organised and his affairs governed. True, this is only by sufferance — but whose sufferance? The sufferance of God. And is it not a deeply solemn and significant fact that God should be withholding the kingdom of the world from His Son, and allowing it to be usurped by Satan? Is it not enough to warn every believer from taking part in the world's affairs, or seeking the world's approval and support? What is God opposing to the power of Satan? Simply the presence of His Spirit as the witness for Christ. Do Christians think that they know better? Do they suppose that by taking a different course, by setting the world to improve the world, by appealing to its suffrages to set things straight, they can really alter its character or deliver it from Satan's dominion under which God has left it? Is it wiser — is it more reverent — to attempt that which God is not concerned in, that which His Word tells can only end in fearful failure; or to walk in fellowship with Him, holding aloof from the world and its affairs, and in the power of the Spirit, setting forth the Christ in whom alone deliverance from the world and its judgment is to be found — gathering a people out of the world to the One whom God has set at His own right hand in glory, and by whom in His time the sceptre of the world will be righteously wielded, and the blessing of the world surely accomplished?
But did not Jesus, it may be asked, go about doing good? And may not the possession of political power and interference in the world's concerns, be the means of doing great good? This, however, is man's reasoning, and the place of a believer is not to reason, but to obey. Looked at broadly, in the light of God's truth, a Christian cannot do good by political action, for the end to which everything is working is plainly taught in the Word, and that end is not good, but awfully bad. Leaving, however, the domain of argument, and falling back on Scripture, what does the Word teach us? Undoubtedly it tells us that Jesus went about doing good, and it tells us, too, that believers are placed here for the same object for which He was here — "As Thou hast sent Me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world" (John 17:18). How, then, did Jesus do good? Was it by the exercise of political power? Was it by worldly combinations and societies? Was it by seeking popular support? Himself the only One who had a right to rule, or whose rule could bring blessing, He absolutely declined to receive power. Offered by the devil, He at once detected and denounced the deceiver. Asked to take the place of an arbiter, he replied, "Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you?" (Luke 12:14). Perceiving that the people "would come, and take Him by force to make Him a king, He departed again into a mountain Himself alone" (John 6:15). In private none ever laboured as He to do good. But the time for public and governmental blessing to the earth had not yet come. The sceptre was not yet put into His hands by the only One who had a right to bestow it, and He would receive it from no other. If the sceptre was not given by His Father, it must be taken either from the "god of this world," or from man, and from neither of these would He accept it. In what respect are things altered? Has God yet changed His mode of dealing with the world? Can the Christian receive power from hands from which Christ refused it? Or will God give it to the fellow-heirs, while He is yet withholding it from the One whom He has made heir of all things?
But are not the powers that be ordained of God? Unquestionably they are. Civil government is a direct trust from God, and the ruler is responsible to God for the way in which He exercises it. The maintenance of peace and order is according to God's institution, and therefore Christians are commanded not only to render obedience, but to yield suitable homage, and to remember those charged with authority in their prayers. But though instituted by God, it is left to man, to the world, and a world which lies in the wicked one, to administer. The time when it can be administered according to God's plans, the time when it will be used to work out God's purposes of blessing to the earth, has not yet arrived, and will not arrive until the throne of Christ is established in Zion. The use which man is making of this institution is to bring about the fearful state of things preceding the judgments executed by Christ, and surely no Christian would wish to have any hand in forwarding this gloomy catastrophe.
It is most significant, then, that while the New Testament Scriptures give ample directions for the behaviour of the husband to the wife and the wife to the husband, of the children to the parent and the parent to the children, of the servant to the master and the master to the servant, and while they also lay down the conduct proper from a subject to the powers that be, they give no directions whatever as to the way of executing political trust. A Christian under authority has ample directions how to act. A Christian wielding political power has no directions at all. Why this omission? True, Christians at the time when the New Testament was written, were not in a state to exercise political power; but if God had meant them to be placed in this position of responsibility, would He have withheld instructions as to the way in which they were to fill it? Was He so short-sighted that He omitted to provide for a state of things which would receive His sanction; or did He expressly withhold all directions, because the position was one to which his sanction could not be given? The character of believers as "not of the world," as associated with Christ in His "patience," as fellow-heirs with Him whom God has not yet put in possession of the inheritance, fully explains the omission — and nothing else can. Strange, indeed, if He had authorised and instructed the fellow heirs of Christ to take part in bringing about that state of things which they will shortly be associated with Christ in judging and overturning!
And this is all the more striking from the contrast which it presents with the Old Testament teaching. There God speaks to a people, who, instead of being outside the world, are expressly promised the most favoured position, and the most abundant blessing in the world. For their guidance the fullest political and legal directions are provided. What treatment to give to captured cities, what exemptions to make from military service, what number of witnesses to require in criminal trials, what courts to establish for disputed questions, what punishments to inflict for particular offences, these and other kindred matters are laid down with a precision suited to the worldly character of the subject with which they deal. As might be expected, where the righteous regulation of society was the object, strict assertion of right is the pervading principle; "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth," fairly summarises its spirit. Indeed, such must be the spirit of any code for the equitable government of man on the earth.
But is this the code laid down for the Christian to follow? No, the Christian is "not of the world," and the directions given him are suited to his heavenly character and his association with the "patience" of Christ. He is a follower of Him who "was brought as a lamb to the slaughter," "who, when He was reviled, reviled not again; when He suffered, He threatened not; but committed Himself to Him that judges righteously." How, then, is the believer to act? In just the same way. "If, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God; for even hereunto were ye called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example that ye should follow His steps" (1 Peter 2:20-23). Such, too, are our Lord's own directions. Instead of demanding "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth," as the Israelite was to do, His instructions are — "Resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain" (Matt. 5:39-41).
And this, though strongly put, is no figure of speech. Paul exclaims, as though the idea was shocking to entertain — "Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints?" It is incredible that "brother goes to law with brother and that before the unbelievers. Now, therefore, there is utterly a fault among you, because ye go to law one with another. Why do ye not rather take wrong? Why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded?" (1 Cor. 6:1-7). Imagine such language addressed to a Jew! It is absolutely subversive of the whole principle on which the institutions of his state were founded — absolutely ruinous to any scheme of righteous government on earth. Why, then, is it urged, as an almost self-evident principle, on the believer? Because the believer is not of the world. He belongs to Christ. True, he will judge the world, and judge angels, but this will be with Christ; and if Christ waits for this time, so must he. He is not even to assert his rights now, but is called to suffer wrong as Christ did; not to render "evil for evil, or railing for railing, but, contrariwise, blessing" — not to avenge himself, "but rather give place unto wrath" (1 Peter 3:9; Rom. 12:19). Is it not a sad departure from the lofty position and heavenly association into which the believer is called, for him to step down to regulate the affairs of a world where Christ has no place, and where Satan reigns as prince and god? "Our politics;" says the apostle — for that is the true meaning of the word — "are in heaven, from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ" (Phil. 3:20).
On the night of their deliverance from Egypt, the Israelites were told to keep the passover beneath the shelter of the blood-sprinkled lintel. "And thus shall ye eat it: with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand" (Ex. 12:11). Could a people thus waiting for the call to depart give their time and attention to the affairs of Egypt? had they not heard that judgment was coming? Did they not believe what the Lord had said — "For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the first born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast, and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the Lord"? (v. 12). Is our position less solemn, less momentous? Are the commands to us less stringent? Is the judgment hanging over the world less real, less awful, or less certain? The commands are identical. To the faithful servants He says "Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning and ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their Lord" (Luke 12:35-36). The threatened judgment, on the unfaithful and on the world is identical too — "If, therefore, thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee" (Rev. 3:3). If it would have been unnatural for an Israelite to busy himself on that fatal night with the concerns of the land over which the arm of the destroyer was already upraised, is it less a departure from our true place, is it less inconsistent with our heavenly calling, for us to be occupying ourselves about the affairs of a world in which we are but strangers and sojourners, — a world from which we may at any moment be summoned to depart — a world over which the black clouds of impending judgment are already hanging?
No wonder that the apostle should begin his practical exhortation to the Romans — "Be not conformed to this world" (Rom. 12:2). The word, indeed, is age, but "this age," as we have seen, means the world during the present order of things, in contrast with "the age to come," the period of Christ's blessed reign. While, therefore, it is important to distinguish between "the end of this age," and "the end of the world" — two very different epochs — it is not necessary to distinguish between the world and "the age," when used to describe the state of things in which we now live. Thus employed, the word kosmos, generally found in John, is practically synonymous with the word aiôn generally found in the writings of Paul. Why, then, is the Christian not to be conformed to the world? For two reasons; first, because it is an evil world from which Jesus died that He might set us free — "who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of our God and Father" (Gal. 1:4); and next, because, being associated with Jesus in death and resurrection, our relationships with this world are broken, and the ground of our glorying now is "the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, whereby the world is crucified unto me and I unto the world" (Gal. 6:14). What was it that distinguished the past life of the Ephesian believers from their present life? "In time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now works in the children of disobedience" (Eph. 2:2). Surely there is something most solemn and instructive in the way in which conformity to the world is here set side by side with conformity to the will of Satan. Yet not more solemn, or full of deeper significance, than the description of those "whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame — who mind earthly things" (Phil. 3:19). The believer is "risen with Christ," and to him, therefore, the exhortation is addressed — "Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth" (Col. 3:2).
Such, then, is the character of the world as gathered from the writings of Paul. It is a thing to which we are not to be conformed; a thing from which Christ died to deliver us; a thing to which we are crucified, and which is crucified to us; a thing in the ways of which the godless walk; a thing by the minding of which those are characterised "whose end is destruction;" a thing from which our affections are to be transferred that they may be set on things above. In the apostle to whom it was given in special manner to develop the truth of the Church, this teaching is peculiarly striking, but it is not by Paul alone that the world is held out as unsuited for the Christian. "Ye adulterers and adulteresses," asks James, addressing himself to those who were holding commerce with the world, "know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whosoever, therefore, will be a friend of the world, is the enemy of God" (James 4:4). And yet, what are Christians doing, on all hands, but bidding for popularity, courting the applause of the multitude, seeking to be the friends of the world where their Master received nothing but a cross? "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world," writes the beloved disciple. "If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world" (1 John 2:15-16). Alas! what a commentary on this Divine lesson to behold Christians rushing with all the eagerness of partisans into the strife of worldly factions, grasping at the riches and the pleasures, the splendours and the emoluments, the powers and the applause, of a sin-stricken, Satan-governed, death doomed world, from whose defilement they are told to keep themselves unspotted, and from whose friendship they are bidden to hold themselves aloof!
And why is this? Simply because Christians have lost the sense of the heavenly nature of their calling. Believing that God is going to improve the world, they suppose themselves set here to improve it, instead of to come out of it. They think they can make it better by mingling with it, instead of seeing that the only blessing they can confer upon it is to separate from it, and warn it of the wrath to come. They yoke themselves unequally with unbelievers to drag along the car of "modern progress," the Juggernaut of our day, forgetting that the world which is harnessed with them is lying in the wicked one, and never asking "what fellowship has righteousness with unrighteousness, what communion has light with darkness, what concord has Christ with Belial?" (2 Cor. 6:14-15). Alas! if they only knew that this modern progress was leading to all the horrors and judgments which are even now ready to burst like a tempest upon the world. They quote such texts as our Lord's entreaty — "I pray not that Thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that Thou shouldest keep them from the evil" (John 17:15) — as though this meant that they might go hand in hand with the world, provided they avoided certain gross wickedness; as though the very next verse did not expressly declare that "they are not of the world;" as though the whole teaching of the New Testament did not show the world to be evil and at enmity with Christ; and as though it were not obvious that a people who did not belong to the world, but were left in it, would be most effectually preserved from its evil by avoiding its associations, separating from its pursuits, and refusing its friendships.
Let us take the text with its neighbouring verses, and see how the whole passage reads. "And now," says our Lord, "come I to Thee, and these things I speak in the world that they might have My joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them Thy word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I pray not that Thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them through Thy truth; Thy word is truth. As Thou hast sent Me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world" (John 17:13-18). Our relationship with the world, then, is the same as Christ's is now. We are as much separated from it in character as He is. We are, indeed, left in it, just as He was in it. But as He did not seek by human efforts, by political organisations, by philanthropic societies, by any fleshly or worldly means, to make it better, so that is not our object. He came to testify of the Father, to manifest the Father; and as He witnessed for the One who sent Him, so we are to witness for the One who has sent us. He has pronounced the flesh to be hopelessly bad, and never sets the flesh to cure the flesh. The attempt to do so only shows ignorance of God's truth and God's manner of working, only proves that we have not yet learnt what man is, and that in us, that is in our flesh, there dwells no good thing. True, we may make the world more comfortable; we may have our Jubals to "handle the harp and organ," our Tubal-Cains, "instructors of every artificer in brass and iron;" we may eat and drink, buy and sell, plant and build; but what is the end of it all? Sudden destruction! Is this the sort of thing to occupy the heart of a Christian who is bidden to wait for the coming of his Lord? Is there not something unspeakably melancholy in the stories one has read of condemned criminals dressing themselves out in the full height of the fashion to go forth to the scaffold? And is there not something incomparably more ghastly and appalling in the spectacle of a world tricking itself out in all the finery of modern ideas, the intellectualities, the refinements, the elevating pursuits and objects by which it seeks to make to itself a name, and build a tower whose top shall reach to heaven, when all the while the lightnings of God's judgment are ready to descend, and leave it a blackened mass of ruin and desolation?
And why have we gone thus at length into the teaching of Scripture upon this point? Simply to show that the Church is, not figuratively, but literally, a thing separate from and outside the world. The directions given to individual Christians correspond in every respect with the inferences we should have drawn from the character of the Church as traced in previous chapters, and bring out in clearer colours the heavenly character of our present calling. That this heavenly character should be exhibited in the world, and to the world, is what God requires at our hands; it is what is involved in walking worthy of the vocation wherewith we are called. But if these are shown forth according to Christ's example, what will be the result? Because these virtues "are not of the world," the world will hate us. There is the widest possible difference between exhibiting the patience, gentleness, love, mercy, and self-sacrifice of Christ, and striving, however laboriously, to improve, elevate, and benefit mankind. The one excites the world's hatred; the other wins its applause. The one brings real blessing to man by setting Christ before him; the other puffs him up with the idea of self-improvement, and blinds his eyes to his true condition in God's sight. The one glorifies God by making Him the sole object before the heart; the other runs in opposition to His thoughts, making man's blessing the object, at a time when Christ, the only source of blessing, has separated Himself from the world, and is calling out a people to share his separation. The one looks the judgment fairly in the face, and points man to the only refuge in which he can be sheltered from the storm; the other shuts its eyes to the signs of the time, stops its ears to the mutterings of the approaching tempest and bids man go on with his own schemes, his own improvements, his own inventions, as though the coming wrath were nothing but an idle tale.
The church on earth — its unity.
Though the Church is heavenly in calling, character, and connection, it is outwardly still in the world, and, as thus placed, needs special guidance and keeping. For this our Lord prays — "And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to Thee. Holy Father, keep through Thine own name those whom Thou hast given Me, that they may be one, as We are" (John 17:11). The perfection of the Church as the body of Christ we have already seen; as also how its heavenly character defines the walk suited to the believer. But the believer has not only to walk as an individual; he is a member of Christ, and this, besides putting him outside the world, puts him inside the assembly. He has duties and relationships in connection with his fellow members, and the whole body of believers have a corporate character to sustain in the world. The Church has its Divine order, its Divine principles of governments and our inquiry now is what the Word of God teaches us on this subject.
But here it may be asked — Is there any order laid down in Scripture? Is not the matter left to the choice and judgment of individuals, according to the varying character of their own minds? May it not be regulated on principles of convenience or expediency, differing in different countries, different ages, and different circumstances? To this I would reply that such a mode of leaving the Church would be in accordance neither with God's general principle of action, nor with His special care of the assembly. It is not in accordance with God's general principle of action to leave anything to be settled by man's wisdom. "The world by wisdom knew not God." The effect of preaching even the truth of God with "wisdom of words" is that "the cross of Christ" is "made of none effect." To those who seek after wisdom, Christ crucified is only "foolishness." In a word, man's wisdom is set completely on one side by the cross, and the effect of bringing in man's thoughts and self-will in the things of God has always been most disastrous. When David attempted to fetch up the ark to Jerusalem in his own way instead of God's way, the result was the "breach of Uzzah." He had taken counsel with his captains instead of the Lord, and though he was doing a right thing, he found how bitter were the fruits of following man's wisdom as to the way in which it was to be done. Man's wisdom cannot be allowed, and can only bring in mischief, when it is exercised in the things of God. God has His own order, and the path of faith is not to reason, but to obey.
And if this is the general principle on which God acts — if it is the necessary consequence of the alienation of the flesh from God, and His setting aside of the old man by the cross — how unworthy would it have been of God to act on a different principle with respect to the Church. As a heavenly people they are the peculiar object of His delight; but as a heavenly people placed here on the earth, they stand in special need of guidance how to conduct themselves in a scene where they are only strangers and pilgrims. Would God, then, put His own chosen heavenly people in the midst of a hostile world, without laying down the principles which should regulate their collective action? If the assembly, as seen in Christ, is the display of God's manifold wisdom "unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places," was the assembly, as seen on earth, not meant to exhibit God's wisdom also? Is it merely individually that we are to witness for Christ? Is the wonderful work wrought at Pentecost by which all believers were baptized into one body, to be wholly invisible to the world — wholly useless in the way of testimony? God has given His own Word to direct our individual walk — "Sanctify them through Thy truth, Thy Word is truth" (John 17:17) Has He left us without guide, then, as to the order suitable for his assembly? Has He handed over to that wisdom which knew not God, the completion of the work which He began in His own wisdom? Surely the very thought is dishonouring to his name! To have shaped us into the most wondrous union ever known, making us the very body and bride of Christ in heaven, and then to have abandoned us to our own guidance, leaving us to form ourselves in all sorts of associations according to our own "views" or" tastes," instead of giving us a Divine pattern and Divine rules to govern all our ways — surely this is not the mode in which our God deals with His children
True, He has given us the Spirit; but does the Spirit ever act independently of the Word? In guiding individual conduct, the Spirit acts by unfolding the Word to the understanding, and applying it to the conscience. The Word is the sole standard, and any conduct which does not conform to the Word is, at once, by the spiritually minded, judged as the working of the flesh, and not of the Holy Ghost. If this is the standard for individual conduct, is it less so for the action of the assembly? Does not the Holy Ghost guide there in the same way, and if rules and appointments are made without the authority of the Word, should not the spiritually minded set these down also as the working of the natural heart, instead of receiving them as the acts of the Spirit of God? It is impossible that a dozen different modes of Church government and order can all be in accordance with the Word. How, then, can it be said that they are the work of the Spirit of God? And if not, how can the Spirit's guidance be looked for in carrying them out? Not that I question for a moment the blessing of God on the faithful preaching of His truth in any system. But this grace does not sanction the system which is not according to His Word, or lessen the responsibility of believers with respect to their connection with such a system. Either God has laid down an order for His assembly, or He has left it to man's will to do so. If He has laid down an order, it is clearly obligatory upon all, and every departure from that order is an act of disobedience. If He has left the order to the will and wisdom of man, what but confusion and division could possibly ensue?
