The wisdom of the Lord in what is revealed in the Scripture concerning local churches, or assemblies, is seen in several ways. He knew that these churches, formed by the operation of the Holy Spirit, would be established in a world filled with antagonism, both politically and religiously. He knew that circumstances would differ in different countries and in the various periods of the present era of Gospel grace and activity. The Apostles themselves under His guidance forewarned the churches that there would be gross departure from the faith and from the teaching which they had received after their ministry had terminated.
His wisdom, then, is seen in His designs made known in the Scriptures of Truth concerning the essential characteristics and constitution of these local assemblies, as being adequate to meet the varying circumstances in the world, from the time of Pentecost till His return to gather His saints to Himself in one complete Church at the moment of the Rapture.
Adherence to the doctrine of Apostolic teaching received from the Lord, would mean, for His followers, not only the spiritual progress and power of each local church, not only the spread of the Gospel through their instrumentality, but their best welfare amidst the changing political and social conditions in the world, and the difficulties and dangers aroused by the powers of darkness. Persecution and suffering would be involved in faithful adherence to the truth. So it has ever been. On the other hand, freedom from suffering and persecution tends not to spiritual virility but to lethargy, and is compatible with apostasy from the faith.
In view therefore of widespread and general departure from the Lord’s revealed will for His Assemblies, let us note some of the features which mark the wisdom of the Lord in His designs for them.
Firstly, the New Testament makes clear that it was His will that each church should remain in direct dependence upon Himself and upon the guidance and operation of the Holy Spirit. There is no hint of any organisation by which they were to be associated under a central authority or council. The so-called council held in Jerusalem, as recorded in Acts 15, was a temporary gathering. It had no permanency, nor is there any record of a repetition there or of anything like it elsewhere in the New Testament. Further, no designation is found indicating that a number of assemblies were amalgamated so as to define their bond of unity as if there was one church belonging to a special country or district. They are spoken of as “churches of Christ” (Romans 16:16), “churches of the saints” (1 Cor. 14: 33), or churches in a particular country (1 Cor. 16: 1, 19; 2 Cor. 8:1; Gal. 1: 22).
Nor again is there any indication that all the churches existent in the world at any given time are constituted as the Church. The phrase, “The Church on Earth,” is contrary to Scripture. The Apostles and all believers who have fallen asleep in Christ are still part of the Church. The fact that they are spirits does not exclude them from it even temporarily.
Upon each assembly is enjoined adherence to the doctrine of Christ, to the faith “delivered once for all” to the saints (Jude 3, R.V.), and this obedience to the Word of God involves a spiritual bond and fellowship, but never involves special circles of fellowship or a federation of assemblies. The authority of Scripture is final. The instruction is complete, and was designed to satisfy the Divine requirements through the whole of this period and to meet the needs of those who are willing to subject themselves to its authority.
Secondly, the Divine wisdom is exhibited in regard to those who are raised up by the Spirit of God in each church, to have the care of the saints who form it. In the New Testament pattern each assembly was under the oversight of a number of elders, spoken of as bishops, or overseers. The following are instances, and there is no exception elsewhere. Acts 20: 17 records that from Miletus the Apostle “sent to Ephesus, and called to him the elders of the church,” obviously those of the assembly in that city. In his address he says, “Take heed unto yourselves and to all the flock in which the Holy Ghost hath made you bishops” verse 28, R.V., A.V. “overseers”; the word “overseer” is a literal translation of episkopos, whence the word “bishop”). Three things are clear: (1) there was more than one; (2) they received their function from the Holy Spirit; (3) they were spiritual shepherds, for they had a flock.
Again, in churches formed in Lycaonia, “elders in every church” had been “appointed” (Acts 14: 23, R.V.), not by a formal ordination but “chosen” (as the same word is rendered in 2 Cor. 8: 19) as men already giving evidence of being fitted for their work The churches did not choose them. Sheep do not choose their shepherds.
The Epistle to the Philippians is addressed to the saints there “with the bishops and deacons” – bishops acting in one church. In Crete, Titus is enjoined to “appoint elders in every city” (Tit. 1:5), i.e., in each church, and in describing the character requisite for an elder, the Apostle says “for the bishop must be blameless” (verse 7), and the definite article clearly does not refer to one individual over a company, but represents a type. 1
In the church at Thessalonica that there was a number of elders exercising pastoral care together is clear from 1 Thess. 5: i2, 13. See also Heb. 13: 7, 17 and 1 Pet. 5:2, 3. The use of the singular “bishop” in 1 Tim. 3 and Titus t: 7 is not contradictory, for the singular number is there used simply to describe what sort of a person a bishop or overseer ought to be.
There is an advantage in regard to the New Testament principles in this respect. In case of a charge made against an assembly or difficulties in relation to local circumstances in which authorities might feel they were called to intervene, they would deal, not with a single individual, but with a number of men on equal footing as to responsibility. The Scriptural constitution of an assembly provides a force of considerable power.
As the Scriptures give us “the faith once for all delivered to the saints,” there is a Divine claim upon us to adhere to the teaching and to recognise and honour the prerogatives of the Holy Spirit in each Assembly and the principles relating to His work of the united care of overseeing brethren.
1 The postscript in the A.V., stating that the Epistle was written to Titus, “ordained the first bishop of the church of the Cretians,” is trebly wrong: (1) he was not a bishop, but a missionary; (2) he was not to be resident there; (3) there was not one church of the Cretians.
(In the next number Mr. Vine will (D.V.) deal with the important subject of Baptism.)
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