We continue our considerations of the earmarks of a local church (assembly).
Centred in the Lord Jesus
The scene described for us in the book of the Revelation chapter five leaves no doubt in our minds that the raptured Church finds its centre in the Lamb, through Whose blood she has been redeemed. He, Himself, leads the praise “in the midst of the Church” (Heb. 2:12), while the redeemed hosts sing their song of redemption gathered around Him. What an anthem! What a choir! What a Precentor!
If He has His true place as God’s centre for His Church then, why not now? The divine charter for the Church on earth was given when He said, “For where two or three are gathered together in My name there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). There must be no back seat, no corner seat, no side seat for Him Who bought the Church with His own precious blood; indeed, His occupancy of a “back” seat would immediately make it a “front” seat. Unless He is given that prominency no local group dare claim that they meet on New Testament ground.
Some may ask, how may He be recognized as having His place “in the midst”? Let us look at three verses in Matthew 12, where He speaks of the greatness of His presence compared with what may be regarded as three centres in Christendom today.
He makes reference to the Temple (v. 6), Jonah (v. 41), and Solomon (v. 42). They represent for us place, preacher and government. Some Christians are satisfied to meet where they do because of the greatness of its architecture, music, history, etc. Others enjoy good preaching, so the greatness of the preacher gives them their centre where they meet. Many consider the government of the church most important to them, so we find them meeting where they do; they find their choice of government: Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Baptist, Independent, etc. The Lord Jesus seems to say, “ … in this place is One greater than place, preacher or government. Let us reflect that the Temple was likely the grandest building men ever constructed; Jonah must wear the laurels of the greatest preacher, while the glory of Solomon’s government brought the Queen of Sheba from “the uttermost parts of the earth” to see it for herself.
But there is a deeper reason underlying the Saviour’s reason for His statement of claim. The Temple suggests the Priest; Jonah represents the Prophet, while Solomon portrays the King. The Lord Jesus was all three; He is the Messiah, and fills all the anointed offices. As Priest He gives us God’s order; as Prophet He gives us God’s truth; as King He gives us God’s rule. Giving Him His rightful place “in the midst” we have all that God can give us, so that the New Testament Church can cry, “What want we more!”
The expression “in the midst” belongs to the Old Testament. Cf. Exod. 33:2, 3; Psa. 46:5; Zeph. 3:5. An important distinction must be made between its use with the nation and the Church. For Israel of old the only centre was Jerusalem, but for the Church today there is no geographical location beyond the use of the word “where” (Matt. 18:20). The Saviour indicated that when in conversation with the woman of Sychar. She thought of worship being related to some particular place “this mountain (in Samaria)”, or in Jerusalem. but the Lord corrected her; He said, “Woman, believe Me, the hour cometh when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem worship the Father … they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:20-24). In a house, an upper room, a simple hall —what matters — He is there.
A word of caution: one fears emphasis today is being placed by many who profess New Testament ground of gathering, on the place in which they meet, rather than on the Person around Whom they gather. In some instances heavy debts are assumed which are such a burden that the exercise of the brethren lessens in respect to the visits of some of God’s servants who minister to the spiritual needs of the saints. References in the New Testament are almost nil when one looks for the location of the many assemblies; the Lord surely has a reason for this silence of the Holy Spirit on the subject of the place. Surely it is to teach us the force of the Saviour’s words, “ … in this place is One greater than the temple.”
IV. Ordered by the Word
When the Lord sent His disciples into the world with the message of the gospel, He ordered them to teach the converts “all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). The implication is obvious: the Church must be ordered by His Word.
A study of the Epistles reveals that the sole court of appeal of the churches in respect to the truth was always the Holy Scriptures; they were their only rule (or, canon-Gal. 6:16).
Catechisms and creeds are not necessarily wrong, and where they teach the pure, unadulterated Word of God we can surely appreciate them; however, they have no authority in themselves to either “bind” or “loose” in the Church; such authority must bear an unquestioned “thus saith the Lord.”
