‘They two shall be one flesh’, Eph. 5.31. ‘There is one body’, Eph. 4. 4.
When God brought Adam and Eve together in the garden He said, ‘they shall be one flesh’, Gen. 2. 24. Many years later Jesus said, ‘What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder’, Matt. 19. 6. One husband and one wife legally, morally and naturally bound together in a partnership for life. This always has, and ever will be the divine and perfect foundation for a happy and stable family relationship. The ultimate ‘bond’ that holds the family and marriage together is not the pursuit of personal happiness or pleasure, but the disciplined exercise of ‘love'-i.e. mutual submission to, and consideration for, each other’s welfare.
In Old Testament times God permitted the Hebrews a measure of separation on moral grounds, but this was only ‘because of the hardness of your hearts’, hence Jesus hastened to add, ‘but from the beginning it was not so’, Matt. 19.7,8.
In the New Testament, Christians living under grace and possessing the new nature, have no excuse whatever to break their marriage bond. Wilful unfaithfulness by one partner will incur divine displeasure and wrath on the guilty, cause the deepest sorrow and distress to the innocent party, and bring unhappiness, pain and suffering into the family circle. Far too frequently marriages are being broken by the Lord’s people. Vows made at marriage are treated as a light thing. Selfishness, carnality and an unforgiving spirit undermine the happiness of homes and rob them of their spiritual strength and stability.
Two things are necessary for the welfare of a happy marriage: (a) as head of the home the husband must discharge his responsibility to guide the home in the fear of God, (b) when this is done in a gracious manner the wife will have no difficulty in submitting to his rule and authority. In all matters the love and setf-sacrificing care of the Lord for His church is the great example to follow.
The institution of human marriage, however, is but a shadow of the far greater ‘marriage-bond’ that exists between Christ and His church. When God brought Adam and Eve together He looked forward to a time when He would take out of the nations a bride for His Son; a bride who would share with Him the administration of the new heavens and the new earth.
The formation of the church is the great ‘mystery’ of the present age. It is not so much that God is saving men and women, but that He takes those who are saved into a real, vital union or oneness with Himself so that they are said to be ‘members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones’, Eph. 5. 30. Christ ‘loved’ the church; He ‘gave himself for the church; he rules over and cares for the church; some day he will present the church to Himself as His spotless bride, Eph. 5.25,27.
Christ has but one church, one body. It is held together by the one Holy Spirit in whom all believers were baptized into union with Christ and to each other, Eph. 4. 3, 5; 1 Cor. 12. 13, 14. As the Father, the Son and the Spirit are one, so all believers should express that oneness in their relation to each other, John 17. 21-not merely in a spiritual sense, but in real, practical fellowship in day to day life and in the activities of the local churches or congregations. This is especially to be seen at the Lord’s supper when they partake of the ‘one loaf in remembrance of their ‘one Lord’.
In view of the widespread disunity among the people of God today it seems but an idle dream to suggest a real, permanent fellowship among true believers; yet the word of God insists that it should be so.
In the marriage bond only two people are required to live together in unity, and even that seems to be a problem at times! In New Testament times believers in their local assemblies lived reasonably happily together. They had inner disagreements but there was no open division. Members could visit assemblies anywhere and be assured of a welcome, for the oneness of the whole body was expressed in the oneness of each local congregation. Today, however, the problem is vastly compounded. How can millions of believers all over the world, so hopelessly divided in the course of history, express their love and unity in Christ as members of one family, one body?
World-wide or country-wide, there is, of course, no way that all the Lord’s people can come together, nor is any formal, organized union necessary. All that is required is for Christians in any locality to meet together in such a manner that in practice and thinking they embrace all members of the true world-wide ‘body’. Every local congregation ought to be thinking and acting in the same way. The establishment and continuance of such gatherings require deep conviction of heart and purpose, but would without doubt be assured of the Lord’s blessing and approval, and deserve the support of the Lord’s people everywhere.