We shall see, as we look into the Scriptures, that God, instead of leaving the government of the assembly to the wisdom of man, has emphatically repudiated and excluded any such intrusion; and that He has Himself undertaken to legislate for that Church, which is the dearest object to His heart, the brightest display of His wisdom, and the chosen bride of His beloved Son. What then, is His Divine and perfect order? The conduct enjoined upon the individual saint corresponds with the heavenly nature of his calling. In like manner the Church on earth is to be, as it were, the mirror of God's thoughts with respect to it. Now the Church, when viewed according to the mind of God, is a unity, a single body — the body of Christ — formed, and connected with its living Head, by the Holy Ghost sent down to abide here on earth. Thus formed into oneness in and with Christ, it is separate from the world, is heavenly in its character, and is to have its place down here, as a witness for an absent Christ, and as waiting His return to take it to glory. Its gatherings are to be "in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" only (1 Cor. 5:4), and the smallest number thus gathered have His presence and His administrative power in their midst. Such is the Church, according to God's institution, and all the directions for its government are in Divine harmony with this general character.
The first great principle is that it is a unity, the body of Christ. This, no doubt, is a figure, but it is one which the Holy Ghost constantly employs, and that to show the union of members with one another as well as with Christ, their dependence upon one another as well as upon Christ. If the Church is the body of Christ, believers are "one body in Christ, and every one members one of another" (Rom. 12:5). Therefore, "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" (1 Cor. 12:21). Nay, more, if "one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it" (v. 26). The body, therefore, though a figure, is not a mere fugitive metaphor, true to a certain point, and then failing in its application. It is a figure constantly recurring, and used to show the closest possible union among believers. Since, however, the Church is one body, the body of Christ, part of the testimony which it is called upon to bear is the manifestation of this oneness on earth. This much we may safely infer, for the Church down here, as instituted by God, was the reflection to the world of what it was in His own thoughts, and man's responsibility was to keep it such. The Holy Ghost, however, has not left us to inferences. Knowing the immense importance of the point, and the effort which Satan would make to divert man from God's thoughts, He has given us the clearest instructions on the matter.
Thus Jesus prays the Father — "Keep through Thine own name those whom Thou hast given Me, that they may be one, as We are" (John 17:11). Here oneness is asked, and a most blessed character of oneness — a transcript of that transcendent oneness of the Father and the Son. The oneness of nature is, indeed, a depth which man's intellect can never fathom, but the oneness of purpose and of love has been divinely manifested. This oneness, then, at least, believers are to exhibit to the world. True, the Lord is not here speaking of the Church; but He is speaking of those whom the Holy Ghost was just about to form into the Church: and this oneness was to be exhibited in those who constituted the Church. The baptism of the Holy Ghost surely could not weaken the obligation, or lower the character, of the oneness here prayed for.
It may be objected, however, that Jesus speaks only of the apostles; also that this oneness was not to be outward and visible, but only in spirit, as seen by God. Let us look, then, at another text. "Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on Me through their word; that they all may be one, as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be one in Us; that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me. And the glory which Thou gavest Me, I have given them, that they may be one even as We are one. I in them, and Thou in Me, that they may be made perfect in one" (John 17:20-23). Here Jesus prays for all them "which shall believe on Me through their word." Surely each believer will eagerly claim his part in this. But if all believers are included, the Lord's request for them all is that they may be made one even as He Himself was one with the Father. And so far was this oneness from being invisible to the world, that it was to be the evidence to the world of the Father's having sent the Son. If God meant it to be a testimony to the world, He must have meant it to be something which the world could see. If, therefore, the oneness of believers is not visible to the world, the Church has failed in its testimony. There may be abundant individual testimony that the Father has sent the Son; but the testimony here named, the testimony which was to be borne by the manifest oneness of believers, cannot come from a divided Church.
Nor is this all. This oneness, which, as we have seen, was to be manifested as a testimony to the world, is linked by the Lord with the glory which He had received from the Father, and given to believers. "The glory which Thou gavest Me, I have given them, that they may be one even as We are one." Thus the special glory bestowed upon believers, nay, the very glory given to Christ Himself, is bound up, as to outward manifestation, with the visible unity of His disciples. How grieving to His spirit then, how dishonouring to His name, the present divided state of those to whom this wondrous charge was committed!
No doubt there is a wide difference between unity and uniformity; for the uniformity which does not spring out of unity is a mere lifeless pretence. No doubt, too, the unity here spoken of is unity of spirit. But how will unity of spirit show itself? In endless divisions? In splitting into innumerable fragments? In presenting to the world the most perfect possible exhibition of want of unity? Granted that the so-called Church which boasts loudest of unity has nothing better than a hollow and soulless uniformity — does it follow, because a counterfeit uniformity, which is not of God, has once existed, that a true uniformity, the fruit of unity of spirit, was not God's purpose? Real unity of spirit would produce uniformity, and in the Church, as set up by God, we find both. The figures used to describe this oneness, show its true character. Believers were to be one even as the Father and Son are one. Could anything be conceived more perfect, both as to its inward character and as to its outward manifestation? Such, then, is the oneness which should bind together believers, and bear testimony, here in the world, to the Father's having sent the Son. Will anybody say that modern Christendom, or the Church, presents such a testimony? But in another figure believers are said to be one body. If the first presents the most perfect picture of oneness to the heart, this presents the most perfect image to the senses. A body cut in pieces may still be one to the mind of the anatomist; but it is not one to the eye of the world. God doubtless discerns amongst the scattered members the oneness of the body of Christ, but to the world they are only disjointed limbs, with no union subsisting among them. Such assuredly was not the thought of God.
But whence comes this disruption of outward, visible unity? The differences are on points of doctrine, discipline, organisation and other similar matters. It may be said that on such subjects there must always be difference from the various structure of the human mind. No doubt if man's will and judgment are allowed to work at all, such differences must exist. But God opens no door for man's thoughts to enter. He has not left those matters to be settled by the human mind. Had the Church been faithful, Christ's presence in its midst would have decided all questions. With the Word as the infallible guide, and the Holy Ghost as the infallible interpreter, no diversity of judgment could have manifested itself. What brought in difference of judgment was want of subjection to God's thoughts. Man put his own wisdom in the place of God's. The Spirit's guidance was no longer sufficient for him, and he began exercising his own judgment, dragging in worldly philosophy, choosing teachers according to his own tastes, and forming schools of doctrine to suit his own inclinations.
No doubt this arises from the constitution of' man's nature. But does this excuse it? To the spiritual eye, it only proves more conclusively how evil it is. "The natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God." To say, then, that it is natural, is only to say that it is contrary to God's mind. Does Scripture palliate these divisions because they are natural? Nay, this is just the ground on which it condemns them. "And I, brethren," writes the apostle. "could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk, and not with meat; for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able. For ye are yet carnal; for whereas there is among you envying and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men? For while one says, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos, are ye not carnal?" (1 Cor. 3:1-4). Here, then, the Holy Ghost clearly teaches that sects and divisions are not of God, but of man, that they are the results of unspirituality, carnality, and walking as men. Yet Christians defend them as the result of man's nature. "We are only walking as men," they say. "If you are walking as men," replies the apostle, "you are carnal, and I cannot speak to you as spiritual." What a fearful chasm between the thoughts of Christians and the thoughts of Christ!
The Holy Ghost has shown in another portion of this same epistle the true origin of these divisions, and God's judgment concerning them. He says — "In this that I declare unto you I praise you not, that ye come together, not for the better, but for the worse. For, first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions (or schisms) among you; and I partly believe it. For there must be also sects among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you" (1 Cor. 11:17-19). Now here He names these divisions as matter for blame, and declares their assembling to be for the worse, and not for the better, while these exist. True, He says, they must be — but why? In order that the faithful may be separated from the unfaithful. Does this, then, sanction the divisions? Our Lord says — "Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence comes!" (Matt. 18:7). Here Jesus distinctly declares that offences must come, but does He, therefore, sanction or excuse the offence? He knew what was in man, and predicts the sad result, but only to denounce judgment against him who brings it about. In like manner the Holy Ghost, speaking through Paul in the passage above quoted, foretells, what indeed was already partly visible, the divisions which man's will and infidelity to the truth would introduce into the Church, and the sifting process through which the faithful would thus be called to pass. But He no more sanctions those divisions than Christ sanctions the offences which He declares to be necessary. On the contrary, although He foresaw them to be inevitable from man's nature, He distinctly declares them to be evil.
How does the apostle exhort them? Does he say — "These things are inevitable; all men cannot see eye to eye; to run everybody into the same mould would destroy originality, create a dull uniformity, and sap the emulation necessary to religious growth and fervour"? Alas! such reasoning is the working of the natural heart, which putting away God's Word as the infallible guide, and the Holy Ghost as the infallible interpreter, sets up human thoughts and speculations in their place. How different the language of the apostle! "The weapons of our warfare," he says, "are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds, casting down imaginations (or reasonings) and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ" (2 Cor. 10:4-5). Man's reasonings, instead of being allowed, are the very things which the weapons of Paul's warfare were to overthrow. Instead of the reasonings of the natural heart, he would bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ. And what does this obedience require? "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" (1 Cor. 1:10). Is this impracticable? Why, then, does the Holy Ghost demand it? If man's will has a place, then it is impracticable; but not if every thought is brought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.
The apostle, however, goes further, and characterises these divisions in language which should make the believer's ears to tingle. "It has been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that every one of you says, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?" (1 Cor. 1:11-13). Now let us consider for a moment what it is that the apostle is here dealing with. It was a tendency among the Corinthian saints to form themselves into different schools of doctrine according to their preference for particular teachers. Up to this time it had created no schism in the eyes of the world. One party had not declined to meet at the Lord's table with the other, and gone off to form a separate gathering. In a word, the tendency had not yet produced any of the fruit which is so plentiful in our days, and if evil, it was evil in a much milder form than that with which we are familiar. But does this cause the apostle to speak lightly of it? Does it make him describe it in gentle terms? Mark his solemn language. "Is Christ divided?" he asks; "Was Paul crucified for you?" The meaning of this is, that as the Church is the body of Christ, the division of the Church, even in the mild form it had then taken, was the division of Christ Himself. So completely was the Church down here to be the pattern of God's thoughts, that to one who was really in the mind of God, the idea of its division was as monstrous as the idea of a divided Christ. Such was the Church as established by God; such was His judgment of those divisions which man now either glories in as a proof of his own freedom, or defends as the inevitable, and therefore allowable, result of the working of his natural mind!
It may be said that all sects meet in the name of Christ; that the other titles by which they distinguish themselves do not supersede the name of Christ, but are only added to it; and that nobody proposes, in taking a badge, to put that badge on an equality with the common badge of all believers, faith in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. I cheerfully admit the truth of such a statement, but in this respect what difference is there between the various sects of Christendom and the Corinthians? Whatever difference there is places the Corinthians in the better light. They still maintained outward oneness. They had their favourite teachers and doctrines, but never dreamed of putting these teachers up as against Christ. All they did was to be occupied with the teachers and doctrines so as to prevent their oneness in Christ having full and perfect expression. Will anybody venture to say that the dishonour done to Christ by their conduct would have been removed if, instead of having their preferences, they had broken into various sects, met in different places, on conflicting principles, and shown to the whole world, not the picture of oneness which the apostle demands, but the picture of division and dispersion which we see in modern Christendom? Is it not manifest that such a spectacle would have been infinitely worse than that which the apostle here mourns over? Is it not certain that the strong language in which he condemns the divisions that had already shown themselves, would have been intensified a thousand-fold could he have foreseen the present state of things? The unity of believers was to show to the world Christ's mission from the Father and His oneness with the Church. The division of believers shows the contrary of all this. It exhibits, not the truth of God, but the lie of man. Oh, that Christians would ponder over those solemn words, "Is Christ divided?" and thus learn to judge, in the light of God's thoughts, the condition of affairs in which they now find so much cause for congratulation.
Hence everything that indicated the slightest division is condemned. That indifference to God's Word, now called "charity" and "broadness," which says — "you think your way and I mine" — was unknown to Paul. He must have every thought in captivity to the obedience of Christ. To the world's philosophy and reasonings he opposes the cross. "If ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances . . . after the commandments and doctrines of men?" (Col. 2:20-22). Not that he expected equal intelligence in all, but there is no hint that those with different measures of intelligence were to separate from one another. "Him that is weak in the faith," he says, "receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations" (Rom. 14:1), or again — "Whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing" (Phil. 3:16).
Indeed in one who saw in the divisions of believers the division of Christ, how could even the shadow of sectarianism fail to create alarm? No wonder he should write — "Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences, contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned, and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly" (Rom. 16:17-18). In addressing the Ephesian elders he forewarns them that of their "own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them" (Acts 20:30). Here again, the formation of sects and parties is ascribed by Paul to the perverse action of man's will in opposition to the teaching of the Holy Ghost. In the same spirit Jude writes, telling the believers that "there should be mockers in the last time, who should walk after their own ungodly lusts," adding — "These be they who separate themselves, sensual, having not the Spirit" (Jude 19). Is it not a deeply solemn thing to see how the Word speaks of the separation and division which were to creep into the Church of God? Such, however, is the Lord's estimate of the origin of sects. Yet modern Christendom actually glories in them as a proof of intellectual life! How different the apostle's prayer — "Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be like-minded one towards another, according to Christ Jesus, that ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 15:5-6). It is not divided worship that God seeks any more than a divided Christ.
Nay, the very purpose for which God has "set the members every one of them in the body, as it has pleased Him," — the very reason for which He "has tempered the body together, having given more abundant honour to that part which lacked," is "that there should be no schism in the body" (1 Cor. 12:18-25). In the Lord's supper, the touching memorial left behind Him by Christ of His dying love, the same oneness is beautifully set forth — "For we, being many, are one bread (or loaf) and one body; for we are all partakers of that one loaf" (1 Cor. 10:17).
How earnestly the appeal is over and over again repeated to oneness of heart and mind. "Be perfect," says the apostle to the Corinthians, "be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you" (2 Cor. 13:11) He entreats the Ephesians to walk in love, "endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace," and adds, "there is one body and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all" (Eph. 4:3-6). And multitudes of modern believers say, that the best means of thus keeping the unity of the Spirit, of showing forth in ourselves this sevenfold oneness into which we are called, is by dividing into as many sects as the self-will and uncontrolled judgment of man can devise! In like manner the gifts bestowed by our ascended Christ are distributed "for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come, in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ" (vv. 12, 13). Wherever we look, the oneness which belongs to the Church in the mind of God is expected to find its manifestation here on earth.
It is interesting and important, too, to note the place of priority which the exhortations to unity possess in the teaching of God's word. When Christ prays for the disciples He was about to leave, the first request He makes for them is "that they may be one, as We are." When He enlarges the circle, and embraces in His petitions "them also which shall believe on Me through their word," the first thing He asks for them is "that they all may be one." So, when believers are, in the Ephesians, exhorted to walk worthy of their vocation, the first way in which this walk is to manifest itself is by "endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace;" and where, as among the Corinthians, there has been a want of that lowliness and meekness, that long-suffering and forbearance in love, which are needful to the preservation of unity, the first of the many errors which the apostle selects for rebuke and remonstrance is the "division" which had appeared in their midst. So far was manifested oneness from being a secondary or indifferent matter in the mind of Christ or in the teaching of the Holy Ghost.
It was when the disciples "were all with one accord in one place" that they received the Holy Ghost, and the first effect was that "all that believed were together," and, "continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart" (Acts 2:44, 46). The Philippians are exhorted to "stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel" (Phil. 1:27), and to be "like minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind" (Phil 2:2), while two leading persons are especially addressed — "I beseech Euodias, and beseech Syntyche, that they be of the same mind in the Lord" (Phil. 4:2). The apostle prays for the Romans — "The God of patience and consolation grant you to be like minded one toward another, according to (or after the example of) Christ Jesus, that ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God" (Rom. 15:5-6). Writing to the Colossians, he says — "Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which also ye are called in one body" (Col. 3:15). So the Ephesians are directed to "speak every man truth with his neighbour, for we are members one of another" (Eph. 4:25). Titus is told that "a man that is an heretic (that is, a schismatic, or cause of divisions)," he should, "after the first and second admonition, reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sins, being condemned of himself" (Titus 3:10-11). So Peter exhorts those to whom he wrote to be "all of one mind" (1 Peter 3:8). What a contrast do these teachings form with the state of things around us!
Nowhere do we find the slightest trace of that modern philosophy which defends sects as securing variety in unity, which says, "Let men have their own thoughts on all matters but the great essential truths of salvation." Sects are utterly condemned as the divisions of Christ, every thought is to be brought into captivity to the obedience of Christ. Divisions are set down to carnality, disobedience, self-will. Besides, "non-essential truths" are a human invention, most dishonouring to God. What do men mean by the expression? Truths not necessary to their own salvation. They may be most clearly taught in the Word, most blessed unfoldings of God's glory and grace, but why should we care for them, if we can get to heaven without them? Alas, that such thoughts should enter the minds of God's children! No truth which God has revealed is non-essential, none will be felt to be non-essential by those who care for His glory.
Indeed the language often used by believers on this subject is most dangerous and destructive. It is, in principle, that so long as enough truth is held to ensure salvation, we may be indifferent as to whether we obey God or not. This is direct antinomianism, and language which no Christian could or would intelligently hold, though, alas, man's failure and Satan's subtlety have so disguised its real character that many do practically use it without perceiving what they are doing. Applied to private morality, the true nature of the doctrine would be readily detected, but applied to the Church of God, the right to form separate voluntary associations in disobedience to the Word is openly maintained. The reason for this is, that believers have become so accustomed to the divided condition of the Church, as seen in the world, that they have either lost all sense of the departure from the truth of God which this state of things involves, or have at length come to regard it as inevitable. Division and sectarianism have, therefore, ceased to be looked upon as disobedience, and have been quietly acquiesced in as either a positive good or a necessary evil. But if God's Word condemns it, as we have seen, it cannot certainly be good. Is it, then, a necessary evil? In other words, are believers obliged to act in disobedience to God's directions? Surely the bare suggestion refutes itself. To suppose that God did not foresee the failure, or that He left His people without resource in the failure, is a thought too dishonouring to be entertained for a moment. If failure has come in — if the Church now, as beheld by man, is totally different from the Church as instituted by God — if the Word enjoins unity and man has brought in division — all this was surely foreseen. That believers would disobey God's command about the manifest oneness of the Church was as clearly foreknown, and indeed as clearly foretold, as the failure and disobedience of Israel. How monstrous, then, to imagine that God foresaw the disobedience of His people, and yet left no course open to those who wished to honour Him, but to take part in the disobedience! No, let us once see that the division prevailing in the outward Church is contrary to God's Word, and it must surely be self-evident that God has marked out a way for His people to walk in obedience. Our ignorance may fail to find it, but God's faithfulness has not failed to provide it.
