The Ground of the Church of God,

and what it involves.

1879 279 I am writing for those who have learnt at least that the church of God is one, and that the sects and denominations of Christendom are, as such, necessarily wrong and to be refused. This is a great truth, however simple a one. If the church be God's — if Christ be its Head, and it His body — if by one Spirit we are baptised into that body — if the word of God be Christ's complete authoritative instruction for His own, then of necessity the formation of divers bodies, the union of Christians by what distinguishes them from one another, the adoption of human creeds and confessions (as if the word of God were not full enough or plain enough for the guidance of His people), all this must be judged as so much real confusion. There remains for us only the one church of God, to which every one baptised by the Spirit belongs, a body which it is not ours to make, admit into, or legislate for, but simply to recognise as that to which we have relationship, and a sphere of duty founded upon this, which scripture can alone authoritatively define for us. My conscience, delivered from the usurpation of traditional authority, is set free only to learn humbly in God's presence what is my path with Him, and to follow it in subjection to His word and Spirit.

I do not dwell further upon this then, however important. Two questions that are pressing upon many in the present day, and the various answers to which are dividing those who are so far united, I seek briefly to consider:

How far and in what way is scriptural unity attainable in a day like this? and

What is the discipline of the church of God enjoined with regard to evil doctrine and evil practice, so lamentably prevalent?

The latter question it may be simpler in some respects to take up first, and as to both I merely seek to point out and emphasise a few passages from God's word.

1. Separation from evil is everywhere enjoined upon believers, and that in order to the enjoyment of their privileges as such. "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers, … come out from among them, and be separate, and touch not the unclean thing, and I will receive you, and will be a father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty." And if the evil be in professing Christians, and there be such a state of things that all we can say is, "The Lord knoweth them that are his," still the word is (perhaps even more emphatically) "Let every one that nameth the name of the Lord depart from iniquity … If a man therefore purge himself from these" [vessels to dishonour]  "he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified and meet for the Master's use, and prepared unto every good work."

In these two passages, both the yoke — commercial, matrimonial, and ecclesiastical — is forbidden with unbelievers, and a man is to purge himself not merely from iniquity, but from association with evildoers; and in both cases in order to be (in the full blessedness of it) a child of the Father, or a sanctified vessel for the Master's use.

In the latter case it is not simply moral evil that is in question, but the apostle has directly in view the case of Hymenaeus and Philetus, "who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already, and overthrow the faith of some." These are an example of the people to be withdrawn from. And the apostle John, writing to an "elect lady" of "whosoever transgresseth and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ," enjoins, "If there come any unto you and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house nor bid him God speed ['salute him,' literally]; for he that saluteth him is partaker of his evil deeds." Here again, dissociation from the person is the only way to be morally free from the evil with which he is identified.

These, it may be said, are rules for the individual. They are so, and therefore absolutely binding upon the individual, but upon each and all. If any gathering of Christians then would link me up with moral or doctrinal evil, my separation from them ecclesiastically is as much enjoined upon me as my separation from the evildoers in question, for they would bind me to disobedience to my Lord. Nay, their case is in this respect worse than his who brings the false doctrine, that he is blinded by it, while they, with their eyes open to its evil, practically sanction it by their association with it. Justly therefore does scripture decide, that whosoever salutes him who brings not the doctrine of Christ is partaker of his evil deeds.

This principle is fully recognised in the epistle which treats of the order of the church on earth — the first Epistle to the Corinthians, where they, having continued in association with the evildoer, are exhorted by the apostle to "purge out the old leaven, that they might be a new lump as they were unleavened." It has been indeed contended with singular boldness, that these words intimate that the Corinthians were still "unleavened" as to their practical state. But "as ye are unleavened" applies plainly to what they were in Christ, not in practice. For they had to purge out the old leaven which was among them, in order to be a new lump corresponding to their character in Christ. How plain then that the leaven had leavened them by the very fact of its permitted presence in their midst! They must therefore act, they must clear themselves, by putting away the wicked person from among them. His being taken away would not suffice. They must judge those within, not expecting God to come in and remove one, whom He had made them responsible to deal with and to put away.

He who should come into an assembly thus infected with evil would clearly become part of the leavened lump; and supposing the man in question had left the place, the assembly would not by the mere absence of the evildoer be purged at all. It would be in the same state as ever, because it was not the mere condition of the man which had defiled it, but theirs who could sit down quietly with sin and their Lord's dishonour.

