The Church of God: Its Fellowship and Government

“Before touching upon the subject of “The Government and Fellowship of the Church or Churches,” allow me to refer to another subject. It seems to me we have had very abundantly brought before us that aspect of the Church which is synonymous with “the Body of Christ.” The term “Body of Christ” is doubtless a figure, and wherever it is used the thought of vital union with the Head and with the fellow-members is prominent. The term “Church” describes the same thing, but without a figure. As you have again and again heard, the original word for “church “is “ecclesia,” and signifies “the called out,” and properly, also, in a derived sense, “the called together.” All believers have been called by God out of death into life, out of darkness into light, out from the power of Satan into the Kingdom of the Son of His love, out from the world and into the fellowship of the Son of God.

As these blessings are the common heritage of all believers, all are in that sense of the Church as well as of the Body of Christ.

I would refer you to one passage—Acts 20:28—in proof of this: “Feed the Church of God, which Hs hath purchased with His own blood.” In this aspect the Church embraces all in this dispensation who are purchased by “His own blood.”1

I fail to see certain distinctions that have been drawn between “the Church,” “the Church of God,” “the Churches of Christ,” and so on.

It seems to me, as a simple reader of the Scriptures, that wherever the term “of God” is added to the word “Church,” there is a very definite and obvious reason for it. For instance, in the passage already referred to responsibility is laid upon those whom the Holy Spirit had fitted for the work, to feed the Church of God—the Church, that is, “of God” as to its very origin, “of God” as the object of His love, “of God” as the purchase of the blood of His own dear Son. How immensely the addition of the words “of God” adds to the importance of the work, and to the responsibility to do it well!

Take another instance—1 Cor. 15:9—“I am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God.” Why not, as in Phil. 3:6, when referring to the same facts, “persecuting the Church”? In the former he is showing the heinousness of his sin, and therefore emphasises the thought that it was that which was of God which he persecuted, which God loved and valued, even as the precious ransom-price at which He bought it. In the latter passage it is not the heinousness of his crime that he is exposing, but the sincerity and blindness of his zeal. No need in that sense to emphasise the thought of its being “of God.” And again, 1 Cor. 11:22: “What! have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the Church of God? “As much as to say, “Will you dare, by your foolish behaviour, to despise that which is of God, God’s dwelling-place, God’s blood-bought and Spirit-sealed temple?”

It appears plain to me that the reason why the words “of God” are added in each of these cases is not to denote some different thing from what would be denoted by the term “Church,” but to emphasise the particular thought which at each point is prominently before the mind of the writer.

I would now turn to another aspect of the Church, which you will find in 3rd John. The pre-eminence which Diotrephes loved and acquired evidently involved a tremendous influence over the consciences of the believers, by means of which he was able to carry with him, in his high-handed casting out of the children of God, probably a very large proportion of the Church. And it is evident that he was one who would tolerate no difference of judgment whatever. If any dared to receive the brethren whom he would not receive, he forbade them, and if they would not bow to his decision, he cast them also out of the Church. So he narrowed down the circle of fellowship until he carried everything his own way!

If, as many of us have long believed, the Second Epistles bear upon the “last days,” surely the only Third Epistle brings us to the very end, and shows what we may expect to see at the final stage of the Church’s history upon earth. Very special is its voice to us at the present time. Never was there a time when more high-handed action was taken or higher pretensions advanced among genuine children of God. In this passage “the Church “is recognised by the apostle at the same time that he acknowledges a number of beloved saints as being cast out of it. They could not be both in the Church and out of it at the same time. Here we have one distinct and definite instance, showing that the Church is not only spoken of in the wider sense of Acts 20:28—the Church of God as equivalent to the Body of Christ—but that it is also spoken of in a local sense, a gathered company of saints, expressive of the great divine ideal—having mutual relationship and responsibility as such which they are bound in the Lord to own and carry out. It was, therefore, quite a possible thing for those who were “members of the Body of Christ” and of “the Church of God “purchased by the blood of Jesus to be outside of the local assembly.

It is in this aspect of the Church, wherein human responsibility comes in, that all our difficulties arise.

I would submit that what entitles any man to a place in the assembly locally, is the fact that he is of the Church purchased by the blood of Christ. I repeat it, that that which gives any man, in the first instance“prima facie,” as the lawyers say—a title to be in the local assembly gathered unto the Lord’s Name, is the prior fact that he was a member of the Body of Christ, and of that blood-bought Church in which God is to be glorified throughout the eternal ages (see Eph. 3:21).

But some will ask, “Where is this Church?”

Dear friends, we must face the great and sorrowful fact that the Church upon earth, as a corporate thing in testimony here for God, has utterly failed—utterly failed in testimony corporately, not individually—for in the darkest ages Christ had His brightest lights—but corporately.

God in judgment has permitted it to be corrupted, broken up, divided, and scattered like the temple of old, of which not one stone was left upon another.

