FOR THE SAKE OF NEW READERS it may be well to explain that in the earlier articles in this series we have considered the problems which face young people as a wider experience confronts them with many different forms of church government. We have suggested that the wisest course amid the prevailing confusion is to concentrate on building up sound assembly life on the pattern of the New Testament, and with this in mind, we are at present dealing with some of the leading features of a scriptural church.
When men form an association they usually feel it necessary to draft a constitution with a view to keeping the organization true to its original purpose. The same tendency is seen in Christian communities where some form of constitution is drawn up embodying those doctrines which are considered essential and laying down the procedure to be followed. No doubt this has been done with the best of motives (and in some matters it is legally necessary) but, as in the case of secular institutions, the method has not proved very successful in securing genuine continuity of purpose or unity of action. There are certain weaknesses in this system. It is beyond human wit to define abstract things with such precision that no question can arise, with the result that when an attempt is made to regulate a society by a set of rules, the interpretation of words and phrases becomes a matter of debate, and people out to achieve other ends are usually able to find some loophole. Experience has shown that modernism, ritualism and worldliness creep in despite the laws made to exclude them. Moreover, since a rigid code can demand only formal adherence there is always the danger that acceptance of it will come to be regarded simply as a formality devoid of life and reality. Furthermore, even the best of codes cannot effectively resist the march of time and with the passing years they become archaic and out of relation to the changing circumstances.
THE NATURE OF A CHURCH
It is important to remember that the true Church is not an organization – it is an organism. It is a living thing and life cannot be systematized. A local assembly should be a reflection of the true Church, a community instinct with the life of Christ by the Spirit. If we read our New Testament aright, we see the divine wisdom in the apostles’ avoidance of a rigid constitution for the churches, and in their providing for the nourishment and guidance of what they regarded as companies showing the characteristics of living bodies. In this connection Paul’s method, as exemplified in Corinth, is full of instruction. His speech and his ‘preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power’, because he was anxious that their faith should not stand in the wisdom of men but in the power of God, i Cor. 2. 4-5. From one standpoint he refers to his work for God as the planting of a field, as a tillage of God. Compare 3. 6 with 3. 9. This agricultural figure serves to convey the idea that an assembly should be marked by life and growth, bringing forth fruit to God. But an assembly should also be marked by solidity and stability and with this in mind Paul turns to an architectural figure and speaks of the assembly as being also God’s building.
THE FOUNDATION OF A CHURCH
We have already seen how human wisdom attempts to secure the permanence of an institution. How did Paul seek to secure this? He tells us that, as any wise builder would, he laid a good foundation. Was this a creed or a formal constitution? No – it was Jesus Christ. Compare 3. 10 with 3. 11. Each succeeding generation should build on that one foundation so that the affairs of the assembly are always regulated, not by a dead constitution, but by constant and hearty obedience to the living Christ. This is an assembly’s safeguard, namely, the right relationship to Christ. What is that relationship? Undoubtedly the recognition in a genuine and practical way that ‘Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father’. This is a confession to which every tongue will yet be brought, Phil. 2. 11, but it is given to us to anticipate that day. God uniformly builds on Christ and all builders who, like the leaders of Israel, reject God’s way invite disaster to their plans, Matt. 21. 42. This then is the foundation on which an assembly must rest – God recognizes no other. ‘Other foundation can no man lay’. This will involve making the glory of Christ our aim and not the glory of self or of our institutions. Much as loyalty to, and a concern for the welfare of, an assembly is to be desired the assembly must not become an end in itself. With the glory of Christ as our aim there must be real subjection of heart and will to the authority of Christ. It is most interesting and instructive to notice in the book of Acts how the Lord insisted on obedience to His will, even when the seeming strangeness of His commands provoked resistance on the part of those who, whilst professing to own His Lordship, were reluctant to put aside their own ideas, Acts. 9. 13; 10. 14.
Subjection to the Lordship of Christ will obviously lead to conformity to Scripture, not as a code but as the living and powerful Word of God. Admittedly there is the danger that a company which accepts the Scripture as its guide may, at last, come to accept the uniformity of conviction they have reached, as a sort of unwritten constitution, which could eventually harden into a lifeless tradition very little different, in effect, from a formal declaration. Not that tradition, in itself, is necessarily wrong or even undesirable. The Lord’s protests in this connection were aimed at the traditions of men which made void the Word of God, Matt. 15. 6. Tradition simply means ‘what is passed on’, and Paul praised the Corinthians for keeping the ordinances (traditions) as he delivered them, 1 Cor. 11. 2. The thing to avoid is the acceptance of tradition on the mere authority of those who transmit it, without that personal exercise of spirit and study of Scripture to make what is true their own. In this scientific age the amazing advance of knowledge is constantly involving the rejection or, at least, the adjustment of older ideas. It would seem that this has so affected the outlook of some young people that the mere fact that certain convictions have been held for generations is enough to condemn them, and it is thought ‘progressive’ to discard them. This irresponsible attitude sometimes amounts to a reckless waste of the spiritual heritage passed on to us by men of God who bought truth at a considerable cost. By all means let us refuse to be bound by merely human traditions but truth does not change and if a thing was true generations ago it is true today. Admittedly, teaching which was in itself sound can in the course of time gather accretions against which we must be on our guard. If flippant rejection of tradition is one extreme, slavish bondage to it is the other extreme.
The remedy for both extremes is to keep all teaching constantly exposed to the searching light of Scripture, ever willing to recognize that it is always possible to get closer to the mind of the Lord. We must always be on our guard against anything which might interfere with the absolute Lordship of Christ and with that in view, we stress the importance of regular and well-balanced teaching of God’s Word in freshness, grace and power. Witness Paul’s injunction to Timothy - ‘The things which thou hast heard of me, among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also’, 2 Tim. 2. 2. There you have tradition at its best. If Timothy in the discharge of this responsibility heeded Paul’s earlier exhortation to ‘hold fast the form of sound words’, 1. 13, it is possible that he ran the risk of being regarded as ‘narrow’, especially by those who constantly wanted something novel, 4. 2-4. Where such faithful teaching is maintained it will be found that whereas constitutions and human traditions cease to be relevant, Holy Scripture is amazingly ‘up-to-date’. Though circumstances of life and their effects upon our service change from generation to generation, and even from decade to decade, the principles of Scripture are of universal and timeless application. The best and wisest and godliest of men could not foresee how times would change, but the Holy Spirit could.
THE RIGHT PERSPECTIVE
The assembly’s ultimate responsibility is to the Lord alone and everything must be brought into subjection to the mind of Christ. There is no room for man’s will here. Because Paul had made the Lordship of Christ the foundation of the assembly at Corinth he had firm ground upon to stand when he set out to correct the abuses which threatened the well-being of the Corinthian assembly and the effectiveness of its witness. Those who had heard his teaching would be effectively reminded of it as the opening sentences of his letter were read to the gathering. Again and again they would be struck by the use of the title Lord and the various connections in which it occurred. All this was leading up to his appeal -‘Now I beseech you, brethren by the name (i.e. the authority) of our LORD Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing… that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment’, 1 Cor. 1. 10. A study of the letter will show that throughout its courses Paul maintained this standpoint, bringing everything into subjection to the supreme authority of Christ. ‘If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of die LORD’, 14. 37.