The Church – What is it?

Are we interested in this great subject?

A young Christian said to me, "It does not appeal to me at all, I am sorry, but it is a side of things I don't understand." That same day another young Christian said, "I hope you will speak to us about the church." "Why?" I asked. "I listened to an address on it recently, and realized that it was very precious to the Lord Jesus, and since then I have wanted to learn all I could about it," she answered. The first of my young friends had really not got beyond the self-centred stage. What the Saviour could do for him and what he could do for the Saviour was the full range of his interest; the other had awakened to the fact that there was something on earth for Christ, something that was indeed everything to Him. It was Christ's interests instead of her own that had begun to affect her. If we love Him with an unselfish love we shall like her rejoice that our Saviour has got something that is very precious to Him, and we shall want to learn all we can about it

The first allusion to the church, or as the word should be, the assembly, in the New Testament, is in Matthew 13:45-46, for the one pearl of great price can be nothing else than the church. The merchantman who had set his heart on this precious thing is the Lord, and no price was too great for Him to pay for it. The figure used is very impressive, three things it teaches the indivisibility of the church, it is one; its purity and beauty, it is a pearl; and its exceeding preciousness, it is of great price. This is what it is in the eyes of the Lord, and that He has a great cost to Himself secured it for Himself ought to stir the heart of every one who loves Him.

It is definitely named by the Lord in Matthew 16 "Upon this Rock will I build My church," said He, and at is evident from the way that He spoke, that at that time it had no existence except an the purpose of God. The idea that the saints of Old Testament days are included in it is false. They had and will yet have a place of great blessedness, for God was not ashamed to be called their God, but their place will never be equal to that of the church.

Then it was to be His own work, and if His, then perfect in every way, also, that He would build it upon what He was Himself. It would not depend for its stability upon any quality that the children of a fallen Adam possessed or could produce, but upon what He was — the Christ, the Son of the living God. Further, the material of which it would be built would be of Himself, for Peter means a stone, and a stone is of the same order of material as the rock. This is plainly taught in the words, "He that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one." It may not be easy for us to understand this at this point in our study, but we cannot but feel that this new structure was to be very wonderful an its stability and character.

There are two other important things in relation to it that the Lord's words teach us first, it was to be His on exclusive and peculiar treasure, for He says, "I will build MY church and we must lay the emphasis upon the possessive pronoun. Second because it was to be Christ's own possession at would be assailed by all the powers of hell. Let us not suppose that Satan would quietly tolerate anything in this world that was specially for Christ, he would most surely hate it as he hates Christ Himself, but the Son of the living God would preserve it in every assault and in Him it would be impregnable, "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."

In Acts 2 we have the record of its actual coming into being. The work of the cross was finished and Christ was risen and glorified, then when Pentecost had fully come the Holy Spirit came forth from the Father, sent by the enthroned Lord Jesus Christ — for the Divine Trinity is deeply interested in it; each Person in the Godhead has His part in the formation and completion of the church — and having come He filled all the house where the disciples were gathered, and filled each one of them, not one was excluded. Having come He took control of that congregation and formed it into one body, "for by one Spirit ye are all baptised into one body," and from that time those disciples could not view themselves as mere units who could please themselves and live their lives regardless of one another, for the members of the body "should have the same care one for another" (1 Cor. 12).

Other important features of the church now emerge. It was one body formed and held together by the Holy Spirit of God; He was to be from that time in every individual member of this body. "What, know ye not that your bodies are the temple of the Holy Ghost?" (1 Cor. 6), but He was also there when they were assembled together to maintain the rights of Christ in their midst, and to carry on the work of God in them and through them. The church could have had no existence apart from the Holy Spirit, nor could it have had any light or guidance or life or power. The Holy Spirit is indispensable to it, as the Lord taught in John 14:15-16, and the Acts of the Apostles are the confirmation of the Lord's words. That part of the New Testament might well have been called the Acts of the Holy Ghost, as has often been said, but the blessed thing about it is that He did not act apart from the church that He formed and filled, and the servants of the Lord whom He energised; and they became the vessels of His power and wisdom. He had come from heaven bringing heavenly light and heavenly power to earth, and had entered into an indissoluble identification with the church that His coming had formed, and what began at Pentecost and was manifested in its full unhindered power then abides to this day in all that is vital. The Holy Spirit is not weary of His labours nor is His power exhausted.