Here, however, a grave question arises. Are believers, it may be asked, to hold together whatever evil doctrine or practice is tolerated? Or, if not, how is division to be avoided? The Word of God is perfectly clear. Division is condemned, separation from evil enjoined. Where false doctrine or immorality has shown itself, separation is to take place. Thus, when there was immoral conduct at Corinth, the leaven was to be purged out (1 Cor. 5:7); a heretic (or divider) was, after the first and second admonition, to be rejected (Titus 3:10); if a person preached another gospel than that Paul had taught the Galatians, "let him be accursed" (Gal. 1:8-9); and when Hymenaeus and Alexander made shipwreck concerning the faith, they were "delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme" (1 Tim. 1:20). This, however, was not division. It was united action, shown in separating from evil. Even if large numbers had supported Hymenaeus and Alexander, and had gone with them — nay, if all the assembly had upheld them, except two or three, who in faithfulness to Christ withdrew from them — the act of these latter would merely have been godly separation from evil, and the division which had occurred would have been the act of those who followed the false teachers, not of these who, in obedience to the Lord's mind, separated from them. As far as these were concerned, whether few or many, the principle of the oneness of the Church would have been maintained, and no departure from the divine order would have occurred. They would have remained on God's ground, and would have constituted His assembly or Church.
Suppose a teacher told his scholars that he did not wish them to be scattered, and therefore they were all to remain in the playground. The playground then becomes the place where their oneness is to be shown. If some wander away into neighbouring fields, the manifested oneness is no doubt gone, but which of the scholars maintain the principle of it — those who go abroad, or those who remain where they were told? Even if those who remain are but two or three out of two or three hundred, they have not caused the division, and their separation from those who disobeyed the teacher by leaving the playground, so far from breaking up the oneness, keeps them in the only place where the oneness which the teacher desired could have been exhibited. Take Israel as an illustration. Their unity of worship was established by ordinances of God. But the people departed from God's directions and substituted their own. What, then, were the faithful ones to do? Not to "follow a multitude to do evil" (Ex. 23:2), but to separate from the evil-doers and act in obedience themselves. This was not division. It was standing by God's unity of worship; while the creators of division were those who departed from it. We must shut our eyes to some of the clearest teachings of God's Word if we do not see that the same scriptures which condemn division demand separation. Thus the "elect lady" is told, — "if there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine [the doctrine of Christ], receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed; for he that bids him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds" (2 John 10-11). Godly separation from evil, then, is not division and sectarianism, for the truth of God cannot contradict itself. Separation from evil never makes sects, and is a necessary step in delivering ourselves from sects.
Sects, then, are entirely contrary to God's Word. Does it make matters any better that they are of centuries standing? "God is not a man, that He should lie; neither the son of man, that He should repent." What He has once declared evil cannot become good by long continuance. If the formation of sects was an act of disobedience and disorder, of carnality and wilfulness, their perpetuation cannot be exactly the opposite. What length of time converts disobedience into obedience? disorder into order? carnality into spirituality? or wilfulness into subjection? Granted that the guilt of those who inherit the ruin is less than that of those who caused it, still the character of the thing itself is unchanged. How the children of God are called upon to act when they find themselves encumbered with this fatal inheritance, I shall ask presently. What I want to point out now is, that it is a fatal inheritance — that the state of things around us is absolutely contradictory and dishonouring to the Word of God — and that no length of standing, above all, no arguments of expediency or necessity, can change the character, or lighten the condemnation, which the Holy Ghost has stamped upon it. If I find myself involved in that which God condemns, I am bound to search His Word to learn how I can escape from it, and I am entitled to reckon with the most absolute confidence that He has provided such a way for those who faithfully seek it.
Local assemblies, offices, gifts, worship.
The Church on earth, as instituted by God, displayed the unity of the Church as the body of Christ. But when the truth became widely diffused, how was this unity to be maintained? Was it then to become a mere imaginary unity, so far at least as outward manifestation was concerned, or was it to be preserved by a system of organised government? Let us see what light the Word throws on this subject.
I. In each city the believers formed one Church. Thus there was "the Church of God which is at Corinth," and the "Church of the Thessalonians," each a single assembly of all the believers in its own city, a sample, so to speak, of the oneness of Christ in that place, and responsible for maintaining that oneness visible to the world. The promise of Christ's presence held good in each of these local gatherings. If but two or three believers were assembled in his name, He was in their midst. If the city were large, and the believers numerous, there might be several places of meeting, but those assembling at these different places would all constitute one Church. The numerous places would no more infringe the Scripture principle of the oneness of the local assembly than the various local assemblies in different cities infringed the principle of the oneness of the body.
The local assembly, then, in each city was one. We read of the "Churches of Galatia," for Galatia was a province with several cities; but we never read of the Churches at Ephesus or at Philadelphia, for in each of these cities the believers formed only one Church. If in any city they had all split into sects meeting on different principles, what would have been the local testimony to the oneness of Christ? None; but on the contrary, a false testimony — a testimony to a divided Christ. In that city the Church, as Christ's body, would have had no representative. There would have been no assembly meeting in His name. Had He been the one centre, all would have met together. Instead of Him, then, as the focus, each sect must have had its own ground of separate gathering, which prevented it meeting with the rest. None of these assemblies, therefore, could have claimed the promise of His presence in its midst. No doubt, God in his grace might have blessed individual souls in spite of the disorder. But let us put far from us the unworthy thought that God's grace justifies a departure from His Word.
Suppose, however, that in some city, while a number of the believers split into sects, a few — it may be only two or three — had refused to disobey the Word by dividing, and had steadfastly adhered to the principle of gathering laid down by the apostles, surely it is clear that in this city there would still be an assembly meeting on God's ground, an assembly which was bearing a testimony, in principle, if not in fact, to the oneness of Christ, while all the sects were bearing testimony to a divided Christ. To the number, whether great or small, thus assembled, the promise of Christ's presence would still hold good. Though, perhaps, in man's eyes, the poorest and weakest of all the gatherings, it would be the only gathering which the Lord could own, as being in His name, and as representing His body. The other denominations, bodies, societies, or whatever else they were called, would, in His eyes, and when tested by his Word, be only self-constituted assemblies, schismatic in character, and owing their existence to the will of man acting in opposition to the will of God. They might contain many excellent and devoted people, some of whom were there simply because they knew no better, others because they thought they could be more useful there than among the despised and feeble few who still met in the old-fashioned way, some because it gave them a higher position and standing before the world, and others because they were attached to some favourite teacher or preacher in one of the sects. All, who were really believers on the Lord Jesus, would be owned by Him as members of his body, as belonging to the assembly of God; but so long as they were meeting in their own way instead of His way, so long as they were gathering to human organisations, rather than simply as members of Christ's body, they would be regarded by him as out of their place, and as "forsaking the assembling of themselves together" (Heb.10:25), in accordance with His authority and directions.
Nor would the position be at all changed if the few who met in the Lord's name had themselves been at first drawn aside into the sects, and afterwards, discovering the departure from God's Word involved in this sectarian attitude, had returned to the true ground, refusing all other authority for meeting or centre of gathering than the teaching of Scripture and the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. In this case, just as much as in the other, those gathering only in the Lord's name, and in subjection to the Word, would be the persons who represented the true principle and oneness of the Church of God, their assembly would be the true assembly, and those believers who refused to take their place in it, though still owned by Christ as part of the assembly, would, as to their walk, be members away from their proper place, members who, whether ignorantly or wilfully, were walking in disorder and disobedience to the Word of God.
In every city, then, the Church or assembly was one, representing there the oneness of the body. Was, then, each local assembly independent of the rest, or was there any organisation to maintain the oneness of action and discipline? As regards binding and loosing, that is, receiving into fellowship and exercising discipline, each assembly acted in its own sphere. Thus when some one was guilty of immorality at Corinth, the apostle directs, "in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ), to deliver such an one unto Satan" (1 Cor. 5:4-5). The assembly was to act, and it acted "with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ," in whose name it was gathered, and whose presence gave it this authority. Had it been a mere voluntary association of believers, agreeing together in certain principles of Church government or doctrine, and separated from others by this barrier, it could not have exercised the power here spoken of, for it could not have had Christ's presence. Such an assembly would have had no more scriptural authority to bind and loose than a number of members of Parliament voluntarily gathered in a public meeting have to enact laws.
But though each assembly meeting in Christ's name had authority to bind and loose, this had a much wider effect than putting out, or receiving into, that particular gathering. As each assembly was only the localised expression of the whole body, so its action was only the localised expression of the action of the whole body. Scripture never speaks of a person as a member of a Church. Though he was received by a local assembly, he was received, not as a member of that assembly, but as a member of the body of Christ. So, if one were put away, it was from participation in the privileges, not of a particular gathering, but of the Church of God. It was Christ's own administrative act, as present in the assembly, and no assembly could have received with Christ's sanction one whom Christ had put away. Thus, though outwardly the act only of a local assembly, it was really Christ's acting in the assembly, and became, therefore, the judgment of the whole Church. All were responsible for it, and this responsibility did not cease, if in any case the local assembly failed to act. If a local assembly would not put away one who, according to Christ's mind, ought to be put away, it would not only fail in subjection, but would share the offender's guilt (2 John 10-11). The little leaven, not being purged out, would leaven the whole local assembly, and if it spread, the whole Church would be corrupted. Other assemblies, therefore, must not only refuse the person who ought to have been put away, but must refuse those who, by neglecting to put him away, resisted Christ's authority and shared the offender's guilt. To urge love as a reason for not doing this, would be a mistake. Christian love has Christ for its first object, and can sanction nothing which dishonours him or disowns his authority.
There was, then, in the apostolic Church, nothing like "independency." This we see from the "letters of commendation" carried by believers who removed from one city to another. These letters were in common use, and were needed to show that the persons bearing them were really believers in fellowship. Thus, when Apollos "was disposed to pass into Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him" (Acts 18:27). Paul also alludes to these letters, showing that he did not require them, because the conversion of the Corinthians had made him known all round, "Need we," he says. "as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you? Ye are our epistle, written in our hearts, known and read of all men" (2 Cor. 3:1-2). They were not letters of transfer or of dismissal, but letters certifying that the bearer was a brother or sister in the Lord. Thus, when Phebe left Cenchrea for Rome, Paul, in his letter, described her as "our sister," and commended her to the saints in that city. She was not to be admitted into fellowship at Rome, nor to become a member of the Church at Rome, but being already in fellowship, and a member of the Church of God, the Roman brethren were so to receive her. (Rom. 16:1). But while there was no independency on the one hand, neither was unity maintained by organisation on the other. In each assembly Christ's presence gave authority. He acted as Head, not of the local assembly, but of the whole body, and thus unity of discipline was preserved throughout the Churches. So long as His authority was owned, Divine order and unity must prevail. If they ceased, it could only be because His presence and authority were no more acknowledged.
Would man's organisation mend this? Nay, it would make it a thousand-fold worse. It would be stepping from insubjection to exclusion, from failure to ruin. It would be saying, "Christ's presence cannot maintain unity, let us see whether we cannot find something better." Will God own such a unity? Having made the headship of Christ the binding principle, will He recognise a unity where Christ's headship is set aside, and where the binding principle is man's organisation? No; man's organisation may form a splendid unity in the eyes of the world. But this is not the unity of the Spirit, it is not the body of Christ, it is not the Church of God. It is of the world, of the flesh; and though all believers were enrolled in it, and none others, it would still lack every feature of God's assembly. It would be but one more vain attempt of man — "Go to, let us build us a city and a tower whose top may reach unto heaven, and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad on the face of the whole earth." Self, and not God, is the object, and splendid as the structure may be, here, as in the attempt of old, "the name of it is called Babel." Yes; Babylon, this is the name which God's Word gives to the effort to frame a unity by man's organisation, instead of adhering to the Divine unity of the Church of God. For that Church is not man's work. Man's will, man's wisdom, man's government, these are all usurpations of functions which, in the Church of God, belong only to the Holy Ghost and to Christ. Nothing is the body of Christ but that unity which the Spirit forms with Christ as the sole and acknowledged Head.
The Church, then, according to God's order, was one body. The believers in each city were the Church of the place, and when met together in Christ's name, could bind and loose, receive to fellowship or exercise discipline, in His power. In this they acted on behalf of the whole Church, whose oneness of mind was secured by Christ's presence in each assembly. Such was the visible Church as established by God, and in His estimate nothing is the Church, nothing is a Church, which does not answer to these conditions.
II. In local assemblies there were generally two kinds of officers — the deacons, and the bishops or elders. They are named by Paul, who writes to "all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons" (Phil. 1:4). No other officers are named in connection with local assemblies. The "gifts" of an ascended Christ, apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, are never spoken of as officers, or as connected with local gatherings.
A deacon means a servant, but there is nothing in the name to show the kind of service. In Acts 6:2, we read that "the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables." Here the serving of tables is contrasted with "the ministry of the word," the same word, varied in form, being used in both cases. The seven men chosen are not called deacons in this place, but it is probable that such was the name given them; for they were appointed to "serve tables," so that the title of servant or deacon might easily attach to them; moreover, they were connected with a local assembly, and no other local officer is spoken of at all resembling this, except the deacon; lastly, deacons seem to have been appointed in the same way as these seven.
The apostle said to the believers, "Look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business." The brethren chose such men, "whom they set before the apostles, and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them" (Acts 6:3-6). Here, then, though the brethren were asked to choose, the appointment was apostolic, by the laying on of hands. We have no other account of how deacons were appointed, but, in writing to Timothy, Paul says — "Likewise must the deacons be grave, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre, holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless. Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things. Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree" (1 Tim. 3:8-13). These qualifications, though amplified, agree with those named in Acts 6. In both cases they are such as would be sought in persons managing the pecuniary and temporal matters of the assembly. Such full instructions would hardly be given to Timothy, if the appointment were not to be made by himself. No such directions are given in the epistles addressed to Churches, and why should Timothy be told whom to appoint and the Churches not be told, except that the appointment rested with Timothy and not with the Churches? It would seem clear, therefore, that the deacons were instituted in office either by apostles, or by duly authorised apostolic delegates.
Such was certainly the case with the bishops or elders. That bishops and elders were the same is clear from Paul's language to Titus, whom, he says, he left in Crete, to set things in order, and to "ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee; if any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children, not accused of riot, or unruly. For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God" (Titus 1:5-7). So Peter exhorts the elders to "feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof" (literally, "bishopping them"), "not by constraint, but willingly" (1 Peter 5:2). In like manner we read that when Paul from Miletus "sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the Church," he beseeches them — "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost has made you overseers," — or "bishops," which is the same word in the original (Acts 20:17, 28).
The elders and bishops, or overseers, then, were the same persons. There were, as the passages quoted in the last paragraph will show, several in each assembly, and their appointment is always either by apostles or apostolic delegates. When Paul and Barnabas, in their first journey, had reached Derbe, they returned through the various cities which they had before visited, comforting and exhorting the brethren, "and when they had ordained them elders in every Church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord on whom they believed" (Acts 14:23). This shows, not only that elders were appointed by the apostles, and that there were several of them in each assembly, but also that the assembly was not dependent upon them. The journey described occupied a considerable time, and during this time, till the apostle's return to each city, the Church of that city had no elders, notwithstanding the persecution it endured and the little knowledge it possessed.
Titus was left to appoint elders or bishops in the cities of Crete. Directions were given to Timothy resembling those to Titus, as to the persons qualified for bishops. A bishop must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; one that rules well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (for if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the Church of God?) not a novice, lest, being lifted up with pride, he fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach, and the snare of the devil" (1 Tim. 3:2-7). The appointment, therefore, was made by Paul and Barnabas in one case, and by Titus in another, while the directions given indicate that it must have been made by Timothy in the third. Nowhere is there any trace of assemblies choosing elders. Those assemblies which had none waited until they were duly appointed by apostolic authority.
The character and functions of these officers may be gathered from their names. The name "elder" implies age and gravity, and that of "bishop" or overseer indicates that they were to "take care of the Church of God," exercising godly authority and supervision over the younger and less established members. It is easy to see how all the qualifications enumerated are such as would adapt a person for these functions. They are qualifications for rule. Bishops or elders must be irreproachable in character, watchful over those under their charge, of a gravity which ensures respect, peaceable and patient, above suspicion of sordid motives, of proved capacity for the exercise of authority, of an age and experience which would prevent them being puffed up with the distinction, and of good report for conduct among those outside. They were, moreover, to be "apt to teach," not necessarily as public expounders of the truth, but "holding fast the faithful word," that they might "be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers" (Titus 1:9).
An elder or deacon might also be an evangelist or teacher, as Stephen and Philip, two of the first deacons, were. But their office and their gift were entirely distinct things. They were appointed to serve tables; they were not appointed, either by the apostles or by the assembly, to go forth as evangelists. The elder or deacon, never, by virtue of his office, exercised gift; nor did the evangelist or teacher ever, by virtue of his gift, hold office. An elder was, indeed, to be "apt to teach," because it was by applying "the faithful word" to the conscience, that his vigilant oversight would chiefly be exercised. But it does not follow that he could teach in the assembly. Everybody knows grave and godly men, deeply taught in Scripture, and most apt, privately, in their application of it, but entirely without gift publicly to edify the Church. It is clear that in the apostle's day, some elders had gift, and some had not, for he says, "Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine" (1 Tim. 5:17). Ruling was their proper office, labouring in word and doctrine was a gift unconnected with their office — a gift which some possessed and others did not. Gift and office, then, are entirely distinct. There is no such thing as an office of teacher or preacher; no such thing as an elder or bishop officially teaching or preaching in the assembly; no such thing as an assembly choosing, or an apostle ordaining, any person to act as teacher or preacher, either in a particular gathering, or in the Church at large. All this is man's invention, and in direct opposition to God's order.
Who, then, it may be inquired, administered the sacraments? Nowhere, in Scripture, is there a hint that baptism or the Lord's Supper were "administered" by any officer whatever, or that their administration was connected with any gift. Paul says that he was sent "not to baptize, but to preach the gospel," and he only baptized two men and one household during his long residence in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:14-17). Peter, when the Holy Ghost fell on the Gentiles in Cornelius's house, "commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord" (Acts 10:48). Nowhere is baptism administered in connection with gift or office. So, too, of the Lord's Supper. Of course some person must give thanks and break the bread, but where does Scripture describe these as official acts? Man's organisations have consigned the "administration of sacraments" to local officers, and have appointed officers to exercise gift. But God's Word sanctions neither of these practices. It carefully distinguishes between gift and office, and it does not invest either gifted or official persons with any function like that which is now called the "administration of the sacraments." If it be said that such regulations are necessary to order, I reply that the order thus obtained is man's order, and not God's, and that man's order is styled in the Word carnality and self-will, The first lesson of faith is to distrust our own hearts — to say, as to this matter, and all others, "Let God be true, but every man a liar."
