The Assembly, in its Practical Working

We come now to consider the assembly itself in its living operation,- as filling (in the power of the Spirit, as alone it can) the place for which God designed it. This place it must, of course, fill, in order to satisfy and to be practically owned of Him; and the ruin of the Church, which all that have the mind of God must acknowledge, has not lowered His standard for it, nor set aside one word that has gone out of His lips. Gracious too, He is, and will be, or who could stand before Him? but this does not imply the toleration of even the least departure from His word, which would mean the giving up of His holiness and truth, and of His love itself.
That the Church has failed, miserably failed, is a solemn truth indeed; and this failure has altered largely the circumstances in which we are placed today, and encompassed our path with difficulties, while it has deprived us largely of the help that we should have gained from one another. But it compels no one of us to disobedience to the least word that God has spoken, nor deprives us of either the wisdom or power necessary to "stand perfect and complete in all the will of God." Difficulties are only means for us of realizing the more what He is for us : as the spies said of the gigantic enemies that Israel would be called to encounter in taking possession of the land that had been promised them, "they shall be bread to us": for faith is strengthened by those demands upon it which only expose the weakness and bankruptcy of unbelief.
We are to look at the assembly, then, according to the character which the word of God has given it, quite unhindered by any reasonings derived from changed conditions of the time in which we live. And the assembly of which we are now to speak is not the Church of God at large, but the local assembly: which in God's thought, however, is that which represents it in the locality, being those who alone can actually assemble, the practical gathering together of the members of Christ as such.
These members, were they gathered all together, would show us the whole assembly as the body of Christ, and thus each assembly is the body of Christ in the place in which it is: a divinely-constructed organization, that is - the only organization God ever owns as of Him, and all-sufficient to give us as Christians all that can be rightly expected or desired in organization.
Of this, more presently: the first thing we have to notice now is the individual members, who are spoken of individually in such terms as the whole body is. That is to say, as the whole body is joined together ond united to the Head by the one Spirit which pervades it all, and brings every member into living and practical relation with every other and with Christ,- so each individual also is in his own person a picture of the whole. Indwelt of the Holy Ghost, "he that is joined to the Lord is one Spirit," with this effect, that "your bodies are the members of Christ" (i Cor. Vi. 15, 17): each and the whole of every individual belongs to Christ, and there is no one, and no part of any one, permitted to be secular or self-controlled. Thus not only is the white garment of practical righteousness to cover us completely, but the "ribband of blue," the heavenly colour, is to be seen upon the borders of it, just where it comes in contact with the earth.(Num. xv. 38).
If we are not thus, in the sincere intent and purpose of our hearts, recognizing our whole lives as to be lived for Him,- our every faculty of mind and body to be His - ourselves taken out of the world by sanctification to Himself, to be sent into it again as His representatives (John xvii. i6-i5),- then the moral basis of all right fellowship is lacking with us,- of fellowship with Himself, and necessarily with one another. In this case we do not and cannot fill our places in the assembly, however much we take part with the rest in the meetings of His people : for the place is essentially a spiritual one, and can only be spiritually filled. Let us remind ourselves that there is nothing that is merely negative in our lives and ways, but that our Lord's words are true in particular as in general, that "he that is not with Me is against Me." If in any one habit or practice of our lives we are not with Him, we are in that respect against Him. We are in the miserable condition thus of being divided against ourselves, and as a consequence shall find a loss of vigour and competency, a lack of ability to make progress in the things of God, and even to stand in the presence of the enemy. It is as to things that (abstractly considered) were lawful enough, that the apostle marks off things that were "not expedient"; and immediately he adds, as applying to these: "all things are lawful for me; but I will not be brought under the power of any" (i Cor. vi. i2). Lawful things might thus develop a power to which even such an one as he might have cause to fear becoming captive.