Tradition may have its place in the Church, but let us ever keep in mind that traditional practice does not give divine sanction unless it has New Testament precedent. On the other hand, the introduction of an innovation in order to break from a time-honoured tradition can, and often does, lead to more grievous departure from the truth.
Worldly wisdom is creeping fast into the assemblies today and this is seen in the popular vote being taken to settle some matter that has arisen. The question is asked, What saith the people? On the basis of the majority vote it is then settled. We readily grant that many minor matters in Church practice such as those which bear on assembly property, hour of gatherings, and in other matters may be satisfactorily settled without in any way infringing the Word, simply by obtaining the voice of the assembly as a whole. But where a matter is raised for discussion on which the Word has spoken plainly, let there be no turning aside. Let us assume the question is asked in some assembly, should we consent to let the women speak? A vote is taken with the majority in favour of a “yes.” Now we raise the question, is God on the side of the majority or the minority?
Let us now briefly examine seven statements in the New Testament relating to the use of the Word of God in the New Testament assemblies:
Paul writes: First, “Be ye followers of me … my ways which be in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church.” (1 Cor. 4:17, 18). God’s Word is for all God’s people …
Second, “What? came the Word of God out from you? or, came it unto you only?” (1 Cor. 14:36). The authority of the church is in the Word.
Third, “If any man think himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:37). Respect for the Word is the criterion of true spirituality.
Fourth, “If any man be ignorant let him be ignorant” (1 Cor. 14:38). Refusal of the Word spells ignorance.
Fifth, “And the things that thou hast heard of me … the same committ thou unto faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). Time fails to alter the Word.
Sixth, “And if a man also strive for masteries, yet is he not crowned, except he strive lawfully” (2 Tim. 2:5). Disobedience to the Word forfeits reward.
In seventh place, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16,17). The Word of God is all-sufficient.
V. Controlled by the Spirit
The importance of this cannot be overstressed; however, it is not possible within the limits of this article to take up such a subject in any detail. A few references to the Scriptures must suffice.
When the Lord Jesus commissioned the disciples to go forth to evangelize the world, He did so after opening up the Old Testament truths pertaining to their message of forgiveness. One would naturally conclude that receiving the message from the Lord Himself, they would have been ready there and then to go and preach it; but, no: they must “tarry;” they must “wait.” For what? The Holy Spirit had not yet been given, and without Him their mission would have been fruitless. The Acts of the Apostles might better be called The Acts of the Holy Spirit. It is simply a revelation to trace His operations throughout that book. The power that saved sinners and created churches (assemblies) was the only power and control the apostles knew in the maintenance of the assembly testimony. That divine prerogative of the Spirit has never been relegated to any other.
In 1 Corinthians we see how He operates in the assembly. In chapter 12 a human body is used as a figure. The “many members” illustrate for us the media He uses in the exercise of His control. “Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit” (v. 4). In verses 7 to 11 this diversity is detailed and then follows the parable of the body. Three points might be noted: each member functions, each member functions differently, each member functions under one control. The induction of a man into an assembly of God’s people to control and order the spiritual exercises of the saints sets aside the preciousness of the truth revealed in this Epistle. Let a man be ever so gifted, ever so godly, he must not, he dare not displace the Holy Spirit in His sole prerogative over the assembly of God’s people.
Two prevalent evils assail the churches; on one hand there is the evil of one-man ministry, and on the other we have an any-man ministry. A good understanding of 1 Corinthians 12 will give the remedy for both. Each member may function, but each has its own function. What incongruity if a man should try to walk on his hands, or speak with his ears! What awful abnormality if the eyes should do the seeing, the hearing, and the speaking!
To all who read these articles I would graciously ask, do you enjoy Christian fellowship where these seven features can be traced? In these wretched Laodicean days of definite departure, spiritual senility, and mad materialism thank God for every faithful little flock who seeks to give the Lord Jesus His true and only place “in the midst,” recognizing His Word as their sole court of appeal, and His Holy Spirit as the true Vicar of Christ. To them I would say, “Hold fast that which thou hast, that no man take thy crown” (Rev. 3:11).