III. But if officers were not appointed to preach and teach, how was the Church to be edified? The nourishing of the body was the work of "the Head, from which all the body, by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increases with the increase of God" (Col. 2:19). What, then, are these joints and bands which minister nourishment and cause increase? No doubt, in a certain sense, all receive some gift which contribute to this end, and for the use of which they are responsible. For "unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ" (Eph. 4:7), and it is as "compacted by that which every joint supplies, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part," that the body "makes increase" (Eph. 4:16). But besides these gifts distributed to every man, there are certain special gifts of a more public character. In Eph. 4:8-13, we read that when Christ "ascended up on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. . . And He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ." This, then, is the work of the gifts — apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers — bestowed by the risen Lord upon the Church. We have seen that the function of the elder was to rule, and his province was the local assembly. These gifts were bestowed, not for rule, but for edification, and their province was, not the local assembly, but the whole Church of God. They are the joints and bands by which our ascended Head ministers nourishment to His body.
Besides these gifts for edification, there were sign gifts, such as that of tongues, which was "for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not" (1 Cor. 14:22). They were all of a supernatural kind, "the powers of the age to come," and were not meant for the professing Church, but for Jews and heathen, to whom the Lord thus "confirmed the word with signs following" (Mark 16:20). So the "great salvation which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord," "was confirmed unto us by them that heard Him, God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to His own will" (Heb. 2:3-4). We see how effectually these signs wrought among the persons for whom they were intended. Thus when Æneas was cured of his palsy, "all that dwelt at Lydda and Saron saw him, and turned to the Lord" (Acts 9:35); and when Dorcas was raised from the dead, "it was known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord" (Acts 9:42). The object of these sign gifts, therefore, shows their temporary character. They were early abused, and if perpetuated in a Church in ruins, their abuse might have led to fearful consequences. Having answered their immediate purpose, they were mercifully withdrawn, and no hint is given of their revival. The only signs and miracles spoken of in the future have a very different origin from those of the early Church.
The gifts for edification were apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. Elsewhere it is said that "God has set some in the Church, first, apostles; secondarily, prophets; thirdly, teachers;" after which the sign gifts are named. (1 Cor. 12:28.) The chief gift, then, was that of apostles. They were to testify of Christ's resurrection and to lay the foundation of the Church. It seems to have been an essential qualification, therefore, that they should have seen Jesus after He rose from the dead. Thus, Peter, speaking of the appointment of another apostle in Judas's room, says that he "must be ordained to be a witness with us of His resurrection" (Acts 1:22). Accordingly on the day of Pentecost, "Peter, standing up with the eleven," declares to the Jews that "this Jesus has God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses" (Acts 2:32). We read afterwards that "with power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus" (Acts 4:33). And still later, speaking to Cornelius, Peter says that God raised Jesus up "the third day, and showed Him openly, not to all the people, but unto witnesses chosen before of God, even to us, who did eat and drink with Him after He rose from the dead" (Acts 10:40-41). The only persons who ate and drank with Jesus after His resurrection were the apostles. Though others saw Him, therefore, these were the chosen witnesses of the resurrection. Paul, himself, though not one of these, owns the same thing, declaring that Jesus had been raised up "from the dead, and He was seen many days of them which came with Him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are His witnesses unto the people" (Acts 13:30-31). Paul's own apostleship is connected with the same evidence, and required the same qualification, though the place where he saw the risen Christ was not on earth, but in glory. Thus Ananias says to him, "The God of our fathers has chosen thee, that thou shouldest know His will, and see that Just One, and shouldest hear the voice of His mouth; for thou shalt be His witness unto all men, of what thou hast seen and heard" (Acts 22:14-15). Accordingly Paul, when asserting his apostleship, asks — "Am I not an apostle? Am I not free? have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord?" (1 Cor. 9:1). And afterwards, speaking of the witnesses of His resurrection, he says — "And last of all, He was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time; for I am the least of the apostles" (1 Cor. 15:8-9). The apostles, then, were to be eye-witnesses of Christ's resurrection, an important fact, inasmuch as it shows the office to be temporary in its character, and incapable of revival in after times.
But besides being witnesses of Christ's resurrection, they were foundation gifts, the Church being "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner-stone" (Eph. 2:20). The mystery of the Church was revealed "unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit" (Eph. 3:5), and they were thus made responsible for laying the foundation of this wondrous truth. Such were the two great functions of the apostles. When the testimony of those who had seen the risen Christ was finished, when the whole ground-plan of God's truth concerning the Church had been marked out, this gift had done its work, and no renewal of it is shadowed forth in God's Word. We do, indeed, hear of false apostles, for the Ephesian Church is commended because it had "tried them which say they are apostles, and are not," and had "found them liars (Rev. 2:2). But there is nothing to indicate that true apostles would again exist. The nature of their functions forbade the thought.
Prophets, like apostles, were entrusted with the mystery, and laid the foundation of the Church. Some, like Agabus, foretold future events, but this was not their chief characteristic. The most striking feature was the address to the conscience. "If all prophesy," says the apostle, "and there come in one that believes not, of one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all, and thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest" (1 Cor. 14:24-25). In an age when the Scriptures were not completed, moreover, special revelations, probably on other matters, but certainly connected with the "mystery," were made to the prophets; for it is said — "Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge; if anything be revealed to another that sits by, let the first hold his peace" (vv. 29, 30). Some of the prophetic gift in reaching the conscience may still survive, but when God's Word was completed, all that He meant prophetically to reveal was already brought out, and the foundation part of the prophetic gift necessarily disappeared.
But if the foundation gifts lasted only till the foundations were laid, the gifts of evangelists, pastors, and teachers were of a more permanent character. The evangelist, or preacher of the gospel, has his sphere of labour in the world. Nevertheless, it is important to observe that he is a gift to the Church, and therefore he has, in proclaiming the gospel, a responsibility connected with the Church. He is not merely given to preach the gospel so that souls may be saved, but he is responsible for bringing the souls consciously and intelligently into their place in God's assembly. The pastor and teacher are different gifts, though they may be combined in the same person. The pastor's work is looking individually after the sheep; the teacher's is giving them public instruction. The pastor is more occupied with the persons, the teacher with the truth.
It should be clearly seen that these are gifts, not offices; also that they are for the whole Church, not for local assemblies. They were bestowed on the Church by an ascended Christ, were responsible to Him for exercising their gift where and as He directed, and either apostolic investiture or choice by an assembly, instead of lending them a legal sanction, would have been a direct infringement of Christ's authority. It is disorder to tie gift to office; it is greater disorder to limit the sphere of its exercise by human regulations; but it is more than disorder, it is dishonour to Christ Himself, to insist on man's countersign before recognising the validity of His dispositions.
Again, the evangelist, pastor, and teacher are three different gifts. Two may be often, three occasionally, united in one person, but still they are different, and nothing can be more opposed to God's institution than appointing a person who, and who alone, shall be expected to exercise these three rarely combined gifts in some particular place. Indeed, it would be difficult to find one single direction of Scripture which is not completely set aside by the so-called Christian ministry, as now seen in all the sects of the professing Church, from the Roman Catholics to the congregational dissenters. No doubt this is more the result of traditional teaching than of conscious disobedience; no doubt, too, there are thousands of true servants of Christ in these various systems. But this does not lessen the divergence of these systems from God's Word, nor diminish the obligation of those before whom the truth is presented to come out of them. However easy, and apparently innocent, it is to slip into traditional habits of thought or action, it is a deeply solemn matter when these traditions are in opposition to the Word of God. Few denunciations are more pointed than that which our Lord directs against the Pharisees — "Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition" (Matt. 15:6).
There might, of course, be cases where the only person with any gift was compelled by circumstances to reside in a particular neighbourhood, and in such cases the teaching or preaching might be solely in his hands. But this would no more make him the official minister, in the modern sense of the word, than the fact that there was only one tradesman of any sort in a town would make him the official purveyor of his wares to the inhabitants. Teaching and preaching were not things connected with the assembly, nor do we read of the Church gathering together for these purposes. Doubtless, if a teacher came to a city the brethren would seek to hear him, but he would not exercise his gift in responsibility to the assembly, nor would the meeting of those gathered to hear him be a meeting of the assembly.
IV. For the object of the gathering of the assembly was worship. There might be meetings of brethren for consultation, meetings of believers for prayer, for reading the Scriptures, for hearing gifted teachers and evangelists, but the meeting of the assembly was that held on the first day of the week for remembering the Lord and showing His death. At this meeting the Church acted, "with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ," whether to bind or to loose, but its main object was "the breaking of bread." In instituting the Lord's Supper, Jesus had broken bread, and this act, recorded in each of the narratives, gave its name to the feast. It is said of the believers immediately after Pentecost, that "they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers" (Acts 2:42). At Troas we read that "upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them" (Acts 20:7). Paul had been six days at Troas before this, and had doubtless taught and preached, but this is the only meeting of the Church recorded. The language shows that it was not an accident (Paul happening to be there on "Communion Sunday"), but that it was the custom to meet together on the first day of the week, for the breaking of bread. So Paul, writing about the collection for poor saints, says — "Upon the first day of the week, let every one of you lay by him in store, as God has prospered him" (1 Cor. 16:2). At Corinth, where the Lord's Supper had been converted into a social meal, at which disorder, and even drunkenness, prevailed, the apostle corrects the abuse, and gives directions how the feast should be observed. But throughout he speaks of the meeting for the breaking of bread as the coming "together of the Church," and assumes that "when ye come together into one place," the object was to celebrate the Lord's Supper.
This is no inference from a single passage. We learn the same thing from the language of the apostle in another place. He says, "in the Church (or assembly) I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue" (1 Cor. 14:19). What does he mean by saying "in the Church"? The context shows that he means the meeting for the breaking of bread, for he asks referring to the speaking with tongues — "When thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupies the room of the unlearned say "Amen," at thy giving of thanks." Now blessing and giving of thanks are the two things which characterise the Lord's Supper. He also describes the meeting in the same words used in chapter 11 as "the whole Church" coming "together into one place."
The meeting of the Church was, then, for "breaking bread." The value which Christ set on it is shown, not only from the time and manner of its institution as recorded in the Gospels, but from the special revelation concerning it given afterwards to Paul, who says, "I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you" (1 Cor. 11:23). It was a feast of thanksgiving; a feast calling Christ Himself to mind — "this do in remembrance of me;" a feast showing His death till His return. It was not a meeting to learn or to pray, but to thank, to praise God for His unspeakable gift, and to worship in the sense of His favour and blessing. The worshippers met, not to receive, but to give, to rejoice before the Lord, and to bless Him in the holy confidence and delight of those whom He had filled to the full with His salvation. They realised Christ's presence, not merely in authority, but in fellowship, as the One who had said, "I will declare Thy name unto My brethren, in the midst of the Church will I sing praise unto Thee" (Heb. 2:12). Like every other assembly act, it set forth the oneness of Christ's body — "for we, being many, are one bread (or loaf), and one body, for we are all partakers of that one loaf (1 Cor. 10:17).
Praise, worship, thanksgiving, adoration — such were the features of this blessed institution. For this no gift was required. A gift of prayer, a gift of praise, these are man's thoughts, and, like all else that is of man, quite foreign to the thoughts of God. To quench the Spirit by committing the expression of praise and thanksgiving to some gifted or official person, or by appointing some president to regulate its expression in others, is among the most daring usurpations of the Holy Ghost's prerogatives that man's presumption has ever made. But though gift was not necessary, indeed had absolutely no place, in connection with the principal object of the meeting, its exercise under the Spirit's guidance was freely permitted. Thus, at the breaking of bread in Troas, "Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight" (Acts 20:7). In writing to the Corinthians, he rebukes the way in which the liberty of the Spirit had been abused — "When ye come together, every one of you has a psalm, has a doctrine, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation." They were using these gifts for display, not for edification. The apostle, therefore, adds — "Let all things be done unto edifying" (1 Cor. 14:26). He then directs how these gifts should be exercised, — unknown tongues were only to be used when there was an interpreter, prophets were to speak two or three, women were not to raise their voice in the assembly, and "all things" were to "be done decently and in order."
But while Scripture here points out the marks of the Spirit's guidance as opposed to the intrusions of the flesh, there is no code laid down, no "order of service" prescribed, no officer appointed to "administer the Lord's Supper." Surely if ever there was a suitable occasion for bringing in such institutions, the disorder prevailing at Corinth furnished it. Why, then, was it not done? The supreme action of the Spirit in the assembly was God's purpose, and from this purpose He is not diverted by man's disorder. To meet this He shows how the workings of the flesh and of the Spirit may be distinguished; but He does not fall back on man's organisation, on a ministry which supersedes the Holy Ghost's sovereignty, or on an officialism which exalts man and sets aside Christ. As long as the Holy Ghost's sovereignty is owned, we have the authority of the Word for saying that there will be order — "for God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all Churches of the saints" (1 Cor. 14:33). If, then, there is any need felt for man's rules and regulations, it can only be because the Holy Ghost's sovereignty is no longer acknowledged. What sort of an order will it be which man establishes by the deposition of the Spirit? It will be the order of death, not of life — peace, truly, but, as far as the Spirit is concerned, the peace of the grave!
And now let us cast a momentary glance at the fabric whose details we have been tracing. The Church on earth, as it came from God's hand, was the model of His own Divine thoughts about it. It was the body of Christ, perfect in its oneness, and perfect, too, in its subjection to the Head. It was furnished with an infallible guide to the thoughts and order of God in the Holy Scriptures. It was united with Christ and formed into one body by the Holy Ghost, who dwelt in its midst, and directed its assemblies. Could anything more perfect, more divine, be imagined? And how could this fabric be kept, in its outward form down here, what God meant it to be, "a holy temple," "an habitation of God through the Spirit"? God's first earthly dwelling-place, a type of the Church, was made fit for His presence by simply following His own directions — "See," says He, "that thou make all things according to the pattern showed to thee in the mount." Only by similar adherence to the heavenly pattern could the Church have been kept according to God's institution. Subjection to Christ as exercising authority in the assembly, would have maintained unity of discipline. Subjection to the divinely-given Word, the heavenly pattern, would have maintained unity of doctrine. Subjection to the Holy Ghost, the Divine guide and director, would have maintained unity of order in the assemblies. What would Moses have said, if, when looking at the work of Bezaleel and Aholiab, he had found it different from the pattern showed in the mount, and made to suit their own thoughts of what was right or convenient? Is it a less solemn thing for Christians to set aside the heavenly pattern contained in the Word, and to substitute a tabernacle according to their own devising? When Israel acted on its own thoughts, the results were the golden calf, the strange fire, the gainsaying of Korah. When it observed God's order, the results were His presence, His service, and His guidance. Which precedent has Christendom followed?
The church in ruins.
We have in previous chapters regarded the Church in two different aspects, according to what it is in the mind of God, and according to what it was as established by God on earth, and entrusted to the responsibility of men. Viewed in the first aspect, as the body and bride of Christ, there can be no failure, for it is all of God Himself. Viewed in the second aspect, there has been grievous failure, for it has proved, like everything else, the inability of men to enter into the thoughts and purposes of God. These different views are strikingly presented in two parallel figures. In Ephesians, which pictures the Church according to God's thoughts about it, believers are described as "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner stone; in whom all the building, fitly framed together, grows unto an holy temple in the Lord; in whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit" (Eph. 2:20-22). Peter uses similar language, saying, with respect to Christ, "To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious, ye also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house" (1 Peter 2:4-5). In these passages God is the builder, only "living stones" are used as materials, and the result is a spiritual house, a holy temple, a habitation of God. Thanks be to God, no failure on man's part can change this.
When, however, we see the Church, as it has become outwardly under man's responsibility, the same figure is used in a strikingly different way. As the epistle to the Ephesians presents the Church according to God's thoughts, that to the Corinthians presents it according to its outward manifestation to the world. Here, then, the builders are men, not God. The foundation, Christ Himself, is secure, "but let every man take heed how he builds thereupon;" for "if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble, every man's work shall be made manifest, for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire" (1 Cor. 3:10-13).
The Church, then, viewed according to God's thoughts, is always perfect. The Church, as entrusted to man, soon shows failure, wood, hay, and stubble being built in with the costly material which alone can stand the searching fire of God's scrutiny. A like contrast occurs elsewhere. In the First Epistle to Timothy the Church is viewed, not indeed on its heavenly side, but as consisting of real believers holding the truth on earth. It is, therefore, spoken of as "the house of God, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). In the Second Epistle the Church is regarded as the professing mass called by the name of Christ, and it is there described as a "great house," in which "there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honour and some to dishonour" (2 Tim. 2:20).
We have already looked at the Church, as the temple of God, that is, in its heavenly character; also as the house of God down here on earth, that is, in the practical manifestation which it had as established on earth according to God's order. We have now to inquire how far man has adhered to this order; how far the so-called Church, or Christian profession, of the present day corresponds with God's thoughts; how far it represents the temple of His building, and how far it is composed of the wood, hay, and stubble of human workmanship. To ascertain this, let us briefly recall the leading features of the Church, as founded by God.
I. It is the body of Christ formed by the Holy Ghost sent down to dwell on earth.
II. As united with a heavenly Head, it is not of the world, but is heavenly in character and hope.
III. It is the witness to the world of the oneness of the Head with the body, and of the members of the body with each other.
IV. This oneness was to be maintained, as to doctrine and order, by absolute subjection to the Word of God.
V. The local assembly was to show the same oneness as the Church, and all local assemblies were to be kept one with each other in discipline by subjection to the authority of Christ as present in their midst.
VI. Officers belonged to local assemblies, and were appointed by apostolic authority, while gifts belonged to the whole Church, and were bestowed by an ascended Christ.
VII. The assembly met on the first day of the week for the breaking of bread, the Holy Ghost alone regulating the order and deciding how and by whom gift should be exercised.
I. The Church is the body of Christ, formed by the Holy Ghost sent down to dwell on earth. — As such it consists only of true believers, real members of Christ's body. Such is God's institution; but what is the Church, as man has made it? Throughout a large part of Christendom, the so-called Church, instead of being the assembly of the saved, is held forth as the means of salvation. Unconverted persons are urged to come into it, and are told that deliverance from wrath and judgment is to be obtained by its offices. In other cases the Church is a political institution, and every citizen, without respect to his conversion or non-conversion, is entitled to its communion and its privileges. There are considerable exceptions, no doubt, but in one or other of these two classes the enormous preponderance of nominal Christians are included. To the great mass, therefore, of that which bears the name, and is the responsible witness, for Christ on earth, the solemn words of the Judge may be addressed — "I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead" (Rev. 3:1). The professing Church, instead of consisting only of living members of Christ, has merely a name to live, and is dead — "having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof" (2 Tim. 3:5). How needful, then, that where there is true life, the solemn warning should be heeded — "Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found thy works perfect before God (Rev. 3:2).
