The Churches of the Saints.
Their Constitution, Principle of Gathering, and Way of Reception.
I. When a sinner trusts in the Lord Jesus Christ, and is born of God, by that very fact he has become an actual part of the Church, for which Christ died.
If that Church is regarded as a building, he is a living stone built into it. If it is spoken of as a body, he is a member of the body. It does not need the action or consent of any person, or of any body of persons to accomplish this. It is the doing of God Himself, though no one else should have any knowledge of what has been done. The newly saved sinner does not need to give his consent, or express his desire to be brought into this relationship. He may even live and die in ignorance that he has been thus made a part of a living whole, but it is not any less true on that account. God has set him in the body; Christ has built him into the Church; the Holy Spirit, who dwells in every believer, dwells in this last born one, as in all the others, and makes him one with them in a unity that none can ever break.
Thank God for His perfect work. Man has no part in this, and no responsibility regarding it. Therefore no responsibility, that is to say, as to bringing the saved sinner into this unity or maintaining him in it. Those whom Christ has built into the building, can never be removed from it, even as nothing can separate them from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
But the Scriptures speak not only of the Church, but of Churches. These Churches are called Churches of God (1 Cor. xi. 16), Churches of Christ (Rom. xvi. 16), and Churches of the saints (1 Cor. xiv. 33). These expressions do not make a difference between one Church and another, calling one a Church of God, another a Church of Christ, and a third a Church of the saints. They regard the same companies of people, but from different standpoints. Every believer is a child of God, and so belongs to Him; is redeemed with the blood of Christ, and is thus a purchased possession, and is a saint, or set-apart one, because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In like manner, the companies of believers, gathered together by God's power, and ordered according to His Word, are looked at in the same three-fold way.
Besides the above descriptive titles, we have mention of the Churches in a province or country—as the Churches of Galatia (Gal. i. 2), and the Churches of Judæa (ver. 22). These terms however, do not in any way imply that the Churches thus grouped together had a different bond of union between them, or formed part of a different organization from other Churches. They were the Churches of God, the Churches of Christ, the Churches of the saints that were situated in the provinces named.
While amongst most believers who have some intelligent understanding of the Word of God, there is a general apprehension of what is meant by the Church which is Christ's body; there seems to be the utmost confusion in regard to the Churches. Men put up buildings in which to hear the Word of God, or to pray to Him and praise Him, and then call these buildings "churches." And in this land, not only is this done by the adherents of the religion established by the state, but the "Free Churches," as they love to call themselves, put sign-boards outside their buildings describing them as "Congregational Church," "Baptist Church," "Methodist Church," &c, and this in utter disregard of the earnest warnings of the founders of their different bodies.
But we go a little further, and we find that various humanly arranged and organized religious bodies use the word "Church" about their several organizations. Thus, we have the "Church of England," the "Baptist Church," the "Congregational Church," used in a different sense from the above; and meaning the whole religious organization indicated by each name. In this way, we get such an utter contradiction in terms as "The Church of England in France" or Germany, because adherents of that body have established themselves in those countries.
I do not refer to these things for the sake of pointing out the mistakes of others, but because these wholly misleading uses of the word "Church" have helped to bring about utter confusion in the minds of multitudes, as to what churches really are.
And now I would ask the reader's careful attention to the following Scripture references to churches; so that the mind may become duly imbued with what the Holy Spirit is speaking of when He uses this word.
"If he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church; but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican” (Matt. xviii. 17.
"And it came to pass that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church" (Acts xi. 26).
"When they had gathered the church together, they rehearsed all that God had done with them" (Acts xiv. 27).
"And when he had landed at Cæarea and gone up and saluted the church" (Acts xviii. 22).
"And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church" (Acts xx. 17).
"If therefore the whole church be come together into one place" (1 Cor. xiv. 23).
"I was unknown by face unto the churches of Judæa" (Gal. i. 22).
"No church communicated with me as concerning giving and receiving, but ye only." (Phil. iv. 15).
"If any man or woman that believeth have widows, let them relieve them, and let not the church be charged" (1 Tim. v. 16).
"I wrote unto the church" (3 John 9).
"Neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church" (ver. 10).
These are only a few, out of a very large number of passages of a similar character. If we read them with a mind set free from traditional ideas, we cannot fail to see that, in each case, a company of persons is spoken of, belonging to one locality, in the habit of assembling together, and capable of being specially called together when necessary. They could be spoken to, or written to, and they could speak to an individual in such a way that he would know that the whole company was addressing him.
Here then, we have something very different from the Church of which every believer from Pentecost onwards forms a part.
While, however, these churches differ so widely from the Church for which Christ gave Himself, it cannot be for nothing that the Holy Spirit uses the same word for each. Nay, more! On the first two occasions when the word "Church" is used in the Scripture, the Lord Jesus is the Speaker, and He uses the word in the two different senses referred to. In Matt. xvi. 18, He says: "Upon this rock, I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it;" while, in chap, xviii. 17, He bids an individual tell something "to the church," and speaks of another who refuses to hear what the church says to him. In the first case, He alone is the actor, and nothing of His work can possibly fail; but in the second, a responsibility is cast upon His people, and at once we see that there is room for failure.
But the use of the same word in both cases is by no means the only point of likeness. On each occasion, He speaks of a binding or loosing on earth which is effective, because it corresponds with a binding or loosing in Heaven. In the former passage, we find that this is based upon the confession of Himself as the Christ, the Son of the living God. This teaches us to look for a similar foundation to the declaration in chap. xviii., and we do not look in vain, for at once we read: "For where two or three are gathered together in (or, more correctly, unto) My Name, there AM I in the midst of them." The attempt is commonly made to connect verses 19 and 20 together, merely because the one precedes the other, and so to prove that the declaration of the Lord Jesus in verse 20, has merely reference to a "prayer meeting." Nothing but long prejudice, which so sadly blinds the mind, could make any one hold to this idea. In the first place, there is nothing about a prayer meeting in verse 19. The Lord gives a precious promise to two persons, who shall agree on the earth concerning any thing they shall ask; but he does not say a word about their coming together to ask it. They might be on the opposite sides of the earth, but they would not be the less entitled to count upon this promise. Verse 20, on the other hand, speaks of persons GATHERED TOGETHER UNTO HIS NAME, and declares that He is in the midst of such. This gives us a fitting foundation, for what the Lord had said about the binding and loosing in verse 18; just as He makes Peter's confession of Himself, as the Christ and the Son of God, the foundation for the corresponding statement in chap. xvi. But the attempt to identify verses 19 and 20, leaves us without any foundation at all for the solemn words of verse 18, or else compels us to say that that verse also belongs to verse 19, and thus would teach that any two persons who have agreed about a subject for prayer are therefore able to exercise this binding or loosing.
