The two subjects which are now to come before us may seem at first sight to be rather widely separated; but in truth, far as they appear to diverge, they equally flow from Christ. They are founded both of them upon His work, as an accomplished fact; they are derived from Him in His present place of exaltation at the right hand of God; they are established for the express object of magnifying the Lord Jesus, even as they are now called in a very direct way to subserve His Lordship. And this last point is one of immense practical importance. For whatever may be the power of the Spirit in ministry, whatever may be the privileges of the assembly, still the Lordship of Christ is a truth of elementary character indeed in the mind of God, but of exceeding moment for the practical working of the Spirit of God, both in the individual members, who are His servants, and in the assembly, the body of which He is the Head. Hence we can at once see that, whatever may be the different lines that either the ministry or the assembly may take, yet they spring from a common source, and they are both intended of God to be subject to, and the means of exalting, the same Lord Jesus Christ. Now it will be my business tonight to direct attention to the testimony we have in the word of God as to both these subjects, in order to show, as far as limits permit, wherein they differ; wherein also a common principle binds them together; and above all their common end, as well as the Christian’s consequent responsibility.
First of all, as to the assembly, we may be the more brief, inasmuch as we have had already the “one body” before us, as well as the “one Spirit.” But I may direct you to a few scriptures which prove what I have just advanced, that the assembly of God is founded upon the accomplished work of Christ, and His exaltation to heavenly glory.
Let me premise that the church has the same meaning with the assembly; hence the word “assembly” is often used in order to avoid misunderstanding. There might be many questions raised as to the meaning of “church:” it is hardly possible to create difficulties as to the word “assembly.” Now the fact is that the church is the assembly. Assembly is the proper English word, rather than “church,” which has become anglicized, no doubt, but it frequently conveys notions not only vague, but even opposite to different minds.
Now in the Acts of the Apostles, as compared with Matthew 16, we find clear light. The Lord, at a very critical point in His dealings with the disciples, tells Peter more particularly, but all His followers in fact, that He was going to build His assembly. “Upon this rock,” says He, “I will build my church.” The reason of this was that the unbelief of the Jewish people was complete, after He had given the fullest divine proof, both in miracles and signs, in accomplished prophecies, and above all in the moral power which ever hung around Him — a brighter crown of glory than anything in either miracle or prophecy. But when the Lord had, so to speak, exhausted all the means which even His goodness and wisdom could suggest in acquiescence with the will of God the Father, and the result of His patient grace was that the unbelief and scorn of the true Messiah became more and more decided, the spirit of hostility becoming more evidently deadly in its character, He brings all to issue by asking who men said that He was. The answer showed the total uncertainty of Israel; nay, rather the only certainty was that men, the best and wisest of them, humanly speaking; those that had seen most of Him, were completely wrong. He appeals then, not to some great one, but to a heart that was true — to Simon the son of Jonas; and from his lips falls that confession for which the Lord Himself pronounced him blessed — blessed because it was not of flesh and blood, with their mere weakness and opposition to God. It was the Father who was in heaven who had revealed to his soul the glorious truth, that underneath that despised form — that outcast, the Nazarene, was not only the Christ, but the Son of the living God. The Lord Jesus immediately lays holds of this confession, and, with especial reference to the latter part of it — His being not merely the Messiah or Christ, but the Son of the living God, He says, “Upon this rock I will build my church.”
The Messiah, in shame and humiliation, was a stumbling-stone to Israel; but the Son of the living God confessed was the rock upon which the church is built. This was a fuller confession, and a deeper one — in all its fulness certainly new, and so treated of the Lord. Not but that, as we know, Christ was the Son of the living God from all eternity; but still for the first time He was so confessed by human lips, and by a heart taught of God the Father. The Lord Jesus, then, also for the first time, intimates that upon this confession His church was to be built; and immediately He forbids them to tell that He was the Christ, showing that it was no question now of being received and reigning as Messiah. He was to be rejected, and to suffer. Hence, on His rejection by the people, but the recognition of the higher glory of His person by the remnant represented by Peter, we have His sufferings and death at once announced. This it is which opened the door for that new work of God — the church that was to be built upon the confession of Jesus Christ, “the Son of the living God.” Accordingly soon follows the Lord dying on the cross, determined to be the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, then glorified, and in due time sending down the Holy Ghost from heaven. The second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, which shows the presence of the Holy Ghost, gives us for the first time the assembly as an existing fact on earth. This is worthy of all note. The Lord in Matt. 16 had spoken of His assembly as a thing that had yet to be reared up: “Upon this rock I will build my church.” But now in Acts 2 we find the church is in process of being built; as it is said in the end of the chapter, “the Lord added to the church2 (or, together) daily such as should be saved.”
This is a very important lesson, and full of weighty results. It proves that the church does not mean merely people that are saved, or in process of being saved. Salvation was true before the assembly. The Lord took such as should be saved, and brought them into the church. If there had been no assembly to bring, them into, this would not have negatived the fact that they were “such as should be saved.”
What is the meaning of “such as should be saved”? It means those in Israel destined to be saved — those Jews whom grace was looking upon and dealing with in their souls. In the approaching dissolution of the Jewish system God reserved to Himself a remnant according to the election of grace. There was always this remnant, which a time of declension and ruin served but to define. Thus, during the Lord’s lifetime the disciples were the remnant, or “such as should be saved.” All those that were soon to confess Jesus as Messiah by the Holy Ghost were “such as should be saved;” but there was no such thing yet as the church to add them to. Now, at the time referred to in Acts 2, the assembly or church was there to which they might be added. Coincident with the Holy Ghost’s presence, we have the church; and this agrees with 1 Cor. 12:13, where it is said that “by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body;” that is to say, the formation of the body depends upon the baptism of the Spirit. Acts 1 shows that the baptism of the Spirit had not yet taken place; Acts 2 shows that it had; and immediately the fact is apparent that the church was there as a thing actually found upon the earth, to which “such as should be saved” were being added by the Lord. That is, the Lord now had a house upon the earth. The stones were there before — living stones, but they were separate: there was no building, of God in this sense here below.
Now the Lord acts upon His words, “Upon this rock I will build my church.” He brings the living stones together; He builds them into one and the same house — the house of God, and this not by faith merely, but by the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven. We know that, before they thus entered the church, there were at least a hundred and twenty names who are expressly mentioned in Acts 1. They too were “such as should be saved.” And I do not doubt that there were considerably more who really were brethren. Thus, in 1 Cor. 15:6, we hear of “above five hundred brethren” who saw the Lord after His resurrection. Therefore, it is plain, there were pretty many believers in the land of Israel. The “hundred and twenty” were those who, at or after the crucifixion, lived in Jerusalem. But whatever might be the number of the brethren throughout the land, or of the names in Jerusalem, there was no such thing, as “the church,” the assembly of God, until the Holy Ghost was sent down to give unity — to form them into one existing corporation, whether you regard it as the house of God, or as the body of Christ. There are very important differences connected with these views of the assembly; but still it is the presence of the Holy Ghost which makes it either Christ’s body or the temple of God. In 1 Cor. it is spoken of as constituted by the Holy Ghost, present and operating in it; there also it is called the body of Christ, as we see from the scripture just referred to: “By one Spirit are we all baptized into one body.”