The Church, moreover, as instituted by God, was bound, as the body of Christ, to derive everything from Him, to hold "the Head, from which all the body, by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increases with the increase of God." The Head has furnished the truth necessary for the growth of the body, and this is God's provision; the increase thus obtained is "the increase of God." But what has man made the Church? Not the recipient, but the decider of truth. So much is this the case that throughout the greater part of Christendom those who are allowed to act as teachers are bound to declare their assent, not to the truth of God contained in the Scriptures, but to the statements of doctrine prepared by the Church, and embodied in certain human creeds. And what are these creeds? Take the earliest and best, the so-called "apostles' creed;" its very first words are in direct contradiction to Scripture — "I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth." The Word ascribes creation to God, but when it speaks of the persons of the Godhead, while it does name the Spirit as taking part, and while it constantly attributes the work to the Son, the Father is never mentioned. It is of the "Word," that Scripture says "All things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made" (John 1:3). It is of Christ that the apostle declares — "All things were created by Him and for Him, and He is before all things, and by Him all things consist" (Col. 1:16-17). It is God as displayed in the person of the Son, of whom it is written, "By whom also He made the worlds" (Heb. 1:2). That the Father had a part is not questioned, but is it not ominously suggestive that in man's very first attempt to deal with such matters, the one person of the Godhead to whom He ascribes creation should be the one person to whom Scripture does not ascribe it? And yet it is these creeds that the Church, as administered by man, has set up for the guidance of believers instead of the living oracles delivered by God. Scripture never refers us for direction to the Church, always to itself. "What," says the apostle, to those who would set up their own thoughts, "came the Word of God out from you, or came it unto you only?" (1 Cor. 14:36). So Timothy is exhorted by Paul to continue "in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them, and that from a child thou hast known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 3:14-15). Peter classes Paul's teaching with "the other Scriptures" (2 Peter 3:16); and in the above passage Paul sets the truth which he communicated to Timothy side by side with the Old Testament Scriptures of which he there speaks. We know Paul's teaching only through the New Testament Scriptures, and to these, therefore, together with the others — that is, to the whole Word of God — the believer is referred in the dark times of unbelief and formal profession which the apostle foresees.
But did not the council at Jerusalem decide a doctrinal question? At that time, however, the New Testament was not yet written; while the apostles, who were divinely taught concerning the Church, were there to speak with an authority which now belongs only to the Scriptures. Besides, this was not a general council of the Church, but merely a local gathering of the Church of Jerusalem. No complete break with Jewish customs had yet been made by this assembly, and such was its influence that there was great danger of the Gentile Churches being led by ignorant or interested teachers to fall into legal bondage. It was, therefore, divinely ordered that this assembly, under the Holy Ghost's guidance, and with apostolic authority, should emphatically repudiate the conduct of such of its members as were seeking to force legal practices upon the Gentiles. All the circumstances were exceptional, and cannot possibly be repeated. This council, then, cannot certainly be pleaded as sanctioning the claim of the Church to settle doctrinal questions. On such matters the Word of God is our only and all-sufficient guide.
II. The Church, as united with a heavenly Head, is not of the world, but is heavenly in its character and hope. — How has man adhered to this design of God, as taught in Scripture, and practically exemplified in the Church, according to His institution? Some of the ecclesiastical systems claim to govern the world, others have accepted the world's protection, received from the world their doctrine and discipline, and appeal to the world's tribunals to settle questions which can only be divinely decided by the Word of God. Where this open commerce has been repudiated, separation is taken up as a political maxim, urged by political means, made the basis of political associations. In this case it is, just as much as in the other, an attempt, on the part of the so-called Churches, to regulate the world's politics according to their own views. Is it not sad to see godly and devoted men referring matters concerning the Church to their "parliamentary committees," organising political campaigns, unequally yoking themselves with the world's factions, in order to improve the social standing and prospects of their own denomination, under the vain delusion that worldly advantage will give a greater leverage for the proclamation of spiritual truth? We need not question their motives, but we ask, Is this consistent with a heavenly calling? Can such persons say that the weapons of their warfare are not carnal? Our politics are not of this world, but of heaven. We are crucified with Christ to the world — how, then, can we seek to secure the world's suffrages, avail ourselves of the world's alliances, or desire to regulate the world's affairs?
In another form of worldliness, too, almost all sects are equally implicated, vying with each other in their efforts to please the flesh, and to allure the crowd. I am not speaking of ritualism, which attaches a superstitious significance to various acts, but of the avowed attempt to secure the admiration of the world by artistic display, by magnificent buildings, by richly-toned organs, and by highly-paid choirs, often composed of singers who make no pretence to personal faith in the Lord Jesus. How different from the apostle, who thought that "if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ" (Gal. 1:10). And this is only a specimen of the way in which the world's approval is bid for, and the world's support demanded. Persons asked to take the chair at their meetings, not for their piety, but for their social position — subscriptions sought by importunate begging, utterly regardless of whether the givers are the children of God, or the children of the wicked one — bazaars, conversaziones, and all sorts of worldly devices resorted to for the sake of raising money or of attracting favour — different Churches and associations pitted against each other as to which can secure the largest collections — talents, elegance, and accomplishments sought in the preacher in order that the worldly estimation of the sect may be raised, and its ministers may be deemed fully abreast with the progress of the age — all these, and multitudes of other symptoms which can hardly fail to suggest themselves to the reader, indicate the set of the current, not in those great religious apostasies where the spirit of the world might naturally be looked for, but in those denominations which have, as to many things, made a real stand for truth, and which contain large numbers of the Lord's children.
And if the heavenly character and heavenly dependence have almost disappeared, what shall we say of the heavenly hope? Alas! Christians are for the most part seeking to civilise and improve the world by Christianity, rather than to gather a people out of the world, who shall stand with their loins girt about and their lamps burning, and they themselves like unto men that wait for their Lord. As the Church lost her heavenly calling and gave her heart up to the world, she began to say — "My Lord delays His coming;" and "Where is the promise of His coming?" is what the great bulk of believers, like the scoffers of the last days, are now incredulously asking. Surely these things furnish food for sorrowful reflection to those who inquire how far the Lord's people have entered into His thoughts concerning the Church.
III. The Church is the witness to the world of the oneness of the Head with the body, and of the members of the body with each other. — As such in perfect Divine oneness, God set it on the earth — the image of the oneness of Christ, the testimony to the sending of the Son by the Father. Could a sadder contrast be conceived than between the beautiful vessel launched by God's hand, and the floating fragments of wreck now tossing far and wide on the waves and currents of this restless world? Instead of all believers meeting round the person of Christ, His name is the only centre which is not known. There is no difference of doctrine too trivial, no variety of discipline too microscopic, to form the rallying point of a separate denomination; no name too insignificant to become the label of a distinct sect. No need to dwell on the humiliating picture, the details of which are familiar to every eye. To gather up the fragments of wreck, and reconstruct the shattered vessel, is impossible. But are we on that account to shut our eyes to the fact that under man's pilotage this disastrous shipwreck has happened, and that the professing Church is responsible for the ruin into which it has fallen? Alas! if Christians only recognised this fact, and took their place, like Daniel of old, in confession before God, there would still be blessing, though there could never be restoration.
But man has got so filled with his own thoughts, and so divorced from the thoughts of God, that he has begun to regard these divisions as rather beneficial than injurious. He has ceased to ask, like the apostle, "Is Christ divided?" ceased to regard the least approach to diversity with the jealous apprehension of those who watch for the Lord's glory, and judging everything by the low standard of his own thoughts, scoffs at the Divine unity as a cramped and slavish conception, and rejoices in a thousand-fold diversity as a proof of his own mental independence. He compares the various sects to the various rays of coloured light refracted from a prism, each one of which is necessary to the light of the perfect beam; forgetting that God's light is not the light, after it has been twisted and scattered by human prisms, but the light as it proceeds direct from His own mind. No doubt it proves that in which man glories, the range and activity of his own mind. What it does not prove is his subjection to the mind of God.
IV. The oneness of the Church was to be maintained, as to doctrine and order, by absolute subjection to the Word of God. In this book we have the perfect revelation of God's mind, and to its teaching He demands absolute obedience. Here is the Divine chart by which the vessel committed to man's responsibility might be steered through every strait. What has man done with it? Thinking the chart insufficient for his guidance, he has added to it lines and marks of his own, either deviating from the divinely-furnished plan altogether, or putting in numerous other tracings according to his own fancy. God's fathomings of truth and error were not good enough for him; he must let down the little plummet of his own philosophy and note the more accurate soundings thus obtained! Is it wonderful that the Church, so piloted, made shipwreck? The grand truth needed for our day is this of entire subjection to God's Word, not only in what we call great things, but in small things too. God does not demand subjection as far as we think proper, but that every thought should be brought into captivity. And this implies, not only obedience to what is written, but rejection of what is not written. To refuse the former is to deny the obligation of God's Word; to refuse the latter is to deny its sufficiency. To maintain that I may depart by a hair's breadth from what is written, is to declare my judgment better than God's. To maintain that I may do what is not written, is to declare God's directions imperfect.
How wide the departure has been in doctrine is familiar to all. There is no need, however, to call up the grosser errors of the professing Church — the purgatories, the prayers to the Virgin, the intercession of saints, the penances, the indulgences, and the other glaring forms of evil — in evidence of this departure. Take the comparatively pure doctrine of Protestant countries, and contrast it with the Word of God. The great mass of believers, if they have given up the law as the ground of justification, have retained it as the rule of Christian walk. Having absolutely lost all sense of the heavenly calling, they are content to take as their standard the law of commandments contained in ordinances, which was suited to a fleshly religion and a worldly people. By the majority of professing Christians, eternal life as a present fact is thought a mere dream, and the claim to its possession an almost impious presumption. The complete setting aside of man after the flesh is to most an unmeaning phrase, and conversion and the new birth signify nothing more than a bettering of the nature which God has declared hopelessly bad. Hence how few even among real Christians there are who possess entire deliverance and settled peace. The great and all-important fact of the Spirit's present abode in the world, the leading feature of the work in which God is now engaged, is treated as "another craze." The hope of the Lord's return for His saints is scoffed at as a fanciful delusion. And all this ignorance of God's truth is found among the teachers and leaders of religious thought in the so-called evangelical denominations of Christendom.
Nor has the departure from God's order in the Church been less conspicuous or disastrous than the departure from His doctrinal teaching. Indeed, while as to doctrine there has been a measure of return to God's truth, as to Church order the departure continues as wide as ever. The horrible mass of corruption in the professing Church in the days of Luther compelled him and all who cared for God's glory to come out. Instead of adopting Church principles, however, as laid down in God's Word, they threw themselves into the arms of the civil power, and in return for its aid placed themselves under the authority of the state. In Protestant countries, the state took the place of the Pope; and the Church, though cleansed from some gross corruptions, became just as much the tool of the world and the centre of political intrigue, just as destitute of Divine life and stricken with spiritual atrophy, as the Church of Rome itself, without even the show of unity which this still retained. The ever-increasing corruption and deadness of the political Churches drove spiritual men outside again; but once more, instead of finding the true principles of the Church of God, they set up Churches of their own. In those they either sought unity by human organisation, thus perpetuating the evils against which they protested, or else they lost sight of the fact that unity was God's principle. Sect after sect arose, gathered round the person of some great leader, or knotted into factitious oneness by common opinions as to the most expedient mode of Church government.
In a few cases there may have been an attempt to return to some forgotten principle of order in God's Word, though in these the influence of tradition and the want of thoroughness is painfully evident. In the majority of cases, however, rules of government were adopted simply from motives of expediency. The Scriptures were not dishonestly twisted to suit the new constitutions, for their authors supposed that these matters of Church order were just left to man's will and wisdom. But this involves two things, an admission that the Word of God is not a sufficient guide under all circumstances, and a splitting up of the Church into all sorts of sects according to man's varying thoughts as to the best mode of ecclesiastical government. It implies, therefore, a virtual setting aside of God's authority, a lowering of the claims of Scripture, and the outward ruin of the Church. How it has worked in practice is easily seen. Men have thought it expedient to adopt their own constitutions instead of adhering to God's order. But if one set of persons may adopt one constitution, another may adopt another. Unity, therefore, is of course impossible. But what made it impossible? Simply that man's diverse thoughts have been brought in to supplement or set aside the Word of God.
Here is the simple and sufficient origin of all the sects. If a person objects — "Well, but how are we to help this? The mischief has been done, and no action on our part can repair it" — the question I would ask is this: Are you yourself personally free from the guilt which has brought this evil in? Are you allowing anything which the Word of God either distinctly forbids, or does not expressly sanction? If you are, the first step you have to take is to separate yourself from this thing. It is of no use contending that you are not answerable for the divisions, so long as you are going on with the insubjection and disobedience which caused the divisions. You are answerable for the legitimate consequences of your own acts. And if the legitimate and inevitable consequence of bringing in man's thoughts to override and overstep God's revealed mind, is the rending in pieces of that Church which is responsible for maintaining in visible display the oneness of the body of Christ, the only way in which you can escape the responsibility of such a result is by personally abandoning whatever there may be in your conduct or position which in any way contributes to it. Act faithfully in this, and the next step will soon be made plain.
V. The local assembly was to show the same oneness as the Church, and all local assemblies were to be kept one with each other in discipline by subjection to the authority of Christ as present in their midst. — How has man adhered in this respect to the Divine model? What has he made of the local assembly? Under his administration, the local assembly, as an outward, visible thing, has ceased to exist. Where is the Church of London or of Paris? In Scripture use, the Church of London is the whole body of believers in London, meeting together, not of course in the same place, but in manifested oneness. Where is such an assembly to be found now? Nowhere. Then God's institution as to the local expression of the one body has been entirely lost — absolutely effaced from the world.
And what has taken its place? In each town there are a multitude of sects, divided in discipline, in doctrine, or in something which isolates them from the others, some more or less friendly with their neighbours, and admitting a certain amount of intercommunion, others holding a position of complete separation, or even of avowed antagonism. In some of these sects, care is taken to receive into fellowship only those of whose conversion there is reasonable evidence; in others nothing farther is demanded than the desire of the person asking for communion; in others, again, the right is conceded either as a political privilege or as a means of bestowing life on those who are admitted to be spiritually dead. Thus instead of order, there is chaos; instead of unity, division; instead of a local assembly, a broken mass of sects, not one of which can claim for itself the leading characteristics of the Church of God. Even in these sects, taken by themselves, the order of the Church is utterly given up. Each local meeting is, in some cases, independent of all others. Where there is any common government it is brought about either by the rule of the state, or by an organisation wholly of man's devising. All these plans are widely at variance with the teaching of God's Word. This enjoins unity, but it is the unity springing from the oneness of Christ's action in the assembly, and to substitute for this an artificial unity of man's contriving is as much opposed to His order as the open abandonment of oneness for the fuller exercise of local independence.
VI. Officers belonged to local assemblies, and were appointed by apostolic authority, while gifts belonged to the whole Church, and were bestowed by an ascended Christ. — Such was God's wisely-ordained institution, the reason for which will afterwards appear, though even if our intelligence could not comprehend the reason, the fact that it is God's plan should be sufficient. Man, however, has almost invariably joined what God has separated. There were two kinds of officers, deacons, who serve tables, and elders or bishops who exercised rule, and took the oversight of the flock. Both these were appointed by apostles or apostolic delegates, and no directions are given for their appointment in any other way. But some of the human systems called Churches have made the bishop, instead of one of several officers of a local assembly, an officer over several local assemblies. No such officer is named in Scripture, and to appoint one is to forsake God's order. Others have confounded the elder or bishop with the deacon, and have made the appointment one of popular election, both of which are in direct contradiction with the teaching of God's Word. In some cases the bishop and elders, which in Scripture are the same, have been made quite different officers, and the bishop has been invested with the totally unscriptural power of ordaining the presbyter or elder.
It has been said, indeed, that Timothy and Titus exercised functions very much like those of a modern "bishop." If so, it only proves how unlike a modern bishop is to the scriptural bishop, for Timothy and Titus received a commission to appoint bishops, and nothing can be greater than the difference between their work and that of the bishops whom they were sent to appoint. It may be objected, however, that this is only a question of names, and that if Timothy and Titus had an office resembling that of modern bishops, the office itself must be lawful, even though the name be questionable. But Timothy and Titus acted under direct apostolic authority, and without that authority their action would have had no weight or value whatever. Who can show such an authority now? The Word lends no more sanction to a succession of apostolic delegates than to a succession of apostles. Why should we not have apostles now? Because Scripture gives no directions for their appointment. For the same reason we cannot have apostolic delegates. Supposing, therefore, that a modern bishop's functions are identical with those exercised by Timothy or Titus, he has no more scriptural foundation for their exercise, than he has for assuming the place of an apostle.
But what is far more important than any mistake as to the exact functions of bishops and deacons, is the invention of an officer called "the minister," to whom, in his official capacity, belong the sole exercise of gift, the sole regulation of the service, and the sole administration of the "sacraments." I say this officer is a simple invention of man's mind. The only person named in Scripture who at all approaches such an officer, is Diotrephes, who "loved to have the pre-eminence" (3 John 9-10), and usurped a sort of clerical position in the Church. But this assumption, instead of being sanctioned, is strongly denounced by the apostle. Deacons and elders are the only officers spoken of in God's Word, and neither of these bears the slightest resemblance to the person we have just described. In the first place, there were several deacons and several elders in each local assembly. And next, there is not a word which confers on either of these officers the right, by virtue of his office, of exercising his own gift, or of regulating the exercise of gift in others. An officer might or might not have gift, but if he exercised his gift it was not because of his office, and if he fulfilled his office it was not because of his gift. Gift is simply the endowment of a risen Christ, and to ask man's sanction for its exercise is to set man up against Christ. It is given to the Church as a whole, and to make regulations which confine it to a particular assembly, is to presume by human rules to thrust aside the order of God. It is to be exercised under the guidance of the Spirit, and to lay down a code as to the manner of its exercise is to usurp the functions of the Holy Ghost. The apostle Paul himself would never have dared to ordain or appoint a person to act as evangelist, pastor, or teacher — still less to combine these three gifts in one; but if he would have shrunk from this as a usurpation of Christ's authority, what would he have said about ordaining such a person to an official position which neither evangelist, pastor, nor teacher ever possessed, about bestowing upon him the Holy Ghost's function of regulating the order of the assembly, and about authorising him to administer the sacraments, in direct contravention of the Word of God?
