Things Which Are Surely Believed Among Us
The phrase, “Things which are most surely believed among us” is to be interpreted in no sectarian sense. “Food for the Flock” does not foster sectarianism. The phrase has been extracted from Luke 1:1, and, in using it as a caption for a series of articles touching our Faith, we wish to imply that those responsible for the production of the magazine unreservedly believe all that is contained in “the Scriptures of Truth,” and they write for that large body of Christians who share their like faith. All over the world, and at all times, God has those who like Paul say, “ I believe God.”
Seeing that our beliefs are based on Holy Scriptures, it follows that we should first consider the nature of those Scriptures, in order to satisfy ourselves that our faith is well-founded. Our final paper, therefore, will relate to…
In our last paper we considered the Person of the Holy Spirit and remarked that this present age is one uniquely characterized by His presence on earth. The Church, which is the Body of Christ, was born on the Day of Pentecost.
The word “Church” (ekklesia) means a called-out and a called-together company and may apply to either the nation of Israel who was called out to Egypt (Acts 7:38) or to a mass of people gathered together either by random or by arrangement. When applied to believers of the present era it relates to the Body of Christ (Gal. 1:24).
The Body of Christ, called by the Lord Jesus (Matt. 16:18) “My Church” did not exist whilst He was here on earth. It could not. It could only come into being consequent upon the glorification of Christ at the right hand of the Father and on the descent and indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who would thereby join every individual believer, not only one to the other in inseparable union but with Christ, as the Head, in Heaven.
Seeing that such circumstances did not and could not exist prior to the Pentecost of Acts 2 it follows, therefore, that nothing like the Church which is the Body of Christ existed or could exist before that time. It was altogether “new” (Eph. 2:15) and is so spoken of by Paul. In fact, it was a “mystery,” that is, a concealed thing not revealed until such time as it was formally communicated to the holy apostles and prophets of New Testament times (Eph. 3:5).
It is altogether a mistake to suppose that the Church existed in Old Testament times, and many of the captions at the head of pages and chapters in some Bibles in the Old Testament are most misleading and inaccurate. The Body of Christ did not exist in Old Testament times for the Lord Jesus spoke of “My Church” as a yet future thing even in His day: He spoke of it as something yet to be built. Nor does it form the subject of Old Testament prophecy, for such prophecy has always to do with earth and God’s doings therein. But the Church, the Body of Christ, is, to alter the simile, as a great sheet let down from Heaven and caught up to Heaven (Acts 10:11-16), though within it are all kinds each and all of whom have been cleansed by the blood of Christ. But its origin is heavenly and its destiny is heavenly: its sojourn on earth is but incidental: its true home is elsewhere.
The New Testament envisages but two things in this matter, namely, the Universal Church which embraces every true believer from the day of Pentecost until the moment of its translation to meet the Lord in the air: and secondly, local churches each of which is a microcosm of the whole. It knows no other thing than these two. Plainly there are differences but there are also parallelisms. There is no such thing as ‘believers receiving into or putting away from the Universal Church: nor is there any possibility of the mixture of true and false in that. But into local churches saints receive and betimes, regret-ably, have to put out: into it may creep men unawares, who should have had no entree thereinto. Failure marks the local churches but no such failure can mark the Universal.
The sum total of believers on earth at any one time (save at the very beginning when the state did not last very long) does not represent the Universal Church, nor can it represent the local church. It, therefore, is a mistake to speak of the “Church of God on earth.” The phrase “Church of God,” wherever used in the New Testament always relates to a local church in some particular place, and is never employed to refer to the aggregate of all believers on earth at one and the same time.
This being so, it follows that it is a mistake to speak of a church, appending thereto the name of a Continent or the name of a country. We refrain from mentioning any particular continent or country lest we should appear to be attacking any one section of believers, a thing which is remotest from our desires. But it is good to be clear and accurate. There were such things as “churches of Galatia” (Gal. 1:2) but there is no such thing as “the church of Galatia.” In fact, to add any restrictive word to the word Church, be it the name of church town or country or continent, be it the name of an order of church ‘government or the name of a Christian ordinance, be it the name of believers to any of which all are entitled, it but to form a sect. And sectarianism is a work of the flesh to be condemned and uprooted (Gal. 5:20. R.V.).