It is quite clear therefore, that verse 19 is not part of the subject the Lord is dealing with, though it is of course, associated with it. The very wording of the verse shows the same thing. The words "again I say unto you" indicate that the Lord is wanting for a moment to introduce a distinct, though connected thought. Moreover, He no longer addresses the whole company, as in verse 18, but says "If two of you shall agree." He uses the same word as in chap. xvii. 9, "risen again from the dead." In both cases, it can only be fully expressed in our language by saying "from among." "If two, from among you agree." It will, however, naturally be asked why this promise is given here at all. I believe the answer is a simple one. The Lord had first of all given instructions as to the action of individuals with regard to the brother who had sinned. The one sinned against, was to go alone, and next, he was to take one or two more with him. If that failed however, they were to tell it to the church, and the Lord assures them of the authority that shall attach to the church's action. But before explaining the foundation and source of that authority, He breaks off for a moment to give a gracious assurance to the individuals who had sought in the first instance to win their erring brother. As though He would say to them, "Though the matter has passed out of your hands and the church has now acted, it is still your special privilege to wait upon God about the erring one." Doubtless, they had prayed before they went to see him, and though he had not yet been won, their prayers have not been in vain; and the Lord encourages them to continue their request with oneness of heart. The promise is undoubtedly available on other occasions, and, as already pointed out, it in no way requires that the persons who plead it should be assembled together. Both the subject and the structure of the verse show it to be a parenthesis, and the Lord completes in verse 20, the subject He had commenced in verse 18.
II. We find therefore, that in the only two instances in which we read of the use of the word "Church" by the Lord Jesus, He employed it in these two contrasted, yet closely associated senses. In the one case, He spoke of the whole of the redeemed of this age, and in the other, of a company of believers, few or many, in one place, who owned Him as Lord, who were in the habit of assembling together, and who could be spoken to by one of their number, and could speak to him with a collective voice. This is abundantly confirmed elsewhere, for as we search the Scriptures, we find that all the figures which the Holy Spirit uses to illustrate the character and functions of the whole Church, are used also in reference to the local assembly. In Ephesians ii. 21, we read, "In whom all the building, fitly framed together, groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord." But the next verse adds, "In whom ye also (the assembly at Ephesus) are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit." Again, in 1 Cor. xii., the Church is spoken of as a body, and in verse 12, the apostle says, "As the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that body, being many, are one body, so also is the Christ." The Lord Jesus being the Head and His people the members, the whole forms the mystical body. But in verse 27, the apostle writes, "Now ye are body of Christ, and members in particular." He does not put the article "the" before the word "body." He could not say to the Church of Corinth, "Ye are the body of Christ," for that could only be said of all the saints from Pentecost onwards. But the leaving out of the article in such a case simply means, that those addressed had the character of a body, though they did not actually form the whole body of Christ.
Another figure of the Church we find in the Lord's words in John x. 16, "And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice, and there shall be one flock (see R.V.), one shepherd." Those who were called out of the Jewish fold, together with sinners saved from among the Gentiles, should all form one flock. But here again we find that the same figure is used in reference to each of the Churches of the saints. For the Apostle Paul, speaking to the elders of the Church at Ephesus, bids them, "Take heed unto yourselves, and to all the flock over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers."
Thus, whether the Church is compared to a building, a body, or a flock, the same figure is used to teach us as to the character of the whole Church, and as to that of the individual Assembly. And in each case, it is because the Lord Jesus occupies the same relationship to the company of believers who own Him as Lord, as He does to the Church of which He is the Head.
The great point of contrast, however, between the two, is one that has been already referred to. In the one case, Christ alone is the builder. "Upon this rock, I will build My Church" (Matt. xvi. 18). In the other, human responsibility comes in, and consequently, the possibility of mistakes and failures. "As a wise master-builder," writes the apostle, "I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon" (1 Cor. iii. 10). And then he goes on to show, that it is possible to build upon the true foundation, wood, and hay, and stubble, which will not stand the test of the coming day. But he points out how grave a wrong this is, by asking them, "Know ye not that ye are temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?" Here again the article "the" is left out, showing that the apostle is not saying that the Corinthian assembly was the whole temple of God, but that it bore a similar character. It was builded together for a habitation of God, through the Spirit, as in Eph. ii. 22. This is quite a distinct thing from saying that the body of each believer is a temple for the Holy Spirit, though this also is true, as we read in Chap. vi. 17-20.
We have seen then that human responsibility, with the consequent possibility of failure, is recognized in connection with the building of the individual assembly, and that the apostle presses upon all the Church of Corinth, their share of this responsibility. But it is not only as to the bringing in to the assembly that this responsibility exists. It extends also to the care of those who are brought in. In regard to the whole Church, the Lord Jesus had said, that He was the sole builder, but He also added, "and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it." No living stone, built into the building by Christ Himself, shall ever be removed from its place. No member of the body of which He is the Head, shall ever be cut off. No sheep of the flock which He has called to follow Him shall ever perish. But as soon as we come to consider the "Churches," as distinct from "the Church," we find that what men had built into the building may need to be removed, and that those who had formed a part of the flock, may so stray away, as to have forfeited their place there altogether. It is in this connection therefore, that the all-important character of shepherd service in the assemblies is pressed upon our attention.
Following on this thought then, let us look at the Apostle's opening words in his Epistle to the Philippians. "Paul and Timothy, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons" (Chap. i. 1). These ecclesiastical titles, which appear in our translation, were used to obscure the real meanings of the words. King James I, of England, in his instructions to the translators, bade them retain all the old ecclesiastical words, so that they were obliged to use these titles instead of simply translating the words into English. The word translated "bishop" is derived from a verb meaning "to oversee," while the word "deacon" is taken from a verb meaning "to serve." The address of the Epistle is therefore, to all the saints which are at Philippi, with those who oversee and those who serve.
It might be supposed, at the first glance, that as the apostle thus addresses all the saints at Philippi, there is no suggestion of any assembly character, as being borne by these saints. But the very fact that they include those who oversee and those who serve, is sufficient to contradict this idea. A company that is furnished with those who oversee them, must needs be such a company as is referred to in the many Scriptures already quoted, in regard to the Churches. Moreover, later in the Epistle, the apostle definitely speaks of these Philippian believers as being a Church. "Now ye Philippians know also, that in the beginning of the Gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no Church communicated with me as concerning giving and receiving, but ye only. For even in Thessalonica, ye sent once and again unto my necessity" (chap. iv. 15-16). This very act of communicating with the Apostle's need, is an evidence that they were associated together, and could and did take united action about matters.
