The Question of Association

I turn aside for the present from the question of the doctrine of Christ, not as if there were no more to be said about it. There are counter charges and later developments which cannot be ignored; and I do not mean to ignore them. But already it will be seen that another matter has to be looked at in the light of Scripture, in order rightly to settle how far-reaching may be the guilt of the denial of Christ’s Name. We have had in fact to refer just now to the question of association; but its importance demands a much closer examination, both to see how Scripture treats it, and that we may realize its moral significance also: this, of course, as Scripture puts it too. It is a question which is in such intimate relation to the whole character of things to-day as deeply to concern us all; and Scripture is distinctly against principles which are so inwrought into the whole texture of society to-day as to make it difficult to gain the attention of Christians for what is adverse to them Yet "the world passeth away; . . . and he that doeth the will of God abideth forever."
The association of man with man is a divine necessity. The institution of the family recognized it from the beginning. The difference of capacity in men brings them necessarily together, the lack in one being met by another’s efficiency. Union means ministry of each to each; the need of it being a most helpful discipline, the supply of it an appeal to affection and gratitude. The Church of God is an organization in which this principle is fully owned; a union founded upon both difference and unity: a body which is built up by that which "every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part." Sin which has come in is everywhere, however, that which transforms all good into evil: the greater the good, alas, the worse the evil. The union which obtains so largely to-day is mere confederacy; we may often call it indeed conspiracy. In it the individuality which God's union always provides for and maintains is interfered with, conscience is oppressed, evil is tolerated for supposed final good, morality is superseded by machinery. God's word as to it by Isaiah is: "Say ye not, A confederacy, to all them to whom this people shall say, A confederacy; neither fear ye their fear, nor be afraid. But sanctify the Lord of hosts Himself, and let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread." (Isa. 12, 13.)
Whether it be fear or whether it be greed that inspires the motive, the true fear of God is surely the one remedy for it all. This fear is the effectual purgation of all union from the evil which, if it be admitted, soon dominates and controls it; or else it sets God's free man loose from this control. Walking with Him, we cannot hold out the hand to him who refuses His will as sovereign. The end must be His end, and the way to it His way. To seek to join God with evil is only profanity.
Necessarily therefore our associations are of the greatest possible importance. They witness to the path on which (whatever our profession) we are ourselves walking. We can only "follow righteousness, faith, love, peace, with those that call on the Lord out of a pure heart." Scripture is full therefore of warnings and instructions upon this. In the Church of God, where our relationship to one another is of His establishment, not of our own will, it is inevitable that the reconciliation of holiness in our ways with the eternal bond that unites us with one another should cause serious perplexity. The world in which the Church is, is its entire opposite, and the evil in it is ever appealing to the kindred evil in the saints themselves. Its hostility is not so much to be dreaded as its friendship : its peace is nothing else but covert war. Between its "prince" and our own not even truce is possible.
Already in the apostle's time the epistle which gives us the order of the Church of God shows us this threefold influence at work upon it, The wisdom of the world, the lust of the flesh, the power of Satan, were already invading the sacred inclosure; and the apostle has afresh to stake off its boundary-lines and to repel the intruder. The foundation doctrine of the resurrection was being denied, and bringing their whole profession of Christianity into question. If such things could come in so soon in Corinth, as it were in the very presence of an apostle, how can we expect better times and to be permitted to escape necessary warfare? It is in his second epistle that he insists so earnestly that the yoke with unbelievers forfeits the enjoyment of the relationship to the Father as he would have us know it. We must come out from among them and be separate, and not touch the unclean thing, and then we have the assurance, "I will receive you, and be a Father to you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty." The peril of evil association could scarcely be more emphatically affirmed.
But it has been said that this has only to do with unbelievers, and does not define our attitude toward the children of God. We shall have to look therefore at texts which speak of these. But before doing so, I would pause to deal with an argument which connects itself with such an objection.
It is urged that we must have direct Scripture, and not inference, to guide us in all these matters.
Now Scripture gives us principles, and not a perfect code of divine law; and it necessitates inference at every step. Inference is inseparable from a rational life; and God Himself condescends to "reason" with His creatures. "Come, and let us reason together, saith the Lord." The argument against reason in the things of God has been carried to lengths which are as unscriptural as they are irrational. Where does Scripture decry any God-given faculty that man has? Nowhere. In speaking against what God has given, we speak, necessarily, against the Giver. Revelation everywhere honours God as the Creator by honouring His creation.
