The Church: A Symposium - J.B. Watson


HOLY Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so runs Article VI of the formulary of the English establishment. It cannot be emphasized too much that Holy Scripture is the sole authority in all matters that concern the salvation of men, and it is equally true that Holy Scripture is the primary authority Governing the personal and corporate life of the Christian. It pleases God to incorporate into the Church each person who receives His Son by faith, and no small part of the spiritual well-being of every Christian is bound up with the recognition of the Obligations involved in sharing with others the common salvation and with the response he makes to the wise ordering by which God has seen fit to set the solitary in families. This being so, it is reasonable to expect that everything the Christian requires to know in order to obey God in these corporate relationships will be found in The Book.

The majority of ecclesiastical writers, however, do not agree that Holy Scripture is the sole fount of authority for Church polity in its local and visible form. They affirm, on the contrary, that such a view ignores the developments in the life of the churches since apostolic times; that it does not take account of the presence of the Spirit in each age and stage of the church’s history; that it denies that the numerous existing forms of church government are parts of His varied guidance, and that it is putting back the hands of the clock to attempt a return to apostolic days for a pattern of church life and order. They give equal, yea, greater regard to sub-apostolic traditions, the writings of the Latin and Greek Fathers and the decrees of church Councils. They interpret Scripture in the light of history instead of interpreting history in the light of Scripture.

It is curious how in things divine the natural mind prefers to accept secondary authority when access is open to the primary source. Why should we base our practice on sub-apostolic times when that of apostolic times is before us? The apostles, divinely inspired, are surely to be preferred to the teachers of succeeding generations who had no such infallible inspiration. Besides, the apostles forewarned their contemporaries of the secret working of evils which would become more manifest in the churches after their day. It is easy to forget how quickly there was departure from the faith once delivered to the saints, and propose to ourselves as a pattern of excellence some later age in which there was deterioration and departure. To treat Holy Scripture as secondary and prefer to follow the intricacies of the traditions of the Church is surely to follow the error of those who in our Lord’s day, by their regard for men’s traditions, made the commandment of God of none effect.

Departure from apostolic principle and practice was, it is repeated, very rapid. They have turned aside quickly out of the way’ was the true testimony of God against Israel when they made and worshipped the golden calf. Nothing is more remarkable in man than his propensity for moving rapidly away from the clearly expressed will of God and adopting as an improvement some self-evolved substitute. The mode of government – pure Theocracy -given to Israel of old did not long satisfy them. They desired, like other nations, to have a visible head rather than retain God as their invisible King. Their request for a king angered God, yet He gave them a king in His wrath and warned them how greatly they would be impoverished and oppressed by their new and self-chosen form of government. The analogy in church history is extraordinarily complete. Not long were the churches of the saints content each to depend upon an invisible Head in heaven, but desired, like other organizations, to have a visible head and Government. Grieved, the Lord did not forsake His own, or withdraw His Spirit, though already in His Word He had forewarned the churches of the ravages and loss they would incur if they so acted.

Is Scripture incomplete ? If not, why should Scripture be treated as insufficient for this so important a phase of Christian truth and life? Is it likely that writings which contain all things needful for ordering the individual believer’s life, will afford only partial and inadequate instruction for Christians in their corporate relationships ? Nay, we are assured that we may turn to the Holy Oracles for all needful instruction to enable us here, as elsewhere, to answer to the will of our Lord.

Therefore, if tradition and history be at all considered let them stand before the tribunal of the Living Oracles. As we see in history the simple churches of the New Testament passing to monarchical forms of government, see individual churches confederated into almost world-wide association, see that association recognized by the State, see its officers formed into a class standing apart from the ordinary Christian community, see ecclesiastical princes exercising jurisdiction over widely confederated communities, see this confederation broken and again broken, and set the sundered portions each arrogating to itself the name of Catholic, let us use the torch put into our hands in the sacred Word to enable us to discern and decide whether these things are developments having Scripture warrant or departures from Scriptural principle.

We start, therefore, from this point: that Holy Scripture is the supreme and sufficient authority and fountain of truth as to the constitution, nature and polity of the Church. And the enquiry to which this book endeavours to supply an answer is: What 1ight is there to guide a seeker after the Lord’s mind as to his obligations as a member of the company of the saved? Does Scripture teach certainties about the Church and the privileges and responsibilities of the individual within it? Enquiry along this line discloses that a surprisingly large part of the New Testament is devoted to the subject and that the relevant passages lay foundations, state truth and set forth principles upon which may be built an obedience pleasing to God.

This being so, let the mind be formed by the truth set forth in the Scriptures. Let us decline to be impressed by that which lacks the authority of a word of the Lord. Let us cease to be influenced by hoary traditions, by centuries of history, by claims to privilege, by learning, wealth, numbers or social eminence. Let no theory of development through the ever-present guidance of the Spirit be accounted tenable which justifies practices and associations contrary to the Word of the Lord. Instead, let us be ever asking ‘Is there any word from the Lord?’ What word is there concerning the polity, functions, and witness of the companies of believing men and women meeting together in Christ’s Name in this place and that? It is in this spirit that the theme of the Church is approached by the writers who have contributed to this book.

It is essential to a right consideration of this subject that the magnificence of the New Testament concept of the Church be apprehended. In the Epistles to the Ephesians and to the Colossians the view of the Church which is His (Christ’s) Body is set forth. It is there seen as the ideal, invisible, indivisible, inviolable company of the redeemed of the present age. None but the truly regenerate have part therein; none save the elect partake of its blessedness. Failure and defection are unknown to it; into it the pretender and the hypocrite cannot come; breach or division it cannot know. Its unity is unbreakable; its calling and glory heavenly; its relationship to Christ holy and intimate and its destiny bound up in Him in splendor inconceivable.

