Flesh or Spirit?
In every Christian there are two fountains of thought, feeling, motive, word and action, and these are designated in Scripture as flesh and spirit (see Gal. 5: 16, 17). The first is what comes naturally to us as men, and can be either crude or sophisticated, religious or profane. The second is the Spirit of God acting on our new nature to produce a response that is in accord with the divine mind––whether towards God (as in John 4: 23), or towards man (as in 1 Cor. 2: 13). The part we take in the assemblies of the saints will flow from one or the other of these sources, and it is important that we distinguish them. Those who take a part must examine themselves, and the assembly as a whole is responsible to own what is of God, and dismiss what is not.
Some, in their zeal to suppress the manifestation of the flesh in the meetings of God’s people, have so arranged things that all mouths are shut except those specially ‘recognised’ as competent in spiritual matters. They see this as the only way to preserve order and decency in God’s House, and to keep out all ignorant and uncouth contributions from the ‘divine service’. The congregation can sing and utter its ‘amens’, and the odd individual might be allowed to recite a prepared prayer or short piece, but centre stage is inevitably taken by the ‘trained man’. Often the effect of this is that those in the company never look for any operation of the Holy Spirit in the meeting except through the instrumentality of the minister. If the minister is full of the Holy Spirit he will be the means of administering rivers of living water to the saints, but if he is not, and acts in the flesh, there will be an almost utter lack of blessing. Indeed, it is often noticed that the spiritual state of any such congregation is largely determined by the spiritual state of the minister. Giving everything over to one man will certainly succeed in shutting out much opportunity for the flesh, but––and the thought is an awful one––it will inevitably have a quenching effect on the Spirit of God. If there is to be liberty for the Spirit to use whom He will and however He will, then it also follows that the same freedom can also become an occasion for the flesh. Yet if opportunity is to be taken from the flesh by shutting all mouths bar one or two, then to the same proportion so must the door be shut on the Spirit. Of course God in His grace may still act and speak through the limited channels that man’s arrangements leave open to Him, but He will be acting, not in answer to those ecclesiastical arrangements, but in spite of them.
“But having different gifts” says the apostle Paul “according to the grace which has been given to us, whether [it be] prophecy, [let us prophesy] according to the proportion of faith; or service, [let us occupy ourselves] in service; or he that teaches, in teaching; or he that exhorts, in exhortation” (Rom. 12: 6–8). Now if the assembly in Rome had been under the care of one man, there could have been no opportunity for obedience to these exhortations. Is it not evident that the apostle contemplated the fullest liberty for the Spirit to minister by whom He would? Indeed this is the necessary consequence of what he says elsewhere: “For to one, by the Spirit, is given [the] word of wisdom; and to another [the] word of knowledge, according to the same Spirit; and to a different one faith, in [the power of] the same Spirit; and to another gifts of healing in [the power of] the same Spirit; and to another operations of miracles; and to another prophecy; and to another discerning of spirits; and to a different one kinds of tongues; and to another interpretation of tongues. But all these things operates the one and the same Spirit, dividing to each in particular according as he pleases” (1 Cor. 12: 8–11). The actual practice at Corinth confirms that one–man ministry is a later invention: “What is it then, brethren? whenever ye come together, each [of you] has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation” (1 Cor. 14: 26). That the apostle has some serious objections is not denied, but he does not criticize the Corinthian saints for allowing several speakers in the meeting, only the disorderly way in which it was being done (hence vs 27–30). Where in clericalism is there room for anything along the principles of what the apostle says in v31: “For ye can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all be encouraged”? Nowhere! In the face of the introductory greeting of the epistle, “to [those] sanctified in Christ Jesus, called saints, with all that in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1: 2), it is ludicrous to hide behind the fiction that somehow the fourteenth chapter had no relevance outside the walls of Corinth. If we are then driven to the idea that because of the cessation of some of the gifts enumerated the whole thing is obsolete, we need to ask ourselves what right we have to put an undeniably human arrangement in its place. We may plead all kinds of things in support of one–man ministry, but unless we can plead Scripture then it is simply man doing what is right in his own eyes (see Judges 17: 6)––a dreadful thing in God’s assembly.
