What is the Unity of the Church?

J. N. Darby.

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I should never have spoken of Mr. F.O.'s pamphlet if there had not been in it very decided principles upon some important points, and an object which all do not perceive. If it were only the desire to cast contempt upon his brethren which was manifested in it, nothing would be easier than to pass on. Every one can judge how far Mr. O. has profited by the light of brethren whom he is pleased to treat with a measure of contempt. I do not find the proceeding very noble; but if any one wishes to kick down the ladder by which he has mounted, it certainly is not worth the trouble of writing a pamphlet, however small, to point it out. Mr. O. tells us that he has gone on his way "groping." When we submit to what is found in the word, we do not grope: one does grope with the thoughts of men. With God's word we may still be ignorant on many points; but if we receive, and that joyfully, the yoke of the word, we do not grope.

Mr. O.'s object is to establish or direct independent assemblies and to justify laxity in discipline. He understands absolutely nothing as yet of the unity of the body. Practically his pamphlet is directed against that unity. Those are the only points that I shall take up, presenting what the word of God says of assemblies, and some fresh light that God has granted me. The latter is not of any great importance: but what His word says is always of interest to the Christian. It is a happy thing to know that, if we are grounded upon the word, the fresh light we receive never overthrows the old but completes and makes it clearer.

First, allow me to say that the assemblies of so-called "Plymouth Brethren," far from calling themselves the "assembly" or "the church of God" in a particular place, have always formally opposed the title. So little truth is there in the insinuation, that it is principally this which has hindered these brethren from forming part of the Rochat flock. They believe that they alone are assembled upon the true principle of the church of God, which I in no wise doubt: but they believe that the church is in ruins, and that the pretension to be the church of God in a place would be a false pretension. J add that, if all the Christians in a place were to be found gathered together which would form (according to order) the assembly of the place, I would not give it that title, because the universal church is not gathered; and I do not believe in independent churches. I believe that there were formerly local churches representing in a certain sense the whole in their localities; but we are very far from that now. All who have taken the trouble to inquire know, or might have known, that from the first the brethren in question have taken their stand upon the principle of Matthew 18 as a resource given of God in the general ruin. The pretension to be the assembly of God has always been rejected by the brethren we speak of. Every assembly gathered by the will of God around the Person of Jesus or in His name is an assembly of God, if it be only a question of the force of words; but when it is a question of being the assembly of God in a locality, it is not so in the true sense of the word, and could not be so, considering the state of the universal church. It may gather together on the principle of the church of God, may find the promised blessing, may be the only one gathered according to that principle in the place, and may attach immense importance to it (and it ought to attach immense importance to it, if it desire to be obedient and faithful); but it is only the witness for God so far as by its separate walk it testifies to the faithfulness of God, to the divine principles which govern its walk and to the true state in which the church is found as a whole. In this case it will be God's witness; certainly it ought to be so.

297 Mr. O. will have it that the totality of the churches, that is to say of the assemblies, constituted the church or the assembly. Not at all. Numerically speaking, it is not true. Many Christians were scattered here and there preaching the gospel, converted without being connected with a flock, like the treasurer of queen Candace, like Paul and Silvanus and Timothy and Titus in their labours. But, what is more important, the principle is entirely false, and the question which occupies us is altogether that. The assembly or the body was composed of individuals, and not of churches or of assemblies. Here are Mr. O.'s words in p. 11: "assemblies all united among themselves by one faith and one worship, and forming, in their totality, the church, the body of Christ upon the earth." There is no such idea in the word. The body had members. Now assemblies were not the members, but Christians individually were the members; and although the assemblies had the same faith and the same worship, it was not this principle which constituted the unity of the body, but the presence of the Holy Ghost which united all believers, Jews and Gentiles, in one and the same body.

