Chapter 12: The Local Church and its Conflict
by Samuel J. McBride, N. Ireland
The first time the Church is mentioned in both its universal and local aspects, it is facing conflict, one versus the "gates of hell"; the other troubled with internal dissension, Matt.16.16-18; 18.15-20. Throughout the rest of the New Testament, we discover that conflict is not far away from the local church, whether exemplified in incidents recorded in Acts, the Epistles and Revelation, or predicted by the Apostles in their warnings of coming problems.
The last days are to be characterised by a marked increase in difficulties, and when we read the unpleasant details, we must expect local church testimony to involve a constant struggle against the multi-faceted opposition delineated by the New Testament writers. The daunting prospect of such difficulty is not set before us as a deterrent, but rather to encourage us to sustain assembly testimony knowing that God has fore-warned us of the problems. The resources for coping with such difficulties come from the One Who issued the warnings. So we should be doubly thankful to the Lord, for accurately warning us of danger and giving us the resources and guidance about how to conduct ourselves in spite of all the problems, so that Divine testimony may be maintained to His glory.
Thus we are confined to the Holy Scriptures alone, for there is no better analysis of hazards affecting assembly testimony, nor is there any alternative instruction manual for predicting or coping with difficulties affecting the local church. Naturally the restless mind of man is fertile with many suggestions for modifying the Divine pattern of New Testament church constitution and activity.
Recent years have seen a huge growth in novel ideas and "para-church" organisations amongst assemblies. New technology combined with youthful and anti-traditional ways of thinking have produced some startling challenges to conservatively minded, assembly-based Christians. While this chapter does not set out to analyse these contemporary developments, some allusions to them will be made.
There is now no part of the UK where assemblies are not facing serious threats.1 Therefore all scripturally minded overseers must immediately shake off any complacency and face up to the fact that every one of them is called upon to stand for Divine truth and principles in the assembly in which he is in fellowship.
1 For many decades Northern Ireland in particular has been blessed with comparative immunity from a lot of the baneful influences that damaged so much of assembly testimony in mainland U.K. This era is now over.
Young people in assembly fellowship are often seen as a threat and potential source of trouble. Where they are misdirected or complacently allowed to ‘do their own thing’ they certainly may prove to be a source of trouble. Yet we must remember that their energy and eagerness to be involved in assembly work should be a source of strength and vitality for an assembly that deals with them in ways that are wise and Scriptural. The tendency in recent days for young people to be drawn together by a social agenda that caters ever more openly for a fun-based approach is deplorable and dangerous.
Overseeing brethren who permit younger married sisters in the assembly to organise youth activities for young sisters in their teens and twenties need to be very careful as to what they are condoning. House meetings may spring up easily, but who is in control; who regulates what is taught; what other recreational or "cultural" activities are promoted? To what kind of role model are these young believers being exposed?
The promotion of allegedly Christian bands – including ‘Christian’ rock groups is accepted in areas where such a thing would have been universally condemned less than 20 years ago. If such laxity is deemed acceptable in order to retain our young people, what quality of disciple is being developed by such means? Will the assemblies actually need or benefit from the kind of Christians that are likely to emerge from this process?
The growing trend for young believers in assembly fellowship to be members of Internet-based social networks2 has disturbed some older folks in the assemblies, including Bible teachers and elders. A young believer’s development and progress in Divine things will not be enhanced by multiplying friendships amongst his/her peer-group.
2 BEBO and FACEBOOK are two of the most widely used.
These issues are new to assemblies in so far as the emergence of modern I.C.T.3 has facilitated a much greater degree of close-knit social networking than ever before. However, the basic portrait of human nature in the Bible retains all its veracity, and the tendency for massed groups of young people to gravitate to the lowest common denominator remains. The remedy for the challenge posed by these new social phenomena amongst assembly young people must come from the Bible. The temptation to participate may prove strong to some who wish to bring Bible teaching to this audience, and fear that they would not give much heed to traditional Ministry Meetings or Bible Readings. Although there is an obvious snare for a teacher whose reputation for wisdom may be tarnished by an ill-judged descent into frivolous sports, or even party-games, there may be an even more subtle danger, and that is the tendency to allow the message itself to become ‘dumbed down’. What older person does not enjoy the adulation and appreciation of a large group of young people? But has this been gained by watering down the "whole counsel of God" in the course of the meetings/teaching sessions? Sadly there is evidence of such tendencies at work in some of the brochures, pamphlets and websites that are currently being targeted for assembly young people.
3 Information and Communications Technology.
The task of transmitting the truth of God from one generation to the next is problematic. Can we be sure that the latest rash of new-fangled social network-based methods is going to prove to be of long-term benefit? This is not the place to speculate about various unintended consequences that may prove damaging to assembly testimony. It suffices to notice that the New Testament does provide for a Divinely recommended method for ensuring an effective hand-over of Divine truth and assembly practice between the generations. Perhaps the well-intentioned committees of brethren whose brainstorming has produced these dubious modern schemes have taken their eye off the target. Let us challenge them with some questions, whose answers we believe can be found simply through reading the New Testament epistles.
Over 50 years ago there was an organised attempt to change the future direction and profile of assemblies in the UK.4 It was led by men who were professionally well qualified academics and business leaders along with certain Bible teachers who felt that existing assembly life was too narrow, and needed a large input of human organisation with a paid ministry/pastorate and promotion of new ecumenical co-operation with denominational Christendom and dilution of assembly identity by mingling with such unscriptural organisations.
4 The "High Leigh Conferences of Brethren" followed by the Swanwick Conferences and the associated "Christian Brethren Research Fellowship (CBRF)" were critiqued for their subversive tendencies by faithful assembly-minded brethren in contemporary issues of Assembly Testimony, Believers Magazine and various pamphlets. The CBRF is now renamed "Partnership" and is a driving force behind the "Brethren Archivists and Historians Network" (BAHN). BAHN is very influential in promoting heavy-weight academic history books that tell the story of "the Brethren Movement" from a perspective that is frankly hostile to the Scriptural truth of the normative pattern of New Testament assembly principles for which the magazine "Assembly Testimony" has always stood.
It is greatly to the credit of some noteworthy brethren of that generation, that they saw the danger early on and warned against what was happening. Our present publication ("Assembly Testimony" magazine) was founded as a reaction to this unscriptural liberalism. Mr. A. Borland, editor of the Believers Magazine, ran editorials alerting assemblies to the hazard, Mr. A.M.S. Gooding, Mr. W. Trew and Mr. E. A. Toll (amongst others) wrote against the threat to the Scriptural pattern of assembly order. Their writings are highly relevant at the present time, and should be read by all.5 The ministry of such valued brethren had a preserving effect in its own day, the benefit of which has largely persisted till the start of the 21st Century.6 At present, the school of thought amongst "Open Brethrenism" that opposed the assembly truth contended for by the above mentioned brethren, remains a clear and present danger to the continued testimony of assemblies today in every part of the U.K. Some hitherto apparently Scriptural assemblies are ready to slide away from principles and practices that have been held dear for many decades. In some cases the eldership seems asleep at the tiller. Perhaps they don’t want to be told of how perilous the situation is, for then a stand would have to be taken.