Obviously this is extremely important, because what people think and talk about as the “invisible church” — though scripture never uses the expression — was substantially in existence before “the church;” and, in fact, this invisible state of things is what the Lord was putting an end to, when He formed the church. In Old Testament times, we all know, there was a nation which God accounted and called His people, in the midst of whom there were isolated believers, as no doubt there were other believers among the Gentiles. Thus, there was Job, for instance, in early days; and every now and then, throughout the scriptures, we have one Gentile and another who evidently manifested divine life in them, and a looking for the Redeemer, outside the limits of Israel. For all that, there was no such thing as “the church” — no gathering together of the scattered believers into one, till the death of Christ. The children of God had been scattered abroad, but then they were gathered together. Henceforth disciples in Israel were not only destined to salvation, but they were gathered into one upon the earth. This is the church. The assembly necessarily supposes a gathering of the saints into one body, separate from the rest of mankind. There was no such body before. Hence, to talk of “the church” in Jewish times, or in earlier days, is altogether a mistake. The mixture of believers with their unbelieving countrymen (i.e., what is called “the invisible church”) was the very thing which the Lord was concluding — not beginning — when He “added to the church daily such as should be saved.”
The common error upon this subject is, that the aggregate of those that are to be saved composes the church. But the contrary appears from this scripture and many others. Up to this time “such as should be saved” were not in the church. Now the Lord takes and adds them day by day together, making up one assembled body. Thus, it is quite evident that “the assembly” is one thing, and the being saved is another. Of course, salvation is true of those that are in and of the church. The Lord does not leave “such as should be saved” in their old associations, but gradually builds them together into the church. But the two ideas are so totally distinct, that, all through the Old Testament, there were “such as should be saved,” and yet there was no “church of God,” in the sense we are now deducing from scripture. The assembly of Israel no doubt there was, and it is called the “congregation of Jehovah” — the “assembly,” if you will, of Jehovah; but then that was merely the nation, the entire mass of the Jewish people. It was out of this very nation that the first nucleus of “the church” was taken; and the Holy Ghost having just come down to dwell in those that were already there, the Lord takes the others that were converted at Pentecost or afterwards, and adds them to the existing body — the church now in course of formation. Evidently, therefore, the first covenant state that was now ready to vanish away answers to what people mean when they speak of “a visible and invisible church.” They would call the Jewish nation the visible church, and “such as should be saved” in their midst, the invisible church. Well, let them so speak, if they will; but all I now affirm, and wish to impress upon every one who is subject to the word of God, is that, as applied to what the New Testament calls “the church of God,” this kind of thought and language is condemned by the clear and positive statements of God’s word. I would not speak so strongly if scripture left the smallest shadow of doubt upon the point. But if the word of God is express, it seems to me criminal for a believer to speak doubtfully. Not only is he not doing all he should do, but he is really helping on the spirit of infidelity in the world. We owe it to our God to be firm where His word is plain; we owe it to Him to be uncompromising as well as obedient. If the word of God be thus explicit, that now for the first time we have “the church,” formed by the baptism of the Holy Ghost vouchsafed to believers, and that those who were destined to salvation, “such as should be saved,” were taken out of Israel and added to that assembly, then I say that the church, in the New Testament sense of the word, never did or could exist before — that it began there and then — that it consists of saved people taken out of the Jews first, and then out of the Gentiles afterwards, as we know, but both brought into one existing body upon the earth. That body is, and is called, “the church,” or the assembly of God.
In due time the Lord began to extend the work. Thus, in Acts 8, we find Samaria receiving the gospel, and the Holy Ghost subsequently given to the believers. We have afterwards the Ethiopian eunuch brought to the knowledge of Christ. Then the great apostle of the Gentiles is so converted as to be the fittest witness of grace, as well as of the church — one with Christ in heaven: as indeed in Col. 1 he styles himself not only minister of the gospel, but of the church. Only he treats of it as the body of Christ.
By the way, in passing, I would remark that Acts 9:31 has its force impaired, to say the least, in the common Greek text and English version, “Then had the churches rest,” we read, “throughout all Judæa, and Galilee, and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied.” Now the best copies and most ancient versions give “the church,” not “the churches.” I admit fully there were churches in all these districts; but there is nothing peculiar in this. But that which, I am persuaded, the Spirit of God wrote here, was “the church.” Minds were perplexed very early indeed. The idea of the church as a subsisting united society upon the earth is easily lost sight of, particularly when we look at different districts and countries, such as Judæa, and Galilee, and Samaria. The true reading at once leads us back to the substantial unity that belonged to the church, or assembly of God, here below. There might be ever so many assemblies throughout Judæa, and Samaria, and Galilee, but it was the church. I admit that we often hear of the churches of Judæa, and of other countries, as Galatia for instance. No one questions the fact of many different assemblies in these different lands. But then there is another truth which has not been seen for a long while by the great mass of God’s children — not only that God set up a body which did not exist before, but that wherever assemblies might be, it was all the assembly. Not only did He constitute the church upon earth, susceptible of daily growth, but while He extended the work, while He formed fresh assemblies in this or that district and country, it was nevertheless one and the same church wherever it might be. This scripture, rightly read, furnishes a strong proof of it; and I will now just add that the best authorities leave no doubt on my mind as to this. The word churches supplanted the church at an early day; and probably it is due to the fact that very soon the copyists, like other people, began to lose sight of the unity which God was establishing among His children upon the earth.3 It is so much more natural to conceive merely of distinct churches, than to take in the precious truth of the church wherever it is found upon the face of the earth. This may have led to assimilating the true phrase to another and more familiar one, especially when the sense of unity decayed and disappeared.
