The privileges and the perils
A New Testament ‘assembly’ is a group of believers, once sinners, but now converted and baptized and who recognize their Saviour as Lord. They gather to His Name and continue steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine, fellowship, the breaking of bread and in prayers. They rely on the word of God as their sole authority and depend on the Holy Spirit for guidance in their lives and in their meetings. They are anxious to preserve the purity of the assembly as holy to the Lord. The assembly has a plurality of elders and is equipped with those gifted as preachers and teachers. It is autonomous and responsible to the Lord alone. The members may be few or many but all value the fellowship of saints and endeavour to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Always aware of their privileges in Christ, the demand of scripture to love one another and to exercise forgiveness, they are as a result deeply conscious of the hazards of the world, the flesh and the devil, each of which presents dangers which have potential to disrupt or even destroy the testimony.
It is understandable that the world, unclear as to what the assembly stands for, should seek to attack it. It is accepted that Satan will desire to destroy that which is of God and for the honour of His Son. But it is perhaps rather surprising that from time to time the believers in the fellowship should, apparently, destroy themselves! The assembly, and particularly the leadership, needs constantly to be on guard to deal with attacks from without and within. As in life generally, it is easier to recognize and deal with a full frontal attack from outside than it is to detect an insidious movement from within. It is the desire of the Lord, having planted the assembly in the first place, to keep the light of witness and testimony burning brightly and it is the obsession of Satan to debilitate and blur the attractiveness of that light and render it ineffective.
The need to be a watchful and wary people
Thus, the assembly needs to be alert to these pressures and ever on its guard. Alertness may be defined as ‘quick to notice any unusual and potentially dangerous or difficult circumstances, together with the ability to think clearly’. The opposite of alertness is sleepfulness or complacency. The New Testament constantly stresses the need to ‘watch’. It is often associated with prayer and sobriety and the Lord said to His disciples, ‘What I say to you, I say unto all, Watch’, Mark 13. 37, and again demonstrated His own watchfulness when He said, ‘Watch with me’, Matt. 26. 38.
While each individual believer must watch for himself each also has a responsibility to watch for others. However, as far as the assembly is concerned, the weight of responsibility falls on the elders who must continuously be vigilant. A vagarious attitude in this is both unacceptable and dangerous. They should be aware in advance of the kinds of problems that may arise so that, if and when they do, they will be well prepared and not panicked into inappropriate responses. It is often the case, however, when problems do surface they are unique and occur in circumstances previously unimagined. We shall now look at some of the things to which an assembly should be alert.
Watch out for the world; the flesh; and the devil
1) The World
In scripture the church universal is likened to a body, a building and to tilled ground but it is also very much a living organism built up as a spiritual house of living stones. As such it is distinct from society. Each local church is different and its members are vulnerable to being seduced by unbelievers in the world. Should one member suffer physically that is something the others are quickly aware of as either the believer concerned reports it or its effects display themselves. However, it is not so easy to detect spiritual weakness as that may be, perhaps hypocritically, covered up. Elders are characterized in the New Testament as shepherds charged with responsibility for the welfare of the flock. A shepherd will feed the sheep, lead them to green pastures and beside still waters and yet must be alert to the dangers of the world in which these tasks are performed. Sheep are often vulnerable to debility, disease, accident or attack by predators and are of course prone to wander. So too, are the Lord’s people in the local assembly.
Individual believers and the assembly as a group may become victims of attack by the world that will endeavour to lead them into compromise. The elders need constant vigilance to detect such indications as are available to them. If a person is missing from assembly gatherings there may well be perfectly valid and acceptable reasons. On the other hand some may be absent due to coldness of heart or by prioritizing some worldly activity. In such cases polite enquiry should be made and helpful encouragement given. Continuing coldness of heart in one or more believers may affect the worship, service and fellowship of the assembly.
As mentioned above, the assembly is different to other churches and maintaining enthusiasm for that difference in times of difficulty is not at all easy. It requires determination and endurance to persist in the ways that the modern world deems old fashioned. Some will advocate changes; often these declare that the assembly needs to be more open in its worship and service if it is to grow. Put another way the suggestion is that we need to be more like those around us and to give the unsaved or carnal what we think they want in order to attract them. Yet, a reason for the unprecedented growth and progress of the assemblies in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth was the fact that they were different to everything else that was available and that attracted Christians who were keen to conform to the simplicity of the word and to honour the Lord in so doing. Sometimes young (and more often not so young) believers may approach the elders with a view to having some practice of the assembly changed. In order to maintain peace the elders, most likely against their better judgement, may agree to do so … only to find later that having given in to the request further demands are then forthcoming. At some point the elders may take a stand and say, ‘No’. Those relentlessly pursuing change then exit the assembly. This may leave the testimony in poor shape as much has already been compromised and a return to the status quo ante is difficult if not impossible. Better to say ‘No’ in the first instance if, in the judgement of elders, the course is unscriptural than have to try to reinstate things later. That is not to say that all change is bad but any change that contravenes scripture is wrong and should be strenuously resisted.