5 W. Trew, "My reasons for not being free to engage in interdenominational service" J. Ritchie, Kilmarnock,n.d.
A.M.S Gooding "The editor of the Christian Worker reviews ‘A New Testament Church in 1955’". J. Ritchie Kilmarnock n.d. .
E.A.Toll "A Conference and questions arising out of it" Assembly Testimony 1955 issues 16-18.
6 Mr. John Grant, editor of Believers Magazine, personal communication 27-12-2006.
The numerous organisations that have sprung up among and around assemblies in recent years are sometimes described as ‘para-church support organisations’. Some specialise in overseas missionary aid in one form or another, while others focus rather on the home-land and perform roles such as operating legal and management services e.g. trustee roles for Gospel Halls or other assembly properties. Not all pose active problems for assemblies, but benignity of function is not to be taken for granted.
Some organisations began with a beneficent vision of estimable men who cherished assembly doctrine and whose largesse and financial prudence enabled the establishment of an organisation that was intended to promote and facilitate assembly work. At the inception of such organisations brethren who felt unhappy because the venture seemed unscriptural were reckoned pedantic or even churlish. However, the natural history of bureaucracies is that they seek to garner additional power and influence. This is equally true amongst assembly-originated organisations. These exhibit a "centralising tendency."7
7 This is explicitly acknowledged by historian Tim Grass in "Gathering to His Name" 2006, Paternoster Press. As might be expected of this school of thought, he sees no harm in it.
Furthermore, the spiritual calibre of the founding brethren is seldom replicated in those succeeding to the leadership of such groups. There is usually a widening and a dilution of the original ties to assemblies in the interests of "a wider sphere of service". Acceptance of sectarian/denominational identity naturally follows. This is evident amongst even long established assembly-based organisations and their periodicals. Recently an issue of a missionary magazine referred to a project to "rebuild the Brethren headquarters" in a certain country. A remark like this is a measure of how far some have departed from the principles of Holy Scripture. Is not the location of the "Brethren headquarters" plainly identified in Scripture? This mention of a "headquarters" on earth is a florid case of theological nonsense.
To whom is the organisation accountable?
This is a key question, for all Christian service in the New Testament is done through and in fellowship with the local assembly.8 If committees and organisations are not accountable to a local assembly, then there is no ultimate Scriptural sanction that can be brought against them, no matter how far they drift from New Testament principles.9 The aggregation of power by an organisation, and subsequent abuse of power is troubling to behold, especially when the victim of the abuse is a local assembly. For example, certain organisations that are registered as charities may own the Gospel Hall in which an assembly meets. These generally are not ultimately responsible to that assembly, which is accordingly at the mercy of the organisation, which usually can claim that it has a legal duty to optimise its income in the interests of the charitable work and beneficiaries it is constitutionally pledged to support. Maintaining a weak assembly’s testimony by helping with maintenance problems may have been the intent of the charity’s original founders many decades ago. Now things may be radically different. One assembly in a large city suburb needing repairs to the Gospel Hall roof approached the registered charity organisation as the owner/landlord and was offered a loan at commercial rates of interest to fix the roof. The local elder who was dealing with the matter told the functionaries of this organisation that he could get that sort of help from the ungodly at a high-street bank. He was a wise man who said, "God has no ministry for the sustaining of a Mission, but He has a ministry for the sustenance of an assembly."10
8 We may exclude the 7 sons of Sceva the Jew who, as some organisations do today, attempted to profit from mimicry of God’s order.
9 The "acrimonious and slanderous battle" i.e. destructive litigation that rent the Stewards empire (Stewards Ministries and Stewards Foundation) in North America in recent years is an example of what can befall an unscriptural power-structure that foists itself onto assemblies while professing to "be there to help" – when no Scriptural mandate for such methods is discoverable. See Ch 13, "Family Matters" 1992 by William W. Conard, Interest Ministries.
10 John Douglas of Ashgill, notable for his pointed and pithy expressions in ministry. Quoted from "Kings of Israel and Judah" by John Douglas, n.d. Published by Alex Aikman.
If a brother, who is a member of some committee, has a dispute with his local brethren and leaves the assembly (without any letter of commendation) to have fellowship in a company sympathetic to him, is it likely that he will be required to give up his committee position?
The Expediency Principle - A Danger
"Love unites: Doctrine divides – we need to pour out a cascade of love over people." These words were uttered some time ago at a report meeting organised under assembly auspices. The speaker was representing a freshly inaugurated Christian Charity with a typically pretentious title and mission statement. He drew the attention of the audience to the current issue of his latest report bulletin showing the photograph of a little boy who had just received a package of bounty during the organisation’s relief trip to a certain conflict-riven country. "Surely it’s worth it all to see the smile on that little boy’s face!" continued the enthusiastic speaker without pausing to advise the audience about whether this boy (or indeed anyone else in that country) had been saved. Was it surprising to observe in the entire discourse a total absence of any allusion to or acquaintance with the great commission, Matt.28.16-20? As for what we know as ‘church truth’, this was openly slighted. Sadly this sort of thing is becoming commoner. But there is a fragment of truth in what that mischievous speaker was propounding. Viewed from a certain perspective, doctrine indeed divides. People polarise into two groups; there are those who accept and those who reject the truth of God. The Gospel preacher notices this at once, as seen when Paul preached and "some believed … some believed not" Acts 28.24. But in teaching God’s Word to Christians, there is still a dividing line between those who accept and those who refuse.
When it comes to ‘church truth’ there are many professing Christians who regard the constitution and operation of the local church as something that need not be regarded as a matter of core importance. Expediency and convenience – and of course human tradition weigh heavily with such thinkers.11 They dissent from the views advocated in this book, i.e. that God has taken care to leave us a normative pattern for church testimony in this age, and that the Holy Scriptures are sufficient for this purpose. Such anti-pattern opinions are becoming more prevalent amongst assemblies, and are a source of trouble and destabilisation in assemblies that are trying to implement Biblical principles. Activists of this school operating within an assembly may begin quite covertly. By posing as advocates for redressing perceived neglect of young folk in the assembly they often gain a ready ear and even the respect of mature believers. But careful monitoring of what the young people are being taught and the adjuncts used to attract them will likely reveal that there is a fostering of discontent with the existing conservative stance of the assembly, such as agitation for change in the oversight (i.e. getting new members onto the oversight that serve the new agenda either by displacement or out-manoeuvring of existing overseers). Alien notions of worship - often tinged with a ‘charismatic’ flavour, casual dress at meetings, promoting modernist Bible versions, widening roles (that are foreign to the New Testament) for sisters in assembly gatherings, dilution or denial of the moral clarity of the Bible on the issues of homosexuality or indissolubility of marriage, attendance at popular worldly diversions, e.g. theatres, cinemas, dances etc., linkages with interdenominational ‘ministries’ both national and international may be mentioned as examples of contemporary innovations that have confronted assemblies within the past decade. In view of such pressure for sweeping change, it is surely evident that assemblies cannot afford to neglect the study of the Types of Scripture as the core element of how brethren prepare themselves to offer public worship to God in remembrance of the Lord Jesus Christ in the Breaking of Bread meeting. Inattention to this area of doctrine has led to shallow and cringe-worthy language and speech at the Remembrance Meeting that is sometimes frankly erroneous, frivolous and lacking in reverence. This state of affairs represents fertile soil for alternative post-modern notions of worship to find toleration or indeed acceptance. Often this process proves irreversible and results in the eventual cessation of the assembly concerned. Prevention is better than cure.
