W W Fereday.
The Church and the Churches:
With Special Reference to the Christians Called Brethren
Various articles and answers to questions which have appeared in magazines concerning "the local assembly" suggest that the truth of the Church, so graciously revived by the Holy Spirit in the early days of the nineteenth century, has again become lost. The general tenor of what has been written makes it clear that the writers have in their minds only the Christians connected with their own limited circle, to the ignoring of the mass of God's saints otherwise associated. Could the writers but see it, it is sheer denominationalism which they are advocating.
What was it that created a stir in Christendom from 1828 and onwards? It was a movement very small in its beginnings, but its influence was soon felt very widely. Men of deep piety (young men, remarkably) became exercised about the condition of things around them, particularly in the religious sphere. Having no desire but to learn the will of God and do it, their searching of the Scriptures was richly rewarded. But what was it that troubled these earnest souls? The condition of "local assemblies"? Impossible, for such companies as are now thus described did not exist. Much larger thoughts were in their minds. The title of the first pamphlet which proceeded from the Dublin group is sufficient to prove this. It was entitled "The Nature and Unity of the Church of Christ." The whole Church on earth was in view, in its sorrowful divisions, so contrary to the mind of God, and so detrimental to the furtherance of the gospel. The appeal of these brethren was to Christians everywhere to consider their ways, and they felt somewhat like the prophet Daniel when he poured out his heart to God concerning the centuries of failure and disobedience amongst His people (Dan. 9).
The Church is presented in the New Testament in a two-fold way: it is the body of Christ and the house of God. Each of these in turn is shown in two aspects:
There is what may be termed the eternal aspect of the body of Christ, and also its time aspect. With regard to the former, grace alone is seen; with regard to the latter, human responsibility stands out clearly. Before the ages of time God, in His infinite wisdom and love, purposed to place the whole universe under His beloved Son in manhood, with the Church in union with Him as His body. The grace of this is overwhelming, for the body is composed of sinners, some of them of the grossest description (1 Cor. 6:9-11). Believers of other dispensations are not included in the body of Christ. The body had no beginning until Christ took His seat on high and the Holy Spirit came forth, and it will be completed when the Lord Jesus descends into the air (1 Thess. 4). Saints of Old Testament times, and the saints who will succeed its in testimony upon earth, will have their part in the City for which their hearts yearned (Heb. 11:10); but God in His sovereign wisdom has provided something better for us than for them (Heb. 11:40).
The place and portion of Christ's body in God's eternal counsels is set forth in Ephesians 1:22. When men had done their worst to Christ and had cast Him out of the vineyard (Matt. 21:39) with the utmost scorn, God did His best for Him. It was no afterthought, but the development of a purpose settled before the world began. "He raised Him from the dead, and set Him at His own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come: and 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." Marvellous vision for faith to contemplate! The whole universe (not this small planet only) filled with the glory of Christ; His headship everywhere acknowledged; and His body in union with Him, His fulness — the expression in redeemed humanity of all His divine perfections. Creature responsibility does not come into this. It is grace alone, and the work is divine. All the saints from Pentecost to the Rapture will have their full part in it. The body in this aspect is in course of formation, but, oh, that the power and blessedness of all that is bound up in this counsel of divine wisdom and love had present command of our souls! It would influence our whole deportment in every sphere of life.
Aspect In Time
But is there not meanwhile that on earth which God recognises as Christ's body, and which is responsible to be the living expression of Christ, and to be the vessel through which He can work for the glory of God and the blessing of men? 1 Corinthians 12 is the answer to this question. A recent writer says that Paul's first letter to the Corinthians deals with "the important subject of the local Church." This is not the whole truth. Admittedly there are circumstances dealt with in the epistle (some of them in answer to inquiries — 1 Cor. 7:1) which had special application to the assembly in Corinth, but they have been placed on record for the guidance of saints in similar circumstances until the end. Therefore, the epistle is not addressed alone "to the church of God which is at Corinth," but also to "all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours." This important fact is sometimes overlooked. To saints universally the apostle says: "God is faithful, by whom you were called to the fellowship of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord." To this wonderful fellowship every believer belongs, whether he understands it or not. If any of us know more about this divine fellowship than others, it should be our joy and privilege to pass on what we know. The effect would be separative. When once the truth is learned that God has created only one fellowship for His saints, all other fellowships become abhorrent to the soul; first because they are a dishonour to the Lord, and also because they impose barriers between those who should be walking together in harmony and love.