Some again, have supposed that, because the epistle is addressed to all the saints at Philippi, therefore all the saints in any one locality are the Church of that locality, without regard to whether or not they are associated together in worship, in service, and in mutual care for one another. But there is no warrant in God's Word for such an idea. It was happily true in the early apostolic days, that all believers were thus associated together in their various localities, so that the Church in any town consisted of all the saints in that town. But the saints in the town would not have been a church if there had been no gathering together to the Name of the Lord Jesus; not being builded together for a habitation of God through the Spirit. And those very words "with those who oversee and those who serve," bear witness to this. For godly rule and humble shepherd care, are among the most evident, as well as the most beautiful expressions of the assembly character. In our language, the connection between the shepherd and the flock does not appear by any likeness between the two words. But in the language of the New Testament, the words themselves express their relationship one to another. The shepherd is "Poimen," one who tends, while the flock is "Poimne," that which is tended or cared for. It is this that the Lord so beautifully sets forth in John x. All the sheep, whether they came out of the Jewish fold, or were saved from among the Gentiles, have heard His voice, have been brought by Him. He has given them life; He has led them to the pasture. He is with them, caring for them and keeping them, and so they are one flock, for they have one Shepherd. But we have already seen that the local assembly has the same characteristic features as the whole Church; so that all the saints, with those who oversee and those who serve, are a true picture of what each Church should be.
Now when we come to consider the exercise of this Shepherd care, we are very forcibly reminded of a matter that has already been touched upon. While God alone brings into the Church, which is Christ's body, and that without any need of the consent or even the knowledge of the one brought in, or of any other persons, exactly the opposite is the case in regard to the Churches of the saints. In Acts ii. 42, we read, that those who had gladly received the Word of God and had been baptized, continued steadfastly in the doctrine of the apostles, and the fellowship, and the breaking of the bread, and the prayers. Now, all this could not have taken place without definite action on the one side and on the other. Here is a fellowship which those in it may or may not abide in. It could never be said of any believer, that he continued steadfastly to be a member of the body of Christ. He is that, as we have already seen, whether he even knows it or not, and nothing can ever remove him from his place. So, there is no room, as to this matter, for steadfast continuance on his part. But the position is quite different when we consider the fellowship of the local assembly. He must come into the fellowship by his own act, and he must be brought into it by the act of the assembly. And being in it, he will abide in it, if he is steadfast, or, if he fails in steadfastness, he may depart from it again; while on the other hand the sad and solemn occasion may arise, when the assembly is commanded to put him away from among themselves.
It is very specially in connection with these matters of bringing into the fellowship of the assembly, of watching for the souls of those brought in, as being accountable to the Lord for them, and of putting away those whom He commands to be put away, that the guiding and care of those who oversee, are to be exercised. And in all these things, we see that there is necessarily mutual responsibility. If elder ones are exhorted to shepherd the flock and to take the oversight thereof, younger ones are bidden to obey the elder (1 Peter v. 2 and 5). If those of greater experience who seek to be guides to the saints, are to warn the unruly, to comfort the feeble-minded, to support the weak, and to be patient toward all; the saints generally are exhorted to know them which labour among them, and are over them in the Lord and admonish them, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake (1 Thess. v. 12-14).
But, while the first responsibility in all these things must needs lie upon those who oversee, we must never let their special responsibility blind us to the fact, that the assembly has also a united responsibility in which each individual has a share. Hence, after Peter had exhorted elder ones to the work of shepherding and oversight, and has charged younger ones to submit to the elder ones, he adds, "Yea, all of you, be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility" (1 Peter v. 5). Or, as the Revised Version beautifully gives it, "Yea, all of you, gird yourselves with humility to serve one another."
It is just the same as in the family relationships. Before bidding wives to obey their husbands and husbands to love their wives; children to honour their parents and fathers not to provoke their children; servants to be obedient to their masters, and masters to forbear threatening their servants; the apostle exhorts them all to submit themselves one to another in the fear of God (Eph. v. 21). How could all this be carried out if the members of the household did not know one another and recognize the relationships in which they stood one to another? Equally, all the instructions to the saints composing each assembly take it for granted, that they recognize and accept the mutual responsibilities and obligations that belong to their places in the assembly. The measure of intelligence as to these matters will vary very greatly, but that will never cause any difficulty as to the reception of any who are children of God, and are willing to be brought in to the place which God would put His children in. For what is needful first of all on the part of the younger ones is submission, and however little they know or understand, if they are willing to learn and willing to submit, they can most happily take their place in the assembly of God's people.
III. It is very evident, from what has been brought under our notice, that the solemn and weighty responsibilities of Shepherd work and oversight care can only be rightly carried out where there is a recognition of the assembly character of believers gathered together after the Scripture pattern. But so important, so fundamental, I would say, is this to any right understanding of what churches or assemblies are, that it seems necessary to press it still further.
Let us carefully consider then, the following Scriptures:—
"And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord" (Acts xiv. 23).
"From Miletus, he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the Church" (Acts xx. 17).
"Take heed, therefore, unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers" (Acts xx. 28).
"For this cause, left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city" (Titus i. 5).
"Obey them that have the rule over (margin, guide) you, and submit yourselves, for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account" (Heb. xiii. 17).
"The elders which are among you, I exhort, . . . feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof" (1 Pet. v. 1-2).
All these passages have to do with distinct companies of believers, cared for by men to whom the Holy Spirit has committed the responsibility of the care they are exercising. The saints know those who guide them, and the guides know individually every soul entrusted to their care.
The Gospel may be preached to thousands at a time. The Word of God may be profitably administered from the platform to a large audience, though the speaker is not personally acquainted with one individual before him. But watching for souls is quite another matter. It must be individual and personal in its character. "I am the Good Shepherd," said the Lord Jesus, "and know My sheep, and am known of Mine." And this will most surely be true at all times of real shepherd work. Not that the shepherds will talk of their flocks, for it is always God's flock and not ours, however well He may have enabled us to shepherd it. Still the principle holds good, and each God-given shepherd will be able to say, "I know the sheep that have been entrusted to my care, and they know me." How otherwise, can he watch for their souls? And how, in any other way, can they be subject to his word? "As they that must give account." Surely this speaks of care for each individual soul, a care that must begin and end in the servant's dealings with the Lord Himself. For how can he carry the burden of this responsibility, unless he commits each one to Him who has committed them to his care?
All this seems simple and plain, and indeed it is. But what then, becomes of the attempts that are being made on every hand to deny the distinctive character of the assembly? We are told that, as in a family, when a child is born into it, each member of the family receives the little one, not into the family or household, for its entrance there is by birth, but to the affections, and care, and privileges, and joys of the household, because it has been born into it; such is the reception of a believer, according to Scripture. But those who speak and write thus, always forget to tell us when and how, any person is born into an assembly. They confound entirely between the Church of Matthew xvi., into which new-born souls are indeed brought by birth, and the church of Matthew xviii., with its local limitations.
