We appreciate this pertinent correspondence from Australia. The letter to which it refers is reproduced in small type at the bottom of this column. Watch for further details in the next issue.
Dear Brother McC.
In the statement that appeared in the December 1968 number of Food for the Flock, you gave the impression that all the true assemblies are not one in their fellowship, the one with the other, that unjustly some have been put away from the fellowship of saints. Does not this act of their being put away or cut off constitute them as not being assemblies?
We have been taught that only those who walk by the same rule and mind the same thing (Phil. 3:16) are actually assemblies of God. Does not assembly fellowship require a conformity of practice, that is a practice in accord with the pattern in The Book of Acts, chapter two?
Some of our brethren speak of certain groups as being merely “other meetings.” Is this correct? Is it not scriptural to separate from those who do not conform to generally accepted practices? If other meetings are only pretending to be assemblies, and are not genuinely that, why associate with them?
These questions are not only troublesome, they form a dilemma in the minds of several young Christians with whom I have recently spoken. Can you give an explanation? A number will be watching for your answer for they feel that it is wrong to shun those who have been cleansed by the blood of Christ.
Please give us some scriptural counsel in regard to these matters.
Yours in Christ, S.O.M.
Some time ago a letter appeared in Ministry in Focus asking for scriptural help on the subject of fellowship between assemblies. Such a question is timely, for a mass of tradition has developed over the years, the effect of which has been very effective to put asunder that which God has joined together. The purpose of this article is to deal with the question in a positive way, appealing only to the Scriptures for instruction, and referring to a minimal extent to grounds taken and traditions followed by various “schools of thought.”
In order that the subject may be considered fully and in proper perspective, it is proposed to look into the Word for its teaching on these matters: (1) What is an assembly?; (2) How is an assembly formed?; (3) When does an assembly cease? (4) Who are the subjects of discipline?; (5) What are New Testament rules?
1. What is an assembly?
The word “church” in the popular usage may refer to a building set apart for religious services, a denomination with member “churches” throughout the world (as the Methodist Church) or the aggregate Christians in a country or community (as the Indian church, the church in China). The New Testament knows nothing of such meanings. Apart from rare references to a secular gathering (as Acts 19:32-41), the word is used only two ways in Scripture.
The Church of which the Lord spoke in Matthew 16:13, and of which He is the builder, is called also the Body of Christ (Eph. 1:23). There is one Body (Eph. 2:16 - note also the “one” in verses 14, 15 and 18; Eph. 3:6; 4:4). Into this one Body all believers are baptised in the Spirit by the Lord Jesus (1 Cor. 12:13; Matt. 3:11; Acts 1:5). This Church is built historically, on the foundation of the apostles and (N.T.) prophets (Eph. 2:20). Being a living Body united to a living Head, it makes increase of itself (Eph. 4:16) and seeing that the Lord is the Builder, to use the other figure of the Church, it contains no stone out of place, and can never be disfigured or dismembered, even by the gates of hell (Eph. 5:27; Matt. 16:18). This Church is not the subject of the present paper, but recognition of the truth concerning it is essential to a proper application of truth regarding the other use of the word “Church,” which we shall now consider.
There is a plurality of churches (Acts 9:31 and many references). These are not member churches of any organization, but each is a whole church (1 Cor. 14:23) and is capable of being gathered together in one place, sometimes such a small place as a house (Col. 4:15; Philemon 2). Each church is, whatever man’s opinion may be, “a household of God, a church of a God who is living” (1 Tim. 3:15) in contrast with other “gods” who have “houses” but are not living, consequently behaviour in their houses is of little account. Each church is a support of the truth; this is a matter of fact. The divine “mystery” displayed by such churches has to do with Him who is the Truth, and a synopsis of this truth essentially held by a church is given in the next verse (v. 16). It has to do with the person and work of Christ; this is the vital doctrine insisted on by Paul here, also by Peter and by John (2 Peter 1:12-18; 2 John 9-11).