Now here begins the question of fellowship with one another. Are we in true and whole-hearted fellowship with Christ ourselves? Have we no fence fencing Him off from certain portions of our lives? Has obedience with us no secret limitations? Have we no division between mine and Thine with Him, but do we know the blessedness of realizing that to have all ours His, is the only way ourselves to enjoy it and find satisfying sweetness in it?
Thus indeed will our bodies be the members of Christ. Our hands will be for His work, our feet for His errands, our lips for His communications and His praise. Our entire lives will be the expression of communion.
Now, whatever shortcoming we may have to confess in actual attainment, this, and nothing less than this, must be our honest desire and aim, or how can there be a walk with God? for how can He consent to other terms than these? would it be for His glory or our good, that He should do so?
Think, then, of what is implied in the "body of Christ," where the Spirit of Christ links all together in harmonious subjection to the will of the Head, and so in a living unity of the members with one another. And this is plainly the practical "unity of the Spirit" which the apostle bids us to "endeavour to keep." It is certainly not the unity of the body simply that he means; but it is assuredly the unity of that which makes it in any proper sense the body - the body fitted to Christ the Head. And this is what is to be seen in the assembly of God, if this is to fulfill its proper character,- a living, speaking, working unity of obedience, inspired by devoted love. What a testimony to Him of "two or three" gathered together in this spirit! and it was thus at the beginning, when it could be said that "the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul; neither said any of them that aught of the things that he possessed was his own": the true spirit at all times, whatever may be the difference as to the manner of its expression. Where something like this is not, already men have "their own things" to seek, and "not the things of Jesus Christ"; the various interests lead in various ways, the wisdom of the world comes in to secure them, and the door is opened for every kind of departure. It is only the sense of what is ours in Christ, where all have all in common, and the joy is but increased by sharing it with others,- ours, where all abides and no room is left for the cares which make man a weary worker for himself, the hardest of masters: it is only here that the heart is fenced from the close-surrounding evil, and fenced in for flower and fruit for Him who looks to find in us "the travail of His soul."
Thus we may again see why Philadelphians are emphasized as those that keep Christ's word. Communion can only exist where the heart is held by the revelations of God's grace; and the soul that is kept in communion is that which is sustained by the fresh manna, gathered every day.
The reading-meetings are thus a great test of the state of an assembly; for it is there, if things be right, that the knowledge gathered in whatever way is tested and made sure by that personal conference and comparison which help so largely in making it the realized possession of the soul. Here we may learn, too, if there be the freedom and candour of brotherly love, the needs to which the truth ministers, and the ability to use it for real edification. It is of immense value to test in this way how far we have got the truth, while by this means what has been learned by each is thrown into the common fund, to enrich the whole. Those who know least would be surprised to realize how much the questions suggested by their own need may help in various ways the very people who answer them. And this is only one of the many modes in which the waterer is watered - the minister is ministered to.
The reading-meeting is never, therefore, made needless or of little value by whatever multiplicity there may be of more detailed and connected teaching. Nay, all this creates a special need for the reading-meeting, in order that the food laid before the whole may be individually digested and assimilated. Here, however, any lack of nearness to and confidence in one another will be surely felt as a hindrance, and need of another sort manifested to those who have eyes to see.
"The children of this world are" indeed "wiser in their generation than the children of light." Persons brought into the inheritance together of large worldly possessions would soon realize the necessity of becoming acquainted with what they had so much personal interest in. How few are there who, in the case of spiritual wealth which God has made their own, have boldness and earnestness to lay hold of what is theirs by any means available to them! When, over sixty years ago, the Spirit of God began to move freshly in the hearts of His people to recover them to one another and revive the almost lost idea of the assembly of God, the reading-meetings were a marked and prominent sign of the awakened interest in His word, and that the people of God as such were awaking to claim for themselves their portion in it. No class of men could be allowed, however gifted, however educated and sanctioned by the mass, to stand between their souls and the possession of what was needed alike by all and designed of God for all. Now, alas, the decay of the reading-meeting means nothing else but the subsiding of that eager enthusiasm for the truth that then was, the lessened consciousness of the Spirit of God, in each and all His own, to give each for himself the power to acquire possession. The flood-tide is gone, and the diminished stream begins to confine itself to the old channels.