11 Apologists for ecclesiastical organisations such as Episcopacy, or Presbyterianism formerly sought to find Scriptural justification for their systems. In marked contrast, nowadays the opponents of a conservative assembly position don’t bother to mount a Scripture-based argument in favour of their agenda. That makes traditional controversial discussion difficult. There is effectively no common ground as to the "Sola Scriptura" position. Assemblies are now facing issues that are more inspired by thought and behaviour patterns that borrow heavily from the so called ‘Emerging Church’. It is highly beneficial to read Mr. Wm. Hoste’s book, "Bishops, Priests and Deacons" for a masterful refutation of classical denominational systems (mainly Episcopalian and Presbyterian) in the light of Scripture. A similar defence of local church truth against the onslaught of the ‘Emerging Church’ and related phenomena is still awaited.
12 This issue is well handled in the following two pamphlets: Andrew Borland "Women’s place in the assemblies: an assessment of Bible teaching" J. Ritchie, [c.1970]. and William Hoste, "The Service of Sisters, its sanction and scope" J. Ritchie [c.1935]
The role of sisters in Scripture-observing assemblies has been attacked relentlessly.13 It is an interesting fact that where the silence of sisters in assembly gatherings is practised, the Charismatic Movement has proved unable to make significant inroads. Sisters’ meetings have a long history in some assemblies – and are sometimes defended as causing no apparent problem. However, it must be acknowledged that the practice is without Scriptural backing. There are named examples of sisters who are commended for their assistance to Paul in his gospel labours.14 Paul advised Titus that the aged women "teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands etc. ... that the word of God be not blasphemed" Titus 2.3,4. This teaching relates to the domestic realm and certainly does not refer to an assembly meeting. Priscilla, who is always linked with her husband Aquila, helped in expounding the way of God more perfectly to Apollos, Acts 18.26, but again this was in a private capacity. Furthermore, on this occasion it is the husband’s name that comes first, removing any impression that Priscilla was dominant in this role. Modern protagonists for sisters’ meetings cannot show any example in the New Testament of an assembly that had a sisters’ meeting, and the introduction of such a practice often has generated difficulties for assemblies not least by the hurtful and marginalising effect upon those sisters whose Scriptural convictions will not permit their attendance at such meetings.
13 "Partnership" and its predecessor, the CBRF have continually opposed the Apostolic doctrine of the silence of sisters in assembly meetings, and the practice of observing the symbols of Headship in 1 Cor.11; – in some of their publications "traditional" assembly practice has been ridiculed in an intemperate and vituperative manner.
- 14 See Romans 16.
Disruption of fellowship and harmony amongst sisters in an assembly is no light matter. One instance of this required specific notice in an epistle of the apostle Paul. While we know not the nature of the problem between Euodias and Syntyche, it is evident from Phil.4.2 that this matter required rectification in the interests of the assembly as a whole.
Separation or Separatism?
It is clear throughout the Holy Scriptures that God requires His people to be separate from the ungodly world. This was true in the Old Testament and remains true still – Old Testament quotations are used in Paul’s epistles to strengthen the impact of the message. As we near the end of the first decade of the 3rd Millennium A.D., it is surely obvious that there is no longer much emphasis upon teaching or implementing the Divine call to separation.
What is to be done? Can biblical separation be enforced upon recalcitrant hankerers after the delicacies of Egypt or the fashions of Babylon?
It is tempting to suggest that the time is ripe for a whole-scale redrawing of the boundaries of what is defined as assemblies in our day, and cutting off whatever is not so recognised. This thought has occurred before amongst brethren and greatly contributed to the great schism in 1848 when the Exclusive Brethren divided the assemblies over the ‘Bethesda Question’. Amongst the ‘Open Brethren’ i.e. those assemblies that did not accept J.N. Darby’s ecclesiastical judgment on this issue, much variety of practice became evident as the 19th century drew to a close. Brethren concerned about a creeping acceptance of various unscriptural practices, including inter-denominationalism, women preaching, world-imitating fund-raising initiatives etc. were greatly exercised about what to do about such departure. Amongst these concerned brethren arose a forceful group who advocated out-right secession from the existing ‘Open Brethren’ assemblies, and the establishment (around 1893) of a fresh grouping of self-styled ‘Churches of God’ or a centrally governed federation of assemblies. This was known as the ‘Needed Truth’ system. A slogan of theirs was the need for ‘a second coming out’. It is easy to recognise the accuracy of their diagnosis of failure and declension amongst assemblies, but their cure (being unscriptural) is about as bad as the disease.
Mr. William Bunting (founder and first editor of Assembly Testimony) had a profound understanding of these issues, and his last booklet ‘Spiritual Balance’ is a most able and judicious treatment of these important issues which now face assemblies as forcefully as ever before. Exclusivism and Needed Truth-ism are both weighed against the Scriptural standard and found wanting. The standard for biblical separation is upheld as a positive and rewarding goal, as well as the corollary of forsaking worldly and unscriptural principles and practices. This valuable pamphlet should be eagerly read by all who seek the well-being of assemblies today. A study of Malachi’s prophecy should act as a dissuasive from the tempting illusion that some kind of ‘second coming out’ may be a Scriptural solution. In the Old Testament the post-exile community had already come out of Babylon and were separate from all that was found there.15 Not all Israelites had taken this step. Those who did so had faced much hardship and difficulty, as the narratives of Ezra and Nehemiah make clear. There was the subtle move by the adversaries to pose as fellow-seekers after God who wished to help build the House of God. This ploy was wisely rejected: "Ye have nothing to do with us to build an house unto our God" Ezra 4.3. But the opposition that ensued was bitter, unscrupulous and unrelenting. Nehemiah’s later arrival to co-ordinate rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem inflamed the opposition even more. To make matters worse there were now elements amongst the Jews – even including priestly leaders who had sympathy and affinity with the enemy. Nehemiah chapter 13 tells how Nehemiah had to deal with this sorry situation. Of particular concern to him was the growing tendency to spiritual apathy and even forsaking the House of God, Neh.13.11.
