J. N. Darby.
(The following paper was written in the Western States of America but not published; as the principles apply everywhere, and some have wished it, the hesitation of the writer has been overcome.)
You ask me, Were there not churches in scripture? I answer, there were; but what are churches? The effect of the question is to bring out the state of the mind. Most Christians would immediately think of what are called churches in the religious world, perhaps in Christendom at large. They would think of the Presbyterian church, or Congregational and Baptist churches, or else of the church of Rome, or the like. The person who lived habitually in the mind of scripture would think of Corinth or others which we meet with in scripture. Are then the facts which exist in Christendom, or the thoughts there current, different from the facts found in scripture, or the thoughts formed by it? Let us inquire into this, not with a haughty heart, but if we find all gone far away from the scriptural state in principle and practice - if we find all ruined, instead of power in the Holy Ghost and unity - a fair show in the flesh, let us mourn in heart, and cry to the Lord. He will meet us in our need.
What were churches in scriptural times? "Church" means simply an assembly, or, from local use in Greek, an assembly of privileged persons, of citizens. The whole multitude of believers gathered into one by the Holy Ghost formed the assembly or church. Only here of course it was God's assembly; of course those in Rome or Corinth could not meet in Jerusalem. Hence there were assemblies in different places, forming each locally God's assembly in the place. It may be well very briefly to examine how the assembly is viewed in scripture as a whole, before we speak of local assemblies. It is viewed as the habitation of God; and also as the body of Christ, and first of the former. In one sense the church is not yet formed, not complete. All that shall be united to Christ in glory form part of it.
"I will build my church," says Jesus, "and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." This will be infallibly accomplished. So Peter, evidently alluding to this, "unto whom coming, as unto a living stone, ye also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house''; so Ephesians 2, "in whom the whole building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord." This is yet unfinished, and still goes on; and, though at first a public and evident body (the Lord adding daily to the church such as should be saved), it is become what is called the invisible church. It is invisible: though if it was to be the light of the world, it is hard to tell the value of an invisible light. If it is acknowledged to have fallen for ages into corruption and iniquity, a very Babylon in character, that has not been the light of the world. The persecuted saints - for God has surely had a people - gave their testimony; but the public body in the world was darkness, not light in it.
319 But there is another way in which God's assembly is spoken of, and still first as the house, a habitation of God, that is, as established by the instrumentality of man, and under the responsibility of man. "As a wise master-builder," says Paul, "I have laid the foundation, but let every man take heed how he buildeth thereon." There is human instrumentality and human responsibility. It was a large body formed on earth which was God's house or temple, the Holy Ghost dwelling in it down here as descended on the day of Pentecost (1 Cor. 3), not the body: there can be no wood and hay and stubble, which is to be burned, in that. Again, "Ye are builded together for a habitation of God through the Spirit," Eph. 2:22.
This is a very interesting and precious truth, I mean God's dwelling down here in His house prepared for Him according to His will. God never dwelt with Adam innocent, though He visited him, nor with Abraham though He visited and singularly blessed him; but the moment Israel was redeemed out of Egypt, God came and dwelt among them. The dwelling of God with men is the fruit of redemption. (See Exod. 29:46.)
The true redemption has been accomplished, and God has formed a habitation for Himself where He dwells by the Spirit. It is so indeed as to the individual (1 Cor. 6); but I now speak of the assembly, the house of the living God. This is now on the earth, the habitation of God by the Spirit. He dwells and walks among us. We are God's building. Man may have built in wood and hay and stubble; but God has not yet executed judgment to remove the house out of His sight, though judgment will begin there.
The assembly is also the body of Christ; Eph. 1:23. It is by one Spirit we are baptized into one body. This though the final completeness of it will be in heaven, yet is established on earth, for the baptism of the Holy Ghost was His coming down - the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:5; 1 Cor. 12:13). That this is on earth is further clear, for in the same chapter we find He has set in the church, first apostles, secondly prophets, where we have miracles, gifts of healing, clearly on earth. Where, remark also, that they are set in the whole church, members of such or such a kind in the one whole body. Such is the church or assembly as depicted in scripture.
