Critical Times

Critical Times

James Gunn

The predicament in which Israel found herself at the border of Egypt (Ex. 14) frequently has been used to illustrate the crises which arise in the lives of Christian persons. It may be used well in that connection; nevertheless, it more accurately illustrates those crises which appear in the history of God’s people as a body or a company.

There were many crises in Israel’s history: the political crisis when Pharaoh would have re-enslaved them; later, a spiritual crisis at Sinai where they fell into idolatry; a national one at Kadesh Barnea where they refused to enter Canaan; and a military crisis at Ai where, after the victory at Jericho, they were sorely defeated.

These may crises which arose in Israel’s history may illustrate those which have arisen throughout the history of the Church. The seven letters to the seven churches in Asia (Rev. 2 and 3) occasionally are used to remind us of critical times and of divine deliverances during them. In Ephesus we see the crisis of cold orthodoxy; in Smyrna, of pagan persecution; in Pergamos, of worldly patronage; in Thyatira, papacy; in Sardis, spiritual dearth; in Philadelphia, spiritual opportunity; and in Laodicea, the blight of materialism.

There have been grave epochs in the history of the movement with which we, by the grace of God, are associated. Early in its history there was the crisis of Exclusivism, and a little later that of Needed Truthism.

The teaching of the New Testament principles of Church truth reached this continent during the nineteenth century. Today, thank God, assemblies have been formed from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans.

Shortly after the beginning of the twentieth century a crisis of divisions swept over the entire continent separating assemblies, parting relatives, breaking hearts, and destroying the assemblies’ testimony to the oneness of the Body of Christ. Recently it has been felt by many spiritual brethren that even a graver crisis confronts the assemblies of God today, the crisis of disintegration. It appears as if, under the impact of satanic hate, assemblies are failing. Carnal men lord over God’s heritage, partyism strongly entrenches itself, spiritual power wanes, ecclesiastical pride grows, animosity engenders strife, and God’s people are torn by inward fears and outward conflicts.

Among assemblies there are those who emphasize a questionable tradition more than the Word of God, teachers who would form circles of communion very similar to the confederation of churches in denominationalism. Others, in order to counterbalance such movements, teach a freedom uncontrolled by the Word of God. In all this the majority of God’s people are unwittingly entangled like Israel of old.

It reliably is known that some of God’s people have withdrawn from their former assemblies because of a failure there to impose church discipline upon sin. Others have withdrawn because of the domination of a modern Diotrephes, and still others because of a sanctimonious bigotry that cripples spiritual activities.

Thus the evil work that fragmentizes the assemblies goes on, and in large part through the personal interest of ambitious men. Assemblies, once large, are today depleted; testimonies, once vigorous and productive, are marred and impotent.

The Dilemma

Israel’s position illustrates the spiritual dilemma in which many Christians find themselves. Before Israel rolled the Red Sea, behind them came Pharaoh, on either side were mountain heights topped with garrisoned cities. For them there was no human escape; they did not know what to do.

Let us notice the threefold attitude manifested during their predicament: the attitude of the people, the attitude of Moses, and the attitude of God. The attitude of Israel is seen in their words which suggested that they would be better to go back, the attitude of Moses is seen in his advice, “Stand still,” and the attitude of God, in His command, “Go forward.”

Go Back

Such was the attitude of the people; to them all seemed lost. Within their minds defeat had been accomplished already, so a return to their former estate was the only logical move.

With the many problems, perplexities, and conflicts among the churches of the saints, some have gone back, and others are ready to go back to former associations in the religious world. Discouragement has produced a feeling of defeat, and they see nothing but the collapse of assembly testimony.

Questions and letters which have appeared recently in the “Forum” of Food for the Flock substantiate this statement. These letters are a forceful rebuke to all who assume responsibility among the assemblies of God’s people. May this rebuke arouse some before further irreparable loss is suffered.

For Israel to have gone back would have meant unconditional surrender to all the demands of cruel Pharaoh and a slavery worse than before.

For Christians to return to a position and a condition from which God’s Word has called them, would mean to lose their spiritual liberty and the enjoyment of their God-given rights as His children.

Surely a word of warning is needed to elder brethren, for great will be the Lord’s displeasure at the scattering of His flock, and the marring of His spiritual temple: “If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are” (1 Cor. 3:17).

Stand Still

There was nothing else that Israel could do except remain where she was, but the advice of Moses entailed more than just to stand; it implied the manner in which they were to stand. Moses’ advice actually meant to stand at ease, to relax. To stand relaxed under such circumstances indicated the acceptance of two facts.