15 See "Back from Babylon" by W. Rodgers, John Ritchie, Kilmarnock, n.d. for further studies.
Malachi’s prophecy is set in the time immediately following Nehemiah chapter 13. The Name of the Lord is emphasised and occurs ten times in Malachi. There was by this time a general decay in conditions and few among the priests were concerned to "give glory unto My Name" and but a remnant of the people who "thought upon His Name" or "fear My Name". Despite the prevalence of unacceptable standards of worship, chapter 1, and breakdown of family morality, chapter 2, we find no exhortation for the faithful remnant to come out and form a separate company. They had already separated from Babylon. They were now in the place of His Name. Whereunto or to whom could they now separate? The conditions in Malachi and Laodicea are often compared and rightly so. Yet in neither place is the formation of a new company enjoined. Mr. W. Trew said, "The ministry of Malachi brought into being a remnant within the remnant of the people of God."16 This remnant was characterised by fear of the Lord, and regard for His Name. The Lord promised special remembrance and recompence of such, Mal.3.16-18. We find members of this remnant early in Luke’s Gospel. Zechariah and Elizabeth, Anna and Simeon are all marked by love for the House of God and expectation for the Messiah.
16 W. Trew, 1967 unpublished notes of ministry on Malachi.
The answer to today’s problems is not to be found in an unscriptural separatism, but in Bible-directed separation. This begins at an individual level. Take for example the individual exhortations to Timothy and to Titus: there were things to be avoided, and things that were recommended. Compliance with these apostolic injunctions demands individual exercise. An assembly cannot transcend the spiritual stature of the individuals in it.
It is especially important that the positive side of separation be stressed, i.e. to what are we separated? This can be effectively illustrated by studying the Old Testament history of Israel. The camp of Israel was special because of the One Who dwelt in the midst of it. That is why there could not be an ‘anything goes’ ethos amongst God’s people.
In Numbers 24.2-5, the impact of Divine gathering of God’s people according to His pattern was not lost on Baalam, and in 1 Cor.14.25 it retains a salutary effect upon observers still. Thus even the outsider feels the truth of Matt.18.20. Of course there is a negative side to separation i.e. from what are we separated? This must be increasingly stressed in times when pressure to shift toward unscriptural mixture and amalgamation is surging in many assemblies. Nevertheless let us retain Scriptural balance. Mr. Albert Leckie once recalled an old brother wisely saying "you cannot feed the Lord’s people on purgatives."
Problems Concerning Assembly Discipline
The New Testament assembly has authority to carry out discipline upon those in its fellowship. Nowadays we see a spirit of rebellion against authority in every sphere of life, and the local assembly is no exception. The various modalities of assembly discipline are detailed elsewhere in this book. Conflict however may arise when attempts are made to subvert or overturn Scriptural discipline in an assembly. This may arise when the offender has close family ties to others in the fellowship who demonstrate familial loyalty rather than loyalty to God and His Word – which would require acquiescence in godly order that full recovery might be the happy outcome. This can be a difficulty in small assemblies, or in larger assemblies where numerous members of an extended family manifest clan-based rather than Scripture-based values. External interference to undermine or subvert the Scripturally authorised process of assembly discipline is also Scripturally unwarranted and fraught with peril, regardless of how prestigious the intervening person or group may seem.
Is there not a lack of the fear of the Lord in such cases? To shield the guilty from due investigation and discipline in the House of God is a serious matter. Obduracy in such a scenario is very grieving to faithful believers and godly overseers who have Scriptural obligations to deal with the issues. Obstruction cannot be overcome by mere fleshly ingenuity. "The wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God" Jms.1.20. The Lord is able to judge and intervene when everything that can Scripturally be done has been attempted. Therefore it is well to be found on the side of right, and not implicated in bearing the iniquity of others. A good conscience in assembly matters is of incalculable value – even if it means being in an unfashionable minority. Covered-up evil is defiling, and this will certainly have a bad outcome – if not sorted out in time, then it will face a fiery exposure in the coming day, 1 Cor.3.11-17. It is the solemn duty of overseers to uphold Scriptural standards – whatever opposition may ensue from inside or outside the assembly.
If we believe that the New Testament reveals the doctrine and pattern for local church testimony, then we may find ourselves obliged to contend for this aspect of doctrine. The "faith once delivered to the saints" is to be contended for, and that with all possible diligence and alacrity.
When it comes to defending doctrine such as the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation of the Son of God, the Atonement, Justification by Faith etc., there is almost universal approval amongst assembly-based believers for efforts to maintain these doctrines. However, it is the present author’s impression that nowadays when the Scriptural truth of the local assembly is being attacked, there is a pervasive tendency to react with a passive or even defeatist attitude. Furthermore, those who would seek to contend for the goodly heritage of Scriptural teaching on assembly matters are often neither thanked nor encouraged for so doing. It is very easy to be misunderstood on these issues. Peace and unity amongst brethren must be a major priority. But there is only one basis for this blessed ideal. Weakness and passivity in the face of the workers of falsehood encourage further iterations of the aggression-appeasement vicious cycle. So what is to be done? If we must contend, how do we do it?
One could set forth with a Stakhanovite17 tenacity to tackle any deviance in doctrine or practice and ultimately be unsuccessful - despite impressive outward achievements. The church at Ephesus had commendable zeal, yet their problem was that they had left their first love Rev.2.4. It was this mismatch of zeal without love that actually threatened the very continuance of their assembly. There is always the risk that "contending for the faith" could decay into mere legalism-fuelled strife. Let us avoid that. Remember the advice to Timothy in 2 Tim.2.24-26, "The servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; and that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will." Contention for the faith without descent into strife: that is the great desideratum.18 "Strive" is the word for fighting or quarrelling19, and is not used in a good sense in the New Testament. Timothy was not to get involved in such behaviour. He was told to be gentle20; a word that makes us think of the approach required for nursing infants.
17 Heroic dedication by Soviet workers to over-achievement of production targets: named after Stakhanov, a Russian coal-miner glorified by Stalin for record-breaking output.
18 2 Tim.2.24-26. The epistles to Timothy and Titus are the best manual on this. For valuable expository and practical insight the reader will benefit from reading "Spiritual Balance" by W. Bunting.
- 19 Macheomai is the word in 2 Tim.2.24. The word "strive" occurs four times in this chapter in the A.V. In v.5 it is athleo, used of an athletic contest in the public games: in v.14 it is logomacheo a compound of ‘word’ and macheo meaning ‘word-fight’.
20 This word "gentle" (epios) is used in only one other N.T. reference, also to Timothy. 1 Tim.2.7 "But we were gentle among you, even as a nurse cherisheth her children."
Moving up the age-range we note he is to instruct those that oppose themselves: the word "instruct" referring to education of children, with chastisement as required21. "Apt to teach" gives us the English word "didactic" and reminds us that Timothy’s mission was not only doctrinally based, but that he was set upon ensuring that Pauline (i.e. Scriptural) doctrine was inculcated into the believers among whom he served. "Patient" is a word that challenges us all. Timothy is asked to be forbearing and to endure evil things in the prosecution of his task.22 The inclusion of "meekness" in this passage surely directs our thoughts to the meekest man of all (with the exception of the Lord Jesus Christ), Moses, who had to put up with so much bad behaviour, ingratitude and rebellion throughout the great trek from Egypt to Canaan23; a story that is full of instruction for contemporary problems in God’s assemblies.
21 Paideuo is used of the Roman penal system administering a ‘light’ punishment, e.g. a public flogging Lk.23.16,22; of Saul of Tarsus being ‘drilled’ in the school of Gamaliel Acts 22.3; of Paul’s apostolic discipline of Hymenaeus and Alexander for the sin of blasphemy 1 Tim.1.10; of the instructive effect of God’s grace upon the believer’s behaviour and outlook Tit.2.11-12; and of God chastening His children Heb.12.5-11.