320 What were churches or assemblies? These were local. The apostle could say, "To the church of God which is at Corinth." It represented the whole unity of the body in that place. "Ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular." Two bodies of Christ, even in one place, representatively there could not be. In Galatia, which was a large province, we read the churches of Galatia. So in Thessalonica, a city of Macedonia, we have the assembly of the Thessalonians. So in the seven churches; so John writes to the assembly. So everywhere there was God's assembly in any given place which could be distinctly addressed as such. In Acts 20 he calls for the elders of the assembly. There were several appointed by the Holy Ghost to be overseers of God's flock. Hence Titus was left in Crete to ordain them in every city. We have (Acts 11:22) the assembly which was in Jerusalem, though it was exceedingly numerous; in Acts 13 the assembly that was at Antioch. So Paul (Acts 14:21-23) returns to Lystra, Derbe, and Iconium, and chooses for them elders in every assembly. All scripture clearly shews there was one assembly in a place, which was God's assembly.
Churches as buildings they had none: the Most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands; and hence they met in houses where they could; but all formed one assembly, God's assembly, in that place, the elders being elders in the whole as one body. The local assembly represented the whole assembly of God, as 1 Corinthians shews us plainly. The position which Christians who composed it held was that of members of Christ, of the whole body of Christ. The only membership known in scripture is membership of Christ's body; as an eye, a hand, etc.; ministry was directly connected with this last thought. When Christ ascended up on high, He gave gifts to men, apostles, prophets: they were the foundation (Eph. 2); evangelists, pastors, teachers: these were set in the whole church or assembly; 1 Cor. 12.
If a man was a teacher at Ephesus, he was such at Corinth. Even as to miraculous gifts, a man spoke with tongues where he was. The gift belonged to no particular assembly but was that member or gift in the whole body on earth, wrought by the Holy Ghost (1 Cor. 12), and by which a man was a servant of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 12 we have the Holy Ghost on earth distributing them as they then were. In Ephesians 4 they are given from Christ on high, and only such referred to as ministered to the perfecting of the saints and edifying of the body till we all grow to the stature of Christ. They were the talents with which a man was bound to trade, if he knew the master, in virtue of having them: "as every man has received the gift, so minister the same, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God," 1 Pet. 4:10. They were to wait on their prophesying or exhorting. Rules are given for their exercise in scripture. Women were to keep silence in the assemblies.
321 But my main object now is to shew that it was as gifts in the whole assembly of God everywhere that they who possessed them acted. Elders were local and were not a gift, though aptness to teach was a desirable qualification. Still all had it not; 1 Tim. 5:17. Elders were elders in a given city of God's assembly there. Gifts were exercised as set in the whole body, wherever the gifted member was, according to scriptural rules. The result of the examination of scripture is, that there was one assembly of God in each town where there were Christians; that these were members of the body of Christ - the only membership known in scripture; and gifts were exercised in the whole church, or one assembly of God in the whole world, as members and servants of Christ, by the operation of the Spirit, according to rules given in scripture. Eldership was a local office to which persons were chosen and appointed by the apostle or his deputy; and they were elders in the one assembly of God in the place over which the Holy Ghost had made them overseers (Acts 14:23; Titus; Acts 20:17-28). It was not a gift, though one gift was desirable to make the office more effective; but the chief requisites were qualities which made them fit to be overseers.
No trace of this subsists at present in the common order of what man calls churches. Thank God, men cannot hinder the Lord in His work, or His raising up such as may minister to His own in a sovereign way; but man has organized churches each according to his fancy, and the church of God and the word of God are forgotten save the owning by some of an invisible church which the Lord is faithful to carry on. But that they leave to His care, and arrange the visible church each as he sees good. The church as a public body in the world had sunk into popery (or Greek corruption, with which we have less to do in the West). All was in ruin, as the apostle had predicted; and at the Reformation civil government set up national churches. The church of God no one thought of, and for some time nothing else was allowed. Religious liberty then became more common; yet no one thought of the church of God but of mere organized churches united by a system of man's devising, or independent one of another, but man arranged and organized them. The unity of the body, that membership was membership of Christ alone, that the Holy Ghost was on earth, that gifts were given by Christ and brought responsibility for their exercise with them, all this was wholly forgotten and left aside - that is, the whole original scriptural truth on the subject of the church and the presence of the Holy Ghost.
322 The Episcopal body was so far different that they pretended to have the original title by succession, and made people members of Christ by the baptism of water, a dream of which there is no trace in scripture. It is by one Spirit there we are baptized into one body. Baptism is to the death of Christ. But leaving aside the Episcopal pretensions and errors, the existing system is that of assemblies formed by men on some principle they have adopted with a man chosen by themselves at their head; and people are members of this so-formed church or assembly, and vote in it as such. They may be members of Christ or not: that which gives them their title is that they are members of that particular assembly. In most churches a majority, if the vote does not create a division, carry out their will. The Holy Ghost is not in question. All action from beginning to end is man.