Sin has come in and perverted every faculty; but the work of God here is to purify and not destroy. When the soul begins to realize its relation to God, reason becomes most reasonable in accepting its creature-limit; and rationality pervades the life and character of the new man in Christ. One might as well say that if we have light, eyes become no matter, as decry reason in the things of God. It is only in the light that eyes are of use.
But moreover, God tests us by this very exercise of reason,- holds us responsible for having have our eyes open, and to use them honestly. This "exercise" the apostle speaks of as being what he found necessary, in order to have "a conscience void of offence toward God and toward man" (Acts xxiv. x6). Exercise shows the man morally and spiritually awake; and by it he is kept in health and vigour. God therefore insists upon the necessity of this, and acts with a view to its being maintained. Scripture is so written "that the man of God may be perfect" ;- not all the world, and not the drowsy and sleep-loving among Christians. Now let us apply these things to the apostle's words to the Corinthians, and we shall see that the refusal of such texts as having to do with fellowship among Christians is at bottom unspiritual and immoral. Does the principle involved in the question, "what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?" apply only to a yoke with unbelievers? Suppose we are all believers, may we accept a yoke with a believer, which implies that such communion is possible?
God is the same in His holiness, and in the requirements of His holiness, for one as for another, for saint and sinner alike: only that the sin of the saint is worse than that of the sinner, in proportion to the difference of light, and the grace which he has received. Thus then the unequal yoke may apply fully to a yoke between Christians, if one of these be allowing in himself the "unrighteousness" which cannot be gone on with in the unbeliever. Because men will not "infer," that in no wise hinders the just judgment of God as to the matter. The consequences of our acts will as surely follow as if we swallowed poison in the belief that it was wholesome food. How many have in fact found the disastrous effects of alliances, whether social, commercial, or religious, which they have permitted themselves to contract under the pacifying illusion that they were lawful because on both sides Christian How many, so deluded, have woken up to find that after all, the question in the prophet was a much deeper one than they had thought: "Can two walk together, except they be agreed?" In what various ways these principles affect our life is easily apparent. Wives go with their husbands in that which they believe wrong before God, because the scripture, "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord," is supposed to release them from all moral responsibility. "Children, obey your parents in all things,' is similarly quoted to reverse the moral nature of things, and set the earthly tie above the divine one. We are told too, that we have no Scripture warrant for judging assemblies, when, if it be true, the sins of these are not to be accounted and treated as sin elsewhere is. All these are the fruits of an immoral principle, as should be plain. And how can those who advocate and practise such things escape the woe of the prophet upon "them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter"? (Isa. v. 20.) The eternal principles of God's government are against them; and the immutable holiness of the divine nature.
To return, however, to the Scripture-teaching as to association.
The second epistle to Timothy gives us the last word of the apostle Paul, when the Church was already far gone in declension. There is no more talk of the Church as the "house of God," as in the first epistle. Though it was, no doubt, still that, he compares it rather, on the one side, to a "great house," with its vessels even for dishonourable uses; on the other, as it would seem, and in perfect moral congruity, to a house in ruins, of which still, however, the foundation stands. Notice the inscription on the foundation-stone: "Nevertheless, the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are His." Precious assurance! but what does it indicate? What but that the Church was lapsing really into "invisibility," save to the Eye of Him who can never fail to remember every one who in whatever feebleness has committed himself to Him for his salvation. But on the other side, what is the inscription ? Just when all the difficulties of the path are being fully apparent,- just when evil might seem to have prevailed, and some laxity to be aimost unavoidable,- the clue-line for the path through all the tangle is found in this direction, simple as can be, straight as the undeflected ray of light, stable as the glorious throne of God: "And, let him that nameth the name of the Lord DEPART FROM INIQUITY."
Yes, thank God! here is the clue-line: here alone is absolute safety assured us. Let a man keep fast hold of this,- let him commit himself to it unhesitatingly, no matter what the question he is called to decide, individual, social, religious,-no matter what the issue may be,-no matter what may threaten him,- he may find his path through a desert-solitude, up over the most rugged mountain, down in the valley of death-shade, yet "the path of the just shall be as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day." Yes, because the light of heaven is upon it.
Notice how the sacred Name that we have been thinking of is here: if one but name "the Name of the Lord "- so the editors read it,-the Name of Him to whom, in the face of man, he is to be subject- then he must depart from iniquity (unrighteousness). But what is unrighteousness? What is righteousness? Ah, you can only measure this aright as you think of the place in which the blood of Christ has put you,-of the grace that has been shown you, and which you are to show,-of the blessed path in which you are called to follow Him: here assuredly, simple as is the principle, you will find its working out to be enough to give you plenty of exercise from day to day.