The theme of 1 Corinthians 12 is the power of God, acting through men on the earth during the absence of Christ in heaven. The Holy Spirit is present amongst us, and He operates through the medium of the body of Christ, which is viewed as a living and active organism. Let the whole chapter be read with care, and it will be perceived that it is not divine counsels that are taught there as in Ephesians 1:22; nor is it merely the local assembly, whether in Corinth or anywhere else.
"God has set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles," etc. (1 Cor. 12:28). What Church is here? God has never set apostles and prophets in a local assembly (certainly there were no apostles in Corinth); they are gifts to the body of Christ viewed as a whole (Eph. 4), and their responsibilities are world-wide. There is thus something on earth which God owns as the Church, which is not the body of Christ as seen in Ephesians 1:22, nor the local assembly anywhere. All the saints on earth at any given time share the baptism of the Spirit, and they form the body of Christ for practical purposes. Those who have passed from us into the Lord's presence are not included in the body in this, its working aspect. They no longer weep with those who weep, and the warnings against discontent and contempt for others have no application to them. But these things apply to the saints actually upon earth, and they should all function together as members one of another (eyes, hands and feet), all blessedly occupied for the glory of Christ and for their common spiritual profit. It cannot be doubted that God has at all times provided a sufficiency of eyes, hands, feet, etc., for the carrying on of His work, for the body in the aspect we are now considering is viewed as always complete; but the operations of divine grace have been sadly hindered by our sin and folly. Through unwatchfulness Christians early fell into sectarian groups, each group ignoring, and sometimes hostile to, every other. All have suffered in consequence, for no sectarian group ever had, or could have, within itself all that is necessary for spiritual well-being. As in the physical body, so in the spiritual body (of Christ), all the members are dependent upon one another. The history of the body of Christ has been truly sorrowful ever since the days of the apostles.
To put the position more plainly, seeing that the body of Christ is one, and all the saints are members one of another (Rom. 12:5), it would undeniably be the will of the Lord that all should meet together if it were possible. The world would then see the body of Christ indeed, and would realise how distinct it is from the whole evil order of things around. But seeing that God's saints are numerous and the earth is large, one gathering is impossible, and local assemblies therefore became necessary. But they should be viewed as geographical conveniences, and not as independent entities. Each local company represents one great whole. Membership is of the body of Christ, not of a local assembly. To speak of a local assembly as "a body of Christ" and as "a house of God" is absurd. Has Christ really thousands of bodies, and has God thousands of houses? To state the position is to refute it. Yet all that is true of the whole is true of even its smallest part, but the apostle's avoidance of the definite article in this connection should be noted. Thus he does not say in 1 Corinthians 12:27, "Ye are the body of Christ," but "ye are body of Christ," i.e. Christ's body representatively in that city. Also, in 1 Corinthians 3:16, he does not say, "Ye are the temple of God," but "temple of God," i.e. God's temple. The smallest number of saints in any place form a miniature of the whole.
It is affirmed by some that the term "church of God" refers to the local assembly only. Thus the apostle in 1 Corinthians 10:32 means the assembly in Corinth! Also (so we are told), when the apostle expressed his sorrow that he had persecuted the church of God (1 Cor. 15:9) he was thinking only of the havoc that he wrought in the city of Jerusalem. The following words are misleading: "the church of God he mentions was the local church in Jerusalem. When that was scattered under his persecution other churches had not been formed." Surely the writer had overlooked Galatians 1:22-23! Earlier in the chapter the apostle says, "beyond measure I persecuted the church of God and wasted it." Then in verse 23 he speaks of the churches of Judea which were in Christ that they had heard "that he which persecuted us in times past now preaches the faith which once he destroyed, and they glorified God in me." Thus there were various assemblies in Judea before Saul of Tarsus became converted, and he did his utmost to destroy them all. The term "the church of God" thus applies, not to a local company, but to one of the three divisions of the human family, "the Jews, the Gentiles and the church of God." The church of God is composed of souls separated by grace from both Jews and Gentiles and brought together into one holy unity.