Ideally, a local gathering would be comprised of all true believers in that locality, but it is not the size of the congregation that matters so much as the principles of unity that bind them.
Broadly speaking, we see from the Scriptures, these truly uniting principles are:
1. The Acceptance of a Common Unifying Name or Centre of Gathering. Party or denominational names divide the Lord’s people. In Old Testament times the Hebrews recognized Jerusalem, or earlier, the tabernacle as their centre of unity, because it was the place where Jehovah placed His name, Deut. 12. 5, 11, 14. Today, a Christian assembly is simply a gathering of Christian people who are drawn together by a mutual love for Christ; they meet in His name, Matt. 18. 20. They seek His face and promote His glory. Because they are ‘in Christ’, Christ is also ‘in them’; thus His name and Person attract true believers together and bind them in a local and spiritual unity.
But to meet in His name means also to submit to His authority and headship; to recognize His sole right to direct and order the affairs of His church by the Holy Spirit and the word. He alone has the right and power to raise up in each church acceptable guides and teachers, Eph. 4. 11, 12; 1 Cor. 12.4-6.
2. Mutual Agreement on the Basic Doctrines of the Faith.The local church is, or should be, the ‘pillar and ground (support)’ of divine ‘truth’, 1 Tim. 3.15. It exists only for the purpose of proclaiming and defending the ‘apostles’ doctrine’, Acts 2. 42, and ‘all the counsel of God’, Acts 20. 27, concerning Christ and the gospel, Jude 3; Phil. 1. 27. The local assembly should therefore be characterized by ‘sound doctrine’ and ‘wholesome words’, 1 Tim. 4. 6; 6. 3; Titus 2. 1; 1. 9. It is a place where the ‘sheep’ may be fed and nurtured, Acts 20. 28, for unstable and insecure Christians become easily carried about by ‘every wind of doctrine’.
3. Recognition of the Privileges and Responsibilities of Local Church Members to Participate in the Assembly Activities. The Holy Spirit usually works through the local church members, and those whom He equips are responsible to exercise their particular ‘gift’, Rom. ch. 12; 1 Cor. ch. 12. When local believers are fully committed to the Lord they should be able to direct the affairs of their own assembly, and ensure that the word is proclaimed to those outside.
In the matter of worship and praise all believers are ‘priests’ in their own right, 1 Peter 2. 5, 9, but to ensure harmony in the church all things need to be done ‘decently and in order’, 1 Cor. 14. 40. An ‘any man ministry’ will result in confusion, but a ‘one man ministry’ may well hinder the activity of the Holy Spirit and stunt the growth of the church.
4. Recognition of God-given and Spirit-led Elders. Liberty in the local church does not permit any believer to do what is ‘right in his own eyes’, for a house divided against itself will fall. All local assemblies have the right to direct their own affairs and should not place themselves under a central or controlling authority in any other place. In exercising this freedom, however, local members should support and submit to the leadership of their own shepherds, 1 Tim. 3. 1-7; 5. 17; Acts 20. 28; Titus 1. 5-9; 1 Thess. 5. 12, 13; 1 Peter 5. 1-4; Hebrews 13. 7, 17, 24.
5. A Constant Attitude of Mutual Love and Forbearance in all Personal Relationships. In the final issue, harmony within the church of God is more a matter of the heart than the head. This does not mean that differences must be buried or essential truth compromised, but that the truth must be spoken in love, Eph. 4. 15, for love is the bond of perfectness, and the more excellent way, Col. 3.14; 1 Cor. 12. 31.
In the local church all must learn to submit towards each other, showing forbearance, meekness, patience; towards non-assembly members, tolerance, friendliness, kindness, hospitality; towards the non-Christian world, compassion, concern, kindness, a faithful witness.
The Lord Jesus loves His church; gave Himself for it; seeks its growth, stability, unity, holiness and ultimate glory. So should every person who is privileged to be a member of it.