The next step in the unfolding of the truth comes out in a startling way in Acts 9. The fiercest persecutor that the church has ever known, a veritable captain in the devil's forces, was riding proudly to Damascus to crush and destroy the church there, when a great light from heaven burst upon him, and he was felled to the earth, a blinded and a bewildered man. As he lay there he heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?" What a revelation that challenge from the glory was to his soul! Jesus whom he had hated to exceeding madness was enthroned in heaven and the despised and unresisting men and women whom he persecuted and slew were members of that risen and exalted Man! He did not say, they are Mine, but, THEY ARE ME. He identified them with and as Himself. The body formed by the Holy Spirit on earth had a Head in heaven. Christ is the Head and His church is His body.

We must not confound these words of the Lord to Paul with those other words of His: "Inasmuch as ye have done it to the least of these my brethren, ye have done it to Me." This is a more intimate relationship than that. Indeed the word relationship does not seem to truly describe it; for relationship two are required, but here it is one. The Head in heaven and the members on earth are one. "For as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is the Christ" (1 Cor. 4). "There is one body" (Eph. 4). This is "the mystery of the Christ, which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it is now revealed to His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit" (Eph. 3).

The revelation of this mystery transformed the ardent Pharisee; he arose from the dust another man, and of all the unsearchable riches of Christ that he was honoured by God to preach, none had a more important place than this, "that now to the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God" (Eph. 3). In the Colossian epistle we see the working out of this in practical life. There we learn the great fact that the life of the Head who is in heaven is in His body which is on earth; that His body is complete in Him, in whom dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily. And that now, in the very world where Christ was crucified, where Satan stirred up men to destroy the temple of His body, so that those heavenly graces which are the very character of God, and which shone in all their perfection in Jesus, might be banished from the earth for ever, in this very world, dark, sinful, and devil-ruled as it is, Christ has His body in which His very life is maintained and manifested. It is an indestructible life, fragrant and pure to God. Its features are, "bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. And above all things put on charity [love], which is the bond of perfectness, and let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful" (Col. 3). The life of which these are the features is the life of the glorified Christ, His members on earth derive it from Him in heaven, it is maintained by the power of the Holy Ghost, and as it breaks out in those who are called "elect of God, holy and beloved," the angels of God learn His manifold wisdom. Who would not be filled with wonder and awe and fullest thanksgiving at the grace that has called us to have a share in this great secret of the heart of God now revealed to us?

We pass in our brief study to one other wonderful aspect of this great truth; it comes out in Ephesians 5, "Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for it, that He might sanctify and cleanse it by the washing of water by the word, that He might present it to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing." No other statement brings out the immeasurable love that Christ has for His church, and no other figure than that of the marriage relationship can adequately set forth what it is to Him. He loved it and gave Himself for it, He loves it with a never-wearied love and serves it with that great day in view when His love shall be satisfied and He shall present it to Himself, entirely suited to Himself in His glory and with nothing in it to cause His heart a pang of grief. What a glorious church it must be when neither in His own secret thoughts or before the hosts of heaven will He be ashamed of His church, which will then be the bride, the Lamb's wife. The 19th and 21st chapters of the Revelation show it in its final and everlasting beauty, for it will never lose its lustre or decline in the affections of Christ, and when Time has ceased to be, when all its changes are over and an eternal and unchanging state of things has been ushered in, it is there, "as a bride adorned for her husband." It is to be for Himself for ever, for Himself alone and yet the eternal habitation of God (chap. 21:2-3). Not a single desire of the Lord's heart in regard to it but shall be realized. In His joy in her He will see of the travail of His soul and be satisfied. He will judge in that day that the prize is worth the price.

