3. — Local Aspect of the Church.

Having in the previous paper seen the unity of the Church, as taught in various passages of Scripture, we come now to a most important branch of the subject.

In speaking of the nature of the Church, and its unity, we were dealing with general features common to the Body as a whole. We now leave the general and come to the special features. And yet we are still dealing with the Church as a whole, with features which belong to the entire Body.

We saw in our last paper that the unity of the Church was not to be invisible, but that it was organic and manifest, "that the world may believe." To be manifest in any particular place, it is evident that the Church must take some form, and this is what we must now consider.

The word Church, as applied to the Body of Christ, or house of God, is used in three different ways. We have, first, "the Church" unlimited, meaning the whole Body. "Upon this rock I will build my church" (Matt. 16:18). Christ, the son of God, as the only foundation for His whole Church, is the thought here. "And the Lord added to the church daily" (Acts 2:47). Not merely the Church at Jerusalem, but to the Body. Paul persecuted the Church (1 Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13; Phil. 3:6); not merely the saints at Jerusalem, but through them the whole; nay, he heard a voice asking, "Why persecutest thou Me?". (Acts 9. 4, 5.) We find the word used in the same way in other passages; as Eph. 1:22; Eph. 3:10, 21; Eph. 5:23-24, 25, 29, 32; Col. 1:18, 24; 1 Tim. 3:5, 15; Heb. 12:23.

Secondly, we have "the Church" limited to some special locality, as "the church which was at Jerusalem" (Acts 8:1; Acts11:22) , or at Antioch (Acts 13:1), at Ephesus (Acts 20:17) , at Cenchrea (Rom. 16:1), at Corinth (1 Cor. 1:2) , at Thessalonica (1 Thess. 1:1).

Thirdly, we have the plural, "Churches," giving us the gatherings collectively in any given country; as Judea (1 Thess. 2:14; Acts 9:31), of Galatia (1 Cor. 16:1; Gal. 1:2) , of Asia (1 Cor. 16:19) , and Macedonia (2 Cor. 8:1); or, more generally, including sometimes all the assemblies of God, as "other churches" (2 Cor. 11:8); "the care of all the churches" (2 Cor. 11:28); "the churches of God" (2 Thess. 1:4).

In these last two usages of the word we have the thought of local assemblies as distinct from the one Body of Christ viewed in its entirety. We are now to see the relation between these local gatherings and the entire Church.

We may begin by saying that there must be nothing in the local church to contradict the truths we have already been considering. Its nature and unity must be manifested. It must be seen that it is the Body of Christ, formed by and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, that all believers are members of it, united to Christ glorified, and to one another; that the Lord's coming is the hope before it, and that the name of Christ is the only one by which it is called. Furthermore, it must exhibit the unity of the body of Christ.

We have an illustration of this in the first epistle to the Corinthians: "Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours" (1 Cor. 1:2). The apostle here uses the name "church of God," which is the title of the whole Body of Christ, and applies it locally, "which is at Corinth." He describes those who are included in it, "them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called saints." We need hardly say that the term "sanctified" includes all who have a share in the work of Christ, all who are sheltered by His blood (Heb. 10:14; Heb. 13:12). It does not refer to personal state, but to the standing of every believer, who is called a saint — a saint by virtue of his calling. All there, then, who were believers in the Lord Jesus Christ formed the Church of God which was at Corinth.

But to show that this church was not to be regarded as independent of the whole Body of Christ, the apostle adds, "With all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours." Whatever the special needs of the particular assembly at Corinth might be, the principles which were to govern them were those for the whole Church, to be applied wherever there might be the same state of things.

But, more than this, the linking of the whole Church of Christ with the assembly at Corinth, as we see in the verse we are considering, shows that the whole Church was concerned in the matters to be presented to that special assembly — that there was a responsibility which could not be evaded, and that distance from the locality did not create a severance in the Church. In other words, the truth of the one Body must not be lost sight of. "Whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honored, all the members rejoice with it" (1 Cor. 12:26). Immediately preceding this verse, we read, verse 25, "That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another." A member of the Church of Christ in Africa is just as really linked with us as one with whom we are in daily association.

This is a most important principle; for without it the various assemblies of Christ would be so many independent congregations. Corporate unity would be but the unity of "the invisible Church," and all public testimony to that held so dear by our Lord would be at an end.

The truth we are considering becomes clearer as we see the place occupied by the Holy Spirit in the whole Church and in local assemblies. As we have already seen, it is He who has formed the Church, linking believers with a glorified Head and with one another, so forming the "One Body." We are builded together for a habitation of God, through the Spirit (Eph. 2:21-22), where the whole Church is unquestionably the subject; and in a very interesting way, linking, it would almost seem, the Church at large with a local assembly, we have (1 Cor. 3:16), "Know ye not ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? … for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are." These two scriptures show that the Spirit dwells in the whole Church; that He also, because of this fact, dwells in the local assembly.

A partial illustration of this truth would be the relation of the Atlantic Ocean as a whole to any spot upon its broad surface. The ocean would mean the whole mass, and yet we would speak of a ship as being upon the ocean, not upon part of it. The characteristics of the whole are seen in each one of its parts: nay, the word "parts" can scarcely be used, so homogeneous is the whole great mass. So it is with the whole Church and a local assembly: we have simply, as it were, located a spot on the great ocean, organically linked with the whole, and in no way to be severed from it. An expression, "a circle of assemblies," has been used — possibly first by those who do not accept its implied meaning — to describe all assemblies which seek to carry out, as they see it, the relation of unity between the local assembly and the Church at large. While disavowing any name not given in Scripture, we need not hesitate to acknowledge the scripturalness of the thought suggested, "We have no such custom, neither the churches of God" (1 Cor. 11:16); "As in all churches of the saints" (1 Cor. 14:33). See also 1 Cor. 7:17; Gal. 1:2. These, and indeed all scriptures relating to the common life and order of the assemblies, justify the thought of "a circle of assemblies." That such a circle primarily includes all saints, none could question; but in the present state of confusion the circle of actual fellowship must be reduced to those who are subject to the truth of God governing His assembly. If we have scripture warrant for a single assembly gathered in separation from what is contrary to God, we have the circle, and it would include all assemblies similarly formed.