VII. The assembly met on the first day of the week for the breaking of bread, the Holy Ghost alone regulating the order and deciding how and by whom gift should be exercised. — Man, however, setting aside God's order, has made the Lord's Supper merely an occasional meeting, and has put teaching, evangelising, or some other thing, into the place of prominence which the Lord gave to His own supper. He has defended this, not as scriptural, but because constant repetition might destroy its solemnity! If theatrical effect is what is sought this will doubtless be the case. But what a thought for a believer to cherish! God's institution set aside, because man knows so much better than He! The remembrance of Christ and His matchless love become so familiar that at length it breeds contempt! Such is the working of man's mind when it strays from simple obedience, and brings in its own wisdom to supplement or supplant the teaching of God. And yet it is to the exercise of this wisdom that we are abandoned the moment we depart from the living oracles. That the mode of celebrating the Lord's Supper is as unscriptural as its infrequency, we have already seen. I am not alluding to those who attach to it a sacrificial efficacy, nor to those even who look at it as a "means of grace," a kind of spur occasionally given to the sluggish conscience and heart; but to those who have retained, at least in a certain measure, a true apprehension of the nature of the feast. Even among these, with few exceptions, the liberty of the Spirit is not owned, and the supper is "administered" by a sacerdotal or official person wholly unknown, either for that or any other purpose, in the Word of God.
Let us cast our eye, then, over this wide scene of ruin and desolation. There is absolutely nothing that God has instituted which man has not perverted or destroyed. If God has set up the Church as the body of Christ, man has converted it into a means of salvation, by which a person may be made into a member of Christ. If God has put it in subjection to Christ, man has made it the rival of Christ, and the authoritative judge of doctrinal truth. If God has made it heavenly in its character; its resources, and its hopes, man has lowered it to a worldly standard, has claimed for it worldly support, and has given it worldly expectations. If God has established a divine unity, man has broken it up into a chaos of rival sects and jarring systems. If God has given it the Word as its Divine guide, man has called in his own wisdom to supply the deficiencies, or correct the errors of which, in his arrogance, he accuses the Scriptures. If God has instituted local assemblies to express the oneness of the assembly in each city, man has split them up into a thousand detached masses, not one of which is gathered on the true principles of the Church. If God has instituted local officers, man has perverted them to every purpose except that for which they were appointed, has set aside the scriptural mode of ordination for the inventions of his own brain, and has invested them with a character which God never conferred upon them or upon any other human being. If God gave gifts to the Church, man has insisted that these gifts should be exercised only according to his own will, should be restrained within the limits of an official class, and should be tied down to the narrow circle of a local assembly. If God made office local, man has made it general; and if God made gift general, man has made it local. If God separated gift and office, man has insisted upon their union, regardless of whether the officer possesses gift, or the gifted person possesses the qualifications for office. If God has left the exercise of gift free in the assembly, to be guided only by His own Spirit, man has deposed the Spirit by giving the authority to an officer of his own appointment. If God has gathered the assembly together with the special object of remembering Christ according to His own institution, man has thrust this institution into a corner, made it the exceptional instead of the principal object of meeting together, and put his own supposed profit in the place of prominence which Christ claims for the memorials of His death.
It may, indeed, be pleaded with perfect truth that the practices here pointed out as contrary to the Word of God, had already begun in times closely following, if not even overlapping, the apostles' days. This is constantly urged in defence of one or other of the institutions now found among the varied sects, by writers, not only of those denominations which profess to receive the traditions of the fathers, but even of those which profess to repudiate them. But what reason is there for assuming that those who immediately followed the apostles were purer in doctrine, or more tenacious of God's order, than modern Christians? They had the same guide that we have — the Word of God, and if they departed from it, we are bound to judge their departure, instead of following it. To draw conclusions from the practice of the early Church is to test the truth of God's Word by the fathers, instead of testing the truth of the fathers by God's Word. Surely every reader of the New Testament must see that we have not to wait for the days of the apostolic fathers to detect the signs of ruin, but that they are plainly marked in the epistles themselves. The Corinthians had introduced sectarianism, allowed immorality, tolerated drunkenness at the Lord's table. The Galatians had fallen from the principle of justification by faith. The Colossians were being beguiled by Jewish traditions and Greek philosophy. At Rome people were preaching Christ "of envy and strife." Even of Paul's personal companions, all were seeking their own, not the things of Christ. Already many were walking as "the enemies of the cross of Christ." Later, Diotrephes refuses the apostle John. Of the seven Churches in Asia, five are called upon to repent; one had lost its first love; another was tolerating the grossest evil; a third was almost wholly given up to wickedness; a fourth had a name to live, but was dead; a fifth, self-complacent and lukewarm, was so nauseous to Christ that He threatens to spue it out of His mouth. The Word is full of warnings of coming evil, and the flood had already risen to a fearful height before the canon of Scripture was closed. Ecclesiastical history shows that the waters swelled to a still more disastrous deluge with awful rapidity afterwards. Such, then, in and immediately after apostolic times, was the failing, ruinous, Christ-dishonouring state to which the Church had sunk under man's guidance. Yet from this armoury writers of almost all denominations are willing to borrow weapons for the sake of parrying the thrust of "the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God!"
Separation from evil the path of obedience.
In looking over the sterile scene pictured in our last chapter, we cannot refrain from asking, whence flow the bitter waters which have converted this garden of the Lord's planting into such a wilderness of death? The poisonous spring is not difficult to discover. Insubjection is the one copious fountain head from which all these streams of sorrow have issued — insubjection to Christ, Insubjection to the Spirit, insubjection to the Word. The presence and authority of Christ in the assembly were disowned; the guidance of the Spirit was withstood by the flesh; and when disorder necessarily ensued, recourse was had to the wisdom of man rather than to the teaching of the Word of God.
What, then, is the remedy? But, perhaps, a preliminary question may be asked — Can there be any remedy? As Israel of old said, "There is no hope; but we will walk after our own devices, and we will every one do the imagination of his evil heart" (Jer. 18:12), so have many believers said concerning the ruined, divided condition of the Church. Some have laid it down as a self-evident truth that, whether sects are good or bad in themselves, now they have once come in, the only possible result of attempting to separate from them, and meeting in a different way, is to make an additional sect; in other words, that any effort to depart from the evil can only lead to its aggravation. But let it be clearly seen that sects are unscriptural, and surely this reasoning stands self-refuted. For if meeting on sectarian grounds and in sectarian groups is a departure from God's Word, it is manifest that there must be some mode of meeting of a different kind, and that however great the ruin and confusion, this mode of meeting is still open; else, God would be demanding obedience, and compelling disobedience!
If there is, then, an unsectarian mode of meeting, a ground which can still be taken in obedience to God's Word, where is it to be found? To settle this, let us recur to an illustration previously used. Let us suppose a mutinous army, which, instead of obeying its lawfully appointed general, has wandered off, at first in two or three great detachments, but at last divided into single regiments, or even companies, and scattered itself in such voluntary groups, under different leaders of its own choosing, over the whole country. Suppose, now, that one or two soldiers, in some of these groups, perceiving the evil of such lawless combinations, felt a desire to return to the path of obedience and duty, what course is open to them? Even a child would reply that they must separate themselves from the mutinous bodies of which they have formed a part, return to the position which they were originally ordered to occupy, and place themselves once more under the command of the lawful general. If, in taking such a step, their companions were to charge them with causing division — if they were to say, "You talk of mutiny and disobedience, and yet you yourself are mutinying, and disobeying our orders; you talk of the evils of division, and you seek to remedy it by just making one division more" — would even the dullest of them be deceived by such transparent fallacies? Would they not reply at once, "You are disobeying the lawful commands of your general; we are merely disobeying your unlawful command to continue in this disobedience. Your division is a departure from the true centre of unity; our division from you is a necessary step in returning to the true centre of unity"?
What, then, does this illustration show? There are a number of men, perhaps a mere handful, who have separated from the mutinous masses, and returned to their true allegiance. Are they the army? Surely not, but they are the only ones who occupy the place which the army ought to occupy, or obey the command which the army ought to obey; they are the only ones who represent the army in its proper aspect, and the only ones in whose company the faithful ought to be found. Nor is this altered in principle if we suppose that large numbers among the mutinous bodies are good soldiers, misled through ignorance or sophistry, and perfectly honest in their intention to serve their sovereign. Such a fact should cause those who have returned to the true path to think and speak of them with all forbearance, as the consciousness of their own previous wanderings should effectually exclude all boastfulness and exultation. But surely it would rather increase the desire to see their still mutinous companions brought back to the true standard, than create any thought in their own minds of once more deserting it. If urged to make common cause with the mutinous bodies, what would be their answer? They would say — "How is that possible? Our first duty is obedience, and what sort of fidelity should we show to this duty if we acted in such a way as to compromise us with those who are continuing in disobedience? Our second duty is to help back the faithful hearted to the path of obedience, and how can we do this if, by our conduct, we show that in our estimation obedience and disobedience are indifferent matters?"
Here, then, we have principles readily understood, and not difficult of application. Let us see how they fit the case before us. In the Church, as in the supposed army, unity has given way to division, discipline to disobedience, the sovereign authority of the Word to the discordant judgments of men. What, then, is the remedy? In this case, as in the other, it is manifest that if the mischief has been brought in by insubjection, the first step towards deliverance is to cease from insubjection. The Lord's order is — "Cease to do evil, learn to do well" (Isa. 1:16-17). A father would not go on telling his child what he wished, so long as he was wilfully disobeying what he had already told him. He would say, "Do what I have bidden you, and then I will let you know what more I want you to do." God deals with us as children, and he has made obedience the condition of progress — "If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God" (John 7:17). If we have fallen into error from taking counsel of men, His first demand is that we go back to His own Word, start again in His own way. When David's sin in taking counsel of his captains as to the bringing up of the ark had led him into the grievous error which resulted in the death of Uzzah, it was not enough for him to warn others against Uzzah's folly. The whole work must be stopped, the mode altogether changed, and the Word of God consulted, instead of the captains, as to the right way of carrying the ark. When this was done, and not till then, was the ark brought up with joy and rejoicing.
It is clear, then, that no compromises, no attempts to improve the present condition of things, no efforts to mitigate some of the more crying evils, will suit the case. This is merely avoiding the sin of Uzzah; it is not following the Lord's commandments. Occasional fraternisations among the scattered divisions of a mutinous army — amicable speeches assuring each other that they had one common object, though they might pursue it in different ways — would not alter the fact that the army was in a mutinous state, or lessen the responsibility of those who still remained among the mutinous bodies. Unions of Christians, evangelical alliances, and other attempts to talk to each other over denominational fences, may be of value as indicating the restless sense, in the hearts of many believers, that such fences are not of God. But beyond this they are of no value at all. Either the fences are according to the mind of God, or they are contrary to it. If they are according to His mind, they ought never to be passed; if they are contrary to his mind, they ought never to be erected. Catholicity, charity, in the sense in which it is now used, and all the other attempted palliatives, are like dressing the eruption of a man in the small-pox instead of seeking to reach the roots of the disease. Nay, they are worse, for they are merely taking counsel of man again how to remedy the mischief which man's counsel has already brought in; whereas the one resource of faith when it has stumbled through the leading of man is to fall back upon the teaching of God. It is no use trying to make sects more friendly, if sectarianism itself is contrary to God's Word. For the same reason, it is no use trying to make a sect somewhat better, to purge it of some of its more serious defects, for this does not touch the root of the evil. If the very fact of its being a sect is a departure from God's Word, the only remedy, the only path of obedience, is to come out of it. We have seen that God's Word denounces sects, that their existence is contrary to His mind, and if we would return to His way, therefore, the first step is to sever ourselves from all sectarian connections.
But here the question may be raised — What is a sect? To answer this we must go back to first principles, and inquire what is the cause of the divisions out of which sects have arisen. The cause is, as we have seen, insubjection to the Word of God. Only by absolute obedience to this standard, only by the disallowance of everything not enjoined in this volume, could sectarianism have been prevented and unity maintained. Everything, therefore, is a sect which will not stand this test. It has in its nature the fatal root out of which the sectarian poison is distilled. Tried by this standard, both the Church of Rome and all the national Churches are sects, for where do we find in the Word of God any person exercising authority like that of the Pope, any order of ecclesiastics like that of the cardinals, any form of episcopal government like that either of Rome or England? Where do we see the state, the world, appointing ministers, laying down forms of worship, or deciding points of doctrine? Coming, then, to the various dissenting denominations, we find, for the most part, their zealous assertion of the right to think and act as they like, to form constitutions according to their own thoughts, and to break into separate communities as best suits their own inclinations and convenience. Thus their very starting point is in direct antagonism with God's Word, which condemns sects; and is an express assertion of man's right to bring in his own thoughts and his own wisdom to supplement the Spirit's teaching. Nor, in coming to details, do we find more subjection. Where is the scriptural authority for deciding by conferences or synods in what places preachers shall exercise their gift? Where the warrant for the election of ministers by popular assemblies? Where do we find in the Word the human distinction between clergy and laity? Where the existence of single officers in the local assembly, to whom the exercise of gift is restricted? Where does Scripture speak of official persons administering the sacraments? Where does it sanction the thrusting of the Lord's Supper aside as the object of assembling together, and converting it into a monthly or quarterly celebration? Where the entire throwing away of both the Lord's Supper and baptism as symbols which believers are not now called upon to use?
Romanism, nationalism, and all the varied forms of dissent, are alike in this, that they have each departed from the pure standard of Scripture as their only guide. Some have deviated, some have added, some have subtracted — but all have departed from it as the sole and all-sufficient test. No need to dwell on the grosser errors of doctrine, or the monstrous pretensions of worldly hierarchies. It is enough for us that they have not adhered absolutely to the Word, for in this lies the real germ of sectarianism. It is not a question as to whether they hold more or less doctrinal truth, whether they have among them a greater or smaller number of genuine believers. The only question which the person who wishes to act in subjection to God's will needs to ask, is, whether there is entire surrender to the teaching of the Word; and if anything is practised which that Word does not enjoin, or anything omitted which it does enjoin, the system is a sect, and his duty is to separate himself from it.
"What!" it may be asked, "would it not be better to stay in it and try to improve it?" But if it is a sect, it is contrary to God's mind; and to stay in what is known to be contrary to God's mind is disobedience. Is it by going on in disobedience that we can hope to help others to obedience? The only road towards improvement is obedience, and for a man to continue in disobedience because he wants to make others obedient, is like a man throwing himself into the mud because he wants to make others clean. No, the first step towards obedience is to cease from disobedience, the first step towards setting others right is to get right one's self. Those who are ignorantly and conscientiously in error are small transgressors indeed, compared with those who are wilfully in it; and for one to remain wilfully in it for the sake of helping those who are ignorantly in it, is for the man with the beam in his eye to offer to take the mote out of his brother's eye. This is simply hypocrisy. To such an one the Lord says — "First cast out the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye" (Matt. 7:5).
Separation from evil is always God's principle of action. If we are on God's ground, separation must be effected by putting away the evil. If we are not on God's ground, separation must be effected by coming out of the evil. Achan's sin brought defilement on Israel, and the Lord said — "Neither will I be with you any more, except ye destroy the accursed from among you" (Joshua 7:12). This is the first kind of separation. Israel was on God's ground, and the true principle was not to go out of Israel, but to put away the evil from it. But when Israel sinned in setting up the golden calf under Mount Sinai, the Lord withdrew His presence altogether, and refused to go up with the congregation. Now the case was different, and Moses, instead of remaining in the defiled camp to try and make matters better "took the tabernacle and pitched it without the camp, afar off from the camp" (Ex. 33:7); where he remained until his intercession brought the Lord once more into their midst. This is the second kind of separation. Israel had got off God's ground, and the true principle was not to remain within, hoping there to deal with the evil, but to take a place without. Was this self-righteousness? Never was Moses more lowly, more prostrate before the Lord, than when he took this place. Was it want of love? Never did the yearning of his heart towards Israel show itself in tenderer entreaty. Was it selfish abandonment of the people? Never did he so truly serve them as when he thus withdrew from their midst. How could he have interceded for them with God so long as, by remaining among them, he was really identified with them? Having separated himself clean from them, gone "afar off" from the defilement they had contracted, he could, and did, strive effectually with God on their behalf. We must take God's side against evil, before we can have power with Him in intercession for those who are in it.
Now it is this last sort of separation that Christians who would walk faithfully are called upon to make. All the various sects and systems of Christendom are off God's ground. They may contain multitudes of true and godly believers, hold much pure doctrine, show much zeal and devotion for the Lord's service, but, as sects, they are not according to God's mind. To remain in them is to identify one's self with them, that is, to become responsible for the departure they have made from God's order and Word. The place of obedience, the place of blessing, the place of power; the place of intercession, is outside — "afar off." Even in Babylon, the corrupt Christian profession of the last days, there are the Lord's people, but the word is — "Come out of her, My people, that ye be not partakers of her sins" (Rev. 18:4).
Jehovah's presence could not be associated with anything unclean in Israel. "Command the children of Israel," He said to Moses, "that they put out of the camp every leper, and every one that has an issue, and whosoever is defiled by the dead; both male and female shall ye put out, without the camp shall ye put them, that they defile not their camps, in the midst whereof I dwell" (Num. 5:2-3). The Church also is "holy" for the same reason, being "builded together for an habitation of God by the Spirit" (Eph. 2:22). On this ground, therefore, separation from evil is enjoined on Christians — "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers for what fellowship has righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion has light with darkness? and what concord has Christ with Belial? or what part has he that believes with an infidel? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God has said, I will dwell in them and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Wherefore come out from among them and be ye separate, says the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing" (2 Cor. 6:14-17). Here, no doubt the immediate subject under review is the separation of Christians from all connection with idolatry, but the principle laid down is general. That principle is, that believers are to be separate from all association with evil, because the Church is the dwelling-place of God. Are not sects evil? Are those parties and schisms concerning which the Spirit exclaims, "Is Christ divided?" — those parties and schisms which the body was tempered together expressly to exclude — are these things fit for the dwelling place of God through the Spirit? Light is the Word of God; that which man's will has introduced in opposition to the Word is darkness; and if believers would walk according to the light, walk as those among whom God dwells, they must separate from that which He judges and condemns.
In the description which we have of Christendom in its last stage, after the beginning of those "profane and vain babblings" which should "increase unto more ungodliness," the believer's ground of comfort is that "the foundation of God stands sure, having this seal, The Lord knows them that are his. And let every one that names the name of Christ depart from iniquity. But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honour and some to dishonour. If a man, therefore, purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified and meet for the Master's use, and prepared unto every good work" (2 Tim. 2:16-21). Now, what is the state of things here depicted? A Christian profession in which all sorts of evil have entered, so that none but the Lord Himself can detect His own amidst the mass of worldly religion and empty formalism. What, then, characterises the faithful? They call upon the name of the Lord and they separate themselves from iniquity. The two things are closely connected together. Finding every name thrust into prominence except the name of Christ — whether names of countries or names of men, names of doctrines or names of systems — Churches of England and Churches of Scotland, Lutherans and Wesleyans, Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Independents — they ask, "Is Christ divided?" Was Wesley crucified for us? or were we baptized in the name of Luther? Have we God's authority for meeting in any other name but that of the Lord Jesus Christ? Are we not bound, then, to depart from these unscriptural and unauthorised modes of gathering, to revert simply to the name of Christ, the teaching of the Word, and the guidance of the Spirit? They learn to judge, not believers in the various sects, but the sects themselves, as being evil, the work of man, and contrary to the Word of God, and so to separate themselves, to purge themselves that they may become vessels unto honour.