From the historical account in the Acts of the Apostles, let us turn to the instruction which the rest of the New Testament affords as to the assembly. First, the Lord in Matt. 18 had laid down the spirit in personal matters that was to actuate the assembly, beginning with one of its members. He had shown there, that the legal spirit is quite out of place. He had pointed out in the most beautiful manner how He Himself was the Son of man that came “to seek and to save that which was lost” — not merely that He was the Shepherd of Israel, gathering His own people, but that He was come in quest of the lost, in the pure and simple and full grace of God. Take a case which He knew might occur in the assembly He was going to build — the case of one brother trespassing against another: what was to guide? Not law, nor nature, but grace. The righteousness of man would say: “The man that has done the wrong must come and humble himself.” “No,” says grace, “go you after him.” “What! after the man that did me this wrong?” “Yes, it is exactly what the Lord has done.” That is, the Lord puts His own grace as the pattern, and spring, and power that is to govern the individual, and of course also to be the life-breath of the assembly. Consequently we find: “If thy brother trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone.” He that was trespassed against becomes in grace the active party. He goes, and for what purpose? To tell his brother his fault. What a call for the painstaking and self-abnegation of love! And if his brother hear him, he has “gained his brother.” What a requital, even now from the Lord! It would be indeed a sorrow to the heart that he should go farther astray. Thus it is that love, divine love, reproduces itself in those that the Lord is not ashamed to call His brethren. He calls them to be the witnesses, not of the servant by whom the law was given, but of Himself, who was full of grace and truth. Accordingly, then, grace is the energetic influence that works; but truth is not set aside for a moment. Still less can the Christian entertain that pride of heart and indifference that would say, “Well, he has acted wrongly; I am above it, and will take no notice of it.” There would be in this a spirit of hard forgetfulness of Christ and His grace, as well as the world’s indifference about one’s brother. There is no allowance of either in our Saviour’s words. Again, the legal principle, right as it is in itself, of dealing with a man as he deserves, is entirely excluded. Divine grace, as seen in the person and mission of the Saviour of the lost, works in the soul if we follow His voice. We know well how easily it might be forgotten, and how the heart might reason: “Because he is my brother, he is the less excusable — he ought to know better.” There is truth in this: no doubt, he ought to know it; but if he does not, you may at least feel what is your place and privilege. “Go and tell him,” etc. Thus the Lord does not lay down a law for the wrong-doer to find his way back, but calls the man that is in the right to go forth, not in the spirit of right, but of grace, to win him who is wrong; and if the latter hears, the former has gained his brother. If the wrong-doer refuses to hear, the thing is to be laid before others. “If he will not hear thee, take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” There would be as it were a combined action of grace brought to bear upon the offender’s soul, that he may hold out no longer. It was bad enough to refuse one: can he refuse one or two more? Well, but if he does neglect to hear them, what then? The whole church hear and speak; all the objects and witnesses of divine grace who are in the place are intent and occupied with the trespasser. Can he reject the church? If he does, “let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.”
Brethren, what sentence so terrible as the sentence of grace and truth rejected? And thereby is seen the sad mistake that is often made when men talk about love, but I am afraid with little appreciation of it. There must be a love in deed and in truth from Christ Himself, to begin and go on with such a work as this. But observe, the very same delight in and submission to Christ which can carry one after a personal offender thus, not as a bare duty, but with fervent desire to win him back — the self-same spirit of faith regards him, if refractory, “as a heathen man and a publican.” He may be really a converted man; but he who rejects the grace of Christ thus flowing out according to the truth, is no longer to be counted as a brother. No matter whether he is really a brother or not before God, he is rejecting the Lord, as it were, in those that represent Him on earth in His assembly. “Let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.”
This, then, is the Lord’s weighty and standing lesson before the assembly came into existence; but we are not left only to these preliminary preparations of the Lord. In 1 Cor., and more particularly in the chapter that was read, is a very full account of the way in which the Lord orders the assembly. Before calling your attention to this, let me refer first of all to chapter 12, where the subject of spiritual manifestations begins. There you find the Holy Ghost in active operation. He is at work in the various members of the assembly of God. For “there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord; and there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God who worketh all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal; for to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another, the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; to another, faith, by the same Spirit; to another, the gifts of healing, by the same Spirit” — and so on. But if we have here spiritual acting in the assembly, observe that the subject opens by tests that decide between the spirits that were not of God, and the Holy Ghost. It is not a question of settling who are Christians and who are not, but of discriminating what is of the Holy Spirit from the spirits that are opposed to Him — the instruments of the enemy.
And what may these tests be? “No one speaking by the Spirit of God, says Jesus [is] accursed (or anathema); and no one can say Lord Jesus but by the Holy Spirit.” Thus the Holy Spirit of God would never treat Christ as in His own person, or relationship to God, under a curse. This is a very simple and solemn test, and ought to be weighed by us — I think I may say, beloved brethren, by us especially. For in our own days a most audacious effort of the devil has been put forth. Have not men dared to assert that the Lord Jesus, in His own relationship to God as a man upon the earth, was under the curse of the broken law? — that He was under the effects, as between His soul and God, of man’s distance from God? At once we discern what spirit this is. “No man speaking by the Holy Ghost calleth Jesus accursed.” On the other hand, “No man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.” When an evil spirit works, he may utter many fine things; he may appear to exalt Christ and His servants, as we see in the Gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles; but he never owns Jesus as Lord. It is the sure mark of an evil spirit to lower Jesus, by bringing Him in some way or other for Himself, under the curse. I am not speaking of His taking that place upon the cross by grace, but of His own place as man with God, apart from atonement. The pretence may be thereby to increase His sympathy towards us, or to enhance His triumph over the difficulty, and His extrication from it; but no one speaking by the Holy Ghost says Jesus is accursed. Then you have the counter-test, that those who own the Lordship of Jesus, own Him in the power of the Holy Ghost. This is no question of souls being saved, but a means of detecting what manner of spirit is active in the church. It is the scriptural touchstone for discovering those that are under the power of an evil spirit, and those that speak by the Holy Ghost. What is of the Holy Ghost really exalts Christ, and gives Him His due place as Lord. The spirit of error as surely seeks to debase His person and frustrate His work.
The Holy Spirit invariably maintains two things — the glory of Christ as to His person, and the Lordship of Christ as to His place: the one fitting for, and the other flowing from His work. Now this at once prepares the way for the important and practical truth, that the great object of the assembly of God is the recognition of Christ as Lord. We are, therefore, at once cast upon the question, Has the Lord given regulations for His assembly, or has He left us to ourselves? Have we no directing principle for the manner in which the assembly of God is to conduct itself in this world? Is the church wholly abandoned, as it were, to its spiritual instincts? Is it to be moulded by the particular age or country in which the saints may be found? I trust there is no person here who would endorse thoughts so evidently of mere nature as these. What! the Christian assembly dependent on age or country! Can those who so speculate or act really believe that the church of God is a creature of the world after all; that God has left it, like a foundling, to be one thing here and another thing there? Institutions such as these might be good or bad churches of man, but certainly one is at a loss to conceive what pretensions they can set up to be the church of God. It is of all consequence that, be it the simplest believer, his heart should understand and keep firm hold of this, so patent in scripture, that if there be one thing that is precious to God upon the earth, it is His church; that if there be one thing God is above all jealous of maintaining therein, it is the glory of Christ; and that it is not in the world yet, but in the children of God, that God Himself is now active by His Spirit, for the purpose of glorifying Christ. But, as usual in His ways, whatever is set up on the earth is always first tried here, and then it is put into Christ’s hands, by whom the divine counsels are accomplished infallibly. Today is the time of trial. When Jesus comes, there will be no further trial in this respect. The church will then enter into the due place which is reserved for it in the purpose of God. The hour of our responsibility will be over. But now is the time when the children of God are being put to the test.