There is no such thing as being born into an assembly. For even though a child of believers who are in an assembly, be converted through the preaching of the Gospel in their meeting-room, and has never gone to any other place, he is not, therefore, born into the assembly, but must be brought into it by his own act and the act of the assembly also. On the other hand, if he be saved in the solitude of the desert, or through the preaching of the Gospel in church, chapel, theatre or anywhere else, that one is born into the family of God, and is there and then a member of the body of Christ.
This is so obvious, that I feel almost ashamed to lay so much stress upon it. And yet it is necessary to do so, because of the utter confusion that commonly prevails in regard to the whole subject. The very teachers, who compare the bringing of a believer into an assembly with the birth of a child into a family, will speak of the care that has to be exercised in some cases, and will draw distinctions between the reception of one newly converted and that of a believer of many years' standing. Of course, all such distinctions completely destroy the first position taken up by those who urge them, for they admit that the reception of an individual into an assembly calls for discernment and godly care on the part of those receiving. This evidently puts an end to all thought of analogy between the birth of an infant into a family and the reception of a believer into an assembly. But not only is this godly care called for on the part of those who receive, there should equally be a perception on the part of the one brought in, that he is coming into something of God's ordering.
Very frequently, when this point is urged, objection is instantly made that this is making light, and not life, the ground of reception. But those who make this objection do not consider what they are saying. How can life be separated from light? The sinner must have received light from God, or he could not have believed. It is as true that he has been called out of darkness into light as that he has passed from death to life. It is, of course true, that he knows but very little of the wonderful consequences involved in the step he has taken, but none the less, he has believed, because the blessed, simple truth of the Gospel has been made plain to him. How often have our hearts been filled with joy, when some burdened soul to whom we have been speaking the words of God, has exclaimed, "Oh! I see it all now." We do not tell such an one this will not do, as it is making light the ground of salvation.
In the same way, with regard to the coming into the assembly, there must be a measure of light on the part of the one coming in. True, he can know but very little of all that this step involves, and we must not think of keeping him back on this account, but unless he at least knows enough to be able to say, "I believe this is what the Word of God teaches those who are saved to do," there can neither be faith nor obedience in his doing it. If we consider this same point in relation to baptism, it will perhaps help to make it plain. Would those who talk about making light the basis, instead of life, ever think of baptizing one who had no measure of light as to what he was doing? I do not suggest that we should insist upon light as to the symbolic meaning of baptism, or as to the doctrine attached to it. But would any right-minded man baptize one who said, "I wish to be baptized because my friend is going to be baptized," or "I wish to be baptized because that is your way." Surely not. But if the most uninstructed were to say, "I don't understand what it means, but I see in the Bible that the Lord Jesus said that all who believed were to be baptized, and I wish to obey Him," that would be abundantly sufficient reason for baptizing him. Yet, what is that but light? And yet no one is so blind as to say, that we should be making light the ground of baptism in such a case. We are willing to baptize and to receive into the assembly those whom we believe to be born of God, and that is the only ground on which we are to do the one or the other. But on their part, it is needful for them to have at least so much intelligence concerning the matter as will enable them to say, "I believe this is what the Lord tells believers to do, and I desire to be obedient to Him." Without this, how can there be the obedience of faith?
In the Lord's commission to His apostles, at the end of Matthew's Gospel, He bids them first to make disciples, next to baptize them, and afterwards to teach them to observe all things whatsoever He has commanded them. It is, therefore, of the first importance that those who are brought into an assembly should be assured that the step they are taking is really what the Lord Himself has commanded. Otherwise, how can what they do, be obedience to the commandments of the Lord?
IV. Perhaps the greater part of the confusion as to the matter of reception is, in connection with the question—Into what do we receive? A recent writer on this subject of "The gathering and receiving of the children of God," says, that there are three questions to be considered:— Who are to be received? How are they to be received? and, Into what are they received? He says a good deal about the first two; but we search in vain through his book to find a word about the third. Yet, manifestly, it is useless to enquire as to who are to be received and how they are to be received, unless we who receive and those who are received, both know what they are being received into.
Any one who has considered with any care the Scriptures concerning the Churches, to which attention was called in the first of these articles, together with others of like character, can be in no difficulty as to the true answer. We found presented to us, companies of believers in the habit of assembling together, with mutual responsibilities one to another. In each company, older ones are commanded to feed and guide the flock; younger ones are bidden to obey the older ones, who are over them in the Lord, while they are reminded that these watch for their souls as having to give an account. When any persons were saved within the reach of such an assembly, they would at once be taught that it was the commandment of the Lord Jesus that they should unite themselves with the disciples. At the beginning, none hesitated about obeying the command, any more than they did about being baptized, and no church had any difficulty about gladly receiving these new-born souls. Moreover, when they were received, there was no possibility of confusion as to what they were received into. They had joined themselves to a company of disciples, called a church, and that church had received them to form a part of itself. They had not made themselves a part of the whole church of God. God had done that when He saved them. Neither had the whole church of God received them, but the church that they had joined themselves to had received them, and all the privileges and responsibilities of that God-ordained fellowship became theirs. Of these privileges and responsibilities, they might know but very little at the time, but God's purpose was that the churches should be nurseries, where His little ones should be fed and cared for and guided and taught; so that while on their part, it was enough that they took their place among the disciples; the responsibility was at once laid upon the older ones to carry out towards them all that the Lord had commanded.
Two great mistakes seem to be prevalent in regard to this subject. On the one hand, it is supposed that when a believer is received by an assembly, he is therefore received into a much larger body, of which that assembly is a part. This is, of course, the theory of such ecclesiastical institutions, as the Church of Rome or the Church of England. When a baby is sprinkled by any one of the official priests of these so-called churches, it is thereby received into that church as a whole. But this form of error is not confined to such institutions as are referred to above. The late Mr. John Nelson Darby, with all his wonderful insight into much of the teaching of God's Word, never wholly left behind him the traditions of the Church of England; so that he could not be content without forming a federation of associated companies of believers, so bound together, that the act of one of these companies was binding upon all. Nay more, it was the act of all, and all must acknowledge it, or the unity of the body was violated. And, while the federation which he organized at the first, has long since been split into numerous fragments, each of those fragments is organized on the same mistaken basis, and anything that differs from this is rejected by them as "independency."
