The Voice of the Church
A critical event in the revival under King Josiah was when “the book of the law of Jehovah” (2 Chron. 34: 14) was found and all its “words” (v30) read before the people. Indeed, this feature of hearing the voice of God is the foundation of every genuine revival and is as true in Christianity as it was in Judaism. It was, for example, the stimulus for the Protestant Reformation. Sadly, there is another truism associated with revival in the Church and it is this: every such revival, without exception, has ended up with its adherents listening to the voice of the Church. This fact is so startling that it is worthy of greater investigation. Indeed, this principle of heeding man and not God predates the Church, and first found its expression in relation to God’s earthly people. Thus to them were “entrusted the oracles of God” (Rom. 3: 2), and yet by the time of Christ they were walking according to “what has been delivered by the ancients”—that is, “traditional teaching” (Mark 7: 5, 13). Church revivals have followed the exact same pattern for the commendation “Thou … hast kept my word” (Rev. 3: 8, my emphasis) has quickly ceased to be true. The matter is of fundamental importance, for if the voice of the Church is being listened to, then the voice of God is not. People often wonder why revivals fizzle out after a generation or less—they need wonder no longer.
The Woman Jezebel
The great evil exposed in the Lord’s letter to Thyatira in Revelation 2 was the toleration of Jezebel: “but I have against thee that thou permittest the woman Jezebel, she who calls herself prophetess, and she teaches and leads astray” (v20). This woman was teaching and claiming the authority of a prophetess—and since prophecy is only ever false or true (see Deut. 18: 20–22) she was as good as asserting that her teaching was inspired. Yet, according to the Bible, the woman has no right to teach: “I do not suffer a woman to teach” (1 Tim. 2: 12). Furthermore, the Church is always equated with the woman in Scripture, never the man (see Eph. 5: 25 etc.). She is espoused unto one man (see 2 Cor. 11: 2), that is, Christ, and He is the Man to whom she owes subjection. Thus, the Word comes to her from Christ. As Paul reminds the Corinthian saints “what hast thou which thou hast not received? but if also thou hast received, why boastest thou as not receiving?” (1 Cor. 4: 7). The moment the Church presumes to teach, that is the very moment she is setting up an independent authority apart from Christ. She, as the body, is in revolt from her proper allegiance to Him who is her Head. It is the woman in the man’s place, and the Church substituting herself for Christ.
Now there is a tendency to read these addresses to the seven assemblies in Revelation in an abstract way, particularly since they clearly have a dispensational aspect. Thyatira, for example, is undoubtedly a prophetic picture of the rise into domination of the power of Rome. However, we must never overlook the moral force of the prophecy in relation to ourselves. Everyone knows that the Roman Catholic Church claims infallibility for her teaching—it is her boast—but while we may be far removed from popery, it is a sobering reality that we may still be unwittingly holding her very precepts. One such is this claim that the Church is a teacher, and if we look through Christendom, we shall find almost every company defining for itself the doctrines which it insists upon its members submitting to. I am not suggesting that these companies claim infallibility, or that they do not appeal to God’s Word for what they hold as truth. No, what I mean is that virtually all of them have the idea that a body of doctrine should be put forth as the teaching of that ‘church’ and to which appeal can be made—a creed which may answer for what its members profess. Though less overt, this is essentially of the same character as what is seen in Romanism—the Church taking the place that belongs to Christ, and assuming itself able to give a word which is authoritative.
Is what I am saying too extreme? Not at all. In the first place, what is the Church? The Church is the assembly of God’s people—that assembly which is Christ’s body and whose members are members of Christ. But when that is understood, the question then arises, where is the teaching body—for teaching there must clearly be? Obviously, the body of Christ is composed of all, teachers and taught alike. The very youngest babe in Christ belongs to that body as well as the oldest and most advanced father. How is it possible then, that this Church can give any authoritative utterance at all? The fact is, you must necessarily put aside the Scriptural definition of the Church the moment you think of it as a teacher. Who would it teach—itself, the world, or what? Is it not obvious that you cannot mix up the teachers and the pupils? Thus if the Church is a teacher, it follows that the teaching must be for those outside the Church. But we run ahead of ourselves. Who teaches the Church itself?