22 Anexikakos only occurs here in the N.T. One thinks of a teacher controlling a class of bad teenagers while patiently adhering to the syllabus and preparing them for the exam.
23 We are encouraged to learn vital lessons from studying this Old Testament narrative, for Paul informs us in 1 Cor.10.11 that under God’s sovereign plan, "all these things happened unto them for ensamples, and they are written for our admonition."
Bleak indeed seems the prospect that Paul depicts for Timothy’s career as a man of God. The sorrow of seeing Christians depart from Scriptural doctrine and practice; the chagrin as he watches emerging groups24 that oppose apostolic truth; the impending onslaught of persecution: these are but some of the circumstances facing Timothy after Paul’s death as he continues a life of service to God among His people. It is enough to make the stoutest heart quail. The Scripture gives us no promise of improved conditions in our own day. So we must be wholly cast upon Divine resources for help, as human solutions will certainly fail.
- 24 It is striking that much of the contemporary "Emerging Church" fits so neatly into the adverse descriptions about which Timothy and Titus are warned.
Separation from the World - Study of the Word
Timothy is called to separation. This is the dominant theme of 2 Timothy chapter 2. Separation is essential if Timothy is to be ready to every good work. Timothy’s grasp of the Word of God is the dominant theme of 2 Timothy chapter 3. Detailed knowledge and assiduous study of God’s Word is essential if one is to be thoroughly furnished unto all good works. Note that Timothy started young. "From a child" he had been nurtured in Scriptural teaching. Paul makes no mention of Timothy’s pals or his youth group. His sort of upbringing nowadays would draw disapproving glances from numerous professing Christians, including certain amongst assemblies who seem oblivious to the snares of contemporary social networking, whether internet-based or not.
These twin prerequisites for following in Timothy’s example of service are just as pertinent today as in the 1st Century A.D. It is better to read these two chapters carefully and apply them candidly to oneself than to engage in unwise self-comparison with our contemporaries in today’s assemblies.25 Let us rather reflect upon our attainments when we try to be imitators of Paul and his apostolic band, for according to Philippians 3.17 this is the true measure of comparison. Let us also beware of any slippage that would make us conformable to the characteristics of those portrayed in Titus 1.16. They are described as being "to every good work reprobate"; i.e. subject to Divine disapproval of all that they do.
25 2 Cor.10.12 "they … comparing themselves among themselves are not wise."
Satan and God’s Assemblies26
- 26 This was the title of a series of challenging and still very relevant articles by Mr. W. Bunting, in Assembly Testimony’s first two years of publication, 1952-1953.
The sphere of our conflict in this dispensation is the "heavenly places". It is against the spiritual wickedness of Satan and his hosts of principalities and powers. The Ephesian letter is doctrinally focused on "all saints" rather than on specific teaching about local church testimony, so for details about Satan’s targeting of local assemblies we must turn to other passages. Nevertheless, it is necessary, as individual believers, to avail of the resources and exhortations outlined in Ephesians, e.g. not to give place to the devil, especially by nursing a wrathful attitude to fellow-members of the Body of Christ, 4.26,27; and by putting on the whole armour of God so that we might stand and withstand in the onslaught of the devil, 6.11-13.
Scripture enables us to identify doctrinal errors, human failings and sinful attitudes that lead to conflict in assemblies. But it also shows us that behind all these secondary causes there lies the Evil One who is always seeking to damage or destroy that which glorifies God. Divine testimony has always been attacked by Satan in every dispensation. In this dispensation of grace, it is the church of God that is the pillar and ground of the truth i.e., the monument of witness to God’s truth. For every figurative description of the assembly in the New Testament (husbandry, temple, espoused bride, flock etc.) there also exists a danger of attack or damage. We are not ignorant of his devices, says Paul in 2 Cor. 2.11. At least, having the whole New Testament before us, we ought not to be ignorant. But sadly we must admit failure sometimes to recognise the working of Satan for what it is. Subtlety and disguise are key features of Satan’s working. Paul warned the Corinthians of the Serpent’s subtlety in corrupting their simplicity – like an attempt to seduce a chaste virgin who has been betrothed, 2 Cor.11.1-4. The angel of light guise can be adopted to suit his evil purpose, 2 Cor.11.14.
Internal division-making causes turbulence in assembly life and is warned against in Rom.16.17-20. Note that the division makers whom we must avoid are operating "contrary to the doctrine that ye have learned". It is not those maintaining the apostolic doctrines who cause division – but the innovators whom Paul identifies as "having good words and fair speeches that deceive the hearts of the simple". But the peace-degrading agency of Satan lies behind such developments. Hence the encouraging promise "And the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly."
Division is a hallmark of the flesh. There are three New Testament words that are used for division amongst the saints. Two of these words are well known in their English form, i.e. heresy, hairesis, and schism, schisma. The third is "dichostasia" meaning "split, or divided in two". All three words are used in connection with the situation in the Corinthian assembly.
"Hairesis" indicates the idea of choosing a particular line of teaching, and the word was used amongst the Jews in New Testament times to describe the various sects amongst Judaism, e.g., Pharisees, Sadducees etc. In common with "dichostasia" (rendered "seditions") it is labelled a "work of the flesh" in Gal.5.20. "Schisma" indicates the rending of something asunder27 as of a garment, Matt.9.16, and of the division amongst the Pharisees, Jn.9.16, and Jewish people generally in their reaction to the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ, Jn.7.43; 10.19.28
27 The same root gives the Latin verb "scindo-scindere-scissum" Compare the English word "scissors".
28 This illustrates that a Hairesis may be subdivided by a Schisma (the Pharisees being divided in Jn.9.36).
The Corinthian assembly is a case study in these problems. There was a failure of like-mindedness. This led to "contentions"29, or "strifes", which manifested initially as factionalism, with differing parties professing allegiance to Paul, Cephas or Apollos, with a further group who declared that they were "of Christ" – as though they had some special title to do so. Strife is a work of the flesh, Gal.5.20, and along with divisions, dichostasia, is symptomatic of carnality, 1 Cor.3.3. Strife proved to be a persistent problem in Corinth, for when Paul was writing again, 2 Cor.12.20, he highlighted the presence of "debates" (i.e. strife) as one of the features that drew forth a further threat of apostolic disciplinary intervention. Schism in Corinth did not entail overt secession from the assembly, but is something that Paul appealed against, "Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions [schisms] among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment" 1 Cor.1.10. It is indicated in 1 Cor.12.25 that schism would negate the mutual care for one another that should characterise the assembly as representing the body of Christ. The schisms mentioned in 1 Cor.11.18 are not necessarily divisions over the same issues as mentioned in chapters 1 and 3. Here the emphasis is rather upon a rich versus poor dichotomy marring the Remembrance Meeting.