Out of all this terrible confusion God has been leading individual souls in these last days—here and there a few, at first tens, then hundreds, now thousands. Each one in the teaching and leading of His Spirit through the Word discovering the failure and ruin of the Church as a corporate witness for God, and owning his responsibility to the Lord, has been seeking his way back to the old foundation, to the original apostolic doctrine and pattern. They have sought to go where they could carry out His Word, having no appeal but the Scriptures, and owning no authority but that of the Lord Jesus Christ. Such is the position God is leading them into.

One is led to it through seeing how sectarianism divides the children of God for whom Christ died that He might gather them into one (John 11:52). Another is exercised in conscience about the mixing together of believers and unbelievers in what professes to be God’s assembly.

But, however led, the result is that they find themselves together seeking in much weakness and ignorance, and yet with some measure of true-heartedness, to carry out what they have learned in the Word.

But all around is confusion. The world has become religious, and the children of God have become worldly, and are hand-in-glove with the world. Errors have been imbibed even by true Christians, from human traditions as well as doctrines of demons and Satanic lies, such as “annihilation” and “the larger hope.” Amidst it all, is there anything to guide us in the Scriptures?

Let us turn to 2nd Timothy 2:19. Here is a seal with two sides—a Godward side and a manward. The Godward side is, “The Lord knoweth them that are His.” In Acts 2 to 5 there was little difficulty in knowing who were His. “Of the rest durst no man join himself unto them.” In days of persecution there is little difficulty—the chaff is driven away. In apostolic days, the local Church at Jerusalem or Corinth embraced the very same circle as the membership of the Body of Christ (I do not, of course, refer here to one put away by the Word of God for special sin), and it ought to be so still; but such is the havoc Satan has wrought in the corporate thing, that now we cannot tell who are and who are not the Lord’s, as once it could be known. Hence the word for these last days: “The Lord knoweth them that are His.” That is God’s side of the seal. What is ours?

“Let every one that nameth the Name of Christ (or the Lord) depart from iniquity (or unrighteousness).” This is the call of God to us; and in departing from what God has shown us to be unrighteousness, we shall find that we are not alone. We shall find that others whom God has been leading step by step, here a little and there a little, light dawning gradually upon their understandings, are casting in their lot with us. One is attracted by the truth, another by the separateness from the world and the coming together of believers only, another by the scriptural order and simplicity of the Spirit’s leading in ministry and worship, and so on.

But the knowledge comes not all at once; and if you and I begin by demanding, as a condition of fellowship, the intelligent reception of truths that took us many years to learn, this is making our terms of fellowship, and not God’s, and building again the walls of sectarianism.

Many references have been made to the reception of Saul at Jerusalem. Sometimes too much has been made of it, and sometimes too little—we are creatures of extremes—but this much at least to me is evident, the thing they did not know, and which they wanted to know, was whether or not he was a genuine disciple. Satisfied as to that, the way into the fellowship of the brethren was open to him. They had no morning newspaper or telegraphic news to inform them daily of what was going on at Damascus. Barnabas knew the facts of which they were ignorant, and his testimony was enough.

But 2nd Timothy shows us that that would not be enough now. Many an eloquent preacher holds the non-eternity of punishment. Such should not be received; it is fundamental error.

Others hold grievous error as to inspiration of Scripture, atonement, regeneration, and other cardinal doctrines.

Others there are who can only be regarded as causers of division, who think little of sowing discord among brethren and breaking up churches into fragments, if so be they can carry things their own way.

Looking at all that surrounds us, it is clearly not enough now to know that one is a converted person. It is necessary to know that he is sound in the faith as well as godly in his individual walk; in short, it must be known to those who receive him that there is no evil chargeable against him upon the ground of which Scripture would warrant his exclusion. Granted that the person is known to be a Christian—“a disciple”— and that there is nothing against him on the ground of which Scripture would warrant his exclusion, then, in the name of the Lord, we must receive him. I know no other ground, and I never did hold anything else since I left the denominations myself.

I warn you, dear friends, against overstepping the Word of God. You may reason out a very fine theory, hanging it upon some single verse of Scripture, and get many to accept it who do not take the pains to prove it by all Scripture.

For instance, what a theory is spun out of 2 Timothy 2:25, 26! Certain assemblies that have accepted certain doctrines are “the Church of God.” All outside them is “the snare of the devil.” Every connection and association outside the so-called “Church of God” must be repented of, and separated from, as “snare of the devil,” before a believer, be he ever so godly, ever so ready to lay down his life for the Lord, and for what he knows of His will, can be accorded any measure of fellowship. Alas! may not those who hold such a theory, and ruthlessly force it upon others, be themselves, though they know it not, in Satan’s snare.

I confess I feel ashamed to lift up my head as I think of such doctrines being advanced, of the sorrow they are causing, and the stumbling-block that is thus cast in the way of many who would fain follow were they gently led onward into the ways of the Lord. The truth should be held in love, and love should be in the truth; but these have been divorced—what God has joined has been put asunder, and therefore the judgment of God is upon us.