Let me address myself directly to those who are recognised as 'ordained' to minister––or if you repudiate that kind of officialdom, you who, practically, occupy such an exclusive role. How stands it with the company to which you preach? There are perhaps persons in that congregation divinely set in the Church as evangelists or teachers (see Eph. 4: 11) but who are obstructed from exercising their gifts by your appointment as sole minister. So brainwashed are they by the system under which they find themselves that they repress all divine impulses to minister their gift as irregularities––unless they could first go through a lengthy and costly college training, and get human authorisation to serve! Gift, instead of being stirred up, lies idle, buried in a napkin, until both its possessor and others ignore its existence. If this is the situation over which you preside, how can it sit comfortably with the injunction to “quench not the Spirit” (1 Thess. 5: 19)? You may protest that this is not so with your place, and that others, subject to your agreement and arrangement, can give out a hymn, pray and even preach. If that is the case, then it is you, by your own admission, and not the Holy Spirit, that is presiding in God’s assembly.
Take the Lord’s Supper. We will suppose a company of believers assembled to fulfil their Lord’s desire in remembering Him in the breaking of bread, and their minds, in full subjection to the Word, are prepared to act just as that Word bids them, and stop where it stops. So who is to break the bread? There are among them, it may be, evangelists, pastors and teachers, and perhaps two or three eminently qualified for positions of oversight, and it might be felt that it must be one of these that should be the man. So they search the Word from end to end, but they find that not one word has their Lord breathed on the subject. What are they to do? That the bread should be broken is certain, but by whom? Shall they appoint someone by election or otherwise? They have no authority. Shall they recognise a right in anyone who pleases to do it? No one has, from the Word, a right to touch it. So what is to be done? Nothing but “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46: 10). Where no instructions are, true obedience sits still and does nothing, casts itself upon the Lord, asks for His guidance and waits for it. This allows the power and reality of God’s truth to unfold itself. In Matthew 18: 20 stands this word: “where two or three are gathered together unto my name, there am I in the midst of them”. Now suppose the Lord was present in the company both visible to the eye and audible to the ear––would any doubt what was to be done? And would any doubt why He had not given more instructions? No, for if the Master of the feast is there, He will assign to the guests their places, and if He point to one or the other instructing him to break the bread, give out a hymn or pray, who shall dispute His right? Of course the Lord is not visibly present in the Church, but by the Spirit can He not communicate His mind? Can the Spirit not make the Master’s pleasure known to His servants today? Can He not speak to the heart of the one through whom He is pleased to act, that he shall know the call and obey it? Again, can He not speak to the hearts of the others that they shall discern and acknowledge His acting through that servant?
Of course you may very well be thinking that this will leave the door wide open to persons acting in the flesh, mistaking their own wills for the bidding of the Spirit. Yes, it can happen. Let me, however, by way of answer, ask you a question: Do you believe in the Holy Spirit? You say you do, and I would not question your sincerity, but is that belief a living reality? Is He for you a living, acting, divine person, dwelling on earth, not only in each believer, but in the Church of God (see Eph. 2: 22)? If He is, why do you not believe that God is able to keep order in His own House? Did not Ananias and Sapphira find this to their cost? Did not the Corinthians too? (see Acts 5: 1–10; 1 Cor. 11: 30). Is God less able in a broken day? He will not be mocked, and if man’s systems and plans leave Him out, it should not surprise us if He leaves us to reap the fruit of our ways: “If any one corrupt the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, and such are ye” (1 Cor. 3: 17).
The doctrine of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church is one of the most momentous truths by which the present period is distinguished, and the virtual or actual denial of it constitutes one of the most serious features of the declension that has taken place in that which names the name of the Lord. The apostle asks “Do ye not know that ye are [the] temple of God, and [that] the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3: 16). Is this then an issue of small importance? I freely confess to you that there are many beloved children of God in all the varied sects of Christendom, and my heart is open to them all, but I could no more have fellowship with any body of Christians who substitute clericalism in any of its forms for the sovereign guidance of the Holy Spirit, than, as an Israelite, I could have fellowship with the setting up of the golden calf in place of the living God.