Nor should any company claim to be the church of God’ in any particular locality. An examination of the Scriptures will show that the definite article is persistently omitted in all such references. It is “church of God,” (1 Tim. 3:15), “pillar and ground of the truth,” “house of God,” “temple of God,” (1 Cor. 3:16), “Body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:27). The reason for this would appear to be that the Spirit of God, knowing beforehand the sadly divided state into which believers would fall, made this safeguard against any claiming an exclusive monopoly in church position to the exclusion of other genuine believers who, for some cause or other, were not in that particular company.
Ideally, all the believers in one place should meet together and not in separate companies. Actually, however, such is not the case. The ship has all gone to pieces and believers are found on various planks. The broken condition has not the approval of God’s spirit, nor should it be regarded as merely the equivalent of so many different regiments making up the one army. The divisions among believers should bow the heads of all in shame. None should add an iota to further division. But to mend the wreckage is beyond the power of any now. To attempt to do so would be to open the door to compromise and to run all the dangers which are being encountered in modern ecumenical endeavours. Each believer should seek, with other believers, to follow the pattern set out in the Scriptures, and to show the utmost love to saints who think otherwise.
We have said the Church began at Pentecost. The method of its growth was by the plain and Spirit-empowered preaching of the Gospel which resulted in the gaining of believers, who proclaimed their faith by their submission to water baptism, thereafter meeting with the other believers for the purposes of prayer, instruction in the Word and the observance of the Lord’s Supper (Acts 2:42). No better method has since been found: it is within the reach of all: indeed, is the duty of all. Only confessed believers should find their place in the local church, none others daring in those far away early days to join themselves with such (Acts 5:13). Today it is different, and to belong to some church is, in some quarters, fashionable and attractive to mere religionists who have had no vital work effected in their souls.
In early Christian times the enemies of the Church were twofold, religious and political. The Book of the Acts begins with religious persecution and ends with political persecution. It is so today in many parts of the world, for the religious world is no more cordial to the simple gatherings of believers than is the political. We must beware lest tolerance lure us into a friendship with the world which is enmity to God. Balaam and Balak still work hand in hand: so, too, do Ahab and Jezebel, and Herod and Herodias. Erstwhile enemies become friends when they have a common object of persecution. The beast yet to come, and the scarlet dressed and drunken woman who rides it, will have no mercy for the simple follower of Christ. She is drunken with the blood of the saints (Rev. 17:16).
But we must remark other things. Local churches are never envisaged in the New Testament as federated together under one earthly head. Each has the character of a body, and its only Head is Christ in Heaven. Barnabas exhorted the Antiochan believers to “cleave to the Lord with purpose of heart.” (Acts 11:23). He did not encourage them to submit to any encyclicals ‘which ‘might have come from the Metropolitan church at Jerusalem. Although Barnabas had come from that church he did not put the Antiochan believers under their jurisdiction. They were an independent church solely responsible to Christ. Yet, independency must not be regarded as equating indifference. There is plainly an invisible line of fellowship between those simple companies of believers who follow the same Scriptures, form their habits by them, and are found doing the same things. If there is uniformity, it will be the result of a like understanding of the Scripture. Where there is disconformity it will be the product of a failure to interpret the Scriptures in precisely the same way, but that should not result in a breach: nor should it justify refusal to receive those who may come from a company that does not practise precisely what is done at the other place.
No church has the right to interfere with another in the administration of its internal affairs. We repeat it is solely responsible to the Lord. Not one of the churches to which Paul wrote is called upon to rectify the wrongs in another church. Not one of the churches to which the Lord wrote in the Apocalypse is enjoined to rectify the wrongs of another church. And there is not the slightest hint of one church excommunicating another. Excommunication has to do with individuals and never with churches. One can put a person out of a church but what can a church be put out of, unless it be some federation which altogether lacks scriptural sanction?
