If a company of Christians is dying out, does that mean that there is something wrong in principle with it?
Increases or decreases in numbers do not necessarily prove much at all. It is an historical fact that the Church as a whole expanded rapidly in numbers after the apostles’ departure although there was at the same time a clear departure from the faith (see 2 Tim. 1: 15). Similarly in Israel’s history, when Hezekiah celebrated the Passover there was a great coming together, though the after–history suggests that with the majority the revival was not one of the heart (see 2 Chron. 30: 13; 33: 10). Again, the NT Scriptures speak of “difficult times” (2 Tim. 3: 1) as we approach the end of the dispensation, when many “will not bear sound teaching” (2 Tim. 4: 3), and there will be a proliferation of “false teachers” (2 Pet. 2: 1), “ungodly [persons]” (Jude 4) and “antichrists” (1 John 2: 18). The path of the man of God in such a day is to purify himself from these dishonourable vessels and to “pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace, with those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Tim. 2: 22). This may entail a much reduced circle of similarly exercised saints with whom one can enjoy the elements of fellowship.
One of the marks of a healthy company of Christians is a wide spread of ages. The apostle John writes to little children, young men and fathers (see 1 John 2: 13), and while it is clear that he is referring primarily to these in terms of spiritual growth, there can be little doubt that in his day there would be an accompanying parallel in the stages of physical maturity. Again, Paul speaks of “elder men”, “elder women”, “young women” and “younger men” (Titus 2: 2–6), and “your children” (1 Cor. 7: 14). A company that is composed primarily of older persons is liable to find its very existence under threat. In many places there is a grave need for new converts to be “baptised for the dead” (1 Cor. 15: 29)—that is, to replace those now with the Lord.
To some, the question before us is one that dare not speak its name. They say that we are not to be taken up with “the number of the people” (see 2 Sam. 24: 2) but be occupied with the Lord instead. Now while this is clearly right, it should not be used as cover for avoiding any consideration as to whether Jehovah “hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land” (Hosea 4: 1). If we will not even entertain that possibility, then our spiritual state is truly pitiful, and our imminent ecclesiastical extinction justly deserved. The apostle John speaks of the present time as being “[the] last hour” (1 John 2: 18), but he also speaks of fellowship (see 1 John 1: 3), and it is clear that what is collective will go right on to the end. The mistake with some is to assume that they are that collective position (all others being in schism), and that their little group (despite a relentless reduction in numbers) will survive until the Lord comes. The Word of God gives no such assurance. The assumption of being right (and it might even be humbly felt), is no guarantee that it is so.
The fellowship that John refers to in his epistle is “with us” (v3). Who are the “us”? Clearly it is the same as the “we” of verses 1 and 2—John and the other apostles who “have seen, and bear witness, and report to you the eternal life” (v2). We first read of this fellowship in Acts 2: 42, when those converted on the day of Pentecost “persevered in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles, in breaking of bread and prayers”. Other ‘fellowships’ may expand and contract in numbers for all kinds of reasons, and may even disappear entirely, but this fellowship goes right on to the end. Will it be a small company? Probably—but a small company is not the same as a company that is dying out. If we are dying out, then we need to seriously enquire whether our collective position is based on a sure foundation. The apostles’ fellowship was not simply a society of like–minded Christians—it was governed by the apostles’ doctrine. Not most of the apostle’s doctrine (as if we can jettison the bits we dislike, or think unfashionable in the present day), or, the apostle’s doctrine plus some traditional teaching that we have added to it—“what is delivered by yourselves [to keep]” (Mark 7: 9). No, it was “the faith once delivered” (Jude 3)—nothing more and nothing less. Ask yourself: Is what you have the real thing or only an approximation to it? If the latter, then you should not be surprised if God allows it to whither.
God has only one company before him in the present day—the Church (Israel being set aside). Any fellowship we find, is, essentially, only so many individuals walking together, and must take account of the company already formed by God. That company will not die out, but if we attempt to set up some kind of model company alongside it, we must not suppose that that has the same guarantee of longevity.