Let me address those who profess to believe in the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church as a practical fact. Now if we actually did believe when we assembled together that God was present, what an effect this would have on our souls! Yet as really as Christ was present with His disciples on the earth, so is the Holy Spirit now present in the assemblies of the saints. If only we realised this, what deep stillness, what reverent attention, what solemn waiting on Him would be the result! So is His presence to be any less influential because, unlike with Christ on earth, it is a matter of faith instead of sight? Is His presence any less real because unseen? It is the world around us that receives Him not because it does not see Him––are we, in practice, to take a like position and faithlessly forsake our own? “And I will beg the Father” said the Lord “and he will give you another Comforter, that he may be with you for ever, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see him nor know him; but ye know him, for he abides with you, and shall be in you” (John 14: 16, 17). But ye know him! Would that we did! More and more I am persuaded that our great lack is one of faith in His personal presence. Have there not been times when His presence has been realised as a fact––and what blessed occasions they were! There might be intervals of silence, but how were they occupied? In solemn waiting upon God. Not in restless anxiety as to who was next to speak or pray, not in turning over the pages of Bibles or hymn–books to find something that we thought suitable. No! God was there. Each heart was engaged with Him, and for any to have broken silence for the sake of doing so would have felt like an impious interruption (as in fact it would be). When silence was broken, it was with a prayer that embodied the desires and thoughts of all present, or a hymn in which all could with fullness of heart unite, or a word which came home to our hearts with power. And though several might be used in such hymns, prayers and words, it was evidently one Spirit who guided and arranged the whole, as though a plan had been made of it beforehand, and each one had his part assigned. No human wisdom could have made such a plan. The harmony was divine. It was the Holy Spirit acting by the several members in their several places to express the worship, or to minister to need.
So why is it not always like this? Is not the reality that, while continuing to hold the doctrine we lose sight of the practical fact? How easy it is to practice an unwritten, yet nonetheless fixed way of doing things when we “come together” (1 Cor. 14: 26)––a dead liturgy in all but name. Surely God’s presence when we are assembled together should be the grand, all–absorbing matter from which everything besides in the meeting ought to derive its character! It is not acceptable to merely ‘get through the hour’ with the appearance of the liberty of the Spirit. He must order the occasion from start to finish if He is present.
This does not mean that any one is free to take part in the meeting. No, it means the very opposite. True, there must be no human restrictions, but if God is present, no one must take any part but that which He assigns, and for which He alone gives the qualification. The mere circumstance of there being liberty to act is no warrant for acting. This is so self–evident that nothing need be said to prove it––and yet we need to be continually reminded of it. It is easy enough to give out a hymn, but to give out the hymn which really embodies and expresses the worship of the saints is what can only be done by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. That no one else is doing anything at the time is not sufficient warrant for taking part in the meeting. Silence is often a sign of spiritual poverty, but silence is better than what is said or done merely to break the silence. If visitors are present, we may well feel uneasy at the silence on their account. However, our embarrassment can never authorize us to speak, pray or give out a hymn for the mere sake of something being done. It is only when we act and speak in divine power that our visitors will fall down and acknowledge that “God is indeed amongst you” (1 Cor. 14: 25).
Again, one’s individual state and experiences are no certain guide as to what part we may take in the meetings of the saints. The words of a hymn may have had a profound effect on me, or I may have been present where it has been sung with great enjoyment of the Lord’s presence. I am not to conclude from this that it is my place to give out the hymn at the next meeting I attend. It might be unsuited to the present state of the assembly. It may not even be the mind of the Spirit that a hymn should be sung at all. The hymn must be expressive of what those assembled feel, or there is no sincerity in joining to sing it.
If led by the Spirit to pray in the assembly I will not pray in exactly the same way as I would in my closet. There none are present but the Lord and I, and my own needs and enjoyments will be before me. Indeed, in my closet I may have burdens of my own to cast upon the Lord which it would be quite improper for me to name in the assembly. If I pray in the assembly I act as its mouthpiece, and it is only by identifying myself with the actual state of the assembly that I shall be enabled to present its requests before God. I am speaking on behalf of the whole, not just in a individual capacity.
A portion of Scripture may have interested my soul, and I may have profited by it, but it does not follow that I am to speak on it during the meeting of the saints. Some particular subject might be occupying my attention privately, and it might be profitable for my soul that it should do so––but it may not be the subject to which God would draw the attention of the saints generally. We ourselves may have spiritual needs which the saints collectively might not––and they may need something which would not meet my own case.
The Spirit of God would never lead me to give out hymns because they are expressive of my own particular views. There may be points of interpretation on which saints meeting together do not see eye to eye. If, in such a case, hymns are chosen by those of one opinion for the purpose of expressing that opinion, it will be impossible for the others to honestly join in singing them, and discord instead of harmony is produced at once. In every way we ought to be behaving “with all lowliness and meekness, with long–suffering, bearing with one another in love” (Eph. 4: 2).