We need to proclaim again that God never designed "theology" to be for a class of theologians, but all the treasures of His word to be for all His people,- not a thing in it to be hidden, save from the eyes of the careless and indifferent, those who are willing to exchange their heavenly birthright for a mess of the world's pottage. We need once more to assert that teachers are only a pledge, on God's part, of His eagerness to have all to know,- not that He has restricted to these the possession of any kind of spiritual knowledge. Teaehers are only to show that there, in the living fount from which they drew, is the living water for all, as free for others as for themselves. They are only the truth of God's word made to stand out in blazon before the eyes of those who have not yet found it there where He has put it for them, and with this for a motto of encouragement to those who have faith in a God that cannot lie "Every one that seeketh, findeth."
The success of teachers is shown by their ability to make others independent of them; when men say to them as the Samaritans to the woman of Sychar, "Now we believe, not because of thy saying"; and in proportion as the Church of God by their means is made to realize its ability for self-edification. As the apostle says that Christ has given gifts unto men,- "some, apostles; and some prophets; and some evangelists; and some pastors and teachers, for the perfecting of the saints unto the work of ministry, unto the edification of the body of Christ, until we all come into the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man., unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. iv. i i-13). That is, the "work of ministry "-and this is left open to the largest construction - is what the saints as a whole are to be perfected unto. Every saint is free to "covet earnestly the best gifts" (i Cor. xii. 3!), and responsible to use all the ability that he has, of whatever kind, to enrich others with it. "The manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal" (verse 7); and if there are special evangelists, all are free and called upon, each in his measure, to evangelize; if there are special teachers, all are free and responsible to com-municate to others what God has given them of His truth. Love to each other, love to souls, is to have liberty and be encouraged everywhere.
How blessed would be an assembly of saints in this condition ! Every one realizing that the fullness of all spiritual knowledge was open to him to enjoy, - the best gifts were his to covet,- that he was, by the simple wondrous fact of his endowment with the Spirit, the ordained minister of Christ to the world, the ordained servant and helper of his brethren How intolerable is the thought of class restrictions to limit and hinder the grace of God in His people! Yet, alas, into which, sensibly or insensibly, they so readily sink down! The development of all gift is necessarily hindered by it; and this is largely the reason why so few among us are going forth to labour in the ample fields on every side, and why the gatherings develop so little strength and stability. We need not talk about a "laity," to have one. Let God's people sink down into indolent acquiescence in their inability for their spiritual privileges, and little gift of any kind is likely to develop among them. Those that can be fed only with the spoon are infants or invalids. On the other hand, where spiritual life is strongest we shall be most fully conscious of our need of one another. For spiritual feebleness means always a strong world-element, and occupations, aims, pleasures, in which as children of God, we can have no fellowship - can be no help to one another. Our spiritual links become proportionately theoretical, formal, sentimental. But where life is practical and earnest, its needs will be felt and the grace realized which has united us together. Life is, wherever we find it in nature, in conflict with death; and organization, which is its constant accompaniment, is the embattlement of its forces against this. Nor is organization a sacrifice of individuality: every part of the body is distinct from the rest, has its own work and responsibility; and only by maintaining this individuality can the welfare of the whole be maintained. Every one has a place to fill that no other can fill: every one is necessary. Good it is to remember this, as to ourselves and as to every other. If we forget it, we cannot by this escape from the consequences.
