That the Church originated in the mind of God and received its birth in time are facts stated in the Word of truth, Eph. 1. 4; Acts 2. 1-3. In this paper we wish to consider the church in its local aspect. Where a company of saints are gathered unto the Lord Jesus, recognising no name but His as their rallying centre, we understand that this company is the representation of the whole. Hence what obtains in the universal Church becomes a model for the local assembly. Let us ask two questions.
The assembly at Ephesus is a typical example. Paul arrived in this city when idolatry was rampant, and when there were only about a dozen disciples knowing only the baptism of John. In experience they were living in pre-Calvary days, identifying themselves with those that flocked to John’s baptism. As he was wont and according to the divine command, Luke 24. 47, Paul first contacted the Jews; upon their refusal of the message, he turned to the Gentiles, Acts 19. 8-10. Sinners were converted, and by the constraint of divine love they gathered together and were recognised as the church at Ephesus. Being established, how are they to be maintained? From what source shall they be sustained? Most assuredly from within their own frontiers, for God has material in this company from which He can mould the gift necessary to achieve this very thing. Hence we may ask
The Holy Spirit provides a list in Ephesians 4. 11: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Regarding the first two named, we can truly say (in spite of many counter claims over the years!) that they no longer exist, although their guidance and teaching will be with the church to the end. The apostles had actually seen the Lord and the prophets were immediately inspired, 1 Cor. 9. 1; 14. 29-32, while the structure of the Church is reared upon their authentic utterances, Eph. 2. 20. But none could claim apostleship and the prophetic office today. The three remaining gifts have always been in the churches’ possession. The order in the list – evangelists, pastors and teachers – is most significant, for without the evangelist there would be no need for the work of either the pastor or the teacher, since there would be no converts to visit or to teach. Let us therefore consider these three gifts from the Ascended Christ.
What is his work? What endowments does he need? He mingles with the masses and, like his Master, seeks their souls. He stands between the local assembly and the world, attracting the converts in. He has a clear understanding of the nature of his ministry: Christ is his theme and souls are his passion. He wisely knows what bait to use to catch the fish. But bait in one water may be unsatisfactory in another., so he becomes all things to all men that he might save some, 1 Cor. 9. 22. Like one well-known evangelist, he ‘gets on fire and the people come and see him burn’. His passion gives birth to his preaching, Acts 18. 5; he loses himself in the mastery of the message, and he realises that his ministry is only successful when his own voice is past and Jesus is found alone, Luke 9. 36.
What qualities does an undershepherd need? Evidently a yearning for the good of the flock; he jealously safeguards the interests of the people of God; he also regularly visits the saints. But visitation today seems to be almost a lost art; some of the Lord’s people are almost unknown outside the hall where the assembly gathers. What can be more elevating and more calculated to maintain interest in the assembly than the pastor’s entry into the house, opening the Word and leading before the ‘throne of grace’? By contrast, 1 Timothy 5. 13 presents a picture of gossip in the home, and much damage is done. We cannot therefore overestimate the uplifting ministries of the pious pastor.
For a man to be a teacher, it presupposes the possession of an enlarged knowledge of the Word combined with a matured experience of it in life. For ‘the husbandman that laboureth must be first partaker of the fruits’, 2 Tim. 2. 6. He must bring ‘out of his treasure things new and old’, Matt. 13. 52. Instruction, enlightenment, edification, admonition and feeding should be some of the salient features of his ministry. Apart from immediate inspiration, he very closely resembles a prophet, since he tells forth the mind of God for local circumstances and the immediate occasion. So the listener waits upon the teacher’s words and learns wisdom from the Spirit-taught messenger. When the word given blends most harmoniously with the believer’s state, God is glorified and the church blest.
If these gifts are functioning, the assembly, while appreciating help given by servants of God from other assemblies, will not become a nursery always depending on external influences, lest that assembly finds its own local gifts unused. In process of time, it may even suffer from an arrested growth.