I believe we ought to endeavour to have as much fellowship with every child of God as we can have without compromising the truth. One, as the Lord’s servant, may feel liberty to go where another could not. One might feel free where another would feel that his position for the time was a compromise. It is not our province to judge one another in such things, but to pray for one another, asking God that servants of His, who go where some of us could not go with a good conscience, may be used beyond even their own faith and expectation in leading children of God into light and love and liberty.2

I would now shortly touch upon the Church’s government. Read 1 Cor. 4:19-21: “But I will come unto you shortly, if the Lord will, and will know, not the speech of them which are puffed up, but the power. For the Kingdom of God is not in word, but in power. What will ye? Shall I come unto you with a rod, or in love, and in the spirit of meekness? “The apostles were empowered by the Lord Jesus Christ to enforce, if need be, obedience to that which was His revealed will. This power was entrusted to them, not in order to destruction, but for edification. I have heard an Irvingite—a member of what calls itself the Catholic Apostolic Church—say that they had apostles, and that “the signs of an apostle” in power and mighty deeds had been seen by him, even to the raising of the dead! I could only judge that the young man was labouring under a hallucination. I do not believe that any such power remains now. In implicit obedience to the Word of the Lord, we can put away from among ourselves those whom the Word of the Lord instructs us to put away, and we can and ought always to seek to be of one mind in so doing, that one may not be building up what others are breaking down, or vice versa.

But, I ask, if apostolic power is claimed, have we apostolic discernment? Have we apostolic patience? Have we apostolic grace? Are even Churches of Christ infallible? Are they not liable to make mistakes —fastening, perhaps, upon a troublesome brother the title “railer,” or “covetous,” as a pretext for getting decently rid of him? Are all other assemblies to be subject to such a judgment as that?

Differences do not, as a rule, arise as to a drunkard or a proved and admitted holder of non-eternity, but about dubious cases where evil feelings have been generated. Then, instead of patiently and in brokenness of heart seeking unto the Lord for oneness of mind and judgment, the cry is raised, as of old, by the woman who had not the mother’s heart, “Divide the child!” But the mother’s heart yearned over the object of her love. And we have to get this grace from the God of all grace even now, to yearn over the feeble, scattered sheep who are being fed with much that is not bread, and with scant measure of grace.

We need patience and love, as well as clearest, simplest truth ministered from and unto childlike hearts.

May God raise up among us pastors and teachers after His own heart—men who shall be felt to be helpers and comforters every time they open their lips.

Brethren, have you cried to God for such? Rarely, if ever, have I heard this prayer.

Satan is busy. When walking along the streets of London I have seen men selling penny puzzles. I never yet found out one of these puzzles until some one who knew the secret showed it to me. It may seem a trivial illustration; but I tell you Satanic ingenuity is at work to put into the hands of every company of believers a question to engender strife, a difficulty they cannot unravel, a Satanic puzzle which they cannot unlock; and so they puzzle and puzzle, and wrangle and fight, till, patience exhausted, the attempt is given up, the cry is raised, “Divide” and Satan has gained his end. Surely in such cases it is a call for both parties to humble themselves before God, and to seek, in patient waiting upon Him, “a right way,” so that oneness of mind may be attained, and, if not immediately, that there might at anyrate be patience with one another, mutual respect, and brotherly love.

But it is often otherwise. Brethren, would-be leaders, finding they have not power to convince others that their principles and practices are scriptural, and that they have as little power to enforce their judgment, resort to the only other method they can devise, namely, an open schism, and this not as a matter of shame, but a subject of boasting, asserting their claim to be acknowledged by all as “the Church of God in that place,” with the penalty attached, as of old by Diotrephes, that all, whether individuals or assemblies, who do not endorse this assumption shall no longer be regarded as “in or of the fellowship of the Church of God.”

Such divisions necessarily cause difficulty in assemblies far and near, often giving rise to roots of bitterness that bear like evil fruit.

In all such matters of dispute and difference of judgment, would it not be well, before the extreme of open division is contemplated, much less resorted to, to obtain counsel from wise and godly brethren, in whom all would have confidence, who not being immediately concerned, and therefore less liable to prejudice and party feeling than the contending parties, might bring light from the Scriptures to show where either or both have gone wrong, and so help to heal the breach?

O may God open the eyes of His children to the subtlety of Satan’s devices for the spoiling of the testimony of every feeble company that God has gathered in these last days around His Son.

1 It is asserted that the word here rendered “purchased” ought to be “acquired.” Possibly this may be a better rendering, but it in no way affects the point we contend for, that all acquired by the blood are in the Church of God in this aspect of it.

2 Eldad and Medad prophesied in the camp from which. Moses had gone forth. Did Moses forbid or denounce them? Read his answer in Numbers 11:29.