The other error referred to is the result of a not unnatural recoil from the first. Because it is discerned that the inevitable fruits of the federation system are mischievous and dishonouring to God to the last degree, many have gone to the opposite extreme, and have supposed that there was nothing to which believers could join themselves, and that none could exercise the responsibilities of receiving believers to be one with themselves, to be cared for and instructed in all the will of God. We are not surprised to find that those who have been carried away the furthest by the first error, when at last they find out that it is an error, fall the most easily into the second. As pointed out above, in almost all cases, they have been brought to see that there was something utterly at fault about the federation system, because of its manifestly evil results. But this is a very different thing from having tested it by the Word of God, and so detected the unscriptural principle which underlay it. Such testing, humbly carried out, and in dependence on the enlightening of the Holy Spirit, will not only lead to the detection of the error at one extreme, but will save us from falling into the counter error that lies at the opposite extreme.
And we need to remember that all this holds equally good as to starting from either extreme. The sad results arising from ignoring the true character of the churches, and the great foundation principle upon which they are formed, are only too apparent on every hand. Believers who have learned something of the unscripturalness of the practices prevalent everywhere among the sects of Christendom, and who have withdrawn from formal association with those sects, are found going back to build them up again by ministering among them, or attending their services to get spiritual food and instruction. These, and many similar sorrowful results of want of apprehension of the truth, force home the conviction that there is something utterly at fault. Then, instead of patiently waiting to learn the mind of God about the matter, many have jumped to the conclusion that the remedy lay in forming a new federation, where only those should be admitted, who pledged themselves to refuse all association with any who had not submitted themselves to the federal rule.
It is not a little remarkable that the results of both errors are commonly found existing together. People talk about "joining the Brethren," or "belonging to the Open Brethren," and yet those who thus talk are generally among the first to associate themselves afresh with all the unscriptural things they have professedly withdrawn from. Such expressions as the above can only arise from the notion that they have joined an organized body; yet, on the other hand, they consider themselves at liberty to set at nought, the principles of this supposed body. This combination of the two errors is evidently the result of not having learned the divine principles that form the foundation of the whole subject; nor yet the more elementary matter of simple obedience to what the Word of God teaches, and the entire withdrawal from every false way.
V. It will probably have been a matter of surprise to some, to find it spoken of as an error to suppose that when a believer is received by an Assembly; he is thereby received into a larger body of which that Assembly forms a part. They had been accustomed, when leaving home for a time, to ask for a letter of commendation to an Assembly in the place to which they were going. They have also found that upon presentation of such a letter, they were readily received, and that all the privileges of Christian fellowship were at once accorded to them. In what, they may ask, does this differ from being received into a body of which all such Assemblies are constituent parts?
This seems to be a very natural question, and it is certainly one of grave importance. If it be true that the individual, on being received into an Assembly, is thereby received into a body composed of a number of Assemblies, either that body is the whole Church of God, or it is a sect. For the Scriptures know of no body except the Church, which is Christ's body (Eph. i. 22-23; Col. i. 24), and that is composed, not of a number of associated Assemblies, but of all saints (1 Cor. xii. 12-13).
Except, perhaps, the Church of Rome; no community ventures to assume that it is THE CHURCH. Other denominations generally describe themselves as branches of the Church, yet they would search in vain to find anything in God's Word about a Church with branches. We read of the Churches in a country or a province, as the Churches of Asia (1 Cor. xvi. 19), the Churches of Macedonia (2 Cor. viii. 1), the Churches of Galatia (Gal. i. 2), the Churches of Judaea (Gal. i. .22); but not of "the Church" of the province, as though all the Churches in the province, formed a branch Church. Some have urged that Acts ix. 31, is an example of many churches being grouped together and forming one Church. It is quite true that the reading of the Revised Version in this place is confirmed by all the best manuscripts. There we find, "So the Church throughout all Judæa and Galilee and Samaria had peace." But let us look at the surrounding circumstances. In chapter viii. 1, we read, “And at that time, there was a great persecution against the Church which was at Jerusalem, and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judæa and Samaria, except the apostles." "As for Saul, he made havoc of the Church, entering into every house, and haling men and women, committed them to prison. Therefore, they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the Word" (verses 3 and 4). But in the ninth chapter, we have the account of Saul's conversion, and the arch persecutor becomes a bold proclaimer that Jesus is the Son of God. The blessed result of this is given in verse 31, already referred to. "So the Church throughout all Judæa and Galilee and Samaria had peace." It is quite plain that this Church is the Church of Jerusalem, of whose scattering, we had been told in chapter viii. 1. They would not cease to regard themselves as belonging to the assembly at Jerusalem because persecution had compelled them temporarily to leave the city. The word "throughout" is the same word as that used by the Holy Spirit in chapter viii. 1, where we learned that the Church of Jerusalem was scattered. The word clearly speaks of one assembly scattered for a time. In Acts xi., we read for the first time of a church away from Jerusalem. In verse 19, we find some of those who had been scattered abroad, in consequence of the persecution that arose about Stephen, travelling as far as Antioch in Syria, and preaching the Word there, so that a great number believed. But the Spirit of God carries the narrative much further than this. Tidings of the work of grace reach Jerusalem, and Barnabas is sent to Antioch to help the new converts. He again, seeks the co-operation of Saul, and together they remain there a whole year, assembling themselves with the disciples, who are now called a "Church." The same thing took place elsewhere. The scattered saints in many cases continued in the places they had been driven to. Paul and Barnabas, and later Paul and Silas, journeyed extensively, preaching the Word.
Wherever sinners were saved, they were instructed in the will of God as to their coming together, and all that was connected with it (1 Cor. vii. 17, xi. 16, xiv. 33), and after this, though we have frequent references to the Church at Jerusalem, and to churches in provinces, including the churches of Judæa (Gal. i. 22), we never hear of a church of a whole province.
It appeared desirable to deal carefully with this point, because this particular passage (Acts ix. 31) has been grievously wrested to justify the unscriptural actings of one of the many human federations, with which men have vainly sought to improve upon the teaching of the Word of God.
But we must return to the question already raised, as to what is involved in believers being commended by one assembly to another; if these assemblies are not parts of an organized whole, so that any person received by one of them, therefore belongs to the whole body.
Let us first enquire whether, even in New Testament times, there was any such organization, and whether it was necessary, in order to a true church character, that an assembly should form a part of it. In order to answer this enquiry, we must go back to Matt, xviii. 20. It is not because the believers here assembled form part of a vast association, that they are assured that weight and efficacy shall be given to their act. It is solely because they have recognized the Name and place and glory that God has given to His beloved Son, and that their coming together is the direct acknowledgment of this.
This is the exact opposite of what prevails in most of the denominations of Christendom. It is not their relation to the Lord Jesus, but to the bodies of which they form a part, that gives them their church character. It is true that Independents and Baptists act on a different principle. But who could venture to assert that it is because of the presence of the Lord Jesus in the midst that they take the name of Churches? Where the democratic principle prevails, and members vote for choice of ministers, for election of fresh members, and for all other matters, the voice of the majority settling every point, how can Jesus be the Lord there? The same test makes manifest where all the different sections of the party of the late Mr. Darby have entirely missed their way.