2) The Flesh
The flesh always feels a sense of pride and seeks to protect its dignity in every circumstance. The alert assembly will be quick to note sin in its midst and also to see the problems of personality clashes among the saints as unacceptable. These are often the product of a simple misunderstanding but can grow and develop so as to choke the whole fellowship. They are notoriously difficult to sort out and particularly so when they are amongst the leadership. Doctrinal error is relatively easy to deal with as there is one standard upon which to judge the matter, the word of God, against which everything is measured. Personal differences are different!
Should there be a falling out between brethren (or sisters) and each or even one insists on standing on their perceived rights then resolution and unity are extremely difficult to achieve. It is clear from the Philippian letter that Euodias and Syntyche had differences. It is also evident that it was beyond the ability of the local elders to resolve and even Paul could only ‘beseech’ them both to be sensible, forget their differences and stop damaging the assembly. In such cases there are often rights and wrongs on both sides yet each feels justified, blames the other, and the assembly suffers. Sometimes a gobetween is required but that person needs to be aware that success is not guaranteed and he or she can end up being rejected by both sides, or become part of the problem rather than the hoped for solution. Other members of the assembly may openly or secretly take sides and soon the saints are at sixes and sevens and harmony is destroyed. Satan cynically exploits the situation. It is always a long way back from such circumstances to relative calm. Alertness cannot stop such things happening but the recognition of them and an early attempt at resolution are most important.
The flesh will ever seek to promote itself and to take centre stage. There is spiritual development in the life of every believer and that progress should always be accompanied by increasing humility and a desire to esteem others better than themselves. Because in an assembly all believers are viewed as equal before the Lord some may seek to take advantage. They will wish to promote themselves at the expense of others, to be at the forefront of every activity, irrespective of gift, over-riding others by the force of their personality. They always see themselves as right. Often they will develop a ‘not so well hidden agenda’ and detach themselves from things that would benefit the whole. When young men make progress spiritually they need to be guided to be humble and not to use this to take advantage and gain position, especially if they seem to be gifted to preach or teach. Again, older brethren, or sisters, perhaps frustrated due to a perceived lack of opportunity, may rail against the established leadership or regularly and persistently foist their ‘nongift’ on a reluctant yet acquiescent audience. Elders and the church generally need to be alert to these issues which, if left uncorrected, will disrupt the fellowship and cause division.
3) The devil
The devil is, of course, involved in the dangers we have discussed above. Yet, in a peculiar way he also seeks to take advantage of an unwatchful company of saints. We recall that unknown to the other disciples he entered into the heart of Judas Iscariot with devastating consequences. He is the great divider and will seek to decimate what God has put together. Of course, universally, he will be altogether unsuccessful; the Lord said that the gates of hell would not prevail against His church. Locally, however, it is sometimes a different story and an alert assembly needs to monitor his activity and determinedly resist him.
On occasions he will introduce erroneous doctrine, especially so in connection with the Lord Himself. Alert assembly elders and teachers will detect such evil doctrine and expose it quickly before irreparable damage is inflicted. Or, he may encourage complacency. Another approach is to disrupt divine order in the functioning of an assembly. He will encourage the setting aside of the demonstration of the truth of headship. He will promote a ‘one man or any man’ ministry. He will defy the practice of the truth of submission and silence as far as sisters are concerned, seeking perhaps to present such truth as unprogressive and inappropriate for today’s society.
When a movement towards any of these things is noticed or where they are already in existence alert believers will seek graciously to point out the error and by quiet persistence and personal example resist the devil. Believers have an innate sense of spiritual right and wrong and this ability to so discriminate will lead them and the assembly back to truth, provided that the truth is graciously but firmly brought to their attention for consideration.
Thus, an alert assembly will be wide awake, watchfully and prayerfully aware of what is happening internally and externally and be anxious to strengthen the things that remain that may otherwise be ready to die. It will know that the world, the flesh and the devil are against it but, ‘if God be for us …?’ May the Spirit and the word keep us on our toes till He comes!