Fellowship in Closing Days
We reproduce herewith an article which appeared many years ago. Had it been written today, the wording in a very few places would probably be a little different. But, sad to say, conditions such as those which the esteemed writer (now with the Lord) lamented and which were such a source of estrangement years ago, still continue to plaque assemblies and grieve the hearts of the spiritual. We trust that the article will be given careful and prayerful reading, and that it will lead to humiliation and to a forsaking of principles and practices which have, wherever they obtained, been a source of heartache, discouragement, and defeat. — Editor.
It is impossible to review, at the opening of a new century, the years that are past without recognizing gratefully the exceeding goodness of God to His saints. The past century has been markedly one of divine activity. If we speak of testimony, vast numbers of loyal souls have been raised up to preach the Glad Tidings of God’s grace, and have gone forth waiting for no other authorization than, “I believed, and therefore have I spoken” (2 Cor. 4:13); and God has abundantly crowned their efforts with blessing. If we speak of the truth itself, the Spirit has been graciously removing from our eyes the mists of centuries, with the happy result that many precious truths, long lost sight of, have been restored to our joy and blessing. We can but adore and praise our God that multitudes of His saints are now rejoicing in the assurance of a present salvation, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and the return of the Lord from Heaven. Many have been led to see even “greater things than these,” viz., that all the redeemed on earth form one body in virtue of their union by the Spirit with Christ in glory; that the assembly is the present dwelling place of God’s Spirit; and that the Lord’s Supper is a precious privilege that may be enjoyed on the first day of the week, without human authority or presidency (1 Cor. 12:12-13. 1 Tim. 3:15. Eph. 2:22. 1 Cor. 11:23-26. Acts 20:7).
What practical power these truths exercised amongst those to whom they were first restored! What self-renunciation, what separation from the world, what “love to all the saints,” what holy zeal in the spreading abroad of the testimony! Alas, that the fine gold should have become dim! Yet failure has characterized the history of man from the beginning. The remnant restored from Babylon furnishes us with a sad analogy of what has happened in our own days. In Ezra’s day, their faith was so simple and real that they judged God’s altar to be a better protection than walls and gates; their relish for God’s Word was such that they would gladly stand in the street all day to hear it; and their obedience was such that Ezra had but to point out ordinances in God’s Word, and they would observe them, even though they had lapsed for centuries (Ezra 3:3. Neh. 3:3).
Yet in Malachi’s day, less than a hundred years later, God had to reprove them for indifference, sacrilege, immorality, and various other forms of evil (Mal. 1:2-3). The same humiliating declension may be seen in the history of the early Church. The charming picture presented to us in Acts 2:4 soon faded away, and we hear the devoted Apostle saying about thirty years later, “All seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s,” “The mystery of iniquity doth already work,” etc. (Phil. 2:21. 2 Thess. 2:7).
These pages are intended especially for those who have separated themselves from the organized bodies of Christendom in obedience to God’s Word, and Who profess to own the all-sufficiency of the name of the Lord Jesus, and the presence and operation of God’s Spirit. Our true place is in the dust before God. We have not been faithful to our trust. Instead of being “the first blessings” in Christendom, as one has said, we have been and are a stumbling-block to many by our inconsistent lives, our sectarian spirit, and (worst of all) by our open divisions. All this is frankly admitted by many, and godly souls have exercised and chastened themselves before God about it for many years. There is a growing conviction that we have missed the mind of the Lord somewhere, and that we have adopted some line of action that is essentially destructive. Seven general divisions in twenty years (to say nothing of local breaches) are sufficient to prove this to the dullest mind. To blindly pursue, for twenty years more, if the Lord leaves the Assembly here so long, the course that we have pursued during the last two decades, will render Christian fellowship practically an impossibility for any of us.
The question then is, what is there in our principles that is so essentially destructive? After much anxious consideration before the Lord, I give it as my judgment that it is the notion, not peculiar to any one party amongst us, of a defined circle of fellowship. The custom of listing up such assemblies as have received the imprimatur of acknowledged leaders, and describing them as “in fellowship” to the non-recognition of all others, is undeniably sectarian. Nothing is easier to the human mind than to slip into sectarianism. The habits and training of centuries have affected us all more than we are aware. Besides, we naturally like to be connected with an outward and visible organization; like the two and a half tribes, we like “a great altar to see to” (Josh. 22:10). But our work of organization has falsified our whole position for us. We are not “the Church” in any exclusive sense, but simply souls, few or many, who have separated themselves from iniquity that we may give practical effect to the word, “follow righteousness, faith, love, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Tim. 2:22). It is because we have attempted a great deal “more,” and have built up a “visible body,” that God has made a breach upon us again and again. As early as 1838 the following proposal was made by the late Mr. W: “How are meetings for the communion of saints in these parts to be regulated? Would it be for the glory of the Lord, and the increase of testimony, to have one central meeting, the common responsibility of all within reach, and as many meetings subordinate to it as grace might vouchsafe? Or to hold it to be better to allow the meetings to grow up as they may without connection, and dependent on the energy of individuals only?” Here we have a definite proposal (however well meant) to organize and systematize the operations of God’s Spirit according to the pattern of “bodies” around us. Alas! How soon the idea took effect, if not exactly on the lines laid down by the esteemed writer. The “visible body” was formed, central authorities manifested themselves, and the testimony was ruined.
(The conclusion of this article, which we hope to publish next month, will discuss some of the specific evils of a “circle of fellowship”).