The Church in a City.

F. W. Grant.

"Words of Faith" Vol. 2, 1883, p. 298.

The question as to the assembly in a city, is one of much more importance than seems at first sight to attach to it. It is a question of the practical organisation of the church on earth, of whether the church heavenly (as in character she surely is), takes, or not, her place on earth as subject to laws imposed by earthly conditions. In a recent case of discipline, affecting many of us deeply, it is, perhaps, the scripture question most involved, and which involves most our judgment as to it. For these reasons it is that I should be glad to have a little space in "Words of Faith," to look at this matter simply in its relation to scripture, which, in my belief, is clear and simple enough about it.

The ground taken by many may be expressed in the brief way in a question which I borrow from a paper in your present volume. "If the scriptures do not speak of assemblies in a city, can we?" The practical conclusion is (though not that of the paper referred to), that supposing twenty-six assemblies in a city, each of these is but the twenty-sixth part of an assembly, and unable to act in matters of discipline, without the ascertained concurrence of the rest.

The texts may be first cited.
The assembly in Jerusalem is spoken of in Acts 8:1; 11:22; 15:4, 22;
the assembly in Antioch, Acts 13:1; 14:27;
in Ephesus, Acts 20:17; Rev. 2:1;
Cenchrea, Romans 16:1;
Corinth, 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1;
the assembly of the Laodiceans, Col. 4:16; Rev. 3:14; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1;
in Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Rev. 2:8, 12, 18; Rev. 3:1, 7.

On the other hand, we have the assemblies of Syria and Cilicia, Acts 15:41;
of Galatia, 1 Cor. 16:1; Gal. 1:2;
of Asia, 1 Cor. 16:19; Rev. 1:11, etc.;
Macedonia, 2. Cor. 8:1;
Judea, Gal. 1:22;
Laodiceans, Col. 4:16.

The general style of scripture is evident; assemblies of a country or district; assembly in a city or town. There is one text, however, which seems an exception to the former usage. The editors in general, with the best manuscripts, read Acts 9:31, "the church … throughout all Judea, and Galilee, and Samaria."* It has been urged, indeed, that this is "throughout," not "in" — an argument, I confess, I can make nothing of. The general usage is, however, plain.

[* The manuscripts are (among others), the Sinaitic, Alexandrian, Vatican, and Ephraemi; of versions, the Vulgate, Peschito, Coptic, Sahidic, Ethiopic, Armenian, etc. The opposing manuscripts, E., G., H. (Laudian, Boernerian, and Modena), are considered to be of date 600 A.D., ninth and tenth centuries.]

The question is, Can we, or ought we, to find a doctrine in this manner of speech? Does it seem stated as doctrine? Apart from other considerations, is it safe to build upon what is, at most, an inference? And does not the undoubted doctrine of scripture forbid the inference?

In the first place, cannot the language used admit of being otherwise understood? It is easy to see that in many cities there might be actually but one assembly. In others, according to the need of the saints, the number of assemblies might vary at different times; and even where there were most, their proximity to one another, and free intercourse, with deep mutual interest, would weld the assemblies of a town or city into one practical whole, for all purposes, such as the history, or apostolical epistles in general, have in view. In this way, it seems to me, that an assembly in a city, assemblies in a wider range, would be natural enough, without involving at all the conclusions which have been drawn from this.

Let us inquire a little more precisely what these expressions, "assembly," and "assemblies," in themselves convey.

Plainly, the assembly of God is one, wherever found. There is but "one body," in which all baptised with the Holy Ghost are members; one house of God also; although it does not need now to consider this. "Assemblies" are simply the practical gatherings of this one assembly, unable, by reason of number and distance of location, actually to assemble in one place. They represent, therefore, in the various places in which they gather, the body itself, in which alone the individuals composing them are members. They are not separate organisations — the body is the only one. It is in every place, but the one body in fact, to which, therefore, attach the powers and responsibilities of this. The gatherings are only the local expression of the body, and have no privileges, functions, or responsibilities beside.

Now, in the view I am examining, the moment there are more gatherings than one in a city, these become no longer representatives of the body at large, nor even of that which is the representation. The practical representation of the church at large has ceased to be. Nominally it is the assembly of the assemblies — in fact it never assembles. And what, then, as to the power to bind or loose, which is the result of Christ's presence with two or three gathered to His name? Those who actually gather, in spite of His presence, can decide nothing—cannot bind or loose, or bind only themselves. The real decision which binds is that of an assembly which never assembles! or, by the concurrence of judgments, each by itself, powerless and inoperative!

What, then, makes void Christ's promise to His own, so that, although two or three gathered to His name shall have His presence, they shall not have the fruits of His presence? It is, we are told, the fact of their being gathered in a city! Two or three, gathered outside its limits, might do what two or three hundred within might not. What, then, is city or village in the church of God? What have the artificial terms of human government to do with defining for a kingdom not of this world?

If it be said, No; it is for the securing of unity; I ask, Does it secure, or even tend to secure? And I answer undoubtingly, It does the very reverse. Let us take as an example any ordinary case of discipline. All the elements necessary for the decision of it are in the gathering where it belongs. It is not a question of scripture which can be judged aright by any one, anywhere, who is before God; but one of facts and conduct, requiring investigation upon the spot, where the witnesses can be heard, and their trustworthiness tested. To carry it elsewhere — to try it again and again in different places — is only to throw suspicion upon the first judgment, and to occupy saints unnecessarily with evil not amongst them. This is not, and cannot be, of God. It does not make for holiness; it cannot for unity. What really does this, is, to accept the judgment once given by those who have been in the place for it; or, if question is rightly to be raised, to raise it there. That the need of ten or twenty decisions, instead of one, makes either for unity, or peace, or holiness, I believe it simply impossible to maintain.

If it be said again, that, in a case of this kind, there would be acceptance, doubtless, of the first decision, this is to give up the whole matter. It would be accepted, because of the realised competence of those first deciding, and the felt incompetency of others, or, at least, the uselessness of another trial; and the same answer might equally be given in every case. It is not felt necessary, in the case of a gathering in a country village, to check or verify its decisions in the name of unity; nay, it would be rightly thought the very opposite of this to do so. And this settles it conclusively as to gatherings in a town.

I repeat, that the local assemblies are but the expression locally of the assembly at large, which cannot actually assemble. The one assembly in a city, which is contended for, cannot be this expression, for it cannot assemble; nor can the gatherings of which it is composed, if the functions of an assembly proper be denied them.

City or village is nothing in the church of God, nor can it avail to modify the processes of its discipline.

The thought of the one assembly in a city denies the guaranteed authority to bind or loose to two or three gathered to the Lord's name.

Its practical effect is not for holiness, peace, or unity, as the interests in which it has been so greatly pressed of late should convince us all. F. W. Grant.