A company of believers is only recognized as a church, because of its association with this or that fragment of the original federation; and not because they own Jesus as Lord and are gathered unto His Name. It is considered sufficient proof that they are not gathered to His Name, to show that they are not a part of this or that section, which claims to be the one representative of the Church of God on earth. In this way, they are called churches, not because of their relationship to Christ, but because of their allegiance to a human system. Thus, while differing so greatly from the great world-systems of Christendom, they have fallen into the same mistake as to what constitutes a church.
That there should be the truest fellowship between assemblies builded together in each place, for a habitation of God through the Spirit, is beyond question. In the measure in which such assemblies are walking in the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit, and are continuing steadfastly in obedience to the Lord's commandments, their fellowship will be real, and deep, and far-reaching.
But it is not because of their fellowship with other assemblies, but only because of their relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ, that He calls each company of saints, who own him as the Lord in the midst, a Church.
VI. The notion seems to prevail with many, that the commendation of a believer by one assembly to another is of the same character as the passing on or transferring of a member of a Trades' Union, or Sick Benefit Society, from one Lodge or branch to another, when such member is changing his place of abode. But there is really no likeness between the two things. In the case of the transference of the member from one Lodge to another, all the Lodges are part of an organized body, and it matters not to what Lodge he has been in the habit of paying his contributions; he was a member of the Association as a whole. In the case of the churches, however, the matter is quite different. When an assembly receive a believer to be one of themselves, that is all they can do. They do not, as we have already shown, receive him into an organization of which they form a part. The Scripture calls for the exercise of godly care in this reception, that due regard may be had to the claims of the Lord Himself, to the well-being of the assembly and to the real good of the one who is being received. When one who has been thus received is going, temporarily or permanently, to some different locality, the assembly that has exercised such godly care regarding him, will fittingly commend him to the loving care and fellowship of an assembly in the place to which he is removing. He is not a member of this assembly simply because he was associated with the other. But if the second assembly believe that the other acted with due care in the first instance, they will not hesitate to accept the evidence which the commendation of that assembly affords them, that the believer in question is one whom they may gladly receive. But this second assembly receive him as truly as the first did, though they do so on the testimony of the first, and not as the result of a separate inquiry made by themselves regarding him. So, when the Scriptures speak of a believer passing from one place to another, they tell how he is received by the church of the place he goes to. For example, when Apollos left Ephesus for Corinth, the brethren wrote exhorting the disciples to receive him (Acts xviii. 27). Or again, when Phoebe was going to Rome from Cenchrea, Paul, who was sending a letter by her hand to the Church at Rome, wrote in it, "I commend unto you Phoebe, which is a servant of the Church which is at Cenchrea, that ye receive her in the Lord as becometh saints" (Rom. xvi. 1-2). Those who are accustomed to note the care with which the Holy Spirit chooses every word, in perfect accord with the subject in hand, will not fail to see the force of the use of the words "exhorting the disciples" in the one case, and "that ye receive her in the Lord" in the other. The first reminds us of the commandment in Matt, xxviii. 18-20: Make disciples, baptize them and teach them to observe all that I have commanded you. While the second is an expression always implying the recognition that Christ is Lord and is therefore more than the simple declaration of relationship implied in the words "in Christ."
But let us look at another case where no written commendation was carried by or preceded the believer who was removing to another locality. We need not wonder, when the disciples at Damascus let Saul down by the wall in a basket during the night, to escape from his enemies who were watching the gates to kill him, that little thought was given to sending a letter of commendation with him. Consequently, when he reached Jerusalem, and desired to join himself to the disciples there, there was considerable difficulty in their minds concerning him; for they were not satisfied that he was a disciple. The difficulty however, was got over in consequence of Barnabas having a previous acquaintance with the facts concerning Saul. Barnabas took him to the apostles, told them how the Lord had met him and spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus (Acts ix, 27). This testimony answered the same purpose that a letter from the disciples at Damascus would have done; for the necessary thing in each case is that the disciples should be assured that the person seeking to join himself to them is one whom they can rightly receive.
Let us take notice in all these cases that it is a reception by the disciples that is in question. It is not a matter of the Lord's Table or the Breaking of Bread. Of course, this would follow, but only as part of a whole, and not as a thing by itself, to which any one could be received apart from the whole fellowship to which it belonged. The phrases "receiving to the Breaking of Bread," "putting away from the Lord's Table," are utterly unknown to the Scriptures, though in such common use today. They are not to be found in the New Testament, because the divine order there is, First, the Doctrine of the apostles; Second, the Fellowship; Third, the Breaking of Bread; Fourth, the Prayers. But they are common enough among believers to-day, because the relation of the Breaking of Bread to the Fellowship of the assembly is so little apprehended, and persons are received "to the breaking of bread" who not only do not desire to share in the privileges and responsibilities of the assembly's fellowship, but would strongly resent any suggestion that they had a part in them.
Saul did not ask to be allowed to break bread. He sought to join himself to the disciples. And when the difficulties that stood in the way at first had been removed, the result was, not that he took his place at the Table the following Lord's day, but that "he was with them, coming in and going out." So, when an assembly is called to the sorrowful and humbling business of putting away one who has sinned and not repented, the commandment is not to put him away from the Table but "Put away from among yourselves that wicked person" (1 Cor. v. 13).
Some have sought to evade the effect of the example given us in the case of Saul's reception at Jerusalem, on the ground that, as he had formerly been a persecutor, and the disciples were without sufficient evidence as to his conversion, the case was altogether exceptional. But all this has nothing whatever to do with the matter. It is quite true that his well-known antecedents may have made them more than usually careful before they could feel assured that he was really a disciple. But this would not in any way affect what Saul sought at their hands, and what they ultimately accorded him with gladness. He desired to join himself to them, and, as soon as their difficulties were removed, they received him to an entire fellowship.
But here we are not unnaturally reminded of the greatly altered circumstances of today as compared with apostolic times. Then there was not a multiplication of denominations, all claiming to be Christian, and many of them, including a large number of undoubted believers, having a good report, and holding the foundation truths of the faith. What authority, we are asked, do you find in the Word of God for refusing to receive such? Without a moment's hesitation we answer—None whatever. Nay more. Not only does the Word of God not suffer us to refuse them, it bids us teach them their responsibility to obey all the Commandments of the Lord Jesus. But this only brings us back to the root error of the practices that are so prevalent to-day. When we are asked what authority we find for refusing to receive the persons referred to, the questioner really means, why do we not allow such believers to break bread, without their being received by the assembly at all. It is taken for granted that receiving them and letting them break bread are one and the same thing, and hence the confusion.