29 Greek = eris.
Chapter 11.19 is the only mention of heresies in Corinth. This too is listed as a work of the flesh, Gal.5.20, and seems to be a developmental outgrowth of schism.30 The fact that the development of heresies was going to characterise the future history of the church is here prophesied, and so indeed it turned out (see also 2 Pet.2.1). This led to open secession from the assembly as John mentions in 1 Jn.2.19, "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us." Paul also alludes to the prospect that the troublers in Galatia might "cut themselves off" from the assemblies there, Gal.5.12. Jude v.19 describes certain elements as "These be they who separate themselves, sensual, having not the Spirit." Paul’s information about the problems in Corinth came in part from the house of Chloe, 1 Cor.1.11. This was not the tittle-tattle of a busybody, but akin to the laudable action of Joseph who "brought unto his father their evil report" i.e. concerning his brothers’ bad behaviour, Gen.37.2. Paul was in a unique position with respect to Corinth. Firstly he was the primary gospel pioneer and founder of the assembly there. He also had a special Apostolic accountability to the Lord for how the Corinthians got on in the things of God. Coupled with this was special Divine authority and enablement the, "rod"31, which he was beholden to use, coercively if necessary. In view of the Judgment Seat of Christ32 we find Paul very burdened about how to handle this situation. It was personally most painful, 2 Cor.2.4. We might have supposed he would make haste to Corinth to sort everything out. Yet he knew that this would have entailed casualties, and being in a relationship more like a father than a mere instructor, he loved them33 and wishing to spare them the rigours of a disciplinary visitation he decided to take other measures that were calculated to produce the same restorative outcome.34
- 30 Arthur Pridham put it thus: "Men cease to cleave to one another, and gradually fall asunder [schism], through defect of divine love and the activity of individual will. They reunite, in sects or parties, by the operation of particular sympathies; and inasmuch as minds of a dominating power and capacity are too commonly tainted with a pride which frets against the positive restraints of Scripture, it has happened, not unnaturally, that the term "heresy", which properly means only "a selection" has come to be a universally accepted designation of false or antiscriptural teaching." Page 262 of "Notes and reflections on the First Epistle to the Corinthians" by Arthur Pridham, 1860, London, Longmans & Co.
- 31 1 Cor.4.21 a figure of speech for his Divine authority to wreak discipline upon them, compare Acts 5.1-11.
32 1 Cor.4.4-5 "He that judgeth me is the Lord, therefore judge nothing before the time." See also 2 Cor.13.5-7.
33 1Cor.4.15 "For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel."
34 2 Cor.12.21; 2 Cor.1.23; 2 Cor.13.2.
He dispatched Timothy to Corinth.35 He asked Apollos to go there too, but he declined to go right away, 1 Cor.16.12. Most important for us, he wrote them an epistle. This had an immediate beneficial effect, 2 Cor.7.11, but some further matters required a second epistle, so that in God’s wisdom and providence we possess two epistles to the assembly at Corinth which are of the first importance for doctrine and practice regarding local assembly matters ever since. The normative value of these epistles for all locations is implied in 1 Cor.1.2: "with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord", and again in 1 Cor.11.16, "If any man seem to be contentious36, we have no such custom neither the churches of God". That they are normative for all time is implied by Paul’s insistence that the things he writes are the commandments of the Lord, and that acknowledgment of this is a test of one’s spirituality, 1 Cor.15.37.37
- 35 1 Cor.4.17; 16.10-11 Timothy was going to remind them "of my ways which be in Christ, as I teach every where in every church."
36 "Contentious" philoneikos, loving a dispute, here only, but the noun is found in Lk.22.24 as "strife" where the disciples were quarrelling about who should be accounted the greatest.
37 2 Pet.3.15-16 equates Paul’s epistles with all the rest of Scripture — a remarkable confirmation.
Timothy and Titus both had intimate connection with Corinth during this period and being (Timothy especially) trusted colleagues of Paul, he could delegate critical and sensitive matters to them. We may be sure that Timothy would never forget his experience with Corinth. Paul’s later advice to him in 1st and 2nd Timothy would, in many instances, remind him of situations he had seen in Corinth. As Paul looked forward to the end of his life, he knew that in Timothy he was leaving behind someone who was going to face all sorts of assembly problems without those special powers which the apostle had, but whose authority was going to be derived from the written Word of God. Those following Timothy – whom he was bidden to nurture and identify were to be faithful men who would receive and transmit the apostles’ doctrine to others also, 2 Tim.2.2. Holy Scripture was their resource in dependence upon the Living God (to whom the assembly belongs –1Tim.3.15) and their own godly example would enable moral authority for leading the people of God.38 That is the true ‘Apostolic Succession’, not the mythical and mystical Episcopal succession of Christendom. Conscious of the special problems of setting up an effective transition from the initial age of apostolic presence and power, we see Paul use providential wisdom in adopting his chosen methods with Corinth so that we might have those two epistles – which Paul himself knew were "the commandments of the Lord" and which were (as all his epistles) explicitly acknowledged as such by the apostle Peter, 2 Pet.3.16. His deployment of delegates like Timothy and Titus in specific ‘trouble-spots’ also served this purpose in developing their own experience and dependence on God and His Word for those later times when the apostolic age had ceased. Paul’s farewell discourse to the elders of Ephesus exemplifies this emphasis. He commends them for all future problems to "God and word of His grace" Acts 20.32. That is exactly the same resource as persists for us today. Likemindedness, that quality whose lack in Corinth lay at the root of so much trouble, is the great preventative of division and all its sequelae. Paul places it as a priority for the Corinthians at the start of the first epistle, 1 Cor.1.10, and closes the second epistle by emphasising it again, "Finally, brethren, farewell. Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you" 2 Cor.13.11. Thus the entirety of Paul’s letters to Corinth seems to be sandwiched between these two great exhortations to likemindedness. This is surely of great relevance today. How can we achieve this? It cannot be attained by social gatherings (which didn’t work in Corinth) nor by following dominant personalities; this was unsuccessfully tried in Corinth (see 2 Cor.11.13-20). Likemindedness is generated by common love for the Lord Jesus Christ – hence the closing anathema upon any who love not the Lord Jesus Christ in 1 Cor.16.22, and in the study of the Holy Scriptures it becomes apparent through the work of the Holy Spirit that "we have the mind of Christ" 1 Cor.2.16. May we conform ourselves to this goal.
- 38 1 Tim.4.12, compare also Peter’s advice to elders in 1 Pet.5.3 to be "ensamples to the flock."
External persecution of an assembly of God’s people can arise, and the tempter Satan may use such tribulation to try and destabilise the faith of the saints. This is what happened in Thessalonica, 1Thess.3.3-5. In Smyrna where an assembly of God was in a place "where Satan’s seat is" the persecution is directly attributed to the Devil: "the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days" Rev.2.8-11. From this we learn that Satan is the ultimate sponsor of persecution, rather than the mere humans who appear to lead the attack; that trial or testing of the saints is an important feature of the persecution, but that God retains total control, (the Thessalonians knew that they were "appointed" thereunto and the Divine limit on the Smyrna persecution was ten days), while the reward for faithfulness is great.