First, human impotency: Israel could do absolutely nothing, and this they acknowledged in standing still. It is salutary in the life of an individual as well as in the testimony of an assembly when there is an acknowledgment of creature debility, when the full force of the words of the Lord Jesus are felt, “Without Me ye can do nothing.”

Second, divine omnipotency: Israel’s deliverance from this crisis, and others in her existence, was wholly dependent upon the power of God and her reliance upon that power.

In an attempt to arrest the present day deterioration in assembly testimony, some brethren, very sincere in their own convictions, advocate a fellowship so close as to reject fellow believers from other assemblies who are, if not more, at least equally sincere, equally holy, and equally devoted to the Lord. On the other hand there are brethren, also sincere in their own convictions, who insist upon a fellowship more liberal, a fellowship generous in its love and broad in its embrace, through which sometimes certain principles are rendered inoperative.

It is not difficult for a diligent observer to detect that in both of these views there is a failure to accept the absolute authority of the Word of God, especially that Word revealed in the Pauline Epistles in which there is no picture of the Church in fixed sections or parties. The exponents of these two views are altogether too critical the one of the other. In that they have expressed their convictions, they have rendered a service to all; but in that they express their convictions as though they were the only scriptural, divine ones, they have fallen into grievous error.

Surely the time has come for all to acknowledge human impotency and to stand still and quietly rely upon divine omnipotency. God will never leave Himself without a testimony, and that He intends there be in this dispensation a Church testimony is the burden of the New Testament epistles. Man must learn that only God can and will maintain His testimony. This He will do through human instruments which in themselves are nothing, instruments who in their weakness rely only upon the Lord.

There can be no recovery of lost fellowship, no revival of spiritual power, peace, and joy until all brethren acknowledge failure, confess sin, renounce all human expediency, and turn in simple faith to God and to the Word of His grace. The Lord’s people must cultivate a sensitivity to the touch of our living Lord.

Go Forward

“And the Lord said unto Moses, Wherefore criest thou unto Me? speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward.” Watery weights crashed at their feet as if ready to destroy them. Geological heights towered insurmountably beside them, and military forces closed upon them from the rear. How could they “go forward?” Let us examine the means by which Israel under such circumstances did move onward.

Faith: Only through implicit faith in the Word of God could they step out. Every step in fact was an act of faith. As they through faith in the divine command moved forward, barriers gradually withdrew until eventually all obstructions disappeared and they stood a free victorious people on the other side of the Red Sea.

In assembly relationships the barriers of prejudice, of tradition, and of extreme views have created in many hearts the feeling of frustration. Under the force of this some would forsake the path of simplicity toward Christ and go back. Faith in God’s inerrant Word would have us go forward.

Obedience: Obedience does not ask for an explanation, nor does it even anticipate a clarification. Obedience only acts, and accepts the results. This Israel did, and the results were wonderful. They rejoiced in the liberty wherewith God had made them free, and were never again so fully entangled with Egypt’s yoke of bondage.

God’s Word is plain. It calls us to a path of separation from the world: “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel: And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (2 Cor. 6:14-16). It likewise insists upon our identification with Christ: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into His death? Therefore we are buried with Him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:1-4). Similarly, it teaches us the blessedness of assembly unity and fellowship: “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you” (1 Cor. 1:10-11).

Obedience does not ask how, but acts promptly and implicity in faith.

Submission: Something new characterized Israel when she crossed the Red Sea in obedience to the command of God. They “were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Cor. 10:2). God gave to them a divinely appointed leader, Moses. Him they followed through the sea, in the singing of their triumphal song, and for forty years in the wilderness. Their attitude toward him was generally one of submission. Those who rose against him were called rebels and as such were disciplined by God (Num. 16).

The Christian has a leader, the Lord Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul emphasizes the Lordship of Christ in his letters to the saints at Corinth, and teaches that submission to Christ as Lord is expected in all church matters. Christ’s authority among the saints is supreme. In the churches of the saints all activities are to be accomplished “in the Name of the Lord Jesus” and not because of custom or policy.

The pathway before God’s people is one of faith in God, obedience to His Word, and submission to Christ as Lord. Anything different, whether it be traditional or popular, partisan or expedient, must be rejected. ‘Simplicity of faith in God, sincerity of obedience in His Word, and singleness of submission to Christ are the spiritual essentials by which assemblies “go forward.”