But let us go on with the apostle:
"But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honor and some to dishonour. If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified and meet for the master's use, and prepared unto every good work. Flee also youthful lusts; but follow righteousness, faith, love, peace, with those that call on the Lord out of a pure heart." This shows us the disorder, and the rule in a time of disorder, both with regard to separation from the evil, and with regard to association with what is good. "Those that call on the Lord out of a pure heart" are clearly the same as those who "naming the name of the Lord, depart from unrighteousness"; and thus the man who purges himself from vessels to dishonour, finds his own class. But a question here arises, which I think has not been sufficiently considered: are the vessels to honour and the vessels to dishonour the only two classes here? If it be only those who purge themselves from the latter who belong to the former, then it is certain that all unpurged must be classed as vessels to dishonour, or there must be a third class, simply left aside, as not meet for the Master's use: a solemn condition in either aspect!
If it be asked, Are we to apply this to fellowship in the assembly? there is manifestly no exception. The following of "faith, love, peace," with those purged from evil associations, implies that the unpurged cannot be in the assembly. If these are unfit for the Master's use, they cannot have their place there where each and all are plainly to be used by Him, The members of the body are by the fact of being such in responsibility to edify one another. If they are unfit for this, what disqualifies them for the one thing, disqualifies them for the other. If they cannot call on the Lord out of a pure heart, in what way can they call upon him? The assembly, if of one mind with the Lord, has to affirm His judgment. The principle is again exemplified here: "What fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness?" The form of statement of it, put thus as a question, implies the clearness and positiveness of the answer. Every one's conscience, if it be right itself, is expected to respond.
Fellowship must be really such. It is the voice of the "Holy and the True" that is heard here. Let evil be sanctioned by one or many, fellowship with Christ must cease. We cannot walk with God, and go on with sin.
Thus Corinth with the incestuous person in the midst, was leavened by their guilty allowance of it:
They had to purge the leaven out by self-judgment and separation from the evil, that they might be a "new lump." They were not, in their then condition, a new lump. The leaven then was in the lump, not in the individual merely. In Christ they were unleavened; and they must represent in their practical condition what grace had made them positionally to be. This is a well-worn topic; and yet it needs still to be insisted on: for people still venture to say that, despite the allowance of evil in their midst, Corinth was yet unleavened. And if it were not, some add, it would be too late to purge out the leaven. The last assertion carries the figure far indeed, and denies the power of divine grace for every condition that can be found among the people of God. Yet it is true that there seems to have been something exceptional in the state of things at Corinth, which can be pleaded for no other assembly since. It may have been the fact that as to them they did not as yet clearly know what to do,-that as yet such a case had not been provided for. But they might have mourned over it before God, that "he that had done this deed might be taken away from" them. He gives them the command now as to it, that none might be able to say they had not this any more.
They were to put away from among themselves that wicked person. Some object to saying "from the Lord's table." In fact, it goes further, to say, "from among yourselves." To put away from the table simply, might for the careless be perfectly consistent with treating the person so dealt with as, after all, one of themselves in other respects. The apostle shows how much further it is to go, by adding, "with such an one, no, not to eat." There was to be a refusal of all association, such as even at an ordinary meal.
A leavened lump means something that in every part of it is capable of communicating leaven. That is, in fact, the idea in "old leaven:" it means a piece of the old lump which could be introduced into the new for that purpose. It shows us that every one who sanctions the retention of evil is really a "partaker" of the evil. He practically denies the holiness of God, and cannot therefore himself be holy. It is not any physical contact, of course, that has wrought in this case. It is a corrupt and corrupting principle, that would associate the name of Christ with His dishonour, and in that sense deny His Name. Thus the Philadelphian is reminded that He is "the Holy and the True." But holiness is lost in communion with evil.
Purging out the evil means separation from it. Here it is the assembly acting. In Timothy, he that will be a vessel unto honour must purge himself from the vessels to dishonour: that is, he must at all costs separate himself If the assembly stand in the way of this, then,- to keep a good conscience, he must separate from the assembly. In this, then, there is the judgment of an assembly, which some deny to be scriptural. And in this case, if we take part with him who has rightly separated himself, we, too, must separate ourselves; and thus judge the assembly. And if we do not take part with him, we are not with God.
We are forced, then, to judge; and to judge every individual in this leavened lump: to go with those who deny the holiness of God, is to be ourselves tin-holy; to deny the Name of Christ as the Holy and the True, is to cease to be Philadelphian.