The scripture principle then is, that whether as regards false doctrine (fundamental error) or immoral conduct, those who associate themselves with such are partakers of it, and leavened by it, whether assemblies or individuals, and to be treated as such.

Let us now look at the other question, What is the scriptural unity of the church of God, and how far is it attainable in a time of confusion such as is the present?

For manifestly the church (or as I would rather call it, for it is its proper title, the assembly) of God — that which, as Christ's body, consists of all that are His members, and of none else — is not in practical visible unity, as it once was. It was once together; it is now broken up into multitudinous divisions, and mingled with a mass of mere untrue profession. Corporate discipline has thus been rendered impossible; corporate testimony to Christ is gone; the church is not together to act as one. Is power for discipline lost then to any two or three, who desire to walk according to the word now? and how are they to do so, who are "endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace?"

As to the first we have already seen that separation from evil is a matter in which we are individually responsible to the Lord, whether others act or no; so that it would not be possible for one with a good conscience towards Him to remain in connection with any people by whom these rules were violated. The other is answered by that gracious assurance of Him who from the beginning foreknew and provided for the end; "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."

People have pointed out to us that these words are connected with the promise of blessing to a simple prayer-meeting. But that, if true, would not take from their own evident and proper meaning. It would rather suppose the prayer meeting itself to be conditioned by the principles which the words can be shown manifestly to contain. But it is not true that the Lord's statement is appended merely to this. It is evidently at least as much so to what immediately precedes it: "Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven;" and "Again I say unto you, that if two of you shall agree," etc., only adds another blessedness flowing from the Lord's presence with His people. He is present to confirm their acts. He is present to give answer to their prayers. But He promises that presence, as the words emphatically show, only where two or three are gathered together unto His name. There is need then to inquire what this means. We may not assume that every gathering of Christians fulfils these conditions. We must test this by the words themselves.

The name of Jesus and His person are distinguished in the Lord's words. Where people are gathered to His name He will be personally present. We must not assume we have Himself to gather to. For sight He is not here. And faith must have His word to justify it. The condition of His personal presence in our assemblies is that we are gathered to His name.

His name is the expression of what He Himself is. He was called Jesus, because He should save His people from their sins. Philip preached "concerning the name of Jesus Christ," that is, "preached Christ," or the truth of what He is; and the Samaritans, believing, were "baptised unto the name of the Lord Jesus," identifying themselves with that truth he had declared.

It is "gathered unto*" My name, and not in it. The difference is obvious. To be gathered in His name means necessarily no more than by His authority. To be gathered to His name means that His name constitutes the centre of union. What unites us is the truth of what He is; and where He finds a people for whom this bond suffices, there He promises the blessing of His own personal presence in the midst.

[*So the Greek; and also in Acts 8:16, just cited, as well as wherever baptism is spoken of.]

This presence must be distinguished from the presence of the Holy Ghost in the saints or in the church as the house of God at large. The Holy Ghost is always in the saints and in the church at large, unconditionally as to any principle of gathering whatever; and His presence therefore does not sanction the gathering as such. This should be as plain as it is important; for it shows how God can work in His grace amid all the confusion of Christendom, without sanctioning the discordant and sectarian principles which prevail, in the least. Christ's presence in the midst, on the other hand, is sanction*; "whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven," is connected with it.

[*Not, of course, of the state of the gathering otherwise.]

If it is asked, how can He who is corporeally in heaven be (other than by His Spirit) now on earth? this is answered by another question, how could He who was corporeally upon earth speak of Himself then as "the Son of man which is in heaven"? A spiritual, not corporeal, presence in the midst it surely is, not the less real on that account; and Himself really, not representatively, by another.

If, then, we are gathered to His name, nothing less is implied than the absence of all sectarian terms of fellowship; what unites is the true confession of a true Christ, and this involves the exercise of effective discipline, for that would be no true confession of His name which allowed His dishonour. With this proviso, such a principle necessitates a door being open for all that are really Christ's; and if only two or three be on it, it is yet the common ground for all, the ground of the church of God, though the immense proportion of the church be elsewhere. And the two or three there, however few, have the assurance of the Lord's presence with them, and of His sanction of the place they are taking. For binding or loosing, the exercise of discipline, or as one near in living power for all they call upon Him for, they have Christ with them, and such is the force of this precious scripture as to the simple prayer-meeting of two or three.

Thus encouraged, we may turn to some other scriptures relating to the church of God, and note what we find as to its practical order.