Now every creed (whether written or unwritten) is, in fact, at first only the faith of a few, and is addressed and disseminated to those outside that small group. The movement may gain adherents, and become the faith of a great number, but the authoritative teaching is only that of the original few, binding even the subsequent teachers of the same body forever afterwards. Thus when people are challenged on some point, and they defend themselves by saying ‘The Church teaches us so and so’ (or, more subtly, ‘We have always been taught …’) they do not mean the present teachers. The teaching which binds (or is supposed to bind) is not something being set out for the first time today, but the teaching of certain imposing names in the past. There is even a Scriptural precedent for this, for the first Christians “persevered in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles” (Acts 2: 42), and Timothy was characterised as having been “thoroughly acquainted” (2 Tim. 3: 10) with Paul’s teaching. However, the difference is this: The apostle’s ministry was foundational (see Eph. 2: 20) and their doctrine is preserved for us in the NT as the Word of God. Subsequent teachers who have built up a following based on a creed are, in essence, ignoring the force of Paul’s statement in Col. 1: 25 that the Word of God is complete. I know that the disciples of these teachers will say that they do not view the creed as being on a par with Scripture, but they are being disingenuous. Why? Because they clearly invest the creed with authority it ought not to have: in their eyes, submission to the teaching is not optional.
Ye Know All Things
Some may feel that some of what I have said justifies their own position, namely that ‘the voice of the Church’ does not mean that the Church itself teaches but only through its teachers. But this cannot be true, for the teacher is not the instrument or mouthpiece of the Church, but of Christ through the Spirit: “he has given some apostles, and some prophets, and some evangelists, and some shepherds and teachers … with a view to the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4: 11, 12). Not only that, but the apostle John can speak to individual Christians as having the Word of truth and the Spirit of truth, and therefore as being in a true sense independent of teachers: “ye have [the] unction from the holy [one], and ye know all things” (1 John 1: 20). Again: “the unction which ye have received from him abides in you, and ye have not need that any one should teach you; but as the same unction teaches you as to all things, and is true and is not a lie” (v27). Here we have infallibility, and it is available for every Christian—but it is the infallibility of the Holy Spirit, not of the Church or of man. This anointing (which every Christian has received) renders the believer, as I have said, independent even of teachers. Of course, the apostle does not mean that teachers are superfluous, and that God will bless the Christian who goes on in wilful disregard of ministries that God has ordained. The Lord does not mean us to be isolated units, for the Church of God is a body in which the highest cannot say to the lowest “I have not need of you” (1 Cor. 12: 21) and we are all to “build up each one the other” (1 Thess. 5: 11). However, none of this detracts from the simple truth that it can be said of even the simplest believer “ye know all things” (1 John 1: 20). So, what does this mean? It refers, simply, to the knowledge that springs from daylight and good eyes. The best eyes would not be any use in darkness, nor would the best light help if we were blind. But the Word is light, and the Spirit of God has rolled off the darkness from our eyes. To men with proper sight, in daylight, I can say, not only, ‘You can see’ but ‘You can see all things’. This does not mean beyond the horizon, or the other side of the moon. I simply mean that whatever is before you, your own eyes can see. You are not like a blind man, needing to take it on my authority that the sun is shining, or that the clouds threaten rain. What I can do, however, is call your attention to such things, or put an object before you which was not in your field of view before—for this, in principle, is the proper office of a teacher. A real teacher does not give authority to truth, and certainly must not decide for those he is teaching that such or such a thing is true. He simply puts before them that which authenticates itself to them as the truth. If that is the situation, then the Word and the Spirit have their proper supremacy within the soul. They and they alone, are the guarantee of truth and our security as to doctrine.