The Church of God is therefore an organization, the body of Christ,- the body on earth of an unseen Head in heaven. The body is always looked at as upon earth, just as the Head is in heaven; and thus, as governed by that Head, one with Him as joined by the uniting Spirit, it is His representative in the world, to be the expression of His mind, His will, His nature. This every individual is, of course; but that is not enough: it has pleased Him to link these individuals together: and thus even individual duty is not performed, if one's place is not filled in the body, of which we are part. There is to be an "epistle of Christ," (not "epistles," as it is practically often, sometimes actually, read) which, the apostle says to the Corinthians, "ye are." (2 Cor. iii. 3)
If then we are livingly linked together in such a manner, and for such a purpose, how necessary it must be that, as gathered together, we should habitually seek His mind, learn what He would have us do as yoke-fellows together, how we are to sustain and supplement each other in His service. The value of organization in this way seems, strangely enough perhaps, least appreciated by those who should know it best - by those who have had recovered to them by the grace of God the knowledge of His own perfect organization for such work as His, which demands the very utmost of our united energies!
"Organization "is every where appreciated among Christian workers in the various bodies of Christendom today: nothing can be done without organization. So abundant is the manufacture of them now, that they are in danger of becoming parasitical growths upon the bodies themselves from which they sprang, and of over - burdening at last what they were designed to buttress and support. There are in fact some very serious reasons for the distrust we have (some of us) learned to entertain of them. They are too loose and large in some ways - undisciplined and destroyers of discipline : all distinctive faith is in danger of being swamped, by many of them, through their loose association of the most contradictory elements, - converted and unconverted, Christians with the deniers of Christ, in an "unequal yoke" forbidden by God Himself under the severest penalties. (2 Cor. vi. 14-18.)
And then on the other hand, by their mere human artificial rules, they oppress the conscience almost equally, and substitute the will of the majority, or officialism, for the guidance of the Spirit of God. With all this we have learned so to link the very thought of organization, as to look upon every suggestion of it with more than suspicion as necessarily unspirithal and evil,-at least, outside of and so against Scripture.
But what then shall we do with the thought of the "body of Christ," which is most surely that of an organization, as it is also scriptural and divine? That common relationship which we have to one another binds us to "consider one another to provoke to love and to good works" (Heb. x. 24); with which the apostle conjoins the "not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is, but exhorting one another." Do not such words imply the opportunity given for more "consideration" of individual needs, and more occupation with the Lord's work among us, and that in our "assem-bling together," than is almost any where found among us? more than "open meetings" or reading meetings or prayer-meetings, as these exist among us, can unitedly supply?
Must not fellowship with one another be sadly limited in its range, if there is not fellowship in the Lord's work among us and around us? if there be no gatherings to consider this? and such not exceptional, casual, something supererogatory, as it were, but earnestly and heartily entered into as essential to our corporate duties, and thus to our right spiritual health itself?
Right and left of us, in all the denominations round, Christians come together to consider the Lord's work, and express their interest in and identify themselves with it. Is it a necessity laid upon us any where as two or three gathered to the Lord's name, that we should be cut off so largely as we are from all gathering together for such purposes? I cannot but believe that wherever such lack exists, it is a most serious one. It tends to make our interest in one another partial and exceptional; to deprive us of much of the good that should come of the differences that are among us which make mutual help so necessary, and in its ministry so serviceable in binding us together; it tends to make our Christian activities more desultory and feebler; to deprive us of many doors that would be found open to us; and to expose us to the reproach of being (as a whole) out of the way of usefulness. Why is it that those who have the gospel, it must be allowed, in a simplicity at least as great as anywhere, should be even capable of being assailed with just such reproaches? Why, in fact, have we been left so much behind in the evangelization of the world by others with much less light, but zealous in their cooperation with one another for such a purpose? Have we been too heavily freighted by the truth we carried? If it were dead truth, probably, but not if it were living Truth, that is known in the power of it, is "such a weight as wings are to a bird, and had we gone in the same zeal after the same class that these have sought, no ecclesiastical prejudice could have robbed us of the blessing. The hindrance, of whatever nature, has been something else than this. But again, has there not developed among us a dangerous tendency, on slight occasion, to break up?
