Further Comments on Church Letter
2. How Is an Assembly Formed?
We have noted three figures of an assembly in 1 Corinthians 3, namely God’s husbandry, God’s building and a temple of the Holy Spirit. Here it is suggested that the interest of the triune God is seen; for the Father plants (Matt. 15:13) and the Son builds (Matt. 16:18). But in the context of the expressions it is seen that while the power is divine, it is exercised through human instruments. So Paul planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase (1 Cor. 3:6). Paul laid the foundation, others built on it, but the foundation was Jesus Christ (V. 10-11). The entry of the Holy Spirit, constituting the building a temple — a shrine, a holy place — was His own sovereign act; no human power could force Him in, or debar Him from entering. It is suggested that all these three considerations, and no others, are necessary in the formation of an assembly.
The foundation is Christ. It is evident that the laying of the foundation was in the preaching of the gospel. “So we preach, and so ye believe,” said Paul (1 Cor. 15:11). The first two chapters of the Epistle tell us what Paul preached in Corinth, and why. The historical account is in Acts 18. When he came to Corinth, he testified to the Jews that Jesus was Christ (v. 5). Passing from the unbelieving Jews to the Gentiles, the effect of his preaching was that Crispus believed on the Lord with all his house, and many others believed and were baptized (v. 8). Thus was the foundation laid.
Paul planted. The sowing of the good seed of the Word of God produced “seedlings” — people were born anew, begotten of God, became possessors of eternal life. What was to be done with them? Were they to be left to struggle for existence among rocks and thorns, where the wild beasts of the forest should trample them? One of God’s first recorded acts was to plant a garden, for which provision was made that it should be dressed and kept (Gen. 2:8-15). The heavenly Gardener is still interested in His plants; so He has for them a “husbandry” — a cultivated field, where the soil is tilled and kept free from weeds, where the grubs left by those beautiful butterflies are carefully eradicated. In short, His plants are planted; they are brought together and tended for their good and His enjoyment. Combining both figures, Paul laid the foundation and set the plants, and that was all that human hands could do.
Paul remained at Corinth for three and a half years, but in all that time there is no suggestion that he sent to Jerusalem, or anywhere else, seeking approval for the saints in Corinth to assemble, or that the Corinthian assembly should be “recognized” by other assemblies or disciples. There is no hint of any such action ever being taken in the formation of assemblies in the Book of Acts. This was not an official action, but the normal and expected result of the preaching of the Word. In the early days of Paul’s ministry, churches were found in all Judea and Gallilee and Samaria (Acts 9:31) but none was inaugurated ceremonially.
Apollos watered. This does not mean that he prayed. He came to Corinth after Paul had left, and carried on the teaching which had been begun by Paul (Acts 18:27 - 19:1). The effect of the Word of God is likened to rain (Deut. 32:2; Isa. 55:1011). It is certain that Apollos watered where Paul had planted; if by some means the plants had been able to remove themselves elsewhere, the quality of the water would be just as good, but these plants would miss out on the refreshment given.
The third feature of the Corinthian assembly was the presence of the Holy Spirit. He came; and despite all their failure and sin, He came to stay. He is divine, and we are human. We do not see Him come, and if He went, we should not see Him go. It is not for us to say that He has not come, or that He is not there.
Indications of His presence ought to be seen, but there is only One who can say concerning the state of an assembly unerringly and with authority, “I know” (Rev. 2-3).
When does an assembly cease?
The New Testament contains no record of the termination of an assembly, or of a situation arising in which an assembly was, or ought to have been, “excommunicated” by other assemblies. It also contains no instructions regarding the “winding up” of an assembly, or of other disciplinary action to be taken by other assemblies against a failing assembly. What little is said about the treatment of defaulting assemblies is in Revelation 2-3, where the strong implication is that the Lord reserves to Himself the right to take action. These two chapters should be carefully read just now, especially the messages to Ephesus, Pergamos, Thyatiria, Sardis, and Laodicea, so that the comment following may be checked against the Word itself. Please note:—
1. In each case there is a call to repentance; the Lord who sees and assesses the evil present is desirous that it should be dealt with by the failing saints themselves, so that intervention may be averted.
2. In each case except that of Laodicea there is good mentioned by the Lord; and this is said first, before a word of censure is spoken, Anointed eyes will look for and usually find something commendable in an assembly or in a saint of God, even where there is much need for betterment in other respects. Even to Laodicea the Lord offers counsel, speaks of His willingness to supply, of His love (compare Rev. 3:19 with Heb. 12:5-11) and of His desire for fellowship with them.
3. Each is still in His eyes a church.
4. Remedial action necessary is to be applied within the church, not by agencies outside the assembly concerned. In the event that disciplinary action is needed, it will be taken by the Lord Himself, and directed towards transgressing individuals within the assembly (ch. 2:16 and 22) or the assembly itself (ch. 3:3). In the extreme case that the assembly ceases (ch. 2:5; 3:16), it is again the Lord Himself, and no other, who takes action.
5. The assembly ceases when the candlestick is removed out of its place (ch. 2:5). Observers in other churches are not invited, much less obliged to determine whether the light is shining, or to what extent it has become dim. The church is not the lamp, but the lampstand; while this remains, the church continues. If I fail to discern the light, it may be that my eyes are at fault; and if the Lord gives any of His servants priestly service regarding a soiled wick or a flickering light, it will be in the direction of trimming the wick, not of extinguishing the light (Ex. 37:23). The Lord did not say, I will put out the light, but I will remove the support of the light. As long as He leaves the candlestick in its place, there in His eyes is the Assembly.
Adverting to figures of an assembly seen in 1 Corinthians 3, if cracks appear in the building, if a brick is dislodged here and there, or white ants are found in some of the timbers is it therefore no longer a building? If weeds appear in the garden, or snails do their deadly work, or the flowers droop because the under-gardeners withhold the water, is it therefore no longer a garden? If in the household (1 Tim. 3:15) some of the children are often disobedient, come late to meals, leave their rooms untidy, is it therefore not a household? And, most important, by what right can I assert with positiveness that the Holy Spirit has withdrawn from His shrine? Even the temple in Jerusalem, with all the enormities committed there, the Lord Jesus called “My Father’s house” (John 2:16).
Ought there to be cracks in the building, drooping plants in the garden, disorder in the household? That is another question. Such a condition could never please the Lord, nor should it satisfy His servants. But if we view the situation with hostility, saying, “I wouldn’t go near that place”; or with futility, saying “What’s the use?” — surely we are helping to turn disgrace into disaster. “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual restore such an one in the spirit of meekness, considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted” (Gal. 6:1). May not the principle apply beyond the faulty individual.