The Apostles’ fellowship, as we have seen in a previous paper, did not long continue in its original power; yet it is quite evident that for so long as any of the Apostles remained on earth a considerable measure of power was present, and a proper discipline was largely exercised.
It is worthy of remark that discipline is connected with the church viewed as a fellowship, though it should be exercised in view of the fact that the Church is the body of Christ, and the house of God. The latter truth particularly bears upon it, inasmuch as “Holiness becomes Thine house, O Lord, for ever” (Ps. 93:5), yet if discipline be exercised so that the holiness and order of God’s house be maintained, it is exercised in the sphere of practical fellowship. Offending saints were dealt with in apostolic times by their fellow-saints even to the extreme penalty of “putting away” from amongst them, so that no vestige of practical fellowship remained; yet no pretence was made of such offenders being cut off as members from “the body”, nor removed as stones from “the house”. All action in such connections lies in the hands of God alone. The only sphere where saints are competent to act is that of fellowship.
Passages that bear upon discipline in the assembly occur in several of the Epistles, and a careful examination shows that they divide under several heads.
There is first of all apostolic discipline. This peculiar form of it is hinted at by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:3-5, and alluded to further in 2 Corinthians 10:2-10; 13:2 and 10. An example of its exercise is given us in 1 Timothy 1:20. A further threatening of its use is found in 3 John 10. Acts 5:1-13 may also be cited as an historic account of such action. This, the most powerful form of discipline, has closed with the departure of the Apostles.
Secondly, there is that form of discipline which may be exercised by a servant of the Lord acting as an apostolic delegate—such as Timothy and Titus—or by a bishop or elder duly appointed (1 Tim. 5:20; Titus 1:9-11; 3:9-11). “Rebuke before all”; “convince”;—stopping their mouths;—“Reject”. These were actions taken under authority duly bestowed, and therefore autocratic—if one may so put it. This form of discipline also hardly exists today.
Thirdly, there is assembly discipline, or at least discipline of a collective nature. This may be exerted in varying degrees of severity. 1 Thessalonians 5:14 gives us, perhaps, its mildest form: “Warn them that are unruly”. Stronger action is contemplated in 2 Thessalonians 3:6. If warning did not suffice they were to ‘withdraw’ themselves from such a disorderly brother. He was to be shunned and avoided and made to feel how the saints condemned his disorder. Again, in verse 14 of the same chapter a still severer form of discipline seems to be indicated. Some disorderly brother might aggravate his position by disregarding the Apostle’s word, and with such “no company” was to be kept. Yet, even so, as verse 15 shows, he was to be admonished as a brother, and not put in the outside place of excommunication as an enemy. Romans 16:17 indicates action of a similar character to above. Then there is 1 Corinthians 5:9-13, and here we have the extreme limit of assembly discipline. In each of these cases the responsibility to act rests on the ‘brethren’—on the assembly as such—and not on individuals of gift or authority.
Fourthly, there is that action which becomes incumbent upon the faithful believer however humble, when and if disorder supervenes generally in the Church as a consequence of Scriptural discipline ceasing to be exercised. 2 Timothy 2:16-21 speaks very definitely of this. The responsibility to “depart from iniquity” always rests upon all who name the name of the Lord, and that in every shape and form, for verse 19 is the statement of a universal principle.
The case in point, however, which gave rise to the statement of the principle, is that of Hymenaeus and Philetus, and their very grave perversion of the truth concerning the resurrection. It was error of a fundamental nature calculated to overturn everything. The foundation of God was, indeed, sure and beyond their reach, but they overturned the faith of those who fell under their influence (v. 18). The faithful believer can have no compromise with this, and the illustration of a large establishment with its many vessels with their various uses is brought to enforce the necessity of purity both personal and in associations—that is, both inside the vessel and outside too. This passage, be it noted, is not addressed only to Timothy, in his authoritative position in the assembly, but to all. It is “every one” (v. 19) and “a man” (v. 21).
The question has been raised:—assuming the above to be correct, how are we to account for there being no trace of any such action, either by Timothy or other faithful men during the early centuries of Church history?
An answer is furnished by 1 John 2:19. Writing a quarter of a century after Paul’s farewell letter to Timothy, John tells us of the anti-Christian teachers who plagued the Church even in apostolic days. “They went out from us”, and thus they revealed their true character. The first inroad of “grievous wolves” (Acts 20:29), was repulsed by apostolic energy and the faith of the saints; and throwing off their sheep’s clothing the wolves retired discomfited.
They are still seen as outside in 2 John 7–11, and being there a faithful saint, though a woman, is not to give them a foothold even in her house. Looking on to the last days, Paul prophesied that this sort would creep into houses and lead captive silly women; but the faithful woman of 2 John is to keep her door shut and withhold her salutation, inhospitable as it might seem. She was to resolutely decline fellowship down to the smallest detail.