298 1 Corinthians 12 makes the doctrine of the word of God perfectly clear with regard to this. The body of Christ on earth is composed of individuals and not of churches. Now if this be the case, there is unity only in the whole; there is none in any local assembly if it be detached from the whole as a whole. If it be regarded as an independent church, it has nothing to do with the body, it is not in principle an assembly of God. At the beginning of the first Epistle to the Corinthians it is said, "to the assembly of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Jesus Christ, saints by calling, with all those who in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours." Thus the apostle could say, "Ye are the body of Christ." The assembly at Corinth represented at Corinth that one and only unity, that of all individuals united to Christ in one body by the baptism of the Holy Ghost. Everything had a connection with the one body, composed of all the members of Christ. There was no action which did not relate to the whole body, no suffering of one member which was not felt by all the members of the body: 1 Corinthians 12 leaves no doubt upon this point. The gifts were exercised in this whole (1 Cor. 12:27-28). Their object was first the perfecting of individuals, then the edification of the body of Christ; Eph. 4:12.

The object of this effort to make independent flocks is the desire of being independent, of doing their will without submitting to the discipline of the church as one body. Mr. O. says as much (p. 43). Each assembly being independent, united only by one faith and one worship (p. 11), is in a position to judge the disciplinary proceedings of another assembly (p. 43). The unity of the body therefore does not exist. An act is the act of an independent church; it has no reference whatever to the whole, and is not binding upon other assemblies or other Christians. Some one may be put out by one assembly and another assembly may receive the one who is put out. It is evident that this is disorder. The "within" and the "without" are not simply the church of God and the world. All that is lost. It is the "within" of a small voluntary and independent assembly which only exercises discipline in relation to itself. It is quite evident that the "within" and "without" of 1 Corinthians is not merely the "within" and "without" of a particular assembly, so that the wicked man could be without at Corinth and within at Ephesus. The Epistle carefully teaches the unity of the body on the earth and only recognizes the local act in that unity, a unity composed of individuals and not of churches. Look at the act of discipline in another point of view; and you will see the immense difference of the principles, and how this system of independent churches destroys the truth of scripture on this subject. What is the real power, the real source of authority, in discipline? The presence of Jesus: not simply that the discipline is the act of a voluntary society which excludes one of its members from its bosom, but that it is the act of an assembly according to God, assembled in the name of Jesus, and acting in His name and by His authority, to maintain the holiness which belongs to that name. Now the independent church is only a society which acts for itself: another assembly may judge all that it has done. There is no trace either of the unity or of the authority of the church of God.

299 Does it then follow that, if another assembly has acted hastily, a flock is bound hand and foot? In no wise. Just because the unity of the body is true and recognized, and that in a case of discipline the members of that body who gather together elsewhere take an interest in what passes in each place, they are free to make brotherly objections, or to suggest some scriptural motive; in a word, they are capable of all brotherly activity with regard to it. If it be an independent assembly, it is not concerned; there is nothing for it to look into. If these things are done in the unity of the body, every Christian is interested in what passes. It may happen that the discipline of an assembly cannot be owned; but then it is rejected as an assembly, and the presence of Jesus giving authority to its acts is denied - a very grave thing, but one that may occur. Mr. O. has entirely falsified the unity of the body, and wishes for independent churches and a unity of faith and worship, the aggregate of the churches forming according to him the unity of the body. The word of God knows nothing of this system. The reader may judge of it by reading 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4, 1 Corinthians 1 and other passages of the word.

But another object is proposed wherever this system of half-Plymouth-Brethrenism-half-Independency is adopted; for it is not in Switzerland only that this ground has been taken. They wish to be free to support the Bethesda discipline, or that of the neutrals, of those who condemn absolute exclusivism as Mr. O. calls it (p. 41) - an expression which I confess I do not understand. Every one is not excluded, I suppose. Some persons are excluded in Mr. O.'s independent churches. The assemblies of the so-called "Plymouth Brethren" also exclude some. The question is, if the limits that have been put to the exclusion are scriptural. The expression "absolute exclusivism" may serve to bring opprobrium upon assemblies with which one does not agree; it is nonsense. But we have rather more intelligible expressions: "disciplinary ways which go far beyond scripture" (p. 42); and again, "to combat such teaching, we do not excommunicate in large masses Christians who are ignorant of it." There can be no mistake. Mr. O. condemns the discipline of the assemblies called "Plymouth Brethren," and he wishes the discipline of Bethesda or of the neutrals. This is the object of his pamphlet and of the support which he gives to independent churches. I will not weary either my reader or myself with the history of this question; but the real point in question is of all gravity for the church of God. Can an assembly be corrupted? We had broken with what we had considered to be outrages and blasphemies against Christ. Up to that time there had not been any great difficulty - some painful things, but settled without much delay. But here we have an assembly which receives those whom we have excluded as blasphemers: could one walk with that assembly, taking the Lord's supper with these excommunicated people?