Remark, moreover, that one object of the First Epistle to the Corinthians is to show that theirs was an infant church, an assembly of persons not long gathered out of the world, and hence in much practical ignorance. You see them assailed by evils that in these days would not be ordinarily a trial among the children of God. There was certainly a very low state of moral thought and feeling, and, in one case at least, such grossness of outward conduct as was not heard of even among the Gentiles. It would seem that the devil had used particular pains to take advantage of the happy liberty of these young, Christians. They forgot all about the flesh, being so occupied with the power of the Spirit. They do not seem to have reflected upon their dangers. They did not walk in self-judgment. You must remember that they had few of the New Testament scriptures as yet, and that the apostle had not been long teaching them. Of course afterwards there was an amazing advantage gained through their very fall by the instruction which the Holy Ghost gave from it to others, and, we may trust, to themselves. Yet the epistle clearly shows that the infant church at Corinth had the responsibility of the church of God. It is the only one that is expressly thus addressed — “the church of God.” At that time no apostles were there, nor it would seem elders either; but I shall have an opportunity of adverting to this more fully by-and-by. There was, however, no lack of gifted people; yet remark, spiritual order is not produced by such manifestations of power, but by subjection to Christ as Lord. It is not enough to be enriched in all utterance and knowledge. Few churches had gifts more abundantly than the assembly in Corinth. It was notwithstanding a most disorderly spectacle; and the reason was, that they were exercising those powers without reference to the Lord’s will and glory, and so for their own ends. They were pleasing themselves — exalting themselves. In their new-born exuberance, they were giving the loose rein to all the spiritual energy that had been bestowed upon them, and the consequence was that there was the special need of bringing them back into the ways of God.
Whatever may be the power of the Spirit by and in men on the earth, it should always be made subservient to Christ the Lord. The Corinthians did not understand this, and they are reminded of it from the very beginning of 1 Corinthians 1 — “Those that call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours.” So all through the epistle you will find great emphasis laid upon His being Lord. We have it here in reference to the bestowal and character of these gifts. So again in 1 Corinthians 14 we have the exercise of these gifts regulated in the assembly. The church comes together into one place; there the saints meet as the assembly of God. Did they then speak in a tongue? It was in vain to plead that the Spirit of God undoubtedly enabled them so to speak. Again there is no question raised as to the quality of the unknown subject-matter: it might be all true, sound, and good; but the Lord proscribes what does not edify the assembly. As a general rule, in the absence of one who could interpret, the exercise of these tongues is forbidden in the assembly.
This is a most momentous matter for practice. No matter how truly a man has a power which comes from the Holy Ghost, he is not always to use it; more than this, he is bound to use it in obedience to Christ. There are certain regulations laid down to which he must submit himself. The apostle takes up prophesying particularly, because it was the highest form of acting on the conscience; as in mentioning the various gifts, he (1 Cor. 12:28) put diversities of tongues in the lowest place. Thus he rebuked the vanity of the Corinthians; for what they made more of than anything else, the apostle reduces to the last rank. “God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.” Then after the most precious unfolding of love in 1 Cor. 13 (how needful in these matters!) he comes to the due exercise of gift in the assembly in 1 Cor. 14 “If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad? But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all; and thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest, and so, falling down on his face, he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth.” Observe the weight of the principle which the apostle here insists upon. God has formed the church, the assembly, as a testimony to Christ upon the earth — a testimony to His Lordship. The consequence is, whatever would give a false, or even a vainglorious testimony, whatever would prompt men to say “Ye are mad” is forbidden, no matter how certainly the power, thus misused, itself might be of God. The gift of tongues, for instance, evidently was of the Holy Ghost and not of nature; but its use is subjected to divine regulations, as we see here. And this has a wide scope: indeed, I hold it to be the grand criterion for every Christian man to apply both for his own conduct and for judging that of others. But when we speak of judging what others do or say, need I add that it becomes us to weigh all humbly and in love, seeing well to it that we are not thinking of ourselves but of the glory of the Lord? But I do say that we are always bound to think of the glory of the Lord; and therefore, no matter under what circumstances, no matter where, we are responsible to judge in subjection to Him.
Prophesying here, evidently, does not mean predicting, as some might suppose; nor, as others say, mere preaching. There is a great deal of preaching, which is not prophesying. Indeed, it might well be affirmed that the preaching of the gospel is never, rightly considered, prophesying; for this last is that character of teaching which lays the conscience bare in the presence of God, and brings God and man thus close together, if I may venture so to put it. Therefore this is what the apostle contrasts with the exercise of a tongue. The tongue was forbidden, if there were no interpreter; and for the plain reason, that otherwise it would not edify the church. The object of all that is done there must be “unto edifying.” Whatever therefore does not edify is not fit for the assembly of God, and ought not to be allowed there. It may be well meant; it may be by the Holy Ghost, as regards power; but whatever is not intelligible, and has not the character of building up the saints of God, is not fit for the assembly. These things might be very well out of the assembly; nay, it was their proper place, as a testimony to unbelievers. But they had no business in the assembly, if their exercise did not tend to the instruction, exhortation, or comfort of the assembly; and edify the assembly they could not, unless there was one who had the gift of the interpretation of tongues, and could, therefore, turn them to present account in the building up the saints of God in the grace and truth which came by Jesus Christ.
This then is the rule by which all is to be governed. “If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret. But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God.” But suppose you are prophets; suppose you can speak to edification in this powerful way, “let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge.” Here the apostle takes the example of the prophets in contradistinction to the tongues; for everything the prophet said was for the express purpose of edifying. While therefore he admits them to be in the first rank of the gifts of edification, there is this other important guard asserted, that, precious and profitable as prophesying may be, no more than two or three were to speak on the same occasion. Doubtless, they were to speak one after another; they were to speak in order and by course; mutually subject, but not more than two or three. Why so? Because it would not tend to the very edification which was the great object of prophesying; it would be overdoing, being more than the saints could really profit by; and therefore there are these defined limits. Granted that prophets give the highest character of Christian instruction; but only two or three were to speak, and the others were to judge.
“If anything be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace.” There might be then that which no longer exists, any more than speaking in a tongue; that is, revelation. This must be carefully remembered. The truth of God may be brought, in the most powerful manner, by the Holy Spirit, to bear upon the conscience, so that even now, as then, there may be the firmest conviction conveyed to an unbeliever who might come in, that God was there. I do not doubt that this is perfectly possible, and may be now at any time; and I would to God it were always! But this is a wholly distinct thing from a revelation. God may use Christian instruction of a powerful character from the written word as a testimony to His own presence among His children on earth. But revelation cannot, ought not, to be now looked for. The apostle was instructing these saints before the canon of scripture was closed. All the truth of God was not then written; and therefore it seems to me to be the fact, that, according to the order of God, there might have been a positive revelation then given, while much of the word of God remained to be written. Whereas to pretend to revelation now would be clearly an impeachment of the perfectness of scripture, and I have no doubt would soon prove to be nothing but the fraud or folly of man, and a snare of the devil. Whatever might be the power of the Spirit of God at work now, it must be by means of truth already revealed — truth already in scripture. It is not something added to that which God has given, but the mighty use, in the hand of the Spirit of God, of what is already furnished and permanently given for the church’s help in passing through this world. There may be a recovery of what has been hid by unbelief from the saints; but it is there. A new truth, revealed now for the first time, is incompatible with the scripture as the complete book of God.
If we have certain things, even in this chapter that clearly refer to what was then in existence and not now, the very fair question may be asked by a simple-minded person desirous of understanding the word of God — “Why do you maintain that such a chapter as this is meant to regulate the assembly now? It is clear that you have not these tongues, and that there cannot be any revelation of a new truth. If there are such modifications, why do you contend for this chapter as God’s permanent rule for His assembly?” The answer is quite simple. The Spirit of God necessarily regulated what was there before Him; but then the great aim of all the instruction is not miraculous powers nor any other transient actings, which were evidently for the special object of testimony in the early days of Christianity. None of these things forms the centre of these chapters. What does? THE PRESENCE OF THE HOLY GHOST. To this one point all grave consideration and sober arguing of the subject must come.