Plainly, not every one in a local church is entrusted with all the gifts which are given to another. The Spirit of God has distributed the gifts according to His will (1 Cor. 12:11). Not all the gifts are concentrated in one man, nor is any one gift to be found in every man (1 Cor. 12:29). It follows therefore, that a local church should not be enchained by public exercises restricted to one man, nor should it be embarrassed by being left to the unlettered acttivities of every man. Only those qualified by the gifts of the Spirit to exercise themselves publicly should do so. Some companies of believers who have rejected one-man ministry have fallen into the distressing snare of an any-man talker. Other companies on the other hand, which have saved themselves from the latter snare have deprived themselves of the valuable potential help that is choked at its source by human innovations. How many a godly man is found sitting in the pew when he should have been on his feet instructing and helping the saints! Yet the arrangements are such that to do so would result in his being charged with brawling or the like. Yet, on the other hand, how often elsewhere are there to be found those who occupy the floor and inflict their utterances on the gathered company, making manifest their own shame, which is apparent to all but themselves.
The remedy for this is the recognition of gifts given by the risen Head, distributed by the Spirit, to certain saints. And the further recognition that a man is not the proper judge of his own preaching: that must rest with the “other” prophets who are competent to evaluate the worth of his utterances (1 Cor. 14:29).
There is a remarkable unity and diversity in the local church. As a body it is a unity and each should function for the well-being of the whole. But in that body the members have differing functions, and there should be no acrobats when the saints are met together. Yet how often in some places is there to be found the endeavour of one member to perform the function which plainly pertains to another (1 Cor. 12:16-21).
All this is so contrary to what is to be found in organized Christendom. Where man has sought to produce a something which corresponds, in part, to effete Judaism and, in part, to corrupt Paganism, the result has been organization in which the Spirit of God has no place whatsoever and the prerogatives of the Godhead have been usurped by the creature. The crying sin of Christendom is infidelity as to the presence on earth of the Holy Ghost.
But should not a church be governed, or is it a place where all and sundry may do as they please? Paul specially wrote his letter to Timothy to apprise him how men should behave in the House of God (1 Tim. 3:15). It is God’s House and His rule should obtain therein. That rule is to be discovered in that letter. There are exercises which are appropriate to the men only, and forbidden to the women. In the church God has furnished ‘overseers’ who care for the spiritual well-being of the flock (1 Tim. 3:1). In it also He has given servants who do what is requisite in material and other matters (Tim. 3:8).
Unhappily the words have not been fairly translated in the A.V. or the R.V. Recognized ecclesiastical terms had not to be altered and the translators were, therefore, trammelled: they were not free to tell the readers that “baptize” means “immerse;” that “bishop” means “overseer,” or that “deacon” means merely a servant. Had they done so they would have exposed the unscriptural nature of hierarchical system which had been for so long and so largely in vogue. They dare not run this risk.
Christendom has its so-called bishops over many churches, but the New Testament envisages a multiplicity of overseers in one church. Christendom and its bishoprics involve necessarily a union of churches under one ‘see’ but no such thing is owned in the New Testament.
And it is back to that Testament that we should all come. Ecclesiastical history can only warn us of the errors both in doctrine and practice into which others have fallen. But there is a far better way, and that is to go back to the fountain head and learn from the pure unsullied river of holy Scripture what is the will of the Lord. We should then know that a local church is not a stone or brick building: it is a company of believers in the Lord Jesus, few or many as the case may be, who are gathered together to His name (Matt. 18:20), and among whom the Holy Spirit is dwellings. Its meetings are not secret, they are open to inspection by all and sundry, and where the Spirit is working in power it may be anticipated that some of such observers will fall down and acknowledge that God is among them of a truth (1 Cor. 14:25).