300 This is the first question. For my part I could not do so, and those who admitted them knowingly and willingly were not a "new lump," 1 Cor. 5. This raised the question: Is an assembly corrupted when knowingly and willingly it admits sin as blasphemy? Our adversaries maintained that an assembly could not be defiled; that individuals who are in sin are defiled, but that the assembly could not be so. They insisted upon this in several tracts. And not only so, but the principal brethren in a so-called neutral meeting signed a printed circular affirming that, if an assembly should admit fornication knowingly and willingly, we ought none the less to acknowledge that assembly and to receive letters of recommendation from it. We judged that, if an assembly (not taken by surprise, which may happen everywhere, or through carelessness, of which we are all capable, but) knowingly and willingly admits sin or blasphemy, it is not a new lump; that in order to be a new lump it must purge itself from the old leaven (1 Cor. 5:7); and that in so doing the other members proved themselves pure in this matter (2 Cor. 7:11): otherwise they would not have been so. This is the principle in question. Several went farther, maintaining that in no case does blasphemy or any kind of doctrine call for discipline.

301 The effects have been, to my mind, most fatal; but I limit myself to stating the question except that I will communicate the result in one case which may arouse Swiss consciences. The doctrine in question in the United States has not been that of Mr. N. but the denial of the immortality of the soul. There is a meeting at Philadelphia (and there are even two) on the neutral principle, which does not follow the so-called exaggerated discipline and which blames the severity of brethren. Those who hold the denial of the immortality of the soul were admitted to the meeting; afterwards the doctrine was taught there. We broke or rather refused all connection with these meetings. Those who blamed our severity were not willing to keep themselves thus separate, and now the principal instruments of the Swiss mission or of the Grand-Ligne deny the immortality of the soul. I hope all have not come to this - God knows.

I do not enter farther into details: it would be too painful and of but little use. It is certain that the lack of faithful discipline, the loose system extolled by Mr. O., the lack of absolute exclusivism in regard to what is false and evil, has led the Swiss mission into the doctrine which denies the immortality of the soul. They may say, We do not preach it; but the doctrine has currency; people go and ask the minister what he thinks of it; he thinks it is truth, and souls receive it. Well, we refused those who were not willing to break with this system, and I bless God for it; but there is a fine field of labour ruined precisely by the system which Mr. O. extols. Neutral meetings, taking advantage of the absence of absolute exclusivism, and approved of for this by Bethesda and by the neutrals and by the O.'s, are traps for simple souls who go to New York and Philadelphia.

The question is no longer Bethesda; but can an assembly which knowingly admits grave errors be recognized as an assembly of God, and those who are accomplices in the thing be held to be innocent, although they support evil, because they are not themselves blasphemers? In 2 Timothy 2 we are enjoined to purge ourselves from vessels to dishonour: is it purging ourselves to be in full communion with them? 1 Corinthians 5 and 2 Corinthians 7 settle the question for me as to the condition of those who support evil without being themselves personally guilty.

302 There are many things I might take up in Mr. O.'s tract, but that is not my object. When it is said (p. 2), "The church is begotten of God," no passage quoted speaks of the church. It is not begotten of God; individuals are. It is not their being begotten of God which constitutes them members of the church, but the baptism of the Holy Ghost. I do not know in what sense Mr. O. thinks the apostle said to the church at Corinth, "Ye are the body of Christ." But I am not occupied with these things. I only keep to the fact that the tract is a plan of adhesion to a system which denies the true unity of the church, which establishes independent churches, and which justifies a discipline or rather a lack of faithfulness to Christ. This turns what are called holy assemblies into a snare for the simple to entrap them into false and injurious doctrines, and to destroy integrity of conscience - the certain result of all false doctrine.