Of course the "iniquity" here spoken of is not merely, or even chiefly, sectarianism. But this very epistle sets up the Word of God as the one and only standard for the Christian's guidance in the chaos of doctrines and systems which would distinguish the last days. The apostle knew how men would jumble up the Scriptures to suit their own notions, and he, therefore, insists on the importance of "rightly dividing the word of truth." He knew how "evil men and seducers" would "wax worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived," and he casts back the believer simply on the Word of God. What, then, is the standard and measure of iniquity but departure from this rule of faith? If I am mixed up with anything not sanctioned by the Word, whence does it come? Not from the Spirit, for the Spirit expressly refers me to the Word. Then it must come from the flesh, and the Spirit tells me that in the "flesh dwells no good thing" (Rom. 7:18).
It is surely a deeply solemn matter to be taking counsel of the flesh, and refusing to take counsel of God's Word. What is the estimate which God has given us respectively of these two things? "It is the Spirit that quickens," says our Lord; "the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit and they are life" (John 6:63). Nothing is more marked than the authority which is claimed for Scripture all through the sacred volume. To the Jews it was said — "To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them" (Isa. 8:20). And if we speak not according to the Word we have received, is there any more light in us? Timothy, in view of all the evil that was already appearing, and is still further predicted, as characteristic of "the last days," receives directions to which we should do well to give heed. "Continue thou in the things which thou hast learned, and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them; and that from a child thou hast known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God" (2 Tim. 3:14-16). That is, he is thrown back, amidst abounding and increasing evil, not on the Church, or on his own judgment, but on God's Word, whether ministered by Paul himself, which reaches us through the New Testament, or in the then existing Scriptures, which are the writings of the Old Testament. How solemn is the language contained in the closing book of the Scriptures — "I testify unto every man that hears the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book; and if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book" (Rev. 22:18-19). This, it is true, is said only of one particular book; but if God has so solemnly fenced round one book from man's intrusion, does He leave the others open to be accepted or rejected just so far as shall suit man's ideas of convenience or expediency? No, the only standard of good and bad in the things of God is His own Word. Whatever conforms to this rule rests on an absolutely immovable foundation. Whatever departs from it, whether by addition, alteration, or subtraction, is "iniquity" — is the working of the flesh — is the wood, hay, and stubble of human construction which will be burnt up in the day when "it shall be revealed by fire."
But here three questions may arise. The first is — supposing a person to be useful, busily employed in good works, apparently owned of the Lord in his labours, can it be right for him to give up his position of influence, to abandon the sphere of effort in which he is made a blessing, and to go out, he knows not whither — probably to a place where be may find little room for his exertions, a far smaller audience for his preaching or teaching, and at all events where the fruits of his past labours must be lost or abandoned to others? I can fully sympathise with the feeling of doubt and hesitation. After all, however, what is it but balancing expediency against obedience? No doubt if I look to man, I find a far wider scope for a Christian's influence inside sects than outside. But this is looking to man when I am called upon to look to God. How would Moses have decided if he had argued on grounds of expediency? He would have said — "I must remain in the camp. I am more needed here than I ever was. By going outside I shall lose all the power and influence I can now employ for the people's good." Instead of thus arguing with the flesh, he acted in the energy of the Spirit, pitched the tabernacle "without the camp, afar off," and thus took his stand alone for the Lord. What was the consequence? "It came to pass that every one which sought the Lord went out unto the tabernacle of the congregation, which was without the camp" (Ex. 33:7). Instead of alienating himself from those who sought the Lord, he drew them to him. He got into the position of power — power with God, and power for blessing to men.
Take another case. Saul was ordered to destroy the Amalekites with their flocks and their herds. Instead of simple obedience, he acted according to his own thoughts of what was right. He was not regardless of the Lord. Far from it: he and "the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen, to sacrifice unto the Lord." It was the wisdom and religion of the flesh, judging for itself in the things of the Lord, instead of letting the Lord judge; preferring service, in man's way, to obedience in God's way. What does God reply? "Has the Lord as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry" (1 Sam. 15:22-23). Have these Old Testament narratives no voice for us? Is God more indifferent about obedience now than He was in the days of Saul? Or are we better able to judge of what is right than Saul was, that, like him, we should set up our judgment against God's? Let us consider against whom we are matching ourselves, and ask, with the apostle — "Do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than He?"
It may be said, however, that the circumstances are not parallel. Saul received a positive commandment in which no discretion could possibly be allowed. We, on the contrary, have only a book written eighteen centuries ago, in a state of things, both as to the Church and as to the world, wholly different from that which now prevails, and it is surely lawful to bring in our own wisdom to modify the teachings there given so as to adapt them to modern circumstances and necessities. Let us take, then, another case, already referred to, and see what light it throws on our subject. When David wished to move the ark to Jerusalem what had he to guide him? He was doing the Lord's will, so that there was nothing wrong in the act itself and yet he did it in a wrong way. What was the cause of his error? He had, in the books of Moses, a clear command as to how the ark should be moved. But might he not justly have answered — "This law is now centuries old, all the circumstances are entirely altered, the ark itself has for a couple of generations been away from its proper place, the primitive order has in almost every respect been long since abandoned; this doubtless is quite right, the result of natural growth and progress, and we must seek to accommodate ourselves to the new state of things; a council of the mighty men and captains will be the proper mode for determining how we can bring up the ark of the covenant in the way most honouring to the Lord."
This would have been exactly analogous to modern reasoning, which would call in man's aid to mould the Church according to supposed present requirements. The First Epistle to the Corinthians is admitted to have taught the evil of sects, and to have laid down certain principles with respect to the meetings of Christians, at that day; but when these principles are insisted upon as applicable now, the reply is that we live in another age, and that what was very good for the Corinthians will not do for us, Yet what has the Spirit taught us? Foreseeing that of all the books of the New Testament this epistle and the Revelation would be most persistently set aside, He has taken especial pains to mark out, in the one case the universality of its application, and in the other the blessing attached to its study. It is only in the Book of Revelation that we find a blessing pronounced on them "that hear the words of this prophecy." It is only in the First Epistle to the Corinthians that we find a dedication, not only to the saints at Corinth, but to "all that, in every place, call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord" (1 Cor. 1:2). Yet this is the very book which modern believers, as to questions of Church order and discipline as to its estimate of fleshly wisdom and sectarian divisions, have most systematically set aside.
Some, indeed, have even gone so far as to say that the Church at Corinth was not in the usual state, but was, just when the apostle wrote, without a minister! If a writer on the British Constitution were to seek to illustrate its principles by the acts performed under the Commonwealth or Protectorate, the most ignorant reader would be amazed at his folly. If a writer on the parochial system of the English Establishment were to attempt to show its ordinary routine by describing the events which happened after the death of one incumbent and before the appointment of another, his book would be laughed at as a monument of stupidity. But the folly and stupidity which would draw down ridicule on an uninspired writer many Christians are not afraid to ascribe to God! Such irreverence and presumption are, I admit, wholly unconscious and unintentional, but this only serves the more strikingly to show how even real and devoted believers, when they once depart from the simple standard of the written Word, and fall back upon the uncertain teachings of human experience and expediency, are driven to theories about Scripture which, in their naked form, they would be the first to reject. No; the Scriptures of God's truth are not ephemeral writings to be received or refused as later experience may suggest; the institutions of God concerning His assembly are not provisional regulations to be modified by the wisdom of man according to the circumstances under which he may be placed; but both are as permanent and universal as the Divine source from which they flow. When the choice lies between subjection to God's Word and the suggestions of man's heart, surely the believer cannot hesitate a moment which he is to follow. With the Scriptures for his guide, amidst all perplexities, his way is plain — "Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path." What, on the other hand, is the wisdom of man that it should exalt itself against God? Is it not "written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent"? The Lord does not need our service, but He does need our obedience. By remaining in a sect there may be a wider field of apparent usefulness, more to show in the eyes of the world; but if, by thus remaining, we are acting in conscious disobedience to the Lord's will, we shall assuredly find that what "is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God."
But now comes the second question — Is it not uncharitable, and even presumptuous, to separate from the excellent men who are found in most of the sects? To this, however, there are several sufficient answers. These excellent men have, by their connection with different sects, separated from each other, and whichever sect you belong to, you are necessarily separated from those in other sects. Again, by going outside sects, you do not separate yourselves from believers in the sect, but occupy the only place which denies and condemns such separation. You break down all human barriers, and take the common ground of the Church of God. If others maintain them, it is they who keep up the separation, not you. The great question is, however, which are we to follow — God or good men? No snare has been greater to God's people than that of following good men. Would it not have been uncharitable, or presumptuous, in the young man of God sent to Bethel, to question the word of the old prophet who decoyed him back to eat bread in his house? Yet we see what was the Lord's judgment of his disobedience (1 Kings 13). Would it not have been uncharitable, or presumptuous, in Barnabas to take a different course from Peter, when he "walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel" at Antioch? Yet, how does the Holy Ghost, speaking through Paul, characterise his conduct? "Barnabas also," he says, "was carried away with their dissimulation" (Gal. 2:11-14). God's truth is to be followed though apostles, or even angels, speak against it. "Though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed" (Gal. 1:8). With such energy does the Holy Ghost repel the idea of setting up any other authority side by side with the Word of God.
The third question which suggests itself in connection with this subject of separation is — "Am I to go out and stand all alone, with, perhaps, no other human being to have communion with me, occupying a position of absolute isolation as respects fellow-believers?" This is certainly not the Lord's order. But we live in a state of things when God's order has been superseded by man's disorder. The Lord calls us to fellowship with himself and with one another, but he demands that we should "have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness." If man and Satan have corrupted God's truth, set aside God's order, and abandoned the guidance of God's Word, I must separate myself from this. It is not separation from believers, but separation from that which believers are taking up without sanction from Scripture, separation from that which grieves and quenches the Spirit, godly separation from that which causes ungodly separation. Instead of dividing me from my fellow-Christians, it is taking God's side against such divisions, declaring that I come out to the only ground where such divisions can have no place, and that I leave behind the whole sphere in which such divisions are tolerated.
But while, in coming out to the Lord's name, one is doubtless taking the only position compatible with Christian unity, it must be admitted that outwardly the place is often one of extreme trial and painful isolation. Has the Lord ever promised, however, that the Christian's path shall be an easy one? Has He not said, "In the world ye shall have tribulation"? And what is to be our comfort? That He has overcome the world. If, then, such a position be taken in obedience to Him and in fellowship with Him, shall we shrink from it because of the worldly trials it involves? With Him who has overcome the world on our side, shall we sink beneath its ridicule or its reproach, its condemnation or its contempt? Can we not rather rejoice that we are "counted worthy to suffer shame for His name"? — that unto us "it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for His sake"? — that we are called, in however small a measure, to "fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in our flesh for His body's sake, which is the Church"? Surely we do not forget, that "if we suffer, we shall also reign with Him," or "that the trial of our faith, being much more precious than of gold that perishes, though it be tried with fire," will "be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ." Moses took a lonely and trying path when he gave up all his worldly prospects in Egypt to identify himself with the despised and down-trodden children of Israel; but he saw things according to God's thoughts, not according to man's, and, therefore, "refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter," "esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt, for he had respect unto the recompense of the reward." To shrink from the path of obedience because I may stand alone is to declare that I prefer the fellowship of man to the fellowship of God. To shrink from it because it may involve earthly suffering and loss is to prefer the treasures of Egypt to the reproach of Christ. No, if as we have seen, all these sects have taken a position more or less out of harmony with God's Word — if the very fact of their sectarian standing is in itself inconsistent with His revealed thoughts about His Church — I have not to weigh consequences, not to be counting costs, but in simple obedience and faith in Him, to separate from everything that is contrary to His mind, to go forth unto Christ "without the camp, bearing his reproach."
God's provision for the faithful.
Separation from evil is, as we have seen, the first step in the path of obedience. Christendom, with its sects, its human organisations, its departure from the simple truth of God, has become a great house, and from all that is not according to God's mind, the obedient are called to purge themselves. We have seen that this may involve trial and isolation. But while it is quite possible that in walking obediently, in separating from all denominational ties, the believer may find himself absolutely alone, this is not the Lord's usual way. He may thus test our faith. Where He does so, however, circumstances are peculiar, a departure from His ordinary plan for some special purpose. In most cases, where a believer thus takes a stand for the Lord against the world, he finds one or more who have been led in the same path, and taught the same blessed truths. If so, these can meet simply in the Lord's name; nay, they are bound to do so, for it is His own Divine institution. "Let us consider one another," says the apostle, "to provoke unto love and to good works; not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is" (Heb. 10:24-25). While, on the one hand, the believer is to "depart from iniquity," he is, on the other, to follow "peace with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart." He cannot have fellowship with that which is contrary to the Lord's mind, and must therefore separate from sects; but he is to desire fellowship with all the Lord's people, and should there be any walking in a godly way, who are willing to meet with him simply in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, he is bound to receive them and meet with them. Were there but two persons in the world assembled in this manner, they would be the two meeting in the Lord's way and on the Lord's ground.
But though those gathered out in the Lord's name in any particular locality form a meeting there, this meeting is not independent of those who assemble in the same name in any other place. Though the Church is in ruins, the principle of the Church remains intact according to God's institution. Those who, in every part of the world, meet together in the Lord's name are all one, each local assembly being but the representative of the oneness in its own town or village, and exercising discipline there, not as an independent body, but in real concert with the whole, whose joint action is secured, not by any human organisation or mutual correspondence, but by the oneness of the action of Christ in all the assemblies. It is a matter of faith, not of sight — but none the less, so long as Christ's authority is owned and felt, a Divine and blessed reality.
Is this, then, it may be asked, a restoration of the Church? And is the local meeting the Church of this place? No, by no means. The Church is the whole body of believers in the world, and the Church of any place is the whole body of believers in the place. It would lead to confusion, arrogance, and intense sectarianism if those meeting in this way made any such claim. They are neither the Church, which means the whole of the believers now living; nor a Church, in the unscriptural sense in which the word is now used, meaning a sect cut off from the rest of believers by human regulations and barriers. What are they, then? They are those who, amidst the ruins of Christendom, having separated from the sects which divide it, for none of which they can find any Scripture foundation, have come out simply to the name of Jesus, refuse everything for which there is no warrant in the Word of God, and own no guidance except that of the Holy Spirit. Though they are not the Church, therefore, they have reverted to Church ground, and their gathering is on exactly the same principle as that of the apostolic assemblies. True they are in the midst of ruin, and numbers of the Lord's children, being unseparated in heart or intelligence from the ruin, do not meet with them. In fact, they are a mere handful, despicable in numbers, in worldly influence, in everything that meets the natural eye or satisfies the natural heart; but they have taken God's ground, and represent, though of course with much feebleness and failure, God's order in the midst of man's confusion.
What relationship do they hold to other Christians, then? The closest of all relationships, oneness in Christ, fellow-membership of His body. But for this very reason they decline to form themselves into corporations which virtually deny this oneness. They recognise their fellow-believers in the various sects as members of Christ's body, as members of God's assembly. But they are members who have forsaken the assembling of themselves together, are met in other names than that of the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not take their place at the gathering where nothing save His name and authority are owned. Those, therefore, who meet only in the Lord's name have separated, not from their fellow-believers, but from the sects and associations into which their fellow-believers have formed themselves. The division is not their act, for they are met on the only ground of unity, but the act of those who, by forming themselves into other confederations than that which binds them together as members of Christ's body, are practically denying that oneness.
Having, then, taken Church ground, while they must carefully bear in mind that they are not the Church, they are entitled to reckon on the blessings, the governments, and the gifts which God has bestowed on the Church, except indeed, so far as these in their nature can only belong to the Church in its perfect condition. Being gathered together in the Lord's way, and in the Lord's name, they can count on his presence. Every local assembly met on this Church ground, though consisting of but two or three persons, has this to reckon upon, and where, therefore, there is real subjection of heart, unity of discipline and order is maintained between it and other gatherings meeting in the same manner.
As to local officers, it is true, they see no way in which these can be scripturally appointed, nor indeed any body over which they could scripturally exercise their authority. For elders and deacons were appointed in connection with the Church of a particular city, and where is such a Church to be found now? There is no body that in any way answers to the apostolic Church of Ephesus or Corinth, and it would be a mere assumption to make officers for any other body. No doubt persons, acting in self-will, can establish an organisation of their own, and elect or appoint officers to whom they can give the scriptural names, but these so-called elders and deacons of the various sects are no more elders or deacons according to God's order, than the "house of high places," made by Jeroboam, was the temple of Jehovah, or the priests that he instituted, "not of the sons of Levi," were the priests of Jehovah, or the feast which he ordained in "the eighth month, even in the month which he had devised of his own heart," was the feast of Jehovah (1 Kings 12:31-33).
Besides, both elders and deacons were ordained by apostles or apostolic delegates, and as neither apostles nor apostolic delegates now exist, they find no scriptural mode of ordaining them. What, then, must they do? Add to Scripture by inventing a mode of their own? Deviate from Scripture by allowing them to be instituted in a way different from that which is there directed? Assume that because no provision is made, God forgot to give us directions, or left the matter to our own discretion? Vastly different from any of these ways. Reckoning with unshaken confidence on the sufficiency of Scripture, assured that God would never neglect the minutest detail necessary for His people's guidance, judging the flesh according to God's estimate of it, and knowing that its wisdom would only darken God's truth, they conclude that since no provision is made for officers being appointed, God meant that they should not be appointed. There were no officers left, after the apostles and their delegates were gone, but bishops or elders and deacons. Now Scripture gives no sanction to the idea of bishops and deacons being appointed by other bishops and deacons, or by synods of bishops and deacons, or by any other officer above both (for after the apostles' time there was no such officer), or by popular election of the various assemblies. Yet in one or other of these ways, infinitely modified and varied, all appointments of officers have taken place and must take place. That is, there is no possibility of having officers at all, but by some plan which does not rest on the authority of Scripture.
Which, then, we ask, is the true attitude for the believer to take — to act for himself without Scripture warrant, or to refrain from acting at all because he has no Scripture warrant? When Israel stood on the borders of the Red Sea, the waters in front and the Egyptians behind, God's word was — "Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord" (Ex. 14:13). Man's restless unbelief wanted to do something; God bids him do nothing, but wait for His word and work. So, in the wilderness, "at the commandment of the Lord the children of Israel journeyed, and at the commandment of the Lord they pitched; as long as the cloud abode upon the tabernacle, they rested in their tents" (Num. 9:18). However trying it might seem to linger month after month, and year after year, in the same place, however slow their progress might appear, however much fleshly energy might prompt them to press forward, until God's express sanction was given, "they rested in their tents." Man might scoff at their inaction and call it foolishness; man might censure their long delays and ascribe them to weakness. But "the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men." The Lord led them into the land in His own time and in His own way; whereas, when on one occasion "they presumed to go up unto the hill top" in their own strength and without the Lord, "the Amalekite came down, and the Canaanites which dwelt in that hill, and smote them, and discomfited them, even unto Hormah" (Num. 14:44-45).
