By Mr. F. Olivier, Entitled, “The Body Of Christ, And A Misunderstanding On The Subject.”
(From the French)
May 6th, 1870.
The pamphlet you sent me shews me I did not miss my object in the one I had previously published.4 There is progress in the development of the question. I make no reply to the review of the brethren’s course. It is best to go forward. I will only remind Mr. O. that, at one time, he had wanted to join the brethren at Lausanne, and to preach in their room, he having hitherto had a separate meeting of his own at Montbenon, and, the brethren agreeing to his proposal, one fine day they found a pulpit in the room, without their being informed of it, and, at the same time, they learned that Mr. O. purposed having his own separate meeting at Mountbenon permanently. The matter was (dropped) not carried out. What had induced the brethren to accept the proposal of Mr. O. was, the scandal of two meetings, without adequate reasons.
But let us probe the question. I shall bring to light some facts, and then speak of the principles. Mr. O. says: “All I know, is, that some of those who had held with him (Mr. N.) were admitted to the Lord’s supper, at the church called Bethesda. For this the whole assembly of Bethesda were excommunicated.” If Mr. O. only knows this, he knows very little, and would have done better not to speak of it. It appears that Mr. O., while saying all he can for Mr. N., considers his doctrines such, that the Lord’s table must be denied, not only to the one who teaches them, but to those who are drawn away by him. He says that, on his own authority, he declared to a young sister, by letter, dated 21st May, 1867, that she could not break bread with the worship-meeting of the Rue du Lac, although she had said she did not admit the doctrine, which, however, Mr. N. taught in his tracts, which tracts she could not disavow, as she did not think their author could be mistaken in anything. If a poor victim of his influence, who does not admit his doctrine, must be rejected, we surely were right in rejecting the one who wrote the tracts, and boldly maintained blasphemies. Neither is it true that Mr. N. did not want to “weaken propitiation.” Mr. N. said the death of Christ was only an incident of the life of Christ. This expression was taken up. To excuse himself, he said he was accustomed to use the word ‘incident’ in a special sense, and not as others employ it. But he also said that Christ suffered far more before the coming of John the Baptist than after; that, on hearing the gospel from John the Baptist’s lips, He passed from being under law to being under grace.
Well, we have broken off with all this, and Mr. N. got a chapel built for himself, where he preached the doctrine which he had, unknown to the brethren, been teaching secretly for six years.
Now this is how the Bethesda meeting got involved in the question. A lady, who liked Mr. N.’s teaching, left the Bath meeting when he was no longer allowed to preach there. She was at once surreptitiously brought into Bethesda. Then seven persons of the chapel and meeting of Mr. N. were received at Bethesda, some of whom agreed fully with his doctrine. Some pious brethren in Bethesda protested, and entreated Messrs. Muller and Craik, the two pastors, to examine the doctrine, and not to let persons from Mr. N.’s meeting in, without having first subjected them to an examination. They refused, and several meetings were held, and a letter was signed by the ten elders, or labourers, of the assembly, declaring that they would not do it, and that it was a new test of communion to examine them on this point; and Messrs. M. and C. asserted that they must be justified, on that ground, according to the principles of this document (called the letter of the ten), otherwise they would cease to be the pastors of the assembly, and they got the whole meeting to vote, by rising, and sitting, so that the whole meeting, as a meeting, justified the admission of persons whom Mr. O. would exclude. This letter remains in force to this day. Not long ago, Mr. M. refused to withdraw it, on being requested so to do.
