Facing the Facts
Beloved friends, it is laid upon my heart to deliver a word of solemn warning, a warning so serious that I cannot keep silent. Like someone else long ago, how much more enjoyable it would be to be able to speak “of our common salvation” (Jude 3)! Current circumstances, however, demand a more painful message.
Let me begin with a sobering question: Why are so many of the meetings attended by the Lord’s people not prospering? It is a question that needs facing. Of course, Christians expect the Enemy to blow an ill wind upon them, but I do not think the answer lies there. I believe something far more solemn is involved, namely that the Lord Himself “hath a controversy with his people” (Mic. 6: 2). In such a day it is incumbent that we rise up and hallow ourselves (see Josh. 7: 13). Of course, like the proverbial ostrich we can bury our heads in the sand, and delude ourselves that all is well, but we ignore God at our peril. Recall the solemn message delivered to the saints at Ephesus––Ephesus of all places––“Remember therefore whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works: but if not, I am coming to thee, and I will remove thy lamp out of its place, except thou shalt repent” (Rev. 2: 5). Did they heed the word of the Lord? Sadly, no, for Ephesus has gone––the lamp was removed. Now these things are not written for nothing, mere snippets of interesting, but ultimately irrelevant history––no, indeed, they are “written for our instruction” (Rom. 15: 4). Are we, then, willing to be instructed?
Many other questions need addressing. Why has there been so much division among the saints? Why is there such a lack of spiritual power? Why do people bite and devour one another? Where are the young people? Why are our numbers haemorrhaging away? Why are so many taken up with material things? Why are you and I spiritually ignorant in comparison to our fathers? Yes, these are unpleasant questions, but they need to be faced. Too many of us are the kind of people who if they were on the deck of the Titanic as it lurched downwards would go to their deaths continuing to insist it was unsinkable! All right–minded people acknowledge that there are bright spots here and there, and how we rejoice in that, but at the same time it is undeniable that the general tenor of things is downward. ‘Oh, but we cannot expect anything else’ it is said, ‘for it is a day of small things’ (see Zech. 4: 10). That may well be, but such a Scripture was never intended to be an excuse for what is, in effect, a fatalistic and faithless course towards ecclesiastical oblivion!
Some want just positive things presented to them, but it is a thoroughly unbalanced condition of soul that wishes to hear just pleasant news. That kind of attitude is only a step removed from the disastrous situation described in 2 Tim. 4: 3: “For the time shall be when they will not bear sound teaching; but according to their own lusts will heap up to themselves teachers, having an itching ear”. What we need is our state to be addressed in its reality, not a useless ministry that merely recites what we wish to hear. Does not the Lord say “I rebuke and discipline as many as I love” (Rev. 3: 19), and “My son, despise not [the] chastening of [the] Lord” (Heb. 12: 5)?
The root of many of our problems can be traced back to ecclesiastical pride. We have been the recipients of much blessed truth, but instead of letting it humble us, we have used it to exalt ourselves. ‘Other’ Christians are perceived as relatively ignorant, and in our arrogance we are often surprised to find out how much they do know. We describe ourselves as ‘just simple Christians’ while secretly imagining ourselves to be at the elite end of Christendom. We can even be unaware of our pride, truly thankful for the light we have, while looking condescendingly on other Christians who seem to have been not so favoured. Of course, there are many who are truly humble, and we thank God for them, but if this word has offended you, then I fear that you are not among them. A true man of God knows his heart too well to deny that such proud thoughts never rise within.
How solemn then, in the very moment when the Lord is shaking us to our very core, to go on about our origin, our history, and our testimony, fascinated by everything that dwells under the umbrella of the collective name put upon us! To what should we be paying attention? Our silly notions of our ecclesiastical position or His dealings with us? Why do we not see that what we have taken a secret pride in, He is smashing to pieces? Some speak of the history of the testimony as if God had committed it to one, narrow section of His Church. Let it be stated plain and clear: if there is a corporate testimony, it is the testimony of the Church. If the Church has failed in its witness (and it clearly has), then the testimony becomes individual. Thus in a day of public breakdown in the Church, there is no corporate dealing with evil, only “Let every one who names the name of [the] Lord withdraw from iniquity” (2 Tim 2: 19). We may recognise other corporate bodies, but God does not recognise any corporate body apart from the Church (Eph. 4: 4). Even the local assembly in any given place is simply the local representation of the whole (see 1 Cor. 12: 27). How then can there be any corporate testimony of any other body? I am afraid many have no higher thought, collectively, than that they belong to a particular denomination that began a certain number of years ago––a very strict denomination perhaps, but nonetheless, still a denomination. Yet when such a thought is compared with Scripture we cannot find it––except as the wretched sectarianism that the Holy Spirit declares it to be.
Why is that we so often define ourselves by the name put upon us by men, and not by that put upon us by God? Is it not because we have a sect in our mind’s eye, instead of the Church of God, that instead of the heart being as wide as God would have it to be, it is narrowed by party–spirit? This is no better than the “I am of Paul, and I of Apollos ” so prevalent at Corinth (1 Cor. 1: 12), mere human wisdom that needs to be judged by the cross. In conversation together we talk lightly of the sectarian name put upon us by others, and though our fathers before us repudiated any such title, now we accept it as a matter of little consequence––it is only a name. It is not only a name! How could anyone with any comprehension of the oneness of the Church talk so easily and without conscience of that which sanctions its division when there ought not to be any (see John 17: 20–21; 1 Cor. 12: 25)? How could anyone claim to gather unto the Lord’s name (see Matt. 18: 20), and at the same time be happy to be called by another, infinitely inferior name? Does not such a careless attitude betray where we really are––that these things are viewed as really of little consequence? Does it not show that whilst the unity of the Church and non–sectarianism may be preached, in practice the very reverse is the case?