I believe, not that the public apostasy is yet come, but that, in the spirit of the thing, it took place long ago; just as there were many antichrists although the Antichrist was not there. Now Antichrist, at least the man of sin, is connected with the apostasy. Mr. O. wishes dismemberment. It would be impertinence on my part to contend with Mr. O. about the import of French words; but in the things of God there is something more than words. I find the word he has chosen the most unfortunate possible. The proper meaning of it is the act of tearing away a member from a body. It is employed for the division of a state, a kingdom, etc. But when it is used figuratively, something of the real meaning always remains. It is the greater force coming from without which divides. Poland and Bavaria have been dismembered. And if one speaks of the dismemberment of a society so that it is divided into several parts, it always leaves the idea of an effect produced on the society. It matters little if the members are agreed about it: the society suffers violence; something of the original thought remains.

303 Now I admit that the apostasy in the full and complete sense of the word has not arrived, and that the application of this term to the Romish system (an application made by the mass of Protestant writers*) went beyond the true force of the word. But let it be remarked that the apostasy is the fault of the church on earth; it had lost its first love; it had had time to repent and had not repented; it had a name to live and was dead; it was to be spued out of the Saviour's mouth. This was a moral condition for which the church was responsible; and if the apostasy has not come, we have reached such a point in that direction that the distance which separates us from it is scarcely appreciable: only the Spirit of God is acting in a remarkable manner. After all Mr. O. now admits the fall of the church, which is the important thing. But dismemberment (a frightful word when the body of Christ is in question) which Mr. O. can make use of because the true idea of the body has no place in his thoughts - dismemberment is only a fact.

{*This question has been fully discussed, as well as the sense in which the word apostasy is applied to the church. No one was troubled about it until I shewed, by Romans 11, that if there were apostasy in the church of Rome, there could be no re-establishment of the church - which always remains fundamentally true.}

The apostasy, or the tendency to apostasy, expresses the thought (crushing, if the grace of the Lord were not revealed) of the unfaithfulness of the church to the One who has so loved it. But there is something more. If it be a question of the body of Christ and of members united to the Head in heaven, the dismemberment of the church is a horror. If the church on earth be a simple society, then it becomes dismembered or is divided or decomposed. Now Mr. O. has not the least idea of the unity of the body, nor of the responsibility of the church to maintain that position which it has never had in his eyes. It was a society composed of several local societies. To divide might perhaps be an evil, but an evil which happens to an earthly society. "The church at Corinth, notwithstanding its disorders, was not dismembered in Paul's time; and he could still say to them, Ye are the body of Christ" (p. 3). If Mr. O. had the least idea of the body of Christ, this phrase would have been impossible; it has no meaning for anyone who understands what the body is.

I may be permitted to add a few words with regard to the two points of view in which the word of God looks at the house. Christ (Matt. 16) builds the house, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. It is Christ who builds; the house is not yet completed. In 1 Peter 2 the living stones are added; there is no human architect. In Ephesians 2 the building fitly framed together grows up unto a holy temple in the Lord. But in 1 Corinthians 3 we find quite another thing. Paul is a wise builder; every one must take care how he builds. There we have the responsibility of man, although the building may be called the building of God. He who, being a Christian, builds well has a reward; but the one who, although a Christian on the foundation, builds badly will lose his labour, but he is saved. There is a third class; he who corrupts others will himself be destroyed. Now popery and the ritualistic system have confounded the temple that Jesus Christ is building, and which grows up into a temple, with that which depends on man's responsibility - a grave and fatal error. They do the same as to the body. But there was responsibility to maintain the unity of the Spirit, and thus the manifestation of the unity of the body, and the church failed in it: then it confounded the body with what man has built. The unity in John 17 is not the unity of the body; John never speaks of the church. He speaks there of a unity of brethren or of disciples which would in fact manifest the power of the Spirit of God.