Certain features of an assembly are brought before us by the Lord Himself in His messages to the seven churches in Asia (Rev. 2-3). Note that they did not constitute an Asian church, but are called repeatedly “the churches.” All were churches, all were golden, all were light-bearers, despite what the Lord had to say about some of them. Now all seven messages were to be written in a book and sent to the seven churches, with which direction John complied (Rev. 1:4 and 11). This surely means that the Lord demanded recognition by each assembly of all the others. If Smyrna, against whom nothing is said, had taken the ground that there was unjudged evil in Pergamos and therefore they were not walking by the same rule, and had refused to pass on the book to Pergamos, then Smyrna would have been violating the expressed will of the Lord, and Pergamos would have been left without His message. Again, if Philadelphia, free from blame, had looked with eyes untaught by grace at poor naked Laodicea and said, “The Lord is outside; that is not an assembly; we’ll not send the book there,” that would have been sheer disobedience to the Word of the Lord, and Laodicean saints would not have been given the restoring message that the Lord loved them even as He loved those at Philadelphia (compare v. 19 with v. 9) and desired their fellowship (v. 20).
One church only in the New Testament is addressed as “the church of God” (1 Cor. 1:2). Let us notice a few things said about it: They were enriched in every thing by Christ, coming behind in no gift (ch. 1:5-7); they were waiting for the Lord’s coming, when they would be blameless (7-8): they were called into fellowship of God’s Son (9). There were contentions among them, and they were in danger of division (10-11). They were carnal, walking as men, assuming the names of men in a factional spirit (ch. 3:1-4). They were God’s husbandry, God’s building (16), God’s temple (9). They belonged to Christ (2); Come of them were puffed up (ch. 4:18); There was fornication of a most vicious sort among them, known but unlamented (ch. 5:1-2).
Brother went to law with brother, before the ungodly (ch. 6:6); They were washed, sanctified justified (11); They were praiseworthy, in that they had kept the ordinances as delivered to them (ch. 11:2); Their gatherings were not for the better, but for the worse; because they were divided, could not worthily eat the Lord’s supper, were greedy (17-22); Other things needed to be set in order (34); They were all baptised in one Spirit into the one Body (ch. 12:13); They were “Body of Christ”, and members in particular (27); They were zealous of spiritual gifts (ch. 14:12); Some among them said there is no resurrection of the dead (ch. 15:12).
Now if aberrations from the standard regarding assembly practice, morals or doctrine constitute a company of believers not an assembly but only a “meeting,” then the congregation at Corinth was ruled out on all three counts; but it was not ruled out. Paul called them “Church of God, Temple of the Holy Spirit, Body of Christ.” He purposed not only to come to visit them, but wanted to stay with them for a period. See chapter 16:5-7. Lest it be objected that he could go with apostolic authority to put things right, he says that he tried to persuade Apollos to go (ch. 16:12) and he was sending Timothy, a younger man, to them (ch. 4:17; 16:10). And to what other church did he write, “My love be with you all in Christ Jesus”?
The Lord Jesus spoke a parable about a mote and a beam, introducing it by a cautionary word concerning the implications involved in our judgment of others (see, please, Matthew 7:1-5). One lesson is that if we can see only evil and wrong in our brethren, then there is something wrong with our eyesight. “Motes” aplenty there will always be, both in individual saints and in assemblies; but the eye with a mote in it is still an eye, and calls for care and delicacy in handling by reason of the mote that is in it. It is the mote, not the eye, which calls for removal.
So despite the evils at Corinth, which needed exposure and correction, the congregation there was a church of God. Despite the evils in five of the churches in Asia, six of the seven were commended by the Lord for some virtues they possessed, the seventh was told of possibilities for health, riches, communion and victory, and all seven in the Lord’s reckoning were churches. Assemblies are such not by the opinions, attitudes or actions of men, but by the Lord’s recognition. He has given us certain features by which we too can recognize a church — not in an official sense, but know it to be one. Is the congregation in question a company of Christians (that is, having no known or avowed unbelievers among them) resting on Christ alone for their collective entity (1 Cor. 3:10-11) and owning His authority alone for their gatherings and activities (Matt. 18:20; 1 Cor. 5:4)? Is it independent, in an organizational sense, of all other companies, owning responsibility to the Lord alone; is it capable of being gathered in its entirety into one place? Does it support the doctrine of Christ, and hold fast the ordinances at least to the extent of outward observation? If all these questions are answered in the affirmative, there is an assembly after the New Testament pattern. Failure and shortcoming there will almost certainly be; these, like the mote in the eye, will affect the usefulness and comfort, but not the identity of the church.