We surely cannot be indifferent to this which means so much to Christ, and so much to the Father who purposed this joy for Him, and so much to the Holy Spirit who labours unceasing for its completion and perfection, and so much to us too, for every redeemed and Spirit-sealed soul in this day of God's grace forms part of the church, which is now the body of Christ and is soon to be His wife.

Certain questions arise in the mind from the foregoing which will be answered, if the Lord will, in our next issue.
1. How can the church be called indivisible when it is apparently in fragments?
2. How can it be said to be impregnable when apparently it is a complete failure?
3. If all that was vital at Pentecost remains why are things apparently so feeble and is there any hope of recovery?
4. Explain further in what sense we are members of the body of Christ and how may we experience this unity with Him?
5. How can the church be finally without spot, when it has been so unfaithful to Christ, and those who form it so often defiled by the world and sin and so carnal in their ways?

Our readers are invited to send us answers to these questions.

Answer (1)
1. How can the church be called indivisible when it is apparently in fragments?
2. How can it be said to be impregnable when apparently it is a complete failure?

When the outward and visible Church, or ought we to say Churches, had ceased to be a unity, and was already falling to pieces, John was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write his Gospel and Epistles. In them the wonderful truth of the Father and the family is revealed — one Father, one family. We need this truth greatly; we need to be led more deeply into the Father's love and into family affections. Suppose a family of children quarrelled and divided into groups, two here, two on the opposite side of the room, and again another two refusing to speak to or share their games with the others, if the father came into that room and saw his children in this unhappy quarrelsome condition, would he say, "I have, alas, no longer one family, but three"? Certainly not, they are still one family to him, and that very fact makes their divisions among themselves all the more grievous, and that fact, and the father's impartial love would be the greatest factors in breaking down the barriers they had erected against each other and in making them own their oneness as a family and share with each other their pleasures and joys.

It is even so with the church, it is made up of the brethren of Christ. In Hebrews 2:12, these relationships are brought together. There is one church, one family. The Father sees only one family, and every child in it is equally loved; and Christ sees only one Church for which He gave Himself, so greatly did He love it; and the Holy Spirit sees only one body, in which He dwells and which He unites in one indivisible unity to Christ its Head, and for which He labours "till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ."

The fact that the church is still here is a proof of its impregnability. During its history on earth it has often appeared as though it had been utterly defeated, but it has never been so, it has been said that the "annals of the church are the annals of hell." But the church of the historian is not the church of God. The church of God has suffered the fiercest persecution from that which blatantly claims that name, for the false hates the true, and the darkness hates the light. But the true has been maintained by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the blood of the martyrs has often been the seed of the church. We believe that we are right in saying that there are more true saints of God on earth today than ever in the history of the church, and in view of the near return of the Lord, we look for an increasing devotion of heart to Himself, which the prevailing worldliness and false teaching of the professing body will not spoil; for is it not written, "The Spirit and the Bride say, Come"? and does not this indicate heart longing for Christ? The devil cannot prevail against this. The final triumph will be, when Christ presents the church to Himself, a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing.

Answer (2)

1. How can the church be called indivisible when it is apparently in fragments?

Once the deep significance of two expressions are understood, the perplexity of the oneness of the church, and the disunited condition of Christians, becomes less. In Matthew 16:18, Christ said, "I WILL BUILD MY CHURCH." In 1 Corinthians 3:12 read, "IF ANY MAN BUILD." In each there is the foundation — for other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ." The living stones built up a spiritual house — is that aspect building done by our Lord alone — against it the gates of hades cannot prevail. Gates tell us of the authority and power of the unseen world of spiritual wickedness, and although for long centuries Satanic energies and ingenuity have sought to destroy the church, we are assured by the Lord Himself that He shall have it with Himself, 'a glorious church, without spot or blemish! It is Thy work, Lord Jesus — blessed, divine, perfect!