Leaders amongst God’s people have always been a particular target of Satan in every dispensation. David’s error in numbering the people is an Old Testament example, 1 Chr.21.1. Assembly leadership is carried out by men who are described as "elders", "overseers" (‘bishops’ in the A.V.) and "shepherds or pastors". These face dangers that include "being lifted up with pride", which is particularly relevant to the "novice", while an overseer who lacks a good report of them that are without may fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. See Acts 20.17-35, 1 Tim.3.1-7 and Titus 1.6-9. The opening section of 1 Peter chapter 5 is devoted to encouraging assembly shepherds. They are exhorted to avoid "being lords over God’s heritage", and in common with the younger Christians are warned to be sober and vigilant "because your adversary the devil goeth about as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour" 1 Pet.5.1-9.
The home life of believers is also a target for Satan. The conjugal relationship is mentioned specifically in 1 Corinthians chapter 7, and the role of sisters in guiding the house and bringing up children is dealt with in 1 Timothy chapter 5. Both these areas of life fit today’s criteria as ‘my private life’, yet even here there can be an adverse impact upon the assembly if Scriptural norms are ignored, for it may afford Satan an opportunity to "get an advantage of us". The current drift of public policy towards strident opposition to God’s Word on every aspect of marriage and family life makes it all the more imperative for Christians everywhere to adhere simply and faithfully to the wholesome words of Scripture on these matters. If we capitulate to doctrinal error in these matters, e.g. by teaching the permissibility of divorced persons remarrying while the original spouse is still alive, we ally ourselves with the liberal teachings of much of Christendom, and bring into God’s assembly some whose lives are a standing reproach amongst decent people in the world. Allowing personal hardship stories to influence our reading of what the Lord Jesus Christ and the apostles mandated may appear compassionate, but it does not avoid reproach, rather it multiplies ‘loopholes’ for all sorts of tangled and wrong relationships to be ‘recognised’ by assemblies. The assembly of God’s people is not governed by a charter of ‘human rights’. It is particularly worrying that anti-discrimination legislation may be used by ill-disposed persons to litigate against assemblies which seek to retain Scripture as the standard of morality. Recent cases of Christians punished for the display of Bible references that testify against homosexuality suggest a turbulent future for Bible believers both individually and as assemblies.
Troublesome Elements in Assemblies
The assemblies in New Testament times had problems with troublemakers. How did this happen? Initially, the fear of God was such amongst His church that as a result of God’s governmental dealings with Ananias and Sapphira, it is recorded, "of the rest durst no man join himself to them" Acts 5.13. But it is not long until Paul warns of "false brethren unawares brought in" Gal.2.4. This implies action by those already within, who were deceived as to who they truly were receiving. These false brethren are both passive, having been brought in, and active, they "came in privily" i.e. they knew exactly what they were doing and had a strategic goal to achieve. This was "to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage." They were prepared to learn the details of Christian doctrine for an ulterior purpose, i.e. the spiritual enslavement of the Christians. Such is the way of error-mongers amongst God’s people. The Judaisers threatening the Galatians had no time for the charter of Christian liberty embodied in the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with its clear proclamation of the "plight of men and the power of God"39 and the abolition of any works-merit contribution or other human effort that might be obtruded before God to obtain justification before Him.
39 This was the title of an excellent little book on Romans 1-3 by Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones.
The threat today is just as dangerous. The great liberating truth of the Gospel was the basis of the Protestant Reformation. The key concepts were "Sola Scriptura, Sola gratia, Sola fide" [Scripture alone, by grace alone, by faith alone].40 Nowadays there are many voices amongst evangelicalism that would distance themselves from this position. Not a few have come forth from assemblies and now find themselves in leadership roles in the so-called ‘Emerging Church’. Sadly it is to be feared that even now amongst some assemblies there are sympathisers with this modern, or rather post-modern vogue for soft-pedalling or denying these key facets of God’s truth.
- 40 Later Reformation scholars speak of the Five Solas by adding Solo Christo and Soli Deo Gloria [by Christ alone, and for God’s glory alone]. Merle d’Aubigne’s historical works on the Reformation are still an excellent introduction. See also William Cunningham’s "The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation" – a 19th Century Scottish Presbyterian work that is untainted by modern liberalism, and very accurate in its succinct theological analyses.
At the end of the apostolic period, Jude v.4, warns of those who have "crept in unawares". He identifies them, not by naming their affiliations with first century sectarian groups which would make it difficult for us to identify them today, but rather by their features as exposed by the light of Scripture, so that they become easy to spot when we study the history of the Truth of God and its enemies down through the ages of Scripture history.41
41 More than one commentary on Jude is entitled "Acts of the Apostates": a useful subtitle for this epistle which provides us with a Divinely inspired "rogues gallery" so that we may take heed. In the ways of error there is nothing new under the sun.
When such people leave an assembly it is often an indication that they have failed in an attempt to push the assembly into compliance with their own error-ridden agenda. Though their departure may be acrimonious, it is a cause for thanksgiving, for as Paul himself said in Gal.5.12, "I would they were even cut off which trouble you" Gal.5.1242.
- 42 The verb being in the Middle Voice indicates Paul’s desire that the troublemakers would themselves act to sever all links with the Galatian believers.
1 Jn.2.19 and Jude v.19 have already been noticed in this connection.
Even amongst the leadership of New Testament assemblies, difficulty was predicted. Paul warned the elders of Ephesus in Acts chapter 20 that trouble would afflict the flock from the entry amongst them of "grievous wolves". Note that these men were called overseers, "Take heed to yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers" Acts 20.28. These elders were overseers, and also shepherds – the task of "taking heed to all the flock" is a shepherd’s job.
As if trouble from without wasn’t bad enough, he further warns them of difficulty arising from within. "Of your own selves" i.e. from the ranks of the elders/overseers "shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them." Accordingly, when it comes to identifying candidates to become overseers/elders Timothy is specifically warned to "lay hands suddenly on no man", as there may be a danger of associating himself with discreditable men whose sins "follow after" 1 Tim.5.22. It is notable that the assembly at Ephesus gets special commendation for its cautious approach in detecting and rejecting false apostles and in hating the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, Rev.2.6. Clearly they were endeavouring to act in the light of Paul’s warning in Acts chapter 20 and in the epistles to Timothy, which would be especially treasured by the Ephesian church since Timothy was at Ephesus when Paul wrote to him.
The end of the New Testament period provides a sad example of how the apostle’s warning in Acts chapter 20 was fulfilled in one un-named assembly. The conditions in 3rd John show an assembly suffering under a dominant, perhaps even totalitarian figure, called Diotrephes. The epistle is written as a personal letter to Gaius to encourage him and notify him of a possible apostolic visit, and to exhort him not to react to the unfair situation by embarking upon a wrong course of action. Gaius needed to be reminded, as do we, that even in frustrating assembly circumstances, the ends do not justify the means. The apostle John had already written to the assembly, but this had been rejected by Diotrephes, who had no time for the apostles. Not only did he refuse John and the other apostles, but he made it his business to excommunicate those who would receive them, while he reserved the right to issue slanderous gossip about these honoured servants of God. Diotrophes promoted factionalism with the cultivation of personal loyalty to himself, mingled with intimidation of those dissenting.43 The assembly appears to be divided, with Diotrephes heading a faction referred to as "them", while Gaius and Demetrius with others are referred to as "us" – because of their faithful support for the doctrine and person(s) of the apostles. Most interesting is the fact that Gaius is not told of any way whereby he could stop the career of Diotrephes. Perhaps John might sort out the situation when he came, but specific action is not promised, rather that "if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words" 3 Jn.10. Gaius is commended for receiving and encouraging true servants of God, thus becoming "fellow-helpers to the truth" even though it was known to upset Diotrophes, 3 Jn.8.