The Epistles do not close, however, without giving us a warning as to the abuse of discipline within the sphere of Church fellowship. 3 John 9-10 shows that very early the adversary sought to discount godly discipline, destroying its force and effect, by a gross caricature through one Diotrephes. This man committed himself and others to three things. First, he would not receive the stranger brethren who had gone forth for Christ’s name’s sake, taking no support from the world. Second, he cast out of the Church those that would—and apparently did—receive them. Thirdly, he would not receive the Apostle John himself, apparently because he supported the stranger brethren, and disapproved of and condemned his high-handed proceedings.
So much for this short survey of apostolic instructions as to discipline in the assembly.
With the close of the apostolic writings we leave the sure ground of divine inspiration for the uncertain sands of human history. We may do well to step, in our minds, straight from A.D. 96 to A.D. 1921. Not that we would for one moment belittle the gracious movements of the Spirit of God through many different servants of Christ through the centuries, but we believe it will conduce to a clearer apprehension of the bearing of Scripture upon the present situation, and also enable us to avoid historic details which may be open to question, if we do so.
If, then, we ourselves had been but recently converted, and were just rejoicing in the discovery, from the Scriptures, of what the Church is in the thoughts of God, and of the nature and characteristics of Christian fellowship as originally instituted and regulated through the Apostles, what would be our first impression? Would it not be that the religious organizations—with which the majority of our fellow-Christians are connected—bear little or no resemblance to the apostolic model? And what would be the first question which would arise for solution? Would it not be as to whether we were bound to continue in such unscriptural organizations or whether, on the other hand, there were any apostolic instructions which would authorize the ordinary believer without gift or office in the Church to clear himself by separating from them? The passages quoted above in connection with Scriptural discipline, under the fourth heading, would soon satisfy us as to this. If in certain contingencies the individual believer was not authorized to act, all true believers ought to be presumably still in the “parent Churches” of east and west, Greek and Roman respectively, except they had been individually excommunicated by those bodies; a protesting and persecuted minority without doubt, but still there!
Finding ourselves, however, outside, the next question would be as to what Scripture authorizes us to do? 2 Timothy 2:22 supplies the answer. We are to earnestly pursue the things pleasing to God along with others who “call on the Lord out of a pure heart”. It is evidently supposed that there will always be such.
We may be tempted to think the instructions of this verse very meagre for such a situation as is suggested, but are they as meagre as first sight might suggest?
“Follow righteousness”, i.e., what is right. Well, what is right under such circumstances? First, to humbly and brokenly confess the failure, and not make believe that things are all right when all wrong. Secondly, to recognize that God always starts with what is right. He never, like man, experiments with the imperfect at the beginning, gradually advancing to the more finished production. Hence the way of faith, the right way, is always to revert to God’s original thoughts and institutions as far as may be practicable. In the last years of Israel’s history as a nation the Lord recalled them to “the old paths” and “the good way” (Jer. 6:16). It is not otherwise today.
We have no authority to construct anything, to organize fresh “Churches” on an improved basis as compared with what we are outside of. Nor have we authority, if we revert to the order of the assembly as established by the Apostles and revealed to us in the Scriptures, to aim at producing a more select assemblage of saints than ever the apostolic assemblies were—an eclectic company of extra choice souls—and to institute a more rigid and searching discipline, and narrower tests than Scripture intimates to attain that end. A very tempting thing this under the circumstances, and specially appealing to many earnest Christian people with a tendency to pay more attention to their own subjective consistency than to the great objective claims of CHRIST and the Church.
We are, however, authorized, we repeat, to go back to that which God instituted at the beginning; but having done so we cannot of course claim to be the original institution; at best we can only be some saints who revert to its principles, and walk according to them.
A further question now arises. Assuming that, stirred by the Spirit of God some saints are walking together according to the original instructions of the Word of God, and therefore enjoying fellowship which is apostolic in its character—what are the features which would mark it and them?
It would begin by embracing all saints as to the principle of it, and welcoming all saints, not Scripturally disqualified, as occasion might arise; though in practice it is possible that a very small percentage of them might enter into and enjoy it. The mass might remain quite unexercised as to it, and content with their various religious organizations. This is a matter of very great importance, and no fellowship which overlooks or repudiates this feature can be apostolic in its character, but must be essentially sectarian.