Look, again, at the action of the returned remnant, in the days of Zerubbabel. Certain persons, supposed to be of priestly descent, "sought their register among those that were reckoned by genealogy, but they were not found." What was to be done? "Decide the matter by human rules of evidence," is the natural reply; "determine their status one way or other, according to the best light we possess." So would man bring in his own wisdom in the things of God. But Zerubbabel was a man of faith. He would not act without God. No motives of expediency, to strengthen the priesthood, would induce him to put them in without Divine sanction; on the contrary, "the Tirshatha said unto them, that they should not eat of the most holy things, till there stood up a priest with Urim and with Thummim" (Ezra 2:61-63). What a lesson for the day of ruin! How blessed and refreshing the faith, which, in the absence of Divine guidance, refuses to act in the wisdom of the flesh, or on the promptings of expediency, but simply stands still and waits patiently upon God!
But if those meeting simply in the Lord's name find no scriptural authority for office, if they conclude, therefore, that God did not mean office to continue in a ruined Church, are they, on this account, left over to the self-will of man or to complete anarchy? So far from it, God has graciously shown us in the apostolic history, that assemblies are not dependent upon office at all. The Churches in which Paul and Barnabas ordained elders had, as we have seen, gone on for a considerable period, and in times of great difficulty and trial, without any such officers. Titus, too, was to ordain elders in cities where, until then, there had been none. Will the same grace and power, which kept these early Churches before elders were appointed, fail to keep those which are in the same position now? What resource had they? God Himself — that God who "is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all the Churches of the saints." Shall I say — "God is not sufficient for me; I must have some other provision, and since He has not made it for me, I will make it for myself"? Alas, how dishonouring to Him is all this appointment of officers, all this framing of rules and constitutions, without the sanction, even in opposition to the teaching of His Word!
And, if we look to the means, we see how God acts. He has given directions, which, if observed, will maintain order. Has He not said — "Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder; yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility" (1 Peter 5:5)? Here we have a rule widely removed from democratic licence on the one hand, and with no reference to office on the other. It prescribes that godly subjection to age and gravity which nature enjoins and the Word of God ever inculcates. Where the mind was simple, there was a spiritual discernment of those who were fitted to exercise authority, quite apart from any appointment to office. We see this in the exhortation of the apostle to the Thessalonians — "We beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you" (1 Thess. 5:12). Here nothing is said about office, and as this epistle was written very shortly after Paul's brief sojourn among them, he must have deviated from his usual practice if he had appointed officers. Besides, how could they be exhorted to know them, if they had an official character? The natural meaning of the passage is, that there were certain persons qualified to bear rule and guide the assembly, and that there ought to be in the assembly godly discernment enough to recognise such persons, and godly subjection enough to own their authority. This, then, is the Lord's provision now; and if there is a subject heart and simple faith, its sufficiency will be readily recognised; while, if we look at the sad history of the Church since the days of the apostles, we shall feel unfeigned thankfulness that the Lord has not perpetuated office in a ruined assembly, thus lending the sanction of Divine appointment to all the abominations and atrocities which have left their bloody mark on almost every page in the annals of ecclesiastical rule.
Office, then, has no longer any scriptural foundation, and to feign office, built on another foundation, is simply to use "strange fire" in the Lord's service. It is "the gainsaying of Korah," who instead of accepting God's ordinance, brought in man's rights, and set these up against the institutions delivered by the Lord. It is true, indeed, that thousands of the Lord's real and honoured servants are themselves exercising, or acquiescing in the exercise, of unscriptural official functions. This shows that the Lord is exceedingly gracious, and will not withhold His blessing because of man's ignorance; but it does not in any way alter His order. Every Protestant knows what godly and devoted men there have been mixed up with the errors and superstitions of Romanism, but this does not make these errors or superstitions any better. We are bound to own all that is of God, and to love all believers; but this should not blind us to God's truth. One of the most fruitful sources of error in all ages has it been thinking of good men rather than of God.
But though office has disappeared, gift is just the same as it ever was. Office, in a ruined Church, would only have lent God's sanction to man's disorder. But man's failure and disorder have never hindered the outflow of God's grace. "The perfecting of the saints, the work of the ministry, the edifying of the body of Christ" — this has been going on amidst all the lawlessness and confusion brought in by man's self-will. How perfect are the Lord's wisdom and grace! Had he combined gift and office, He must either have sanctioned man's disorder by perpetuating office, or have left His people to starve by withdrawing gift. He has separated them, and thus has been able both to withhold His sanction from man's disorder by abolishing office, and yet to minister to the needs of His saints, and send out the gospel of His grace to sinners, by continuing gift.
Gifts are for the Church, even the Church in ruins. At no time have they been withdrawn. At no time has the risen Lord ceased to provide for His own by evangelists, pastors, and teachers. In having gifts, those who meet in the Lord's name, outside all man's divisions, are in no respect different from the rest of believers. But though they are not distinguished from others by the possession of gift, they are by putting it in its proper scriptural place. God has never in his Word authorised the restriction of gift to a particular local assembly; He has never sanctioned the combination of gift and office, so that gift shall be exercised by virtue of an official position; He has never given directions, in the assembly, for any person, official or unofficial, to prescribe the order of service, to regulate the persons by whom prayer should be offered, thanks given, praise uttered, or gift exercised. To say that this is necessary to maintain order is to say that God does not know how to keep order, but that man does. It is an addition to, or rather a deviation from, Scripture — a thrusting aside of God's way in favour of man's — a quenching of the Spirit, whose guidance is treated as a fanatical delusion and transferred to the hands of some humanly-appointed official. Who does not wonder at the riches of that grace which could still go on supplying gift to his Church, even where it was so grossly abused!
Those who meet simply in the Lord's name have no choice but to revert in this matter to His order. Where there is any real spiritual apprehension of what it is to meet in that name as distinguished from human systems, there could be no thought of returning to the most unscriptural feature of those systems in superseding God's order by their own regulations, or in gagging and bridling the gifts of an ascended Christ by restrictions and conditions which He has never imposed. Instead of authorising an officer for whose appointment they have no scriptural authority, to exercise gifts which he may or may not possess, and to shut out the exercise of gift by those on whom Christ has conferred it, they meet, owning no guidance but that of the Spirit, and leave the flow of praise, prayer, thanksgiving, exhortation, or teaching, in His hands. If the evangelist preaches the gospel to sinners, if a gifted teacher invites saints to gather for instruction, this is not a meeting of the assembly, and the gift is exercised, not in responsibility to the Church, but to God. There is no such thing in Scripture as the Church regulating gift, any more than converting it into a function of office. Those, therefore, who meet in the Lord's name only, and in subjection to Scripture, make no such attempts, but leave the matter as God has left it in His Word.
But it may be asked, whether great disorder may not thus come in? Even if, where there is faith, the Spirit's guidance is sufficient, may not dire confusion result from want of faith? Undoubtedly, if the flesh acts instead of the Spirit, disorder will ensue. But what is the remedy for this? Is it to provide for the acting of the flesh, by setting up fleshly rules, or to look to God that He will keep the flesh from acting? Fleshly rules cannot prevent the acting of the flesh, but they can regulate it. They can keep things going on decently in spite of its acting; thus covering up the evil instead of letting it come to the surface. Is this what a truly spiritual mind would seek? Is it not better that if the flesh is acting, its true character should be discerned? And what is God's remedy? In the Corinthian Church, the very thing dreaded had occurred, and that in a shocking and revolting form. How does God meet it? By recalling the Corinthians to His own order and mode of acting, never by authorising them to set aside his order and make rules of their own. If the meeting was in so carnal a state that it could not keep God's order, how much spirituality would there have been in the rules it prescribed for maintaining its own? Surely this question should be pondered by those who imagine that God's order is not sufficient, and that the only way of preventing confusion is to substitute an order of man's devising.
But is not a regular, paid ministry sanctioned in Scripture? "Do ye not know, that they which minister about holy things live of the things of the temple? and they which wait at the altar are partakers with the altar? Even so has the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel" (1 Cor. 9:13-14). And so again — "Let him that is taught in the Word communicate unto him that teaches in all good things" (Gal. 6:6). This undoubtedly authorises, what no godly person would ever object to, contributions from those who possess means for the support of those who are labouring in the Lord. A person thus labouring is justified in receiving such gifts as from the Lord, and he is not a true servant if he feels humiliated by so doing. But does this provision justify setting aside God's order of ministry altogether, and substituting for it an organisation of man's? It may be urged that unless a gifted person is confined to a certain congregation or circuit, unless the number of times he exercises his gift is prescribed, and unless the salary received is duly arranged, neither side has any certainty; the congregation may receive too little for its money or the minister too little for his labour. This is quite true, and what does it show? That the moment we depart from God's order, a low fleshly standard of thoughts, reasonings, and motives comes in. Not that I would for one moment imply that all, or nearly all, of those in what is called the "stated ministry" are actuated by the commercial motives here suggested. Thank God, there are and have been multitudes to whom the bare idea of bartering gift for gold, measuring salary by service, would be as abhorrent to their own thoughts as it is contrary to God's Word. But this does not alter the system. If what is called a regular, paid, professional ministry is to be introduced in the place of God's order, this commercial argument is what is urged in its defence; only showing to what poor, low thoughts we descend when we leave God's principle to bring in our own.
This ministry is man's ministry, and receives not a shadow of foundation, but direct condemnation, from Scripture. It was before any such human systems were devised that the words above quoted were spoken. Their application, therefore, was to something quite different from what is called the stated or professional ministry of our day. We see how it was meant to be applied in the case of the apostle. Though for special reasons he would receive nothing from the saints at Corinth, he did from other Churches. When he was in Thessalonica, the Philippians "sent once and again unto his necessity." When he was at Corinth, he says, "I robbed other Churches, taking wages of them, to do you service" (2 Cor. 11:8). But how different this from what is called a paid ministry. Here was one led of the Spirit to give up his time entirely to the Lord's work. The Lord would not let him want, and He supplies his lack by putting it into the hearts of individuals or of Churches to contribute to his necessities. Does anybody say — But how can an ordinary servant trust the Lord? If his faith is not equal to the occasion, it is manifest that the Lord has not called him to go forth in that way, and he will simply make a mistake, to his own grievous injury, and that of others, if he attempts it. In such cases — and they are the vast majority — the Lord's direction is, that he should work for his living, and honest work will not in anywise interfere with the proper exercise of his gift.
And those who thus gather in the Lord's name, rejecting all ministry but that of His own appointment, will seek to follow Scripture also in the object of their meeting. Where God's thoughts are put aside in one way, they will soon be treated with contempt in all. Our blessed Lord, on His last night with His disciples, just before the agony of the garden and the still more terrible darkness of the cross, instituted a feast as a memorial of Himself, specially showing forth His own death. When in the glory, to the one apostle who had never known Him on earth, and knew Him only there, He rehearses, as it were, this touching scene, and again presses the tender words — "This do in remembrance of Me." Setting forth, as it does, in its very nature, the oneness of the Church, it is essentially an assembly-act, and, as might have been expected, was the act for which the assembly especially met. All the rest was, so to speak, by the way. The great object of gathering was thus to remember the blessed Lord in His own touching manner. One might have thought that if there was anything which even a Church that had lost its first love would not thrust into a corner, it would be this memorial. But what has been done? In the great majority of so-called Churches the whole meaning of the Supper has been lost, and it has been converted into a means of grace instead of an occasion of worship and thanksgiving. Even where it has been retained in anything like its purity as to object, man has thought once a month or a quarter was quite often enough to remember Jesus in His own way, and has diverted the first day of the week from the object of doing Christ's will according to His parting request, to the object of seeking for edification according to his own thoughts. Surely first love must not only have been lost, but have degenerated into Laodicean lukewarmness, before so heartless a refusal, or so indifferent a compliance with the Lord's last injunction, could have been tolerated.
Those who meet in the Lord's name will necessarily revert to apostolic practice and teaching on this point also. No plea of expediency, no pretence of active service in the gospel will draw aside the heart from simple obedience, or cause any neglect of this exquisitely expressive memento of the absent Lord. Was He who instituted this feast more indifferent to the need of sinners than modern religious denominations? Was Paul one who indulged in the selfish enjoyment of the blessings he possessed or careless of the spiritual darkness and death reigning around him? Should those, then, who seek, instead of following their own thoughts, to follow the Lord's command, and the apostle's example, be subjected to this reproach, they have only to "rejoice and be exceeding glad." Their answer to those who accuse them is this, — "Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye;" or again, "We ought to obey God rather than men." The question is — Who shall be judge, man or God? Is the word of truth given for the believer to revise or to obey?
Such, then, is the course which remains open to those who seek to separate themselves from the ruin and confusion of Christendom, and walk with the Lord. To reconstruct is impossible. As well try to put man back again in Eden. But to leave the paths of self-will and disobedience, to build again on the old foundation, to bow down before the sovereign authority of the Word — this at least is still possible; and we see what rich provision the Lord has made for those who would thus walk. Who would not rejoice, in the midst of conscious failure and weakness, to hear those cheering words, "Behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it; for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept My Word, and hast not denied My name"? (Rev. 3:8).
But before we leave this subject, the question may be asked — "Have not those who have sought to take this place sadly failed? Have they ever realised this ideal unity? Or have they exhibited such a success as to draw others into the same faith?" Have they failed? "Much, every way." Have they realised the ideal unity? "No, in no wise." And why? Because the flesh in them is just the same as the flesh in others. But it is one thing to fail, and another thing to give up God's ground. We are told to walk even as Christ walked. No believer will deny that in this he has signally failed. What, then, shall he do? Shall he say — "God's standard is too high. I will set up a lower one for myself"? The very thought is monstrous. And yet this is just what Christians have done with respect to the Church of God. They have taken a conception of their own, instead of God's, and because they can come up to the standard of the flesh, while those who adhere to God's standard fail to reach that of the Spirit, they rest satisfied with their own systems and reject the teaching of God's Word. These who have sought to follow this Word as their sole guide have done so with much failure, with only "a little strength;" but while confessing it fully, they can rejoice that, through God's grace, they have been able to keep Christ's word, and not to deny His name.
Many doubtless have come into fellowship, drawn by the simplicity of worship or other motives, without fully apprehending the position taken with respect to the Church. When, therefore, a question arose concerning the oneness of Christ's action in discipline, some missed its true point, and while themselves clear from false doctrine, received those who still associated with the teacher who put it forth. This rendered them personally responsible for the doctrine, for the Word says, "If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine" — that is, the doctrine of Christ — "receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed; for he that bids him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds" (2 John 10-11). From these, therefore, who thus made themselves responsible for the doctrine, separation became necessary. In many cases want of grace and want of love may have been shown. But this does not alter the principle, however much it should humble those who maintained it, and however diligent and earnest it should cause them to be in prayer for those from whom this painful separation had to be made.
But do not those meeting on this ground convert themselves into a sect by refusing to receive Christians associated with the various denominations around them? I reply, emphatically, that such is not their principle, though, of course, from ignorance or mistake, it may occasionally have been done in practice. The table is the Lord's, and any believer, not, like those just spoken of, responsible for false doctrine, has a title to take his place at it. A believer from any evangelical denomination, asking fellowship, would be received, provided he came duly accredited as to personal faith in Christ, and was not by his position in association with some false doctrine. But this is a totally different thing from intercommunion. Those meeting in the Lord's name and on the Lord's ground, not as a sect, but on the true principle of the Church of God, cannot possibly have anything to say to sects as sects. They have left them behind, as not of God, and can enter into no arrangements that persons shall break bread one day among the sects and the next among them. Surely if one were to wish to act in this manner, it would be due to him, and due to the Lord, that the difference of principle should be pointed out to him, and that he should understand the inconsistency of meeting at one time on a ground which condemns all sects, and at another on a sectarian basis. No man of conscience or intelligence, perceiving the distinction, would wish to pursue such a course. But this arises, not from any desire to exclude such a person on the part of those meeting in the Lord's name, but from the manifest inconsistency of the conduct itself.
The question for the conscience is, not whether those who take this ground have failed, but whether the ground itself is the Lord's. Sects and systems of man's devising have been shown to be contrary to God's Word. To say, then, as many have done, that there is no escape from them, is to say that God has made no provision for his people to walk obediently. Surely every spiritual heart will at once repudiate so fearful and dishonouring a thought. But if God has marked out a path in which the obedient may walk, what is it? It is clear that we cannot get into this path until we leave the path of disobedience, and therefore the first step is to separate from all those sects and systems which, as we have seen, derive no authority, but receive condemnation, from the Word of God. Having, then, got out of the path of disobedience, what finger-posts has God set up to direct us into the path of obedience? He has given us His own Word to tell us how to meet. If, following that Word, we meet in Christ's name only, He has given us the promise of Christ's presence in our midst. If, in obedience to that Word again, we meet for the object which that Word prescribes, and in the dependence which that Word enjoins, bringing in nothing of man, but leaving everything in God's hands, He has promised us the guidance of His own Spirit. What do we want more? Is it a constitution? We have the Word of God. Is it a preserver of order? We have the guidance of the Holy Ghost. Is it gifts and endowments? We have the gifts and endowments of an ascended Christ. We may fail in faith; but God, at all events, will not fail in faithfulness.
And now, in concluding, let us cast back a brief glance over the ground already traversed. We have seen that God has set before believers a present and precious hope of the Lord's return to take them to the mansions He has prepared for them; that the world, having refused the One in whom all God's promises of earthly blessing centred, has been left behind, and will not receive the rich promises in store for it until judgment has been executed; that during this interval of Christ's rejection by the world, God is gathering for Him a heavenly people, His body and His bride, and that for this purpose the Holy Ghost has been sent down to form this people into oneness with their heavenly Head; that the people thus gathered out are heavenly in character, have before them a heavenly hope, and will share the dominion of Christ over creation as His heavenly bride; that while here they are not to expect an earthly portion or to seek after earthly power, not to mix themselves up with the world, as though they belonged to it, but, as those who partake of Christ's earthly rejection, to be separated from it and awaiting the heavenly bridegroom; that their responsibility is to bear witness for Christ here, showing forth the heavenly character and heavenly oneness into which they are brought; that in this testimony they have signally failed, not answering in any way to God's thoughts, but departing entirely from His Word, setting aside His order, showing to the world a divided Christ; and that the true path of obedience and subjection which the faithful are now called upon to pursue is to detach themselves from all the systems, to gather simply to the name of Christ, to accept no ministry but that which He has given, no presidency but that of the Holy Ghost, and no rules and regulations but those enacted in the inspired Word. This may be a lonely and a trying path, but it is the path of obedience, the path of faith, and the path of blessing. May our hearts be led to walk simply in it.