43 Ephraim Venn wrote an excellent outline of this epistle, reprinted in Precious Seed in 1954 issues 5-6. It first appeared in the "Witness" some 50 years earlier, and was probably written in view of prevalent tendencies to assembly division that were alluded to in other "Witness" articles of that period.
The Modern Trend
Learning from J.N. Darby and the Newman brothers
Rationalistic infidelity has been a major enemy of Scriptural truth since the mid-seventeenth century. Its rise to prominence coincided with a reduction in the virulence of Papal power to crush the Reformation and extinguish gospel liberty throughout Europe. It is interesting to note that in the early 19th century when the truth of assembly gathering was being revived, J.N. Darby found it necessary to write against the modernism of his day. His book "The Irrationalism of Infidelity" was a rebuttal of his former friend F.W. Newman’s "Phases of Faith"44 which narrated how he became an apostate. J.N. Darby also wrote a brilliant critical analysis refuting J.H. Newman’s "Apologia pro vita sua". J.N.D.’s work is still of much interest, for J.H. Newman is highly popular with contemporary ecumenical Roman Catholicism.45 With incisiveness decades ahead of his time, J.N.D. noticed the co-operative spirit that could exist between rationalistic infidelity and Romish idolatry. This still operates today.
44 F.W. Newman was at first greatly influenced by J.N. Darby, fellowshipped with the brethren, and even joined A.N. Groves, Lord Congleton et al. on the first "Brethren" missionary expedition to Baghdad. However, he abandoned the faith and became apostate. " It is remarkable that, as soon as he had got thoroughly infidel, Mr. N. could get on good terms with his brother, [i.e. J.H. Newman, later Cardinal Newman] who had got thoroughly papist, and not before. This tells a tale few are prepared to believe. It is a sign, too, of the times." — J.N.D. in "The Irrationalism of Infidelity" page 125.
45 J.H. Newman was one of the leaders of the Rome-ward Anglican movement called the "Oxford Movement". Having professed an evangelical conversion in his youth, he drifted ever farther from Scriptural truth till he ended as a Cardinal in the Church of Rome. He remains important, being cited by Romanist authorities as having a profound influence on the thinking of the Second Vatican Council, and now is but a step away from getting canonised by the Pope as a fully-fledged "saint".
In 1957 Mr. W. Bunting warned of ‘the final confederacy’ between Modernism and Romanism being behind the ecumenical rush towards the emergence of Mystery Babylon the Great, and noted the statement by the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism concerning Modernism amongst the churches, "we must recognise that for many years it is but a step over [sic] in the road to Atheism".46 Fifty years later, we see the decline of Modernism and the development of a semi-romantic, subjective, non-rational approach to Christianity. This post-modern ethos is central to the burgeoning phenomenon known as ‘the Emerging Church’. It is time we recognised that just as Modernist ‘Christianity’ was a step in the road to atheism, so post-modern ‘Christianity’ is a step in the road to paganism, for it denies the exclusive truth-claims of Holy Scripture and willingly explores any form of ‘spirituality’.47 Young Christians, and the not so young, are exposed to this through popular Christian books and magazines, not to mention the blight of many contemporary ‘Christian Music Groups’ who specialise in promoting contemporary forms of ‘worship’. Their ‘worship’ is more analogous to the cult of the Golden Calf48 with its ecstatic licentiousness than the Divinely ordained pattern of priestly worship pertaining to God’s House.49 The decline of interest in the Word of God and its diligent study is a worrying trend. No amount of ‘Christian events’ will have a wholesome outcome if not focused on Scriptural doctrine. Entertainment and edification do not go together. Companies of saints that fail to grasp this will not keep their identity as New Testament assemblies for long.
- 46 Assembly Testimony 1957, No.30.
47 See D.A. Carson "Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church" 2005 Zondervan, and Roger Oakland "Faith Undone" 2007 Lighthouse Trails Publishing.
48 1 Cor 10.7 "the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play."
- 49 A so called ‘School of Worship’ now exists in Belfast designed to promote artistic creativity and teach practical skills (sound systems, lighting, recording etc.)in staging ‘worship’ events. The sceptical reader may consult the November 2007 issue of "Life Times" published by Ambassador Productions Ltd, Belfast. No doubt Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3) had a prestigious ‘School of Worship’ for his ‘band’ and ‘worship leaders’ to co-ordinate the rousing of the crowd to experience ‘awesome worship’.
God’s assembly is not a place for fun. Yet it is much more enjoyable than the ‘fun’ that could be generated by any number of ‘Emerging Church’ practitioners. In the days following the 1859 revival when so many new converts obeyed the commandment of God regarding believers’ baptism and assembly gathering, it was common for them to express how great was their joy at being privileged to meet with God’s people according to His pattern. Older believers can recall impressions made upon them when still young by hearing the recollections of these now long-departed saints concerning their introduction to God’s House and how precious and joyful this was to them. Do we enjoy being in assembly fellowship? If not, then we must ask "Why not?"
Glad to be Associated with the House of God?
Gladness is associated with God’s house and the fellowship of saints therein. This is not some dubious mystical ‘Christian Hedonism’ which has become so trendy in our day50, but the appropriate response of redeemed persons who have been brought into the only place on earth where the Lord is in the midst, i.e. the local church, "there am I in the midst of them" Matt.18.20, also called the Temple of God 1 Cor.3.16. The most prestigious of all the titles of the restored Jerusalem in Ezekiel is Jehovah-Shammah meaning "The Lord is there" Ezek.48.35. It is because the Lord is there that God’s dwelling place amongst His people is a centre for joy and gladness. That presupposes gathering unto Him, away from all extraneous influences and entanglements that can defile and corrupt. But the separation is the result of attraction to the person of the Saviour, not merely repulsion from unholy things. Going to God’s House was a matter of great joy and gladness for Old Testament saints, some examples are seen in Ps. 42.2; 43.4; 122.1.
50 A contentious and misleading notion propagated by J.Piper, a pro-charismatic Baptist Pastor from Minneapolis USA whose chief book on this subject is called "Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist" (1986).
Have not we in this privileged Dispensation of Grace even more to rejoice about when we review our high calling and our holy centre of gathering? Let us be thankful for every spiritual blessing wherewith God has blessed us in Christ Jesus, and endeavour to conduct ourselves in His house according to the pattern revealed in His Word so that on-looking angels might see object lessons in Divine order 1 Cor.11.10; Eph.310, and even unbelievers will acknowledge "that God is in you of a truth" 1 Cor.14.25.