Now, why should I separate from the people at Plymouth, and be in fellowship with them at Bristol? But what is of importance to note, is, that the meeting voted that it was not necessary to examine if Christ was thus blasphemed, or not. The fact is that Mr. C. favoured the doctrine, and taught, in great measure, the same errors. It is not a question of excommunicating an assembly. It is individuals that are excommunicated. One separates from an assembly, and this is what was done with regard to Bethesda; but the individuals coming from a meeting which has, as a meeting, received the evil into its bosom, may be guilty of the act, and responsible for what the assembly has done. Thus, when the meeting voted the acceptance of the letter of the ten, and a good number of Christians had separated from it, because, in reality, they had voted that they would not, and should not, examine whether to accept blasphemy against the Lord, when, to say the least, it was habitually heard—when the members of the assembly had voted that indifference to blasphemy was a good thing, were the individuals not all under responsibility for the action of the assembly? There was no question of whether the individuals held the doctrine, or not. (The young person excluded by Mr. O. did not admit Mr. N.’s doctrine; like Bethesda, she did not disavow his tracts.) The assembly had taken the ground of indifference to blasphemy against Christ, and the persons constituting the assembly (save in the case of real ignorance as to the facts) were defiled with the defilement of the assembly. This is the doctrine of Scripture: “Ye have approved yourselves to be clear in this matter”; they were not incestuous, but, as long as incest was permitted, the assembly was guilty of it, and was not clear of it, neither were the individuals composing it. So the apostle says: “Purge out, therefore, the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump.” Therefore they were not a new lump, unless they purged out the old leaven. The assembly, and those composing it, were old leaven, unfit to celebrate the feast. But all the assemblies of God are jointly responsible; and, whether God’s assembly, or not, an assembly which chooses to accept the principles of fellowship with Bethesda is identified, has identified itself, with Bethesda.
A distance of twenty, or two hundred, leagues does not alter the moral fact in anything; in what is moral, space is of no account. If an assembly, knowingly and wilfully, accepts fellowship with Bethesda, it is defiled, as Bethesda is—it accepts the principle of indifference to blasphemy against Christ. Some meetings invited Mr. N.; in some neutral gatherings influential persons went to Bethesda for the purpose of testimony; and some have boldly avowed their opinion, and published, with their names attached thereto, tracts, advocating the principle of Mr. B. cited by Air. O., namely, that if an assembly permits fornication, the assembly cannot be denied by it, but only the guilty person. Now, I do not consider blasphemies against the Lord less serious, if less shocking, than moral corruption; yet the principle, that an assembly cannot be defiled, is taught by several tracts on their side. Now, it is all the same, if there are two, or two hundred, meetings consecutively; it is only throwing dust in the eyes. This is the question: Has such and such an assembly identified itself with the impure principle that wishes the evil to be admitted? As I have already said, in America the question was not Bethesda, but non-eternity of punishment. The question which I here state is all the more important, since, in these last days, the principle on which we have to meet, is, separation from evil. The second and third chapters of 2 Timothy are clear on this point.
Now, as regards the principles of gathering of the-children of God in these times, it is well to notice that Mr. O. frankly admits that he does not profess to meet on the principles laid down in Scripture—on pages 31 to 33 he declares it. I only quote two sentences. “The principle asserted is that of the primitive church, but can it be the principle of the dismembered church? “That is the question. Then (page 46) “Mr. D. professes to be able to realise to-day what was the principle of the unity of the church when the church was one; whereas, I consider that this principle is, nowadays, quite impracticable.” He wants a principle in the air, deprived of its substructure. Now it is certain that God’s word knows of none other, and has no two principles of gathering. We say, the word must be reverted to, and, whatever our low condition, we must go by the word, where we find what may be applied to the present time. Now, to gather two or three in the name of Jesus belongs to all times. If Mr. O. cannot meet on scriptural principles— and this he admits—then his meeting is merely a human meeting, on human principles; if it is not on the principle of the unity of the church, it is independent churches.