Let us take notice of the apostle's use of the word "we" in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17. "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one loaf, one body; for we are all partakers of that one loaf." The writer was not a resident in Corinth, yet he says "we"! The truth is that he had a larger thought in his mind than some of our modern friends. In a recent paper it was stated "one (local) body." It is a serious thing to tamper with Scripture for the sake of a theory. Paul was thinking of the saints universally. Oh, that we could get out of our pettiness and look at things more as God looks at them! As He looks down upon His saints He sees but one body, one table, one loaf and one cup, although actually many loaves and many cups are in use in order to meet local needs. On the same principle, God saw but one lamb in Egypt on the passover night ("they shall kill it" — Exodus 12:6), although many lambs were in fact slaughtered. But God thought of the one Christ, the Lamb of His providing.
The word "many" in 1 Corinthians 10:17 and 12:14 should not escape us. It is a most certain truth that where but two or three are gathered to His name the Lord is present with them, and the company has assembly character. The present writer has "broken bread" with less than a dozen saints hundreds of times, but how could the word "many" be applied to them? Yet all that is true of a large company is equally true of the smallest in the divine thought. But when we read of eyes, ears, hands, feet and a variety of gifts as in 1 Corinthians 12, clearly something larger is in view than a local company. It should be clear to every reflecting soul that, in 1 Corinthians 12, the aggregate of God's saints is contemplated.
Supposing a number of saints withdraw themselves from the organised religious bodies and come together in Scriptural simplicity, counting upon the Lord's words in Matthew 18:20, may they describe themselves as "the local assembly" in their town? Assuredly not, for the local assembly in any place includes all the Christians located there. But, alas, it is an assembly that refuses to assemble, so many sectarian interests attracting the many. Those who seek to he humbly obedient to the Word of God must regard themselves as a remnant, analogous in character to the limited number of God's people who returned to their land in the days of Zerubbabel and Ezra. It is beautiful to observe that their offerings were "for all Israel" (Ezra 8:35). In the days of Hezekiah and Josiah sacrifices also were offered "for all Israel" although the majority of the people were in captivity. The unity of God's people was very precious to these men of faith. Is it equally precious to us?
We should remember we are one
With every saint that loves Thy name
United to Thee on the throne,
Our Lord, our Life, our hope the same.
When we use the word "assembly" of a company in any locality we should connect it with a building and not with the town in which the building stands. An assembly met in the house of Priscilla and Aquila in Rome (Rom. 16:3 -5), and an assembly met in the house of Philemon in Colosse; but we need not suppose that all the saints in those cities met in those particular houses. Others could meet elsewhere. If, in this day of confusion, we speak of the saints meeting in such and such a building, we speak correctly; but if we speak of them as "the local assembly" in the town we are ignoring all other saints, who may perhaps be numerous. This will not do for God.
A writer in 1841 (name unknown) in his comments upon Christians in the organised systems said, "they have had their thoughts so fully engaged in their 'churches' that they have almost lost sight of 'the church.'" If that writer were alive today he would have to say the same thing of many of our best and dearest friends who claim to stand where he stood!
Let us be humble. Is it possible that the increase of numbers in the passing years has caused us to lose sight of the remnant character? Also, is it possible that, at the back of our minds, we imagine that we have made a new start for God on more Scriptural lines than others, and so feel that we have no responsibility concerning the past? Yet what about our own divisions and sub-divisions during the past hundred years? Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah (each in his ninth chapter) felt deeply the unfaithfulness of their nation from the beginning and confessed the nation's sins as their own. Yet they had but nine centuries behind them; we have nineteen centuries behind us! Are our links with the past generations of Christians less intimate and real than those of Daniel and his contemporaries with their ancestors in Israel? Until we understand that we are living in the closing days of a ruined dispensation, we shall never see our own path clearly, nor shall we be able to help our brethren universally.
"He that has ears to hear, let him hear" (Mark 4:9).
W. W. Fereday.