Is it out of place to remind ourselves, that Philadelphia must be that - a "brotherhood"? Have we not failed in cultivating that spirit of brotherly fellowship of which the hand to hand occupation in the Lord's work is certainly a very important part? We have, no doubt, left room for the development of gift, and been unfeignedly thankful to see evangelists, teachers, and others raised up among us; but have we not lacked in seeking, in the way stated, to make the work of the Lord a matter of common responsibility and widest fellowship?
"Business meetings," even "brothers' meetings," will not fill this gap. We need something wide enough to take in all the Lord's interests on earth, free enough to give every one place in it, practical enough to concern itself mainly with home duties and responsibilities that lie upon us in connection with the places in which we live and the spheres in which we move day by day. We want something which will bring us continually into remembrance of our individual duties as the Lord's workers, be suggestive, encouraging, and helpful as to our fulfillment of them, fit us more together as really co-members of the body of Christ, make us realize His mind for us as a whole, and form it in us, give us practical wisdom for the days in which we live, that we may be like the men of Issachar who came to Hebron, to make David king, "who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do" (i Chron. xii. 32), - something that may develop all the truth we have into practical expression. I am persuaded that if the Church of God be, as it plainly is, an organizatior, we have yet to use it for all the purposes of an organization, and that charged with the responsibility of representing Christ, and being the practical expression of His mind on earth. And if we be but "two or three" in each place, instead of thousands, while acknowledging sadly, as we must, the broken condition of things, we are just as much responsible to show forth in our measure what the Church of God should be:- a living, united, working, cooperating membership; a body, moving in unison with the mind of the unseen Head, in the energy of the Spirit, which has formed and which inspires it. No one suggests that we can all read our Bibles at home, and that there is no need of our coming together for this purpose. Nor that we can pray in our houses and our families and have no need of prayer-meetings in the assembly. Why should the work-meeting, the means of communion in practice, be the only thing thought unnecessary.
Yet for lack of this, the prayer-meetings become vague, general, with little definite application to needs that are not known, and to service which is merely personal, private, or shared by few, with which communion is not sought, and little possible. Our reading meetings lack similarly the point of personal application, the freshness of interest which is supplied by the incidents of service unknown save to individuals. We are in fact, largely, individuals, touching each other at a few points, hidden from each other in most; save as personal friendships join us here and there, and which, without the larger interests to steady them, tend to form us into parties, and in times of pressure break us up into them.
How little do we "consider one another, to provoke unto love and to good works"! how pointless, from lack of knowledge, do exhortations of this kind fall! How little in general are we near enough to each in our inner lives to encourage or give opportunity to make them! Yet as children of God and members of Christ, we are in a relationship to one another nearer and more abiding than any other can be!
We need to draw nearer together as Christians practically, not merely theoretically. In the stress of the world upon us we need to take each other by the hand, and strengthen each other's hands in God. In the presence of evil we need to show, not a broken, but an embattled front. In a world away from God but over which His mercies linger, we need a more practical fellowship with the gospel, and encouragement to every one to take earnest part in ministering it. In all that concerns the Church of God we must have that which will give us better opportunity to know that we are "members one of another." And we need, as partakers of the mind of Christ, to give this more united practical expression.
Membership in the body of Christ means service: every part of a "body" is in necessary relationship with the whole, and there is no independency any where; each needs and serves and is served by the whole. God has acted upon this principle throughout nature; and nowhere more fully than among men. If "it is not good that man should be alone," God makes for him as a helper, not the repetition, but the complement of himself. He unites the weaker to the stronger, that even by this weakness his strength may be better served. She is given him to be ministered to, that by this she may minister to him also, drawing him out of himself, developing his heart,- a blessing which all he gives cannot repay. The needs and inequalities of men similarly have built up society by division of labour; and even the regions of the earth are thus helpful by the difference of their productions in binding together the nations of the earth. The city is the highest development of this principle; and if man departed from God built the first, yet God has prepared for His people the final one: a "city which hath foundations," and will abide.
