WHY is it that some assemblies today are weak, living far below their potential and presenting a sad travesty of the holy, beautiful, and spiritually powerful companies God intended them to be ? Is it due to local factors such as district gift, numbers, etc.? Not chiefly – let us be perfectly honest – it is due rather to unspirituality, a lack of the sense of our vital dependence upon the Lord.
We must not forget the essential nature of an assembly : that it is not a soulless organization, protected by a constitution and a code of rules, as is the case with human societies (if it were, the assembly would certainly be less vulnerable than it is, though at the same time bereft of all spiritual significance), but an organism with the capacity for growth, vitality and activity common to all living things, though possessing also their sensitiveness, delicacy of poise, and liability to disease if abused, ft is sadly possible for persons from within it to inflict grievous- even deadly – wounds.
Paul speaks of the Church – whether in its universal or its local sense – as being the Body of Christ. Individual members of the Church are members of His Body and, as such, necessary (wonderful thought!) to Him – the Head – for the performance of His purposes upon earth : and of course those members, in an absolute manner, are dependent on Him.
Thus we see that an assembly owes its being and its life to its union with Christ. Unless therefore it maintains that union experimentally through collective humility, contrition and a sincere (as distinct from formal) casting itself upon the Lord for His enduement and His guidance, disaster must inevitably overtake it.
Early “Brethren “ had no misapprehensions as to this. By detaching themselves from more organized “ churches," they knew that they were opening church life to greater possibility of spiritual power- and at the same time to greater hazard : and they knew that this greater good depended on their own spirituality as expressed by an acknowledgment of their complete and direct dependence on the Lord. That greater good has to some extent been achieved, though the hazard has also left its mark in schism, as brethren failed to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. But mistakes must not be allowed to cloud our vision of this great recovery of the divine simplicity – mistakes surely arc things by which we learn !
We are now some generations removed from those days of sublime vision, and the sacrifice always entailed in pioneering. This is why we need constantly to remind ourselves and others (particularly the rising generation) that an assembly is not just, a “ Place of Worship “ which in some mysterious automatic manner keeps itself going, but a vital organism dependent for its very life on the con¬scious union of its members with their Lord. An organi¬zation can appear to work so long as you keep the machinery moving, even though God in any vital sense has been left out long since ; but an assembly without the blessing of God immediately collapses, for it is an inherent necessity to its survival that each member exercises his or her function in fellowship with the Lord.
The assembly is not a place for Christians to find comfortable niches for themselves. If we go about looking for comfortable niches, our distinctive testimony will surely languish, for purity of worship is something which must be striven for, and can be maintained only at the cost of real exercise of heart. When assembly-life is in a healthy condition, its members are constantly challenged and spiritual demands are made upon them (not so much by direct exhortation, as by the sense of responsibility borne in upon them by the holy movement of the body-as a whole) more so than is possible in churches where there is a strong feeling of the distinction between clergy and laity, or between minister and congregation.
Paul, in speaking of the body, mentions two attitudes which can upset its smooth and efficient functioning. Though exact opposites they are both self-centred rather than Christ-centred. In each the ego of the member is prominent rather than his function as a member of Christ. In the one it may be false modesty, mock humility – “ I am not of the body “ (1 Cor. 12. 16), or as the R.S.V. has it, “ I do not belong.” In the other it may be overweening pride and self-sufficiency – “ I have no need of you “ (1 Cor. 12. 21).
Let us look first at the danger implicit in the “ I do not belong “ attitude. Underlying it may be plain jealousy – “ If the foot shall say ‘ Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body ‘ ; is it therefore not of the body ? And if the ear shall say ‘ Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body’ ; is it therefore not of the body?" (1 Cor. 12. IS, 16). The plodding foot envying the creative hand ! and the eminently useful ear envying the marvellously intricate and essential eye ! If this destructive emotion of jealousy were possible amongst the members of a physical body, how could it function ? It is no less disruptive in the mystical Body of Christ.
When members murmur with seeming humility “ I do not belong" they really mean “I have no intention of courting an appearance of inferiority by putting my performance beside the brilliant performance of brother or sister so-and-so.” This altogether childish and carnal attitude we might smile at, were it not so serious : for after all, to withhold our contribution is really spiritual sabotage – if widespread in an assembly it could bring it to a standstill. There is a tendency for members not having a conspicuous role to have “other engagements" or to have “ gone elsewhere “ (meaning another church !) just when their help is badly needed.
How important it is that we should regard the assembly and our part in it only from the spiritual angle, submerging our own preferences and feelings and giving it the priority in our lives it should have. A sense of balance is then restored and we can see the cogency of the Apostle’s remark, “ ff the whole body were an eye where were the hearing ? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling?" (1 Cor. 12. 17). It is salutary to remember that not we ourselves but “ God set the members everyone of them in the body, as it hath pleased him “ (1 Cor. 12. 18) and “ those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary “ (1 Cor. 12. 22). May we have the grace to set aside personal considerations and, for the glory of our beloved Master and the good of His people, seek with godly fear and genuine humility to fulfil the ministry (great or small) which He has committed to us !
But there is also the opposite attitude implied in the somewhat arrogant “ I have no need of you.” The ear may envy the eye, but the eye may despise the hand ! “ The eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee “ (1 Cor. 12. 21). That is, it cannot say it with any sense of objective truth, but only in the blindness of pride : for pride, like jealousy, is a self-centred emotion, an egotistical passion, in the blindness of which any nonsense may be talked ! Christ calls us to deny self, and it is only thus that we as members of His church can dwell together in love and mutual esteem “ in honour preferring one another “ (Rom. 12. 10).
Anyone who, like Diotrephes, “ loveth to have the pre-eminence “ (3 John 9) can ruin an assembly, for its organic nature is thereby denied. He has an inflated opinion of his own importance to the assembly, and an insufficient appreciation of the important parts played by others, who accordingly become discouraged and frustrated.
Another form of this same attitude is criticism. If a spiritual member feels a genuine dissatisfaction about any particular phase of his assembly-life there are times and places where such matters may be discussed in love and humility. That has nothing in common with the all-too-prevalent, unkind and irresponsible criticism, which is a grievous sin against the Lord, for it touches His people concerning whom it is said, “ He that toucheth you toucheth the apple of his eye “ (Zech. 2. 8).
Looking at it from the human angle for a moment it is at once realized that by virtue of being a member of an assembly, a person is thrown into the company of people with varying backgrounds and temperaments, whom in the ordinary way he would not meet. If, though a believer, he or she has not understood the nature of an assembly, clearly there is ample scope for that one, specially if he or she is naturally aggressive or self-opinionated, to indulge in criticism of others who see things in a different way, and, in doing so, work untold damage. The one who dares in the Lord’s assembly to be self-assertive, censorious and critical (and by thus acting, saying in effect “ I have no need of you “) is usually far less spiritual than the person(s) being criticized, and may by his or her habitual lack of decent restraint, resulting in unkind and evil speaking, cause such sorrow to godly folk doing a useful work as to seriously hinder the work of the Lord. Such is the vulnerability of a free association of persons which you have in an assembly.
Ah, but the possibilities ! These too are to a certain extent being realized, as brethren and sisters in love – the love of God shed abroad in their hearts – dwell together in unity : achieving this only through a cheerful acceptance of the discipline of corporate church-life and, through thoughtfulness and care, avoiding the giving of offence.
May the Lord help us, through devotion, prayer, self-examination and humility, to touch the heights possible in assembly-life for the glory of His Name, the blessing of His people and the salvation of the lost.