What is not within the unity is, by the very principle of its existence, outside it. Here is what Mr. O. says: “This is the problem to be solved: to find a means of constructing worship-meetings which depart as little as possible from the notion of the unity of the church, and which, at the same time, permit of a connection subsisting with the dismembered church.” One cannot act on the recognised primitive and scriptural principle, that is, the principle owned of God, and one must depart as little as possible from it. And who is to be the judge whether the departure is to an allowable degree, or not? And if the gathering is not on the scriptural principle —that is to say, that which alone has God’s authority—each one is free to select the principle he chooses to meet on. “The dismemberment rules everything”; that is to say, the effect of man’s sin liberates us from the duty of returning to the word and the will of God. Impossible to have a more distinct admission of his having abandoned the principle of God’s word, than what is found in the pages I have indicated. When this is once done, God’s authority is null and void. A little, more or less, departure is, comparatively speaking, indifferent. The principle is not a divine one. Let this avowal be well weighed. If it is impossible to meet according to the Word, better not meet at all. We believe God is faithful to His children. The Lord has a flock, and He has given in His word what is appropriate to all times. Here it must be explained. Mr. O. would have us profess to re-establish the primitive unity of all Christians as a whole. But it is not so. I hope there will be much more seen, and I do not think the thing is complete. This ought to be. I doubt whether unity will be re-established in an absolute way. But that is not the question for us. What God will do is not our rule of conduct, but what He wants us to do, what is found in His word. There is a great system where the form of godliness is found, the power of it being denied. I ought to separate from it. I do so. Other Christians are unwilling to do so. I must leave them, and follow the Word. Also, as regards details, I name the name of Christ; I must depart from iniquity, and I do so, wherever it may be. Then, in a great house, there are false teachers; I purge myself from these, and follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart.
But on what principle am I to meet? Must I depart from scriptural principles? Why is it more difficult to meet on scriptural principles than on others? Where two or three are gathered together in the name of Christ, there is He. As to the ground, the primitive church could have no more; this is a promise made at the brightest time of the apostles, a promise available for us in times of difficulty and dispersion. We cannot control others, but, by grace, we can ourselves, as obedient children, act according to the Word. Mr. O. wants us to depart as little as possible from the Word. Be it so. But that one must depart from it, and that obedience is impossible, I do not think. He says we should have a centre of attraction to unite everything; we should—I do not deny it—I have often even said so. The whole church should be one, and I accept that we are all responsible for the lack of unity, and that the brethren, as all who meet according to the truth, should be, or should have in their midst, the magnetic pole, which would attract and bow every heart; but if we do not possess it, we are not thereby hindered from yielding obedience to the Word, and from enjoying the blessing attached thereto. We dare not do otherwise. The question is thus definitely laid down. Mr. O. thinks he must—I do not say wishes to, but is forced to—depart from the principle of the Word. We think it should not be departed from at all, that if anyone departs from it, little or much, he has abandoned it; it is no longer obedience; the authority of God is no more the basis of gathering. If the body is separated from the Head, much or little is all the same. If our walk is not obedience, it is man’s will. I do not accuse Mr. O. of wilfully departing from Scripture, but he considers himself forced to do so. I think it is want of faith, to say that what he calls the dismemberment of the church has rendered a Christian’s following the Word impossible. For months after I discovered the ruin in which everything was found, I knew not what to do. Then I saw that the Word supplied what is needed for these very times, and that one had only to follow it. One might count on the Lord for the difficulties of the road.
If Mr. O. says we have been poor labourers, I have no reply to make. But we have met with blessing, and certainly the patient grace of the Lord has not failed us. Moreover, I think the firmness of the brethren regarding Bethesda has reacted on those who condemn them. They have not always been so decided in rejecting everything in connection with Mr. N.
I touched slightly on the subject of discipline, but more must be said, and I must justify what I said about the principles enunciated by Mr. B., and cited by Mr. O. “Where will you find,” says Mr. B., “a meeting denied, on account of one only of its members, in such a way, that any member communicates this defilement to every other meeting with which he has communion?” I know of a case, where two persons got into the brethren’s meeting at Vevey. I had not the slightest idea of the Vevey meeting being defiled because these persons had deceived the assembly, and the assembly had received them in good faith; but if a meeting, knowingly and wilfully, accepts the wicked person it is not a new lump, if I am to believe 1 Corinthians 5. If the meeting judges the evil, or even if it has been admitted ignorantly—in such a case it may be that there has not been sufficient vigilance—but the assembly is not defiled, because the conscience has not been engaged in it. But if the evil is there, and brought to light, the assembly must shew itself pure in the matter, otherwise it is not a new lump; it is impure, none of the members call upon the Lord out of a pure heart, unless there is real ignorance of the fact; and this is true ad infinitum, two, or two million, meetings do not alter the matter. In every case the question is: Has the assembly, knowingly and wilfully, admitted what is impure? Has it willingly associated itself with that which is impure? If so, it is itself impure, and so are those forming it.