Thus ministry is God's law of nature, as it is the expression of the nature of God Himself, which is love. "Love seeketh not her own;" "by love" we "serve one another." Love is freedom, happiness, the opposite of all legality, the spirit of heaven, conferring and reflecting blessing. And that fullest description of love which we find in Corinthians is enshrined in that of the "body of Christ" as its proper home and the means of its expression. Here the necessity of all parts to one another is just what provides for and makes necessary the constant out-going of love to one another. There are some small animal half-organisms that grow by division; but the higher the organism the more its unity is enforced by the abhorance of this. A part lost is not supplied again: the creature is maimed, and goes mourning for its loss, refusing substitution.
Such is the body of Christ then - the highest pattern of such fitting together that can be: and if but two or three can practically be together, this does not free them from the obligation to all the members. Love would abhor the thought of this as freedom. and it is only at peril to ourselves that we can act upon it. Love would indeed hold fast therefore the local expression of the greater thing, not set it aside for the unpractical and impossible; yet would it see that this did not in fact degenerate into merely partial, and thus sectarian, display. It would still look out and beyond, as partaking of the divine love towards all, and unforgetfulness of the tie existing. It would look out over the whole field of Christ's interests and identify itself in heart with all; seeking ever to widen the outlook and extend the sphere of practical sympathy. Prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings, would become ever with it more definite, while yet larger in scope, and more according to the apostolic, sadly forgotten rule, "for all men."
But more: did such a spirit animate us, we should come to see, perhaps, that there were other "divine movements" among Christians elsewhere; not less to be recognized as such because, mixed up with what was of the Spirit of God, there were elements too purely human, and that the enemy was striving to adulterate them with various evil. We should learn too that God had lessons for us, most practical and profitable, from all around, if we were only humble enough to learn from all sorts of teach-ers, and wise enough to be able to "take forth the precious from the vile," the imperative condition for our being "as God's mouth" (Jer. xv. 19). Doubtless we should find very frequently our own rebuke in it, and this would test us much: it would show whether we desired to believe that all wisdom was with us, and outside was only darkness; whether, like Gideon's fleece, the dew of the Spirit was with us wholly, and all the ground around were dry.
Not that it is meant by this to encourage a tendency to run hither and thither, which is in general but the expression of restlessness and want of proper occupation with our own things. Our feet are to be kept in a known path, and not allowed in doubtful ones. It is the heart that is to be enlarged, and not the path, which must ever be a narrow one. The spirit of the wanderer is one too little heedful of the way with God to be able to guide another into it. "Let him that nameth the name of the Lord depart from iniquity" is a word which, followed in the spirit of it, will keep one from every doubtful thing (which may, therefore, be evil) as well as from what is known as such; and from that also in which I may see the working of the Spirit of God, so long as it is yet mixed with that which I have to judge as contrary to His mind.
I would press upon my own soul what I press upon others, speaking from convictions which have been now a good while with me, and only increase with the lapse of time, that while we rightly gather together as worshipers, and hearers of God's word, we have nowhere perhaps, except fitfully and exceptionally, gatherings of the whole as workers under the Lord our Head, and to possess ourselves as such of His mind, wherever, however expressed, in all the largeness which we must recognize His mind to have. I believe such meetings to be necessary for the maintenance of true Christian fellowship in its full reality, with each other and the Lord alike; and to help to make the assemblies a living, intelligent representation, however feeble, of the "body of Christ."
I had purposed saying more, but have perhaps reached the limit of what the Lord would have at this time. Merely fragmentary and suggestive, these papers must not be supposed to ignore what else in the address to Philadelphia has been unnoticed. If He should be pleased to use them to bring the consciences of His people more into exercise as to what is surely a special word from Himself for the present day, the object will be attained.