There would be observed the discipline which Scripture enjoins. As to morals (1 Cor. 5), as to doctrine (2 Tim. 2:17-21), and as to association with evil (2 Tim. 2:21 and 2 John 9-11), action would be taken in the fear of God according to the Word, ever remembering that as we must not fall short of, so we have no authority to go beyond what is written, inasmuch as what is written is sufficient to make the man of God perfect or complete, “throughly furnished to all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
Further, such fellowship would be enjoyed in the light of the whole truth as to Christ and the Church, just as of old the Apostle’s fellowship was founded on their doctrine. This would be a corrective to the tendency always present to regard fellowship as a matter of voluntary association, to be taken up or laid down according to one’s personal likes or dislikes. It would also preserve from tendencies either in the direction of an independent Congregationalism or that of a Romish metropolitanism. Let the truth as to the church being God’s house, and the body of Christ, in its widest or universal aspect, be firmly held, and the former becomes impossible. Let truth as to the body of Christ in its local aspect be seized and the latter tendency is checked. Both of the Corinthian Epistles in their introductions throw valuable light on this. The first is addressed primarily to the Church of God at Corinth, but linking with them in a secondary way all saints everywhere. The second is again addressed primarily to the local assembly at Corinth, but secondarily to all the saints in the surrounding province of Achaia. Here, then, we have first the local assembly, the primary sphere of all practical fellowship with its responsibilities of discipline and the like; secondly, the surrounding assemblies of the province, the first to be affected when any breakdown occurs in the local assembly; thirdly, the whole Church everywhere, the ultimate boundary to which such breakdown may extend its influence.
Again, we may safely say that any fellowship truly apostolic in character would be free from the assumption of being what it is not, or of possessing powers not within its reach. Any lofty claims to a Church position, or power not shared in by other believers who may not have had light to separate from unscriptural systems, would be very destructive of apostolic simplicity and reality. We must continually remember that at this late hour in the Church’s history there is no prospect of saints being more than a feeble remnant, adhering with some degree of fidelity to God’s original thoughts. The official side of things has lapsed. If men with the qualifications of an elder or bishop are to be found, we may well be thankful and submit to such, but no power of official ordination available for us today is delineated in Scripture.
The last feature we would mention is this: If and when difficulties and mistakes occur in the midst of such as walk in apostolic fellowship, they should become an occasion for a fresh experience of the unchanged resources of the great Head of the Church and His Spirit, and there should be no attempt to grapple with them by purely human, and much less by worldly, means.
Difficulties and mistakes will most certainly occur. They occurred in apostolic times, and it is worthy of note that though the Apostles were armed with special powers of discipline to deal with such, they used those powers very sparingly, and only in the most grave and obstinate cases, as we have previously seen. The more excellent way even for them was that of pastoral care and oversight whether in person or by letter as in the case of the Corinthians and Galatians. To the Apostle Paul the intervention of the Lord, caring for His own interests in His assembly, was a thing to be counted on and expected. Compare Galatians 4:11, 20 with Galatians 5:10. His confidence as to them was “through the Lord”. How much violent action amongst saints—action if not actually opposed to Scripture, at least beyond Scriptural limits—would have never taken place if the faith which makes Christ on high, and the Spirit here below living realities to us, had been more in exercise? Then saints would have been content to act within the limits that Scripture assigns them, and count on the Lord by His Spirit present in the Church to act for His own glory as to anything beyond.
In all that has been advanced above there is nothing new so far as we are aware, and it is a fact that some ninety years ago not a few saints of a godliness and power hardly known in these days began to walk together in fellowship of this kind. It is also a fact that as time elapsed and faith and spiritual energy declined, there has been a tendency to depart from fellowship of an apostolic character, towards one of sectarian narrowness or unscriptural breadth. This has greatly complicated matters, and largely obscured the practical blessedness and simplicity of the truth.
The truth, however, stands together with the responsibility of every saint to know it and walk according to it. Just as in years gone by it was the path of faith, in the presence of the ruin of the professing Church, to revert to the truth of Scripture and walk in obedience thereto, so is it today in the presence of the further failure amongst those who have essayed so to walk.
Some have spoken as if the failure on the part of those who have set out to walk in fellowship of an apostolic order, has rendered any further attempt to so walk abortive, and shut us all up to a kind of helpless acquiescence in what can by no means be defended from Scripture. We venture, on the contrary, to affirm that the door of repentance (Rev. 3:19), of faith, and of first works (Rev. 3:20)—“hear my voice” is faith and “open the door” is first works—is open even in the extreme end of the dispensation; and that if failure occurs ten times over, and the situation becomes far more involved, yet there will never be any valid reason against a simple return to the truth of Scripture. Want of faith or courage upon our side alone will hinder.
Casting a prophetic glance forward Paul commended the saints to “God and the word of His grace” (Acts 20:32). Such is our resource today. We need but faith to discern His mind and courage to obey.
Extracted from “Christ and the Assembly”