The church, however, has another aspect, clearly defined in Scripture. As an organization, a divine organization, on earth, those who "Name the name of Christ," make a profession of Christ (either real or assumed). He holds responsible for the administration of the affairs of His society of Christians, the brotherhood (1 Peter 2:17). To this end two long letters of instructions were given by the Lord, First and Second Corinthians, outlining every detail, both of the constitution of His assembly, and giving instructions how the holy and happy exercises of all matters relating to collective service and worship should be fulfilled in the energy of the Holy Spirit, under His Headship, and in love. This is wherein failure has been written largely over the whole association of Christians on earth. Christ gives us His moral estimate of it all from the time when, although still with a united and fair exterior, the church left her first love, down through the ages until now, in pitiful complacent pride the association of professing Christians on earth say to their Lord: — "We are rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing"! In this wretched moral condition, the church as an organization exists today, in disunited and fragmentary denominations and parties, the spirit of which had commenced long ago. "It has been declared … that there are contentions among you … for ye are yet carnal … there is among you envyings, and strife, and factions" (1 Cor. 1:11-3:3).

2. How can it be said to be impregnable when apparently it is a complete failure?

An answer to this is largely embodied in answering the first. There is a "twofoldness" in divine truth, which runs in parallel lines, never crossing, never diverging, relating to almost every vital theme revealed in Scripture. God's sovereignty and man's responsibility, for example. So with the church. As builded by Christ, it is indeed impregnable. She is, as such, the foundation and support — or pillar and ground — of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). But as witness to God in the sense of "keeping that which is committed to thee," she has proved a failure indeed. So that in her last declined state Christ rejects utterly her profession of His Name, without the divine reality" (Rev. 3:16). While every true saint of God will be presented faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy (Jude 24); that He might be seen outstanding above all the failure of the church as the Faithful and True Witness.

In spite of all the waywardness and failure of those men whom our Lord choose to be with Him whithersoever He would go on earth, how blessed and encouraging it is to find Him giving them the credit of faithfulness in the end: "Ye are they who have continued with Me in My temptations, and I appoint to you a kingdom, as My Father lath appointed to Me" (Luke 22:28). Even so with us today who are Christ's own — "kept by the power of God through faith to deliverance, ready to be revealed in the last time" (1 Peter 1:5)

3. If all that was vital at Pentecost remains why are things apparently so feeble and is there any hope of recovery?

All that was vital in the beginning still remains. "God and the word of His grace" have not changed. God is eternally abiding, an ever-present Help in every need. Christ's love abides and He loves His church until the end. The Holy Spirit abides in and with each saint of God until all shall be safe in glory, and the church be found in her place in that "general assemblage" disclosed to us in Hebrews 12:22-24, with Christ the Centre of that throng!

The church on earth is composed of individual Christians, and to each is given "gifts according to the measure of grace," but who has administered the same "as good stewards of the manifold grace of God"? (1 Peter 4:10). "Without Me ye can do nothing" Christ told His own long ago, and it is just as true today, so that only as "in Him" can we fulfil in any measure those wondrous graces manifested in the so-called "primitive church."

The resources of wisdom from on high have not become depleted, but we do not avail ourselves of them. Our dull ears are so slow to hear Christ's pleading appeal of these our times: — "Be zealous therefore, and repent." Such is His love in exercise toward us that He must reprove and chasten us in our unfaithfulness.