Have we that one and the same Spirit still? Can we count upon His presence? Do we believe that He deigns even now to act in the assembly? How many, day after day, say, “I believe in the Holy Ghost;” but do they prove their faith by their works? I would ask you, and desire to ask every saint of God, Do you believe in the real presence of the Holy Ghost as a Divine person, who is with the church, who is in the saints, who is there expressly for carrying on the assembly according to the word of the Lord, and for maintaining the Lordship of Christ there? If we have the Holy Ghost; if He be in and with the saints still; if this be a certain truth, and not dependent for proof upon a particular part of scripture where miracles and signs are spoken of, but quite as clearly laid down where these have no place whatever, if He be positively promised to abide with us for ever, then I demand, how does He act? Does unbelief dare to make the Spirit no better than a dumb idol? Allow me to put a question or two: Has the Holy Spirit abandoned the word of the Lord as His only standard for our practice as well as faith? Or is it that men bring cunningly devised reasons for avoiding subjection to that word? But is it possible that children of God can content themselves with any reasons for disobedience? Alas! it is no want of charity to speak thus. They can quote continually, “Let all things be done unto edifying;” and, “Let all things be done decently and in order.” But do they ever reflect that not even the Corinthians had so violated the order of God’s assembly by their unbecoming displays, as they themselves do every day by a routine of their own (fixed or extempore), which does not resemble the form, any more than it embodies the spirit, of the divine order? There is the very chapter they quote on the one side; there are on the other the plain positive facts of their religious practice habitually.
You have the church of God no longer on the ground of one assembly — no longer holding to such a foundation-principle as liberty for the Spirit therein to edify by whom He pleases. You have different religious associations set up, often peculiar to different countries, and in no respect answering to either the assembly or the assemblies in the word of God. If a man belonged to the church of God at Jerusalem, he belonged to the church of God at Rome. It was merely a question of locality. He was a member of the church of God, and therefore, wherever it might be, he if there belonged to the church in that place, Scripture does not recognize membership of a church, but of the church. If the church of God was in a given place, the Christian, unless put away, finds his place within it. You never find, I repeat, in scripture, anything about membership of a church; it is always of the church. This is a most significant difference, as indicating the departure of Christendom from God’s word. For in our days, if you belong to this church, you do not for that very reason belong to that church. Instead of your membership in the church of God being the ground why you are a member of it everywhere, on the contrary, so great is the change, that now the fact of belonging to one church is the best possible proof that you do not belong to another. If you belong to the church of Scotland, you have no such connection with the church of England; if you are a Baptist, you do not at the same time belong to the Wesleyan society, or to any other of the Dissenting bodies. Scripture knows nothing of the kind.
Thus the revolution of Christendom is complete. A state of things entirely outside the word of God, and contrary to the word of God, has come in. Religious societies, independent of one another, have sprung up. I am not now speaking particularly of what is commonly called the Independent or Congregational system, though there the principle is carried out more antagonistically than in any other to the unity of the assembly of God as scripture presents it. But take any or every one of them; they are all more or less independent. It is so even to a large extent with the national Establishment. On the contrary, in the times of those who laid the foundation of God’s assembly, he who belonged to the church at all, of course belonged to it where he lived; but if he moved or journeyed to another place, he was received according to his place in the church everywhere. There might be in some cases a doubt as to his reality; for subtlety as well as violence assailed the early Christians. Hence they carried letters of commendation, or they were visited: that is, just the principle of what is now available can be shown in scripture. Thus, in the case of Saul of Tarsus, when Barnabas heard the news of his remarkable conversion, he did not like other disciples think such a work too hard for the Lord; but, being a good man and full of the Holy Ghost, he is quite ready to believe what grace could do, and goes and finds Saul, who is thus recognized of the church in Jerusalem. So now, if a stranger comes forward, professing to be a believer in the gospel, persons in whom all can confide visit him; and thus the church upon their representation, conscientiously and heartily accepts the confessor of Christ.
But we are not confined to any one rigid canon whatever. There is divine light in the word of God for every possible exigency, and if we have not that light, we had better wait on the Lord, and see whether the precious fulness of scripture will not be rendered without doubt applicable to the difficulty, by the power of the Spirit, without our presuming to add anything like a rule to meet the case. It is not meant that there may never be perplexity, and that we may not feel our weakness and lack of wisdom. Humility, patience, and faith will ere long prove better solvents than all the appliances of human art. God has undertaken to provide for us in His word; and spiritual power consists in the bringing that word, by the Spirit, to bear practically upon every case that comes before us.
The main point on which I insist, however is this — that, according to scripture, he who becomes a member of the church of God at all is a member of it everywhere. He might carry letters of commendation to the assembly where he went. But why? Because all through the world it was the church of God. Now I ask you, ought we to accept as God’s assembly anything systematically different from the scriptural account of it? Ought we to allow another and contrary principle to rule its public services? If we do, are we really in this subject to the word of God? You may tell me of the obstacles which exist now, and that you have so many difficulties to contend with. All this is granted: only let us hold fast that here, as elsewhere, the will of God is paramount to all other considerations. If we find ourselves accrediting that which opposes scripture, our business is to cease from doing evil, and to learn to do well.
It is not our duty — far from it — to form a new church, but to cleave to that which is the oldest of all, and the only church that is true — the assembly of God as it is exhibited in scripture. Why do you hesitate? Are you not satisfied with the church of God? Whose church, what church do you prefer?
But you allege that times and circumstances entirely differ now; and you ask, with a sort of triumphant air, whether two or three Christians meeting here and there can be God’s assembly? Undoubtedly, I reply, there is a sorrowful change; but the true question is, does God’s will about His assembly change? Which is right — to accept man’s change, or to go back to God’s will, even though there be but two or three who meet together in submission to His word? If I am with them gathered to the Lord’s name, owning the members of His body, waiting upon God to work by His word and Spirit, is not Jesus in our midst? And what so great comfort for our souls? I hope to prove, another evening, that this is the express provision of the Lord for these last days; but however this be, all I stand to now is, that the free action of the Spirit, among the gathered members of Christ, is the one principle of the assembly of God laid down in His word. There can be no other which He sanctions. Either I am acting upon it, or I am not. If I am seeking to be faithful thus to the Lord, blessed am I, whatever my sorrow for the state of the church. If I am not, at any rate let me confess my faithlessness. The word of God leaves no doubt what His unchanging mind about His assembly is. The Holy Ghost is come for ever to guide His assembly. All that is wanted is a spirit of repentance and of faith. There are hindrances; there are ties; there must be a high price paid in this evil world for obedience to the Lord Jesus. But am I His? Do I value His love? Is He more precious to me than all else in this world? Is His yoke a burden? Is His will sweet to my soul? Then, I say, there is but one pathway. It is vain to be loud in our profession of readiness to go with the Lord to prison or to death. This He may not ask of us; but He does in effect demand of every Christian whether he is true to His own glory in the assembly of God. It is not a question of rival institutions pertaining to different countries, or to different leaders; neither is it a question of a special school of doctrine, or of a peculiar plan of discipline and government. Is old habit, is tradition, is interest in this life, to keep me back from faithfulness to that which God shows to be His will for His assembly?