VII. It may be well, at this point to quote the words of a recent writer on this subject, as illustrating the utter confusion of mind that prevails with many as to what reception and rejection mean. He writes as follows:—"When the position assumed is such as to necessitate, for the sake of consistency, the rejection, as unfit for fellowship, of true, devoted, spiritually-minded, experienced Christian persons, whose character and doctrine will bear the strictest investigation, it is surely time to set about a thorough revision of the various steps which led to so grievous a result."
But no position has ever been assumed by those whom this writer is opposing which necessitates any such action as he describes. Wherever a confederation of meetings has been formed, and persons are required to acknowledge the confederation as the only representation of the Church of God on earth before they can be received, there it may be truly said that godly people are rejected as unfit for fellowship. Such a position, as has already been shown, is as entirely sectarian as that of any of the religious systems which unblushingly adopt human titles and submit themselves to human forms of rule. It is not to these, however, that the above writer is referring, but to those who belong to no such confederation, and who seek to impose no such unscriptural test as to fitness for fellowship.
The real difficulty is not as to what constitutes fitness for fellowship, or what would be a valid ground for rejection. There is little difference of judgment as to these points. But the difference is manifested as soon as the question is raised as to what is meant by reception. It is commonly assumed that reception means suffering a person to break bread. And what is the outcome of this view of the matter? That the so-called reception is unaccompanied by any exercise of heart or conscience towards God or the individual supposed to be received. That it is divorced from all godly care for the honour of the Lord Jesus and for the well-being of the one who is thus casually allowed a place.
I am well aware, that in many assemblies where this mistaken notion prevails as to what constitutes reception, there is much real care exercised about bringing certain people into the assembly, and in shepherding them after they are brought in. But this care is exercised as to those who are truly received, and not as to those who were simply allowed to break bread on one or two occasions. We only need to consider what actually takes place in many such assemblies, to see plainly the hopeless inconsistency of their position as to this matter. A believer from a neighbouring church or chapel has been invited to be present at a Bible-reading or at a meeting for the ministry of the Word. He greatly enjoys the meeting and comes again. His heart and conscience become exercised through what he has heard, and he seeks for further help from the Scriptures; and this leads to his coming on a Lord's Day morning, and witnessing the Breaking of Bread and the worship of the assembly. At last, having searched the Scriptures diligently, and being fully satisfied that what he has been learning is what those Scriptures teach, he expresses his desire to be baptized, and to join himself to the disciples whose obedience he would fain imitate. Thereupon, he is visited by some of the guides of the assembly, and probably asked to see them together at their weekly meeting; and if they are all satisfied concerning him, his name is mentioned to the assembly as one desiring to share in their fellowship, and a statement is made giving the grounds on which the overseers feel warranted in commending him to the saints. If no objection is raised, he is received to be one of themselves; and the following Lord's Day, as one result of his reception, he takes his place with them at the Lord's Table. But, in startling contrast with all this, it may be that on the very day when this brother breaks bread for the first time, another individual is brought in. Someone belonging to the assembly has brought him, and whispers to one of the older brethren, "I have brought a friend of mine with me who would like to break bread with us this morning. He is a believer and is a member of the Congregational Church in John Street." And, upon this introduction, the individual in question is allowed to break bread. And this is supposed to be reception; and it is for this that so much contention is raised.
But let us follow the matter a little further. After a few weeks, the believer first referred to is absent from the Lord's Day morning meeting and is not seen at any other meeting during the day. The earliest possible opportunity is taken to visit him and ascertain the reason of his absence. If he is ill, loving care and sympathy are shown to him. If he has been in any measure turned aside by the arguments or entreaties of those he was formerly associated with, godly care is shown in seeking to further instruct and establish him in the Word and will of God. But what about the other individual? He has never been near again, and no one has ever asked why. Or, if a question has been raised about him, the friend who brought him says, "Oh, he thought he would like to see what our meeting was like; but he had no thought of leaving his own chapel." And there the matter ended. Possibly, some months later, it becomes known that the person in question has been carried away with false doctrine, or has fallen into moral sin, but no one deems it necessary to take any action regarding him. Now what does all this prove? Simply, that while the two lines of action referred to are both called by the name of reception, there is no real likeness between them. In the first case, the person was indeed received, and this reception carried with it the most important consequences. In the second, there was no reception at all, and the simple permission to break bread had not moved anyone's conscience to a corresponding care for the soul of the person to whom it was accorded.
Someone will perhaps say that this is an extreme case. Even so, it faithfully illustrates the confusion involved in calling both these ways of acting by the term “reception.” But in reality, there is nothing extreme about it. Those who take pains to maintain an unscriptural course are very fond of imagining a kind of case that seldom or never occurs in actual experience. A simple, godly, humble soul, who does not see any further than the breaking of bread, says, "I desire to remember the Lord with you this morning." And where, we are asked, is there any warrant in Scripture for refusing such an one? We would answer that a simple, godly, humble soul will never be stumbled if it is graciously pointed out to him that God's order is first, reception by the assembly, and afterwards the breaking of bread and all the other privileges and responsibilities of the fellowship. Moreover, a very little consideration will show that there is something altogether misleading in what is said concerning the person who is thus asking to be allowed to remember the Lord's death. Has he been content for years past, to share in an ordinance that is only administered once a month, or once in six months? And has he no thought but to go back to the same thing in the future? What then has made the difference to-day? Is it simply that he happens to be on a visit to some friends or relations who come to the meeting, or that he had a wish to see what the meeting was like, and whether it was anything better than what he was accustomed to? Even should his thoughts reach far beyond this, he will only be helped and not hindered by being kindly shown what God's order is, and encouraged to prove this from the Word of God, and then act in accordance with it.
VIII. When the apostle Paul, by the Holy Spirit, sent instructions to Timothy regarding oversight and service among the saints, he concluded that portion of his letter with these words—"These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly, but if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. iii. 14, 15). Here, as in Philippians i., the reference to those who oversee and those who serve, makes it plain that local assemblies are in question. And the language used exactly accords with this thought. The definite article "the" is absent in the original before the words "house," "church," and "pillar and ground." This, as we have already seen, tells us, that while the local assembly is not THE House of God or THE Church of God, it bears the same character. Just as in Eph ii., not only is the entire building growing up unto an holy temple, but the Ephesian believers also are being builded together for a habitation of God. These two words, "House" and "Church," set before us the two characteristic marks of the whole body of the redeemed of this dispensation, and equally, of each local company of believers who own Jesus as the Lord, in relation to their gathering together.