What Mr. O. wants, is, that if the assembly even is rejected, those coming from it, who are pure, should be admitted. So do I: however, the question is not that, but to know if those coming from it are pure, if they are knowingly associated with impurity. 1 Corinthians 5 settles the question. The word of God, in these last days, requires us to separate from evil— this is the clear, precise, and pointed instruction of 2 Timothy. An assembly such as we speak of will not do it, and we cannot go on together, and persons who are willingly in such a position are not what the apostle insists on, for walking together. It is not a question of re-establishing Christians, as a whole, in unity—a thing much to be desired in itself—but of being faithful to the Word and to the Lord in these last days.
Now, on another point, in connection with discipline, as to the independence of the assemblies, Mr. O. fully confirms what I say about it. Here are his words: “Every act of discipline in an assembly should be respected in the others, as long as one has no ground for considering it unlawful; but when one sees that a meeting has judged unjustly, then its decision is no longer binding on the other meetings.” “For my part, I could never submit to a discipline which I could not judge.” There is complete independence; Mr. O. is right in saying the assemblies should respect each other, but, as a natural and necessary consequence of having abandoned the primitive and only scriptural system, there is no joint responsibility. One respects the other when they are independent; one accepts when one thinks it is right, otherwise the discipline is in no way binding. Good people respect each other; if a man has been driven from the house, the other will reflect before receiving him, but they are independent, and each one will do in his own house what he thinks proper. It is certain that it was not so at first. The church, being one, whoever was put out at Corinth, was put out of the church on earth. The church was united. It will be said I have already spoken of it; I repeat it, because it is the universal objection. I am bound by a judgment I disapprove of, you will say. Confess, at least, that you are independent, and that you want to judge for yourself, and only accept what you approve of. This is the system of independent churches, in contrast with that of one sole church—the only system found in Scripture. But because the church is one, every member is at liberty to object, and to communicate with those who act, though not claiming competence to judge, refuse, or receive, at will, but, as a member of the whole, acting also according to his gift. Paul and his companions did so here (Corinth), to urge on to discipline when this course was not desired. It may happen —as Mr. O. himself admits—that one rejects the discipline of an assembly; but then one entirely rejects the competency of this assembly to act in the name of the Lord. Mr. O.’s system is, then, the system of independent churches, which respect one another, but not the unity of the church; only he adds to it his own competency to act in his own right, to judge the verdict of the whole church himself, and upon his own authority to reject a person he may consider unsuitable for communion. He has added the clerical principle to the independent church principle; neither of them is found in the word, unless one assumes the rights of an apostle, which should be supported by the power of an apostle. My purpose is only to ascertain the principles.
Mr. O. may have found contradictory expressions in my writings, that the totality of the churches constitutes the church, and that the totality of the churches does not constitute the church. There is a contradiction in the form, but none in the intention of the phrases; I believe both. The one meant that all Christians, and the churches containing them, are not independent bodies, but one whole. The second meant that the churches do not compose this unity as a body corporate, but that individuals, and not local corporations, form the body of Christ. I fully believe both—Mr. O. also, as it appears.
I do not care to make further reply to remarks referring either to my labours or my writings. It is God who justifies and condemns. I know I am very incapable of doing as I would, but I can leave myself in His hands. The important question is: What is the church, and what is the Christian’s course to be in the midst of these times of ruin? Must we give up scriptural principles as impracticable, as Mr. O. would have us do? Or must we humbly submit to His word, confident that God will never abandon those who seek to obey Him, and that the word of God, and the grace of the church’s Head, suffice, and ever will suffice, at all times for those who are satisfied to walk in littleness, and unappreciated by the world?