Any action in the assembly which is led by the Spirit will always be marked by a deep sense of responsibility to Christ. Let me put a question to you (and to myself as well). Suppose we were questioned at the close of a meeting: ‘Why did you give out that hymn?’ or ‘…read that chapter?’ or ‘…offer that prayer?’ or ‘…speak that word?’ Could we, with a clear, good conscience reply ‘My only reason for doing so was the solemn conviction that it was my Master’s will’? Could we say ‘I gave out that hymn because I was fully persuaded that it was the mind of the Spirit that at that juncture of the meeting it should be sung’? ‘I read that chapter or spoke that word because I felt that it was the service my Lord had assigned to me?’ ‘I offered that prayer because I knew that the Spirit of God led me in that way as the mouth of the assembly?’ These are searching questions! Is there not often a taking part without any such sense of responsibility to Christ? Let us be honest and admit there is. “If any one speak” says Peter, he is to speak “as oracles of God” (1 Peter. 4: 11). This does not mean, let him speak according to the Scriptures, though that is of course true. Rather it means what it says––those who speak are to be as the mouthpiece of God. If I cannot say in speaking ‘This is what I believe I have been taught of God, and what God has given me to speak at this time’, then I ought to remain silent. Of course a man may be mistaken in saying this, and it is for the saints to judge by the Word of God all that is spoken, but this does not alter the fact that none ought to speak without a solemn conviction in his heart that God has given him something to say. “Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God, and draw near to hear, rather than to give the sacrifice of fools: for they know not that they do evil. Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thy heart be hasty to utter anything before God: for God is in the heavens, and thou upon earth” (Eccles. 5: 1, 2).
Who is in Control?
There are two major reasons, not unrelated, why there is so little spiritual power and life in the Church, (Assembly), today: The first is the failure to realise that the Church belongs to Christ; the second is the failure to recognise practically the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church.
In Matt. 16 the Lord announces the formation of His Church with these words: “Upon this rock I will build my Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (v18). Now note the words carefully: He does not say the Church, but my Church. How is it then that many a believer speaks of “my church” or “our church” or others speak of the Methodist church or the Baptist church when there is only one Church and that Church is Christ’s. IT BELONGS TO HIM. But even when the doctrine, as such, that the Church is Christ’s is loudly proclaimed, the behaviour of such in the Church show that they deny it has any practical force. Let us all ask ourselves how often we carry on as if it was our Church, and this precious doctrine of the Church being Christ’s is only claimed to be held in order to confer greater dignity upon what is, to all intents and purposes, controlled by us! Now these are strong words, and some will be inclined to reject them out of hand, but be honest my brethren and let us ask ourselves if our actions show that very often the doctrine is only theoretically held.
To be governed, in assembly, by the truth in Scripture concerning the Church is one thing, but to have the further understanding in the soul that it is His Church is quite another! If I take on this last truth with all its full practical force, I will not dare to do anything in the Church without His sanction. The moment I admit it is His Church, I must accept that I can do nothing in that Church without His approval. It is His Church, and He controls. Men speak much of “rights”, but the Christian has no rights in the Church of God. He is there for the pleasure of the One whose Church it is.
It is quite clear then, that we are not at liberty to speak or act in the Church as we like. (I am not denying that the Christian has liberty of course, but we must see that liberty, as taught in the Scripture, is not liberty to do as we see fit in Christ’s Church!) I may feel that I have just the right word for the moment, but I have not the right to speak unless instructed to do so of God. I might believe that the hymn I am about to give out, or the comment I am about to make, is most appropriate, yet unless the directions are from the Head in heaven, and my words in the power of the Holy Spirit, it is but an utterance of the flesh. Rather than, (as we sometimes think is necessary), a lot of activity, a little more of the spirit of the psalmist is to be desired: “be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm, 46: 10).
If we examine the first gathering of the Church (Acts2), we see that there was a great deal of public speaking, yet it is carefully recorded that it was all “as the Spirit gave them utterance” (v4). THEY WERE UNDER DIVINE CONTROL. If we hold the truth practically as to the Church being Christ’s, all our speaking that Church will be governed by God. If it is His Church, who are we to speak in it without His authority? Christ is the Head of the Church (Col. 1: 18), and a head does not advise or guide, but dictates to its body, prompting the members to follow the Head’s directions, (The holy Spirit does not give instructions independently of the Head—see John 16: 13), we, as members, are there simply to obey.