Nor is all this in the least inconsistent with the exercise of discipline and all other necessary functions in a local assembly: on the contrary, the right apprehension of the truth gives power and adds impressiveness to the smallest act. Witness the apostle's words to the assembly at Corinth in the matter of dealing with the wicked person (1 Cor. 5.): "In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ." Here we have the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, which has been put upon the whole Church (1 Cor. 1:2, 10), and His power, which is the Holy Spirit, who dwells in the whole Body. We have here, then, no act of a small body, to be taken up and reviewed by some larger and more authoritative one, but the act of the Holy Ghost, through this assembly — an act for and binding upon the whole Body of Christ throughout the world. We will dwell upon the subject of discipline in a later paper, but would call earnest attention to the principle 'here seen — a principle, we are persuaded, as wide-reaching and helpful in its application as it is, alas, ignored.

If what we have just stated be the truth, it will be seen at once that Scripture does not sanction the thought of an ecumenical body of representatives, no matter in what way chosen, as being necessary to give expression and authority to any decision. It is not the Church which has authority, but God the Holy Ghost; and when He speaks,* no matter through how feeble an instrument, we have the authority for the whole Church. An aggregation of all the learning and piety of the whole world could not add one iota to the weight of authority which the simplest expression of the mind of the Spirit would have.

{*We need scarcely add that the word of God is ever the guide, used and applied by the Holy Spirit.}

Having said this, we can add some statements by way of safeguards, to prevent misunderstanding. It is the Holy Ghost alone who can give weight to any judgment of an assembly. Without Him nothing has authority, whether it be the decision of an assembly or that of the whole Church; and faith would be shown, not in obeying such a decision, but the reverse. If God has spoken all must bow: if He has not, though the whole Church had, there could be no authority in what was said. In seeking His mind it would not show faith, but the reverse, in a local assembly to refuse the counsel and prayers of their brethren at a distance. True faith is always accompanied by humility and self-distrust; and as the Lord has made His people members one of another, as well as of His Body, faith gladly accepts the help that may come through these varied channels. This same faith, also, will be ever ready to submit for examination the grounds of its decision. But these things only emphasize the truth we have been considering, that the Holy Spirit is present in the local gathering, which is but a manifestation of the one Body, and that His judgment is authoritative and final. We will refer to this subject again when we come to treat of discipline. Here it has been our object simply to show the relation between the individual assembly and the whole Body of Christ, and to draw from this relationship the principles which underlie it, and which must govern us if we are to be in accord with the mind of God concerning His Church.

We have been speaking of discipline, but the same principles are found where other subjects are in consideration. For instance, in the apostle's farewell to the elders of the assembly at Ephesus, not only does he give prophetic intimations as to the history of the whole Church, but he applies to them — local officers — titles which refer to the whole Body: "Take heed, therefore, unto yourselves, and to all the flock over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the Church of God which He hath purchased. with His own blood" (Acts 20:28). Their responsibility was chiefly concerned with Ephesus, with Christ's sheep there, but as an integral part of the whole Church of God. We have the same thought in the epistle to the Ephesians (Eph. 4:12). All gifts, whether apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, or teachers, were for the edifying of the Body of Christ. Some of these gifts might never be exercised outside the limits of a single assembly, yet they are for the whole Church. "There are many members, yet but one body" (1 Cor. 12:20).

Let us ask now, What constitutes a local assembly? Naturally our answer would first be, All the believers in a given place, as Corinth, Ephesus, and the like; and this, in the main, would be a sufficient answer. A further question would be, When Christians in one locality are more in number than can conveniently come together, and simply for that reason meet separately, would each such meeting constitute a local assembly, be an expression of the one Body, or would the several meetings collectively be required to make up the local assembly? It seems plain that the question is not one for geography to settle. The whole spirit of the passages we have been examining would show that it is simply a question of manifestation of divine principles by a gathering of the Lord's people. If those principles which we have been looking at control a gathering of Christians — principles of Church unity and obedience to the truth — each such gathering would be a local assembly, an expression of the whole Church; and there might be a number of such gatherings in a single city. Naturally, believers in the same locality would be much thrown together, and such intercourse would suggest mutual prayer and consultation when any question for decision should arise. But if the Lord is in the midst (and "where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them," Matt. 18:20), His authority is sufficient to bind and the Holy Spirit is sufficient to direct.

These truths also afford us comfort in a day of almost universal departure from divine principles as to the Church of God. Principles remain, no matter how much the Church may have failed; and these principles are presented for our guidance now as much as when they were first given to the assemblies addressed in the several epistles we have been considering. Sorrow of heart we may and should have, as we compare the present ruins with the once beautiful structure which God built; but departure of the many, the failure of the Church as a whole to manifest her character and her destiny, can never excuse present indifference to the truths of God. Those truths stand out in clear relief against the dark background of the wreck which has been made by man's unbelief and self-will.

May the Lord, who loves the Church, and gave Himself for it, speak to the hearts and consciences of His beloved people, and constrain them, out of love and devotedness to Him, to listen to His voice, and to obey it.