Let us mark, then, first, that it is the assembly of God which is Christ's body — of course no local thing, and but one body. This body is the organism, the only one — of right the only visible community into which we are baptised,* and in which we are members.

[*By the Spirit, of course, not water.]

Thus, although there are necessarily assemblies, local gatherings, because the members of Christ are scattered over the earth, yet they are never members of any local assembly; the body with which alone they are connected is the body of Christ. The local assembly is not the divine organisation at all. It is (if you take scripture) the mere result of our circumstances. At the Lord's supper we show that we are "one bread, one body, for we are all partakers of that one bread." The one body is not an association of many bodies, but a fellowship of many members.

On the ground of the church of God, then, we cannot be local bodies, whether confederated or independent, nor refuse to own in the fullest and most practical way the two or three on the same ground anywhere, nor to accept their binding and loosing as what has Christ's sanction. Infallibility, whether on our part or theirs, is not pretended to; nay, as of old, so surely still, saints anywhere may decline from God so far, and be so unfaithful to Christ, as to lose claim to be owned as His. But until there be proof of this, we must remember the Lord's words which we have just been considering. The true and living Head of the church is yet faithful, let the weakness and folly of His people be what they may; what He sanctions we may not disavow.

I shall only add a few practical considerations, which, with the rest, I would affectionately commend to the consideration of beloved brethren. Truth is of God, and he who resists, resists God in it. Any question as to what is truth is, therefore, serious; how serious, then, when the question affects Christ's headship over His church, and the practical order of that church, which He loved, and for which He gave Himself!

1. The principles announced are the very opposite of any requisition of intelligence as to church principles in order to fellowship. The church of God is necessarily composed of those of every stature and of every grade of knowledge, teachers and taught alike. All these, to the veriest babe in Christ, are already within its pale, and it is too late to talk of terms of admission. There are only two things which scripture (and not we) insists on in order to their enjoyment of their privileges as within — that they should be able to show their genealogy, and that they should be free from that which would involve the Lord's dishonour in association with them. Both these questions the word of God must settle.

2. These principles imply no "confederation of assemblies" at all, for any purpose whatever, but the practical unity of the one church everywhere, divided only by the mere accident of locality; the exact opposite of any confederation.

3. Evil doctrine (or practice) coming in at Corinth, would be as much a question (if not rightly settled there) for saints at Philippi or Thessalonica as at Corinth, or else Christ's dishonour there is of less consequence to me as the miles increase that separate me from it. And this nothing but indifference to Christ can argue.

4. If Corinth be leavened by the admission of evil, those coming from there would necessarily be treated as partakers with it by the mere fact of their association with it. Nor could they rightly be received until they had renounced such associations. This is the only practical proof that would avail to show their freedom from the evil itself.

5. One put away at Corinth would be equally put away at Philippi, or elsewhere, for he could not be outside the practical unity of the one body, and in it at the same time.

Some deny any right to put away from the Lord's table at all, but I suppose it is clear that the apostle did enjoin upon the Corinthians in the case of any one called a brother, yet an evildoer, "with such an one, no, not to eat." Does that apply to the Lord's table? or was their communion table perchance not the Lord's table? or has He another to receive such at, or what?

Again, it has been said we have not power to judge, for all is confusion; which would seem to mean that the Lord is more tolerant of evil than He once was. But the command to be separate is individual and imperative, as we have seen.

Others believe we may judge individuals, not assemblies, while almost in the same breath they will accuse us of maintaining the infallibility of assemblies. As to both, I have in fact replied. I would only ask here if evil loses its character when sanctioned by an assembly? and if an assembly would link one with the evil we are commanded to separate from, is it not a duty to separate from it? And then, further, whom are the twos and threes elsewhere to own, the one separated from evil or the assembly leavened with it? or are they to identify themselves with both and so persistently link the separated one with what he is separated from, in spite of all? Or once again, if his separation be right and called for, is it not as much the duty of every child of God to be separated with him?

And finally, however many may be the links that connect me with evil, if God calls me to be separate, must I not refuse the second or third remove, even as the first?

These questions I leave for the consideration of my readers. I have entered into no discussion of the facts to which these principles apply, nor do I design to do so. The honest-hearted will soon find how they apply. But these are the principles of what they call "exclusivism." If any child of God should come to see that they are scriptural, and should be led to apply them honestly to his ecclesiastical associations, the Lord will not fail him in the endeavour, and he will surely find in the simple consciousness of doing his Master's will, a sufficient compensation for the reproach of being an "exclusive." F. W. Grant.