That brings me to the second important failure. Consider carefully the fact just mentioned: that the Holy Spirit is there. As really as Christ was present with His disciples on earth, so really is the Holy Spirit now present in the assemblies of the saints. The presence of the Spirit of God is a fact, not merely a doctrine. And surely if in fact He be present—God Himself—when we are gathered together, no fact can compare in importance with this. It is surely the grand, the all–absorbing fact, from which everything besides in the the meeting ought to derive its character. What one desires is that the presence of the Holy Spirit Himself should be so realised as that none should break silence except by His power, and under His direction; and that the sense of His presence should thus restrain us from all that is unworthy of Him, and of the name of the Lord Jesus in which we meet.
Take the worship of God. The Lord Jesus Himself clearly taught that it must be in spirit and truth (John 4: 24). “In truth” means simply that it is “true”, that is according to the mind of God. (This is no doubt in contrast to the false worship of the Samaritans to which the woman of John 4 adhered.) However, worship in “truth” on its own is not enough—witnessed to by the outwardly correct, yet spiritually barren, worship in Judaism. WORSHIP MUST ALSO BE IN “SPIRIT”! Let us not descend to a mere ceremonial form! It is not an optional matter: “God is a Spirit; and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (v24). If we are to worship God there is only one way and that is in spirit and truth!
Spiritual worship cannot be manufactured, because man, any man, is incapable of forming right thoughts towards God. Take Hebrews 2: 12: “I will declare thy name to my brethren; in the midst of the assembly will I sing thy praise”. Now it is commonly asserted that this is Christ leading the praise to the Father, but a closer inspection of the verse reveals that this is not only inaccurate, but completely lower the sense. What we have here is one person only singing praise to God, and that is the Lord Jesus Christ. Our praise is through Him, and if we really believed this, we would be extremely careful to see that all our utterances had their origin with God.
Furthermore, the matter of gift bears heavily upon what we do and say in Christ’s Church, yet very often Christians go on completely unaware of its importance. To illustrate this let us take a simple example from the world about us: if we look at politics we can see three basic principles operating, namely dictatorship, democracy and anarchy. Dictatorship is one man having absolute sway, democracy is the participation of all, and anarchy is the philosophy of every man for himself. NOW IF ANY OF THESE IDEAS CROSS OVER INTO THE CHURCH THERE MUST BE AT LEAST A PARTIAL PASSING BY OF GIFT. The counterpart of dictatorship in the ecclesiastical sphere is clericalism. There, though I many be gifted of God to teach for instance, I cannot do so unless I am “ordained” a “minister”, (or at the very best with the express permission of the clergy). On the other hand I may be “ordained” a “minister”, and thus expected to teach, yet in fact not have the gift! There is thus a definite hindering of the Spirit, an over–ruling of the headship of Christ, and a stunting of liberty.
How, under such a system, can Rom. 12; 5–8 be put into operation? “So we being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching; of he that exhorteth on exhortation: he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that showeth mercy, with cheerfulness”? I cannot be done! We are to be under the control of the Giver of the gifts, not man!
Many, alas, whilst acknowledging the errors of clericalism have gone wrong in the opposite direction and allowed democracy in the Church, viz. the idea that we can all try our hands at anything. Gift is therefore completely overlooked, and the result is virtually a state of anarchy in God’s sight, where everyone does what is right in his own eyes (Judges 21: 25).
Granted, not all our actions in assembly are related to gift, but this does not mean we are at liberty to ignore the matter altogether! Scripture teaches that “all members have not the same office” (Rom. 12: 4), and it is imperative that we recognise this. The gifts are given for the edifying of the body of Christ (Eph. 4: 12), and so if we ignore this divine arrangement, and take on service for which we are not suited, it is quite likely that damage rather than edification will ensue! The hand cannot do the work of the eye, and neither can the eye do the work of the hand—they were never designed for it. Generally speaking, (for there could be exceptional circumstances in which this would no longer apply), I am to stick to the gift and the corresponding service that God has given me. The teacher is to teach, the shepherd to shepherd and so on. To do otherwise would be to be guilty of not holding fast the Head (Col. 1: 19).
Oh my brethren in Christ what a difference it would make to our assemblings together if we really believed that the Church belongs to Christ on the one hand and that the Holy Spirit is present in that Church on the other. The great need is not just to hold these truths doctrinally but to act as those who do believe them. The there would be spiritual life and power because God would be in control.