304 Mr. O. refers us to another pamphlet on "Elders," etc. He wished to name some whenever the minds of brethren might be prepared to receive them. As an authority for this, having thrown overboard the old dissenting principles, he has only this reasoning, namely, that the apostles must necessarily have provided for the future of the church - a point already discussed with M. de G. - which is nothing but a piece of reasoning and of false reasoning, for it supposes that God wished Christians to know that the church would subsist long upon the earth, thus destroying the present expectation of the Lord, which His word avoids in a most remarkable manner by insisting upon that expectation. I believe, in common with many Christians, that the seven churches give the history of Christianity, but God took up churches which were then in existence in order not to take Christians out of this position of continual expectation. The virgins who sleep are those who awake. The servants who received the talents on the departure of the master are those who are judged at his return; the duration of the delay does not go beyond the life of the men. "If I will that he tarry till I come," says the Lord. "We which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord," says the apostle. "And ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their Lord," says again the Lord. An expectation of every day is not only an idea but was what characterized the early disciples. They were converted to wait for His Son from heaven, and God is not slack concerning His promise. But as to any arrangement which supposes a long continuance of the church on earth, there is no trace of it in the word.

305 To support this false idea, Mr. O. has recourse to a passage from Clement of Rome - a fatal sign when one has to go outside the word to support one's thesis. But the phrase, by which Clement tries to explain his views on this point, is most obscure. One of the terms employed is a word entirely unknown, except as used in quite another sense in Plutarch, and is not found at all in Alexandre's dictionary. Even the meaning of the phrase is contested. In general it is applied to the death of the elders named by the apostles. But there are grave theologians who apply the words "when they should have fallen asleep" to the apostles and insist upon the passage as a proof of episcopacy, admitting that there is nothing of that kind in the word of God, but that the apostles in the prospect of their departure, arranged that other tried men should succeed them in their authority: a position that Mr. O., if I have rightly understood him, arrogates to himself, by putting himself among the number of those who have replaced the apostles as ellogimoi andres. I do not accept this interpretation of the passage from Clement which they support by the deuterai diacaxieis of a passage from Irenaeus (if indeed the fragment be his), and by the nomination of Simeon as the successor of James by a convention of the apostles who were still living, of which Eusebius and other patristic authorities speak. But what a poor foundation is all this in comparison of the word of God, given for all times by God Himself, the divine light in the midst of the darkness of this world!

Now this is the main point of the matter. What gave rise to the existence of the so-called Plymouth Brethren is the grand truth, the great fact, of the descent of the Holy Ghost on the day of Pentecost, to form the body of Christ into one; then the coming of the Saviour as the continual expectation of the Christian. These two truths Mr. O.'s pamphlet denies.

There are three principal positions of Christ as Saviour: on the cross accomplishing redemption; at the right hand of God, whence He sends the Holy Spirit; and returning to fetch us and to judge the world. The first truth is the gospel preached to man as a sinner. The last two have been clearly brought out again in these latter times and are those which have aroused attention, and have placed the so-called Plymouth Brethren in their present position; they also throw immense light upon the first truth. The evangelical world will not receive them: from that time nothing but conflict and opprobrium, as is always the case with truths freshly brought to light. Mr. O. admits many minor consequences; but his pamphlet entirely denies the real ground of the truth on these points. He wants a unity formed of local independent churches, having the same faith and the same worship; and he wishes to prove by reasonings, or rather to suppose, that the apostles taught Christians to expect a long course of centuries before the Lord should come. That is to say, he still denies the great truths necessary for Christians in these days. I state the fact because I believe it to be important for Christians, begging Mr. O. to be assured that there is not a trace of hostility in my heart. When evil comes in like a flood, it is not the moment for Christians to be tearing one another, however firm one may be in maintaining the principles that one is assured have been drawn from the word of God.