Of course, it can be objected that we need to call ourselves something, if only to give an answer to those who enquire––practical necessity demands it. In the days of the apostles it was quite sufficient to say that you met with those of “the way” (Acts 24: 22), called “Christians” (Acts 11: 26), those gathered together unto His name (see Matt. 18: 20). Today, however, the Christian profession has degenerated into a veritable Babel of names. Not only that, but the Enemy also has a multitude of quasi–Christian cults available in which he can deceive the unwary. Thus an unwillingness to give a name to our gatherings will rightly be regarded with suspicion. Some get round the problem by alleging that they are the Church (!), thereby rendering all not with them as in a kind of limboland––not of the world, but not of the Church either. This is a flagrant contradiction of the threefold division of mankind set forth in 1 Cor. 10: 32. Such arrogance is by no means confined to the Romanist, for Protestantism has quite a number of sects with over–inflated views of themselves. Thus with some, the church (or assembly) in a town is composed of those Christians gathered, as they see it, to the name of the Lord Jesus––in practice, those prepared to accede to their own distinctive (and sometimes downright peculiar) views. However, the fact that some saints of God do not assemble with us does not make them any less of the Church––whether it is viewed only in its local aspect or universally. The only Scriptural means for excluding such (all other means, by definition, being sectarian) is on the grounds of evil. Others prefer to describe their meetings as just that––‘meetings’. On the face of it, this seems both unpretentious and unsectarian, but even here the enemy has worked mischief, and simple ‘meetings’ have become ‘The Meetings’, and acquired a distinctive denominational connotation.
What of the slavish acceptance of the teachings of our fathers before us, and the condescending dismissal of others ‘not with us’? This was not always so. Once it was recognised that gifts were given, not to sects, but to the Church (see Eph. 4: 10–13). How far have we fallen! In some quarters it is viewed as virtually heretical to express a view that differs from the accepted orthodoxy––where the words of gifted men are put (unwittingly perhaps) on a par with the very Word of God! What a state to be in! We do not belong to a teacher or a company of teachers, however gifted and blessed they may be, but we belong to the Teacher Himself––the one come “from God” (John 3: 2). Nor are we members of Reverend So–and–So’s Church, but members of “the assembly of God” (Gal. 1: 13). Our origin is not a movement that began in this century, or the last, but that formed by the Spirit of God on the day of Pentecost (see Acts 2)! If we are to speak of recovery, it is our recovery to the original ground––the confession of the one body of which Christ is the Head. People speak of a need to get back to conditions in 1950, 1850, or 1550, but such ideas flow from a vision narrowed by sectarianism. If we need to get back to anything, it is to Scripture, for if we were honest we would admit how little weight it really has with us. Some talk of ‘the Reformed faith’, others of ‘the Catholic faith’, some even of ‘the teachings of the early Brethren’. We want none of these ‘faiths’. We want to get back to “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). If it be contended that the Reformed faith is indeed the faith once delivered to the saints, then why not be honest and call it so rather than give it some human name? The truth is, the use of these man–inspired names betrays the narrow–mindedness at work in our hearts. Brethren, we are not a body of saints of similar views that has grown up over the years, but fellow members of Christ’s body (see 1 Cor. 12: 18) with all the other members, brethren in Christ amongst the many in the house of God! To this body only and to this house alone do we belong, and to this we are called to bear testimony, as well as to the One who is Head and Son over it (see Col. 1: 18; Heb. 3: 6). Oh noble origin and blessed position! Beloved, never forget it, and let no man take your crown!
We should not regard ourselves as members of this denomination or that denomination––we are members of Christ! That is not to say that we should look on those who cling to such sectarian memberships as not part of the same body with us––God forbid! They are as much members of the one body as those that reject all sectarian bodies are, though they do not yet see that Christ’s body must be the Christian’s only membership. They speak of being members of this church and that––Scripture speaks of membership of the one body of Christ (see Eph. 5: 30). We say this is what we believe and hold––but do we? These are practical truths, and to have any value they must be amongst us in reality. Too often truth is simply books gathering dust on a shelf. Truth must be practised. Have we really got a hold of these things? When saints speak of persons joining us, then I doubt it. What are they joining? Too often the thought is of joining us as a distinct body––not far removed, if at all, from joining a denomination. Fellowship is simply individuals mutually agreeing to walk together (see 2 Tim. 2: 22)––not joining anything apart from being joined in partnership. These are simple truths, but in ecclesiastical terms many seem not to know why they are where they are. Often the thought seems to be no higher than that it is sufficient to meet with those who stand apart from the evils of Christendom. Any practical comprehension of the one body is quite unknown.
The early Christians often met in homes, not purpose–built churches and halls (see Rom. 16: 5; 1 Cor. 16: 19 etc.). Many years ago, a respected Bible teacher made the observation that he felt the testimony would end up once again in houses. Now you can make what you like of that comment, but the fact that your meeting is now small and weak, and perhaps meets in someone’s home is no proof that you are practically in the testimony. You may find yourself in a condition of “small things” collectively on account of your faithfulness to the Lord, or, it may be on account of your refusal to heed His voice! It could be because you are living before God, or because you have a name to live whilst being dead (see Rev. 3: 2). May God search our hearts, and, if necessary, shake us from our spiritual slumber to heed the warning!