There is still one idea I wish to point out. Mr. O. wants to keep himself free to join the dismembered church. I am united to all Christians as a member of one only body, and am happy to be united with them, wherever this would not call me from the path traced out in the Word. Disobedience is not communion, and communion is not to be found in disobedience. Some souls will be more scrupulous than others in this respect; each conscience must be left free. I do not join the system I have left, and do not build up again what I destroyed, to make myself a transgressor, but I rejoice to meet every child of God in the path of obedience to His will, wherever it be. My reader will find that Mr. O. has added a word as to what makes the link of his churches. In Ms first pamphlet he said: “United by the same worship, by the same faith” —what evidently does not make them one, not recognising the unity of the church at all. Now he adds, “and by the same Spirit”; but this alters nothing; they are still independent churches respecting each other. It is not the one church; they are still separate associations, whether Mr. O. likes the word or not, and each one acts in its own sphere as an independent body, and the case being such, judges of the other’s discipline. The word, “and by the Spirit,” where it now stands, has hardly any sense, except it be an exceedingly vague one.
As for the passage out of Clement,5 Mr. O.’s remark leads me to the belief that he never thoroughly examined the passage, otherwise I should have to accuse him of insincerity, which I have no desire to do. It is impossible for him to have examined the passage, without coming across a word acknowledged by all as difficult, which, in reality, presents no difficulty, and for the sense of which one might even have done without Alexandre non-revised. I did not name the difficult word, and I spoke of another word with quite another object, as everybody can see. But if Mr. O. had looked up the passage, he would have seen it. Now, I suppose that the eleventh edition of Alexandre, and certainly Stephanus, Pape, etc., will give it a sense which is impossible to apply to its use by Clement, and no other, and he will find but little more than I have said of it in my pamphlet, except that, I think, they quote Aelian also. Let us see if Mr. O. can enlighten us further as to its force. Such may well be. As for me, I have no time to make deeper researches, but I can only think, that, if he had searched the original, he would at least have encountered the difficulty.
To sum up, here is what is stated in the pamphlet that I have examined. By Mr. O.’s admission, the meetings he would like to establish are not set up on scriptural principles. The principle we follow, Mr. O. himself admits is the one recognised by the word, and which governed the path of the church as God established it, but it is impracticable, he says, to act on this principle at present. Having abandoned the principle of the unity of the church, he cannot meet on the principle of this unity. That is impracticable, and he forms independent churches, which respect one another, and mutually accept each other’s discipline from each other, provided it be judged expedient, otherwise not. This is not the discipline of the church according to the promised presence of the Lord, but the discipline of a voluntary association, accepted, or not, according to circumstances. An assembly may admit sin or blasphemy, and the assembly not be defiled; the one who committed the sin is guilty; those who accepted him, and remained in fellowship with him, are clear of all defilement. Then the minister may exclude on his own authority. I admit that Mr. B. did not speak of the permission of sin in an assembly; he tries, as all the Bethesdaites, to hide facts under their common formula. “If there is a wicked person in an assembly,” then this story of defilement communicated by one assembly to another; but it is only hiding facts; but the point is, when the matter, being done wittingly—the sin, or blasphemy, knowingly and voluntarily admitted—whether the assembly is defiled, or not. Mr. O.’s system would entail the consequence that I might participate in the exclusion of a wicked person in one meeting, and take the Lord’s supper with him in another.
It is also recognised by Mr. O., and this is a point gained, that Mr. N.’s doctrine has not been retracted, and that those who will not reject his tracts should be excluded. Now this is not what Bethesda did, and numbers of the neutrals, or intermediates—if Mr. O. prefers the word—have declared that one ought not to exclude. But I do not know what an intermediate position, between the worship of God and the acceptance or admission of blasphemy against the Lord, can be.
I have only to add, that Mr. O. has confounded the church corporate with the persons composing it. John speaks of the latter, but never of the church. On the other hand, he confuses it with the kingdom, but to discuss all this would lead me too far. It seems to me that all who have spiritual intelligence can discern that John 17 applies to a moral and spiritual union among Christians, and not to the idea of the body of Christ; besides, John always speaks thus—he speaks of individuals, not of corporations.
This is my reply to Mr. O. I have indeed done it in haste, my time being already well filled. You can use it as you may find good.
Yours ever affectionately,
J. N. D.
4 “What is the Unity of the Church?” (“Collected Writings, Vol. 20.)
5 See “Collected Writings,” Vol. 20.