If you see the will of the Lord, do not hesitate another day. Do not wait till everything is clear. It is not faith, when God calls one out, to say, first show me the land. Put away what you know to be wrong; never go on in what is without doubt contrary to the word of God. “To him that hath shall be given.” Have you renounced what you know does not agree with, but opposes the word of God? Cleave to nothing but the word. Let me ask, for example, what you did last Lord’s-day. Were you found, as a Christian, where you could honestly say, “I was in my place in the assembly of God?” Did the various members of the body come together trusting to the Holy Ghost to guide them, with an open door for this or that believer, as each had received the gift, to minister the same one to another, as good stewards of God’s manifold grace? or were you joining with others where the scriptural plan would have been regarded as disorderly? If the latter, the Lord grant you to see clearly that you are not within the scene of His will, and of His glory in the assembly! I say not that you are strangers to the grace of Christ, or outside the work of the Holy Spirit — far from it. I believe He blesses not only in Protestant associations, but beyond them too. Is this to be uncharitable? I believe that the Spirit of God acts, wherever He sees fit graciously to use the name of Christ, for the good of believer and unbeliever. I for one doubt not for a moment that God has used His word for the conversion and comfort of souls among Roman Catholics — ay, and Romish priests, monks, and nuns. It may have been in a scanty measure, as assuredly the opposition to the truth is enormous, and the opening seems small indeed; but yet has it been really so down to our own days, and still more largely and clearly in the past.
But enough of this. The question is not whether the Spirit of God may not cause truth to take effect in this denomination or that. The chief thing before our souls now is, are we honouring Christ according to the word of God? Are we subject to the Lord in the assembly? Are we carrying out His will as far as we know it? We may fail in doing so — surely we all do. When you are thus come together, you may find some restless, some that do not altogether what they should; you may hear individuals that had better be silent, and you may see sometimes those silent whom it would be blessed to hear. It may be that they are yielding to a morbid sense of responsibility, and fear of criticism, and many other things that hinder their utterance of what is in their hearts. All this may readily be. Nobody denies the possibility or the fact of failure. But how does this in the least degree weaken the truth of God, or the bounden duty of His children?
Let me put a case that any believer may understand. The Holy Ghost dwells in you, if you are a Christian; but are you always acting in the Spirit? No. Does not the Spirit always abide? To be sure He does. You are always the temple of God; you never can be anything else, if you are members of Christ; but you may for all that sometimes grieve the Holy Spirit. Your obligation, however, never ceases. It is just so with the Spirit in the church.
Let the assembly come together. We will suppose they are converted, and have received the Spirit of God, and really do, as an assembly, look to Him to guide. I use that expression “as an assembly,” because it is not assumed that every member understands the truth about the Spirit of God. Some of them may be very ignorant. It is more or less a shame for them, but there may be such cases, and in point of fact such there are. Some saints have been attracted by spiritual instinct, who may have been trained up in dissent or nationalism, and who settle down with little progress in intelligence. These are apt to bring in the effects of the routine in which they have been brought up spiritually, so to speak; and I need not say that their experience will not help them to be always submissive to the guidance of the Spirit. Nor is this at all confined to these only; for we know what weakness may be found among those that have been inured to the truth from their infancy. Their being where they are costs them but little; they have not known any deep sense of the ruin of Christendom. Their souls have been exercised feebly. I am supposing them to be converted, but coming into the truth of the church’s position rather through parental training than at the loss of all; and so there is apt to be a taking for granted, without any divine conviction, that things are all right. Need I say how desirable it is that there should be real exercised spiritual intelligence as to the working of the Holy Ghost in God’s assembly?
But then, allowing these drawbacks, and all the rest that might be added, the great fact holds good, that as certainly as the Holy Ghost dwells in every Christian man, so sure it is that He dwells in the whole assembly — in the church of God. What we have to consider is, whether individually, or as an assembly, we submit to be guided by Him to the glory of Christ. Indeed I cannot but judge it to be really Antinomian in principle, where men deliberately rest in this, that to be Christians is the one great matter — that if the Lord has shown us His grace, we need not make much ado about His will or anything else. Is it, then, come to this, that the great body of God’s people not only do not know, but do not care to know, His will about His assembly? Do you resent this charge? Then search and see what is your desire as to this. Is it to be subject to the Lord and His word? Can there be a more direct test for me as a Christian, or a more evident way of proving my loyalty to my Lord, than in this very thing? If I belong to the assembly of God, ought I not to renounce everything inconsistent with the scriptural account and regulations of that assembly?
Further, let me warn you that have taken this position, that wrong principles, false doctrines, evil ways, may slip in. We know the devices of Satan; but what some of us may have said before they were thus proved, this we may repeat with increasing emphasis now, that as God’s Spirit is the Spirit of truth, so is He the Spirit of holiness also. When, therefore, the assembly refuses to bow to God’s word, preferring to accept evil publicly rather than judge it for Christ’s sake, what is to be done in this case? First of course full testimony is to be given, and warning, private and public perhaps, and patient waiting on honest slowness and fear, in order to bring all right. But suppose all has been rejected, and the assembly in any place deliberately prefers its own ease or will to the word of God, what then? The duty of separation is even more peremptory than from the ordinary ecclesiastical institutions of Christendom; for it is a greater sin in the sight of God for those that have known the truth of God, and seemed to be acting upon it in faith, to abandon it for any reason whatever. Ought not these, then, to be parted from with yet more gravity and horror in the sight of God, than one would turn from the meetings of those who have never known the value of the Lord’s name for the assembly of His saints?
At the same time, when you find an assembly — let it be small, or let it be great — come together, owning their faith in the Holy Ghost’s presence, we should not be quick in laying a sin to their charge. Surely there is to be slowness in judging an assembly yet more than an individual. Are we to assume that our thoughts, our feelings, are necessarily according to God? Hence we find the all-importance of waiting upon the Lord. But still the fact remains, that if the public sin be certain and clear, and all warnings be rejected, the more the assembly takes the position of being God’s assembly, the more is its departure from Him to be lamented, and one’s back is to be turned upon it, because it is now at least a false profession. God looks for truth in His saints, but He looks for it also in His assembly. It is the place where He expects the manifestation of His character before men, and not only where He makes good the edification of His saints. Everywhere He holds to the glory of His Son. I admit all the difficulties from the rising up of national systems after the great Romish apostacy, from the spread of nonconformist bodies subsequently, and from more recent attempts of all kinds. But let me press upon all who hear me that we do not contend for anything of ours, whether inherited from our fathers, or an invention of our own; we do not contend for anything because it is new, nor even because it is old — had it the green age of three centuries, or the hoary hairs of fifteen hundred years. We return to the ground which it was our sin — Christendom’s sin — to have left; we return to a way which we know to be absolutely good and true, because it is God’s way. We take our stand upon the only divine foundation for the church. We have no confidence in ourselves, but are sure we are right and safe in commending ourselves to God and the word of His grace; and therefore we may be of good courage. If the character of our difficulties, dangers, and trials proves how we need the scripture, we learn also how scripture applies ever fresh and mighty; and thus our hearts are encouraged to cleave to God more and more.