Where Authority Lies
Christians often get things the wrong way round: it is the truth that authenticates the teacher, not the teacher the truth. God’s people must not delude themselves with the idea that men of God cannot teach what is false. Good men speak different things. Has God spoken unintelligibly, or can His Spirit teach what is contradictory? No, for God has given His Spirit to lead into all truth, and the divine testimony is that “If any one desire to practise his will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it is of God” (John 7: 17). If you take men’s goodness as security for their doctrine, then, in principle, you take away the authority of the Word. You are saying that such and such a teaching must be right, not because you have found it clearly stated in the Word of God, but because the teacher who uttered it is too good to go wrong! This is really no different from the old argument that since it is the Church (which is good) that is teaching it, then the teaching must be right and good too. Of course, you may follow a good man’s opinion, but where is the safety in that? Barnabas was a “good man” (Acts 11: 24) but he was carried away by the Judaizers (see Gal. 2: 13)! In absolute terms, “there is none good but one, God” (Luke 18: 19) and it is therefore by His Word that we are to test everything. Hence, the Bereans were more noble than those of Thessalonica because, while “receiving the word with all readiness of mind” they were also “daily searching the scriptures if these things were so” (Acts 17: 11). Indeed, where else can certainty be found? I know some will say that it is presumptuous as to say you have the truth, but in the presence of eternity we want certainty—something that we can lean upon that will not give way. Therefore, I must go to the only place which can give it—and that is the Word of God. The moment you bring in other authorities then the force of the Word of God is gone. This danger is more common than my readers may appreciate, for much of what we hold as truth we have taken on unthinkingly. When we come to the Bible we have already decided what it is supposed to teach because our faith is really in some system of interpretation formulated beforehand. Doctrine is simply accepted without the Scriptures being searched to see if these things are really so. Indeed, there is nothing more painful than to see brethren who cannot bring themselves to contradict some esteemed teacher from the past. For them, sad to say, authority is not vested in the Scriptures, and they are as much prisoners to ‘the voice of the Church’ as the most ardent Romanist.
What lies at the root of all these problems is the blasphemous idea that men need to put the Word of God in plainer, clearer language than the words in which it has been given to us. It is as good as saying that the Creator is incapable of speaking clearly (though He made the worlds) and that His thoughts need to be summarised by His creatures in a way that they can understand. Man is thus deemed wiser than God. I know that creeds are said to be necessary to guard against fools making the Bible say pretty much anything they fancy, but it is perverse to attempt to remedy that issue by demanding that faith is put in a creed. Does man’s word give greater security than God’s Word? Indeed, what kind of God do these people actually believe in? The Bible is God speaking to man, as a Father would to His children. Does He not speak even to babes—not just the learned, but also the unlearned? He can therefore be trusted implicitly, while even the best saint of all is fallible and liable to err! God’s Word is simpler, truer, safer, by far, than any possible human construction can be. To supplement the Bible with an authoritative creed is, in fact, to supplant it.
If you cannot explain what you hold to be the truth without resorting to some creed outside Scripture then is it really truth at all? People fall back on all kinds of things—confessions, catechisms, precedents, traditional teaching, printed ministry, so–called prophetic words—but none of these have any authority. Even those who so boldly protested against the woman Jezebel in the Protestant Reformation left the root of her teaching untouched by not resisting all Church legislation in the things of God. Thus while they proclaimed Sola Scriptura (or Scripture only) in relation to the Gospel, they stubbornly clung to ecclesiastical presumption elsewhere. The evil teaching of Rome was rightly cast off, but instead of claiming for the Church only the simple duty of obedience to her Head, they admonished her to now teach the truth. However, each had his own ideas as to what the teaching ought to be, with the inevitable result that discord and division soon followed. The multitude of sects and denominations that shame Protestantism are the direct result of each ‘church’ presuming to be able to write its own authoritative creed. A human creed may well be intended to unify but it always leads in fact to sectarianism and schism, for it is a divine principle that “He that gathers not with me scatters” (Luke 11: 23, my emphasis). People must submit to the creed and do violence to their consciences, or they must respect their consciences and go outside. The confession becomes thus a party badge. It binds people together by the very beliefs which they differ from other Christians, even though they are forced to concede that many outside their sphere are walking as godly as themselves (if not more so). Even Scripture itself has to be interpreted in conformity with the creed and doctrines are changed from their edifying purpose into the