The Presbyterians may have various church courts and have an aristocratic element in their organization; Congregationalists have all their decisions come to by each separate body and the vote of the members of the assemblies. But the whole is a human arrangement formed and carried on by man. A man is a member of a body which man has organized, and acts as such. The actual state of things is a church or assembly of which a certain number of persons are members with a person educated for the ministry at its head. It is Mr. So-and-so's flock or church: he is paid so much a year; he may or may not be converted, but he is ordained, he may be an evangelist and put into a pastor's place; he may be a pastor, but must preach to the world. Although, if he does not succeed in this, he may be dismissed, generally directly, sometimes indirectly. The whole constitution of the church of God is ignored - God's constitution, and man's substituted for it. And the order and the power of the Holy Ghost is ignored, or not believed in at all.
323 In scripture there is no membership of a church, no pastor of a flock peculiar to him, no such voluntary assembly formed on its own particular principles. Not a trace of such an order is in the word, if it be not in the incipient divisions called carnal in Corinthians. There was God's church or assembly, not man's churches. If Paul were to address an epistle to the assembly of God at - , no one could get it: there is no such body in existence. Churches have set aside the church of God. The operation of the Spirit of God is set aside - that is, evangelists, servants of Christ for the world; pastors and teachers, not of a flock who have chosen them, or their flock, but exercising their gift where God may bring them; teaching at Ephesus in God's assembly if they were there, at Corinth if they were there, acting according to the gift given them from on high wherever God sent them, trading with a talent because their Master has charged them with it: as every man has received the gift, ministering the same, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God; if they exhort, waiting on their exhortation; if teachers, on their teaching; and that in God's assembly as a whole.
Man has organized, but he has wholly set aside, as far as his arrangements go, God's order and arrangements as to the assembly. Thus the church, God's assembly, is set aside to have churches; the Spirit who gives gifts to various members, to have a minister of their own choosing; and the word in which God's order is revealed. The church and Spirit and word are all set aside by what is called order, that is, man's arrangement and organization. We are told it "must be." That is, there is not faith to trust the Lord to rule and bless in His own house, according to the ordering He gave to it; yet true blessing can only come from His operation by the Spirit He has sent down. And what is the effect? It would be ungracious of me to expose (nor am I the least inclined to do it) the miserable consequences which often ensue. They are well-known: the world knows them.
324 My object is to shew that the system is anti-scriptural, and denies the Holy Ghost and the true church of God; but it is evident that a person chosen and paid by an assembly, of which very commonly half or more is unconverted, where the object is to increase numbers and influence, and to have rich people, must please those whom he serves. And, says the apostle, "if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Jesus Christ." They must adapt themselves to their audience. For the practical result I appeal to every godly conscientious person conversant with the state of things. I hear their groans on every side. But it is the natural and necessary effect of the system. Ministry is not the exercise of gift given of the Lord, but a person educated for a profession and ordained, so that a great many are not really converted. The true church of God established on earth (1 Cor. 12) is ignored, as are true churches, God's assemblies in each place; and churches are made by men according to their view of what is right, and men are members of their churches, not viewed as members of the body of Christ. An unconverted member of a church has all the rights and power of a converted man, a member of Christ.
The influence of wealth, not of the Spirit of God, is paramount, and a majority decides cases, not the guiding of the Spirit. If a majority had decided at Corinth, what would have been the effect? In the whole system man, and man's will, and man's organization, have taken the place of the Spirit and word of God, and of what God organized Himself as declared in that word.
People say, Were there not churches then? I answer, surely, and this it is that shews the anti-scriptural character of what exists. Let anyone shew me in scripture such a thing as a separate distinct body such as is called a church now, and membership of it; or, as I have said, if Paul wrote a letter "To the church of God at - ," who could get it? All is anti-scriptural, and sets aside what is in scripture to form something else.
I do not touch on many collateral subjects, the ruined state of the church as a whole, the coming of the Lord, wishing to confine myself to the question - is the existing order of things scriptural or anti-scriptural? That men having drunk old wine straightway desire new, I understand, is not likely; but happy is he who follows the word, and owns the Spirit, if he be alone in doing so. The word of the Lord abides for ever, as does he who does His will.
325 2 Timothy 2 and 3 clearly point out the condition of the church in the last days, and the path of the believer in them, as the first epistle gives the external details of the church when first arranged by apostolic care.