I have dwelt so long upon the assembly, that I shall not be able to say much as to ministry tonight. But I may be brief, more particularly as we shall have the subject of Gifts and Offices before us another time. Let me just make a few plain observations as to ministry before closing.
We have seen that the church flows from Christ risen and glorified by the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven to bind together and form the assembly upon earth. This is the only assembly that God sanctions, and therefore which every member of it ought to sanction, until the Lord takes it out of this world. We have the words and workings of the Spirit of God in the assembly shown us in scripture already referred to. I come now to some general principles. And first of all, just as the church is a divine thing, so is ministry. It flows neither from the believer nor from the church, but from Christ, by the power of the Spirit.
Now this at once clears the way. The Lord calls, not the church, the Lord sends, not the saints; the Lord controls, not the assembly. I speak now of the ministry of the word. There are certain functionaries whom the church does or may choose: for instance, the assembly may nominate the persons it thinks fit to take care of the funds, and to distribute of its bounty. The church may employ its servants, selecting them according to its best wisdom; and the Lord owns this choice. So it was done of old, as we read in Acts 6, where the multitude chose, and the Apostles laid their hands upon those chosen to look after the tables. So it was where “the churches” (in 2 Cor. 8) chose brethren as their messengers; and so, again, where the Philippian church made Epaphroditus their messenger in ministering to the wants of Paul. (Phil. 2)
But we never find this kind of selection where the ministry of the word is concerned. Never! On the contrary, the Lord Himself once looked upon His poor disheartened scattered people, pitied them, and told the disciples to pray that the Lord of the harvest would send forth labourers. (Matt. 9) The very next chapter shows that He was the Lord of the harvest, who accordingly sends them Himself. Afterwards He prepares His disciples for the full character of the Christian ministry when He should leave them. Thus in Matt. 25 where there occurs the parable of the Lord departing to a far country, we have the same truth — the Lord giving gifts to His servants. Now this really decides the matter. For the difference between that which the word of God acknowledges, and that which is seen now-a-days, lies in this, that according to scripture the ministry of the word, in its call and in its exercise, is more truly divine than that which is now substituted for it in Christendom. Hence also its proper dignity is impaired, specially the holy independence of man, which is essential to its due exercise, and, above all, to the glory of the Lord Himself. If preachers be sent by men, it is an usurpation of the Lord’s prerogative, and the gravest detriment to His servants who submit to it.
What is the effect of ministry exercised according to scripture? The most perfect freedom for all that is given of God for the blessing of souls. Accordingly you find the universal doctrine of the Epistles fully confirms that which the history shows in the Acts of the Apostles. But I must refer to both as briefly as may be.
In 1 Cor. 12-14, we have already seen that it is of the essence of the church, as God’s assembly, and the aim of the Spirit’s presence therein, that He should have full liberty to use whom He pleases for the glory of the Lord and the blessing of all. The exhortation in 1 Peter 4:10, 11, and the caution in James 3:1, suppose the same openness and its liability to abuse. This may suffice for “those within.”
As to “those without,” the will of the Lord is equally clear. Thus, in Acts 8 we hear of persecution falling upon the church, and they were all scattered (but the twelve), and went everywhere preaching the word. Now, I do not call this necessarily ministerial. Of course some of them were ministers of the word, others not; but all went everywhere evangelizing. But it proves that the Lord recognizes any and every Christian man in going forth and announcing the glad tidings. (Compare Acts 11:19- 21.)
But when we come to detail, we find Philip in Acts 8 preaching freely. “But,” some will say, “he was chosen of the church.” He was not chosen to minister the word. He was chosen, on the contrary, to leave the apostles, unembarrassed by serving the tables, to the ministry of the word. It was expressly for the purpose of relieving the apostles from the secular work, that the seven men were looked out by the multitude, and duly appointed over this lower task; the call of the church was for this only. It was the Lord that called Philip to preach the gospel; and the Lord blessed the word, which extended to and beyond Samaria. (Compare Acts 21:8 for both.)
In Acts 9, we see a man on the highway to Damascus with a commission from the high priest to persecute the Jewish Christians. That was the only commission Paul received from man — an authority, not to preach the Gospel, but to extinguish it, if it were possible. But the Lord, in sovereign grace, not only converted Saul of Tarsus, but sent him out, direct from Himself, a preacher, and an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and verity. Paul thus becomes the standing type of Christian ministry. Apart from miraculous facts, he exemplified livingly the words, “we believe, and therefore speak.” (2 Cor. 4)
We find the Lord after this introducing others into the work, more particularly Apollos, who was “an eloquent man, and mighty in the Scriptures,” but so very ignorant at first, that he knew nothing beyond the baptism of John (that is, the testimony which was rendered to Christ when He was living upon the earth). But if he was thus in the dark as to the Church and the full truth of Christianity, he was a converted man. Of course, there were souls converted before the coming of Christ. It is mere ignorance that sees any difficulty in such a statement. Apollos had received by the Spirit the early testimony to the Lord, but he did not know the work of Christ. This he is taught by a good man and his wife, who helped him in the fuller understanding of the Scriptures, and he comes out mightier than ever in the truth, and there is no hint about a human inauguration before he preaches. Yet the apostle Paul writes with all respect of Apollos, putting this unordained man between himself and Peter. (1 Cor. 3) Again, he tells them, in the last chapter of this epistle, that he had asked Apollos to come, but “his will was not at all to come at this time.” Does not this indicate a very different state of things from what men dream of apostolic rule, as well as from what exists now? What it does truly illustrate is the way the Lord maintained His place. An inspired apostle gives his counsel to Apollos, who does not conform. This Paul himself records without censure; and, in fact, scripture does not say which was right: it may very probably have been the great apostle, but on this point we are left entirely in the dark. In any case, the record brings out the weighty truth that the Lord abides the absolute Master and Director of His servants. Man likes to regulate; but the Lord, to whom we are surely bound above all, exercises the hearts of His servants, and gives them in this word a guiding principle for all time. Is it true for your soul and for mine? Are we practically servants of the Lord — of the Lord only? or are we serving a denomination as its ministers? If we are only nationalist or dissenting ministers, I have nothing to say; but if we are really ministers of Christ, let us beware. “No man can serve two masters:” if we have been striving to serve Christ and the sect whose officials we are, which is to be held to? which to be given up?
Thus, along with the assembly of God, there is the ministry of the word, committed sovereignly to some of its members, not to all, yet assuredly for the good of all. Let the assembly respect the servants in their place, and let the servants respect the assembly in its place. None ever confound the two things without the most disastrous consequences: neither must be sacrificed. It is the place of a servant, no doubt, to preach or teach in subjection to Christ; it is the place of a servant, likewise, to counsel, guide, govern, according to his gift from the Lord. But whatever may be the servant’s mind, judgment, or counsel, nothing dissolves the direct responsibility of the assembly to Christ. The same Jesus is Lord of the servant, but He is also owned as the Lord by the assembly of God.