There is no hope for a recovery to the practices of "the early days" as outlined in the Acts of the apostles. The last view we have of the church, as an association upon earth, ere Christ comes and takes out of the hour of the testing, is that of Revelation 3:14 to the close. The next view we have of the same association, now deprived of "the salt and the light" of true saints, is that of Revelation 17 and 18. Ours is now the humble part to "endeavour to keep the unity of the Spirit in the uniting bond of peace (or peaceableness). It is not our Unity — it is divine, the Unity of the Spirit — ours the part to live it out practically. Separation from evil — the accepted evils attached to the Name of Christ so abundant in Christendom today — being one of God's ways of keeping the Spirit's Unity — the "foundation" of God abiding secure, and our departing from iniquity are parallel lines of truth (2 Tim. 2:19).

5. How can the church be finally without spot, when it has been so unfaithful to Christ, and those who form it so often defiled by the world and sin and so carnal in their ways?

This, too, is answered largely in the foregoing. Turning again to Ephesians 5, we read: "Christ also loved the church, and gave Himself for it; that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word." Positionally we are "In the heavenlies in Christ" (Eph. 2:6); there are our citizen interests (Phil. 3:20); there is our Home (John 17:24; 14:1-3). We have been predestined to be conformed to the image (likeness in moral traits) of His Son. The sanctifying process now is a work of God. In spite of our unfaithfulness, defilement, and carnal ways. "The very God of peace, sanctify you wholly, and your whole spirit, soul and body be preserved blameless to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Thess. 5:23).

"Though with a scornful wonder,
  Men see her sore opprest,
By schisms rent asunder,
  By heresies distrest,
Yet saints their watch are keeping,
  Their cry goes up — "How long?"
And soon the night of weeping
  Shall be the morn of song.
Mid toil and tribulation,
  And tumult of her war,
She waits the consummation
  Of peace for evermore;
Till with the vision glorious
  Her longing eyes are blest,
And the great church victorious
  Shall be the Church at Rest!"

I am, through sovereign grace, your brother in Christ,

W. Hamilton

Answer (3)

1. How can the church be called indivisible when it is apparently in fragments?

2. How can it be said to be impregnable when it appears to be a complete failure?

Dear Mr. Editor,

The solution of the questions lies in the consideration of the two ways in which the church, as the body, is regarded in the New Testament, and especially so in the epistle to the Corinthians and to the Ephesians. In the first case it is seen dispensationally, filling the interval during which Christ is unseen. It is viewed as complete on earth at any given time, and held responsible to represent Christ in His absence, to faithfully deliver the message entrusted to it, and to maintain the light of His truth. It should have maintained a united front, for as the dwelling place of the one Spirit which constituted it at Pentecost, there should have been no schism in it. In all this it has completely failed. This is the Corinthian aspect of the body viewed as an organization or divine society, in that epistle seen as in danger of division and corruption by false teaching, and which now in result is broken into fragments. In this aspect it is never said to be impregnable. But within this outward form of the dispensation, there exists from the outset, that which is the workmanship of God, and this is vital, indivisible, impregnable. The church is so viewed as the body in the Ephesian epistle, not seen as an Organization, but as a living organism, having its Head in heaven, to whom the members on earth are united by the Holy Ghost. This great fact is known and experienced by the obedience of faith which recognises all Christians, not as members of churches or sectarian circles but as members of the spiritual body of Christ. In this latter aspect the church will be finally displayed without spot or blemish or any such thing, for each member is being formed by Christ, for the place each will fill in the body which will express His fullness. The dispensation, carnal in its ways and defiled by the world, will be cast away as worthless, there is no hope of recovery for this; it has not continued in the goodness of God and will be cut off. But the building of the Lord (Matt. 16:18), fitly framed together by Divine grace, is growing to a holy temple, and though counted as a weak and feeble thing by the world, it commands the fixed attention of principalities and powers in the heavens. The greatest thing in imperial Rome, was a poor prisoner, chained to a soldier in a hired house, for to that man had been revealed the secret of the joint body of Christ. This had been hidden from the ages and dispensations, of which it in no wise formed part, but is destined to sit together with Christ in His throne, as He overcame and is set down with His Father in His throne, abiding unchanged when all that her longs to the responsibility of the creature shall have passed away for ever."