The word "Church," or "Ekklesia" means that which is called out; while a "house" speaks of something builded together. Both of these thoughts are combined in the general use of the former word. When the Town Clerk of Ephesus reminded the tumultuous gathering that, if there were matters needing to be enquired into, they should be determined in the "lawful assembly," he used this word ekklesia. When this assembly of the citizens was summoned, they were, of course, called out from their homes; but they were also gathered together to hear and deliberate concerning the matter regarding which they had been summoned. In the same way, the word ekklesia, as applied to the people of God, while it declares that they have been "called out" from the world, is everywhere used in the New Testament as including the other thought, that the called out ones are also "gathered together," or builded together.
It has been objected by some, that it is unscriptural to speak of the saints forming a local assembly as being gathered to the Name of the Lord. Those who raise this objection argue, that believers can only be spoken of as gathered when they are actually assembled together in one place. But a careful examination of the use, throughout the New Testament, of the word employed by the Lord Jesus in Matt. xviii. 20 will show that this is a mistaken argument. Much the most frequent use of the word is, in its noun form of "Sunagoge." This was the name given to the local assemblies of the Jews. It was also applied to the buildings in which they met, as we have it in its English form of Synagogue, which is literally "a gathering together." But the title of synagogue, or the gathering together, was not given to these companies of Jews only, when they were actually assembled, any more than it was only applied to the building when the people were in it. When the Jews agreed that if any man confessed Christ (John ix. 22), he should be "put out of the synagogue," they did not refer to ejecting Him from the building, but to putting Him away from among their company. It was a similar act to that which the Corinthian assembly were commanded to carry out in relation to the wicked man, in 1 Cor. v. 13. "Therefore, put away from among yourselves that wicked person." This is a moral, not a physical act. No one would venture to say that you could not put him out, unless he were present in the room. Hitherto, he has been a part of the gathering together, and by that act of putting him away, he ceases to form a part of it.
We read of a "Synagogue of the Libertines" in Acts vi. 9. Here again, they did not bear this name of "gathered together," only when they held their meetings. When Saul of Tarsus asked for letters to the Synagogues of Damascus (Acts ix. 2), the same thing holds good. And when the Lord spoke of certain persons who said they were Jews, but were not, as being a "Synagogue of Satan," He was declaring that which was always characteristic of them, whether they were actually assembled together or not. Again, if we turn to Acts xi. 26, we are told that Barnabas and Saul for a whole year "assembled themselves with the Church at Antioch." At least, this is how the Authorized Version puts it. But if we turn to the Revised, we get a more literal and more correct rendering. There we read—"And it came to pass that even a whole year, they were gathered together with the Church." No one will attempt to say that the Church, including Barnabas and Saul, spent a whole year in their meeting-room. But if not, there is an end of the argument that we must not speak of a company of believers who, in their coming together, own Jesus as the Lord, as being gathered unto His Name, as much when they are not met in one place as when they are.
This notion arises from the failure to apprehend that the local assembly, even though it consists of but two or three, bears the same character as the whole church, and is formed of "called out" ones who are "builded together." The importance of this becomes increasingly manifest, as we consider how much is involved in this two-fold character. We have seen above, that the Apostle Paul was regulating the ministry and oversight of the local assembly, when he reminded Timothy that it is in its character of a called out and builded together company, that it is "pillar and ground (or stay, as in the margin of the R.V.) of the truth." We look round upon all the so-called churches of professing Christendom, and with sorrowful hearts, we ask how it could be possible that such words should be used of them. Their whole organization has robbed the Lord Jesus of His place as Lord. Instead of being the witness to and the stay of the truth, their manner of coming together and their arrangement as to ministry all proclaim, that they own another authority than that of Him whom with their lips, they call Lord. They have thus, at the very outset, undermined the whole position that every assembly is responsible to maintain. Little wonder then that it is hard to find a congregation among all the denominations of Christendom, where acknowledgment of the foundation truths of God's Word is an absolute essential to membership.
I know that it is the habit of some, whenever these things are referred to, to say that there are many Christians in the sects who put to shame, by their godliness and devotion, those who occupy a more scriptural position. And it is implied by this, even when it is not always stated, that we had better hold our tongues as to such matters. But this is a very mistaken way of treating the subject. Let us thankfully acknowledge all that we see of the grace of God in any of His people. Let us be imitators of them in everything in which they imitate Christ. And further, let us humble ourselves when we, with far greater opportunities and fuller understanding of the Word of God, are outstripped by those who have been less favoured, in devotion of walk and life to our Lord. But let us never, on that account, refrain from proclaiming that God has raised up His Son, not only to be Lord to each individual saint and to the whole church, but also to be the Lord in the midst of His gathered ones in every place. However great the confusion prevailing on every side, we may always come back to this, rejoicing that His words are as true and as sure to-day as when first they were uttered, "For where there are two or three gathered together unto My Name, there am I in the midst of them."
Note.-—For some who would like to enquire into the exact force of the remarkable construction, "where there are two or three gathered together," I add the following further remarks. It is not possible to express this force precisely in our tongue, but a reference to some of the versions we are acquainted with, may give us some help. Take Newberry for instance. Here the editor adopts throughout the authorized version, without alteration; but he employs a number of signs to indicate, among other things, the tenses of verbs employed and their exact significance. In reference to the passage in question, it will be found that he has marked the word "are" with the sign of the present tense, showing that it is a separate verb, and not merely an indication of the passive mood; while before "gathered," he has placed the double sign, indicating the perfect tense, combined with a present sense. This, in the most emphatic way, confirms the rendering "where there are two or three, having been gathered." Indeed, the full force, as indicated by Mr. Newberry's signs, would be "where there are two or three, having been and being gathered." Again, Bagster's Interlinear gives, "For where are two or three gathered, etc.," which sufficiently indicates that "are" and "gathered" are separate verbs. Young's Literal Translation also reads, "For where there are two or three gathered together, etc.," and while translations can scarcely convey the exact force of the perfect participle preceded by the verb "to be," these show plainly that the translation "where two or three are gathered," fails to express the full meaning of the original.
But of far greater importance and interest than any translation, is a comparison of the various places in the New Testament where the word sunagô (to gather together) is used in the passive or middle voice. There are such occasions, and in only four of them is this remarkable form used. One of these is the passage under consideration, while the other three are John xx. 19, Acts iv. 31, and xx. 8. A reference to these will make it plain, beyond doubt, that the Holy Spirit uses this form of words, as the Lord Himself had done in the first instance, not merely to express that the persons referred to were assembled together, but that they were present together, as having been and continuing to be gathered by divine power. The marks in Newberry's Bible make this special form quite clear in each case. Perhaps it is well to mention that many of the earlier MS. omit the word, "gathered" in John xx. 19; but if it did not occur in the original, as written by John, it is evident that the person who added it was acquainted with the form which the Holy Spirit had sanctioned for such a case.
“The Believer’s Magazine” 1902