Take the instance, again, which is shown in Acts 13. Barnabas and Saul go forth on a missionary circuit, directed by the Holy Ghost, and taking Mark with them. But Mark turns out an indifferent servant, and speedily returns to his home. They are going out again (Acts 15), but Paul insists upon going without Mark. Barnabas, who was related to Mark, did not like him set aside, and contends with Paul about it — good man as he was — and this so sharply, that it leads to a severance of these two devoted and tenderly attached servants of Christ. Then Paul chooses Silas, and they were commended by the brethren to the grace of God. The church, or the labourers, were, no doubt, convinced that Paul was in the right. Of Barnabas, nothing of the kind is said; the subject, as far as he is concerned, drops. Paul enters on a large and enlarging sphere, and Silas goes with him, supplying, as it were, the place of Barnabas. Now there we find not only an individual servant at work, but the joint action of two or more in the service of the Lord. Barnabas might be as wrong in taking Mark, as Paul was right in choosing Silas; but the principle is clear. Spiritual judgment is necessary in selecting a fellow-labourer. Forced association with one we do not believe competent or desirable, is clearly not according to the Lord’s mind.
Thus, in His service, there is such a thing as association, but no bondage about it. Barnabas was free to preach the word as much as ever. There was no lack of saints, of course, to welcome Barnabas, and no want of sinners to be preached to. But Paul would not have Mark forced upon him, and chooses another; and this is an important example for us. How completely does scripture provide both for co-operation and for refusing it! The Lord Jesus keeps His due place, not only in relation to the assembly, laying down how it is to be ordered, but also in relation to ministry, showing how the work is to be carried out on earth. The word of God meets every need.
But there is another thing that is wanted for all of us. What is this? Simple faith in the Lord, in His grace, in His word. Where this is not, souls are apt to be cast down by difficulties. Then, when they see things looking other than what attracted them once, they begin to doubt everything. How different if our mind is made up for having to do with the Lord! Let us look well to it that we are subject to Him. Of course, I am not now denying moral subjection to “chief men” in the fear of the Lord; this may be a part of subjection to Him; but what we need to have settled is, that at all times, and under all circumstances, we must please the Lord. He will be with us; our circumstances may look critical and be trying enough; but we shall find infinite blessing to our souls — indeed, it is in times of trouble we prove the solidity of the blessing. Be assured that, as the Lord went through the cross to His heavenly glory, so we shall find His cross stamped upon every service; but then, it is the Lord, and it is His cross. Let our hearts, therefore, be of good cheer.
The two lines of truth here sketched — the assembly of God, and the ministry of Christ — you will find laid down in the word of God. Both flow from Christ, instead of being mere voluntary associations: as to both we lie under a responsibility which cannot be evaded. The church is bound to receive Christ’s ministers, instead of having the right to choose.4 From Christ the power comes; to Christ the servant is immediately responsible. If a man is called to serve, let him rejoice in, but bow to, the blessed truth, that he is to serve the Lord Jesus Christ. The consequence of carrying it out will be, that the world will drop off; it may be even that many of his Christian friends will look cold. The ministry of Christ was never intended to work in the system of the world, any more than the assembly of God; both were meant to exalt the Lord Jesus, and to be an exercise of faith for His saints and servants. It must be so still. More than that, it was intended that in the church and the world we should feel the difficulties and sorrows, as well as joys of faith. I do not doubt the triumph in Christ; but we can count upon trial and tribulation surely in this world. We may find differences as to the world. Sometimes too in the church of God there may be fluctuations. Every one who has served Christ knows something of this. But as to Him to whom the church belongs, and whom we serve, He remains “the same yesterday, and today, and for ever.” The question is, are we prepared to follow Him?
2 It has been objected that some editors, as Lachmann and others, have omitted
τῃ ἐκκλησίᾳ here in deference to the Sinai, Vatican, Alexandrian, and Rescript of Paris, and a few juniors, with the Vulgate, Coptic, Aethiopic, and Armenian versions; but all the other uncials and cursives, with the Syriac, Arabic, and Slavonic versions, not to speak of early citations, accept the word; and these were followed by Griesbach, Scholz, etc., as well as Bengel hesitatingly. Tischendorf, who had at first rejected the common reading, replaced it in his later editions, though probably will now incline him once more against it. But it ought to be remembered that even the school of Lachmann, if they reject it, separate
ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτό from Acts 3:1, so that the passage would make the sense substantially the same as if
τῃ ἐκκλησίᾳ, “to the church,” were read; namely, “The Lord was adding daily together those that should be saved.” Hence in Acts 4:23 it is said of Peter and John, that when let go, they went to their own company
(πρὸς τούς ἰδίους). There was now a new association to which they belonged distinct from the old congregation of Israel; and this beyond a question is formally called
ἡ ἐκκλησία in Acts 5:11, not as if it were then called into being, but most evidently as already subsisting and known. It is clear then that independently of the phrase in Acts 2:47, “the assembly,” in a New Testament sense, did in fact begin at Pentecost, as is confessed by Pearson, Whitby, and others.
3 The external authority stands thus. The Alexandrian, the Vatican, the Palimpsest of Paris, and the Sinai MSS. are documents of the highest value, which agree in reading “the church,” not “the churches.” In this they are supported by the most important cursive extant, now in the British Museum, along with a fair number of others. Of the ancient versions, there is not one of first-rate authority which does not confirm the singular — the Peschito Syriac, Coptic,, Sahidic, Vulgate, AEthiopic, Armenian, and the Erpenian Arabic. The most ancient Uncial which gives the plural form is that of Laud, in the Bodleian Library, of about the sixth or seventh century, supported by two others of the ninth century, with the mass of cursives, the Philoxenian Syriac, and an Arabic version. But even here it is to be remarked that the weightiest, or Laudean copy, is unquestionably wrong in reading “all the churches;” and the others may have been influenced by Acts 16:5. It is certainly easier to suppose that the less usual form might have been changed by scribes to a common type, than that the very old authorities joined in an error, which the crowd of juniors escaped. Ordinarily the tendency runs in a direction, exactly opposite.
4 The Congregational Lecture on “the Ecclesiastical Polity of the New Testament,” by Dr. S. Davidson, may be compared with what we have seen in scripture. “Let us now take a church and trace its various proceedings. A number of believers agree to associate together. In a united capacity they resolve to confess Christ, to observe His precepts, and to follow His will. They choose pastors whom they judge to possess the qualifications described in the New Testament. In this way the believer chosen by them becomes an official person as soon as he accepts their invitation” (p. 269). “The compact entered into between the ruler and the ruled may be dissolved by one or both of the parties. The union formed between pastor and people may be severed” (p. 271). “A minister is either the minister of one church, viz., that by which he has been chosen, or else he is not a minister at all. When he ceases to be pastor of a church he ceases to be a minister of the Gospel, till he be elected by another. . . . . He is not made a minister by the act of ordination, but by the people’s call, and his acceptance of it, by virtue of which a solemn engagement is entered into; and when the engagement terminates, he ceases to be a minister (!)” (pp. 252, 253). No principle seems to me more flatly opposed to God’s word than religious radicalism.