Through the centuries of our era each marching generation but brings a contribution to it. While historically its members are being called one by one and incorporated into it, in its completeness and glory it is ever before the eye of God. Indeed, it has been in His heart from before all time. From their heavenly vantage-points the angelic orders observe it and are impressed and enlightened concerning the manifold wisdom of it’s divine Architect. Through the swift-ebbing years of this age Christ Himself is its builder, adding stone to stone to this Temple exceeding magnifical, Himself the while abiding that day when at last complete, sanctified, beautiful, spotless, and radiant with His heavenly glory it shall be presented to Himself and taken into the full enjoyment of an eternal association of blessedness, the features of which are at present undisclosed.

It is said that Cologne Cathedral took nearly a thousand years to finish, generation after generation of craftsmen adding each their own parts, spending their lives one upon this, another upon that portion of the vast structure and only the last of them were privileged to look upon it in its completeness. After this fashion are the gifts, given from the Risen Head, being employed in the building of the Church. Each servant contributes his little share and passes on: ‘not one of them has grasped in its entirety the grandeur of the divine Builder’s concept nor seen what the final perfection will be. His duty is but to spend himself in the task assigned to him as a steward responsible to the bestower of the gifts imparted for the perfecting of the saints, unto the work of ministering, unto the building up of the Body of Christ: till we all attain unto the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a full-grown man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.’ This perfect (teleios) man is that one new man whose creation is spoken of in Ephesians 2. 15 as the purpose of the death of Christ: it is the Church, the Body of Christ, in its mature perfection.

No circle or federation of visible congregations can express this Church, nor does Scripture ever contemplate them as doing so. Even were all the Christian congregations in the world at any given time included in such an organized, visible unity, that unity would not set forth the Body of Christ. The very term ‘body’ demands organic completeness : it follows that until all the members are historically incorporated and until they are together manifested with Christ in glory, the glory of His return, the Church which is His Body cannot be seen by the world. The aggregate of the saved who may be alive upon earth at a given moment are some-times called in theology the Church on earth. Holy Scripture never so calls them.

What provision, then, has been made for the life of believers considered corporately The New Testament answer to this question is The Church of God. This expression is applied to a company of believers gathered together in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ in the locality in which they reside, for worship, fellowship, prayer, mutual edification and evangelical witness. This name or title, which is found nine times in the New Testament is on each of those occasions used, we judge, to indicate a local congregation of believers, a conclusion verifiable by an examination of the various contexts. The churches in a district or province are not regarded as being confederated into one union forming the Church of that region, but each congregation is regarded as pre-serving its own administrative identity. So we read of the churches of Judaea, the churches of Macedonia, the churches of Galatia, but not the church of Judaea, etc., etc. Each church is administratively autonomous, subject to no control by outside authority, Synod, Metropolitan or Hierarchy, but directly responsible to the Lord Jesus Christ for obedience to His Word.

But, it will be objected, is it conceivable that the founder of Christianity did not intend His Church to be a vast, powerful, worldwide organization-influencing mankind by its united action and Christianizing civilization by its teaching and example? To such an enquiry the reply must be that Scripture never so presents the Church, never so conceives her purpose, does not legislate for such a society or provide for the ruling hierarchy which such a confederation would render necessary. It follows that either the provisions and directions of Scripture are incomplete or that this idea of the Church on earth is foreign both to Scripture and the mind of God. What, then, is the mind of God as far as the witness of the churches to the world is concerned ? Surely this : That all the world shall be evangelized: that in each place those born anew through the preaching of the Gospel shall become the church in that place: that these churches, their lamp of testimony lit by the Lord, their Spiritual endowments the gifts of His Spirit, their spiritual condition His care, their continuance in being His pleasure, shall be corporate witnesses to His presence, power and grace each in its own place; that through the spiritual labours of those who go forth in obedience to His command a people called out from the world for His Name shall be won.

If it be objected that a form of witness apparently so sporadic and uncentralized cannot hope to achieve the conversion of the world, the reply is that Scripture does not contemplate the conversion of the world in the Church age, but on the contrary clearly teaches that not until the age that succeeds the present, when Christ shall have returned in power and glory, will the world as a whole receive, acknowledge, and serve Him.

If the criticism is made that the plan indicated lacks legislative definiteness, the answer is that divine methods are always such as are practicable only to the spiritual. That is no reason for abandoning them and substituting human expedients whose machinery is obviously designed to make dependence on spiritual resources less needful. All through the Christian age a minority of believers has endeavoured to carry out in corporate life these Scriptural principles. The bitterest and most implacable opposition has come to them, not from the world, but from organized Christendom, that is the system men call The Church. By this powerful organization they have been in turn oppressed, misrepresented, persecuted, reviled, ridiculed, and ignored, but their persistence from century to century has supplied proof of the practicability of the principles they professed.

We hold that Scripture makes no provision for a central authority having jurisdiction over a circle of churches, but that each church should be administratively independent. The internal ordering of each church is to be the care of those within it, raised up and fitted by the Lord for this work. The company of the saved in each place is to be directly responsible to the Lord and His Word in all matters of doctrine and fellowship, but to decrees, creeds, encyclicals, or formularies imposed by external authority they shall not be required to submit. They will dwell in a fellowship of unity one with another, but its bond will be that of a common obedience to the same Lord and subjection to His Word, not that of conformity to decisions laid on them from without or that secured by creeds or governmental forms laid down by representative councils. The unity thus exhibited will be one of the Spirit the effect of which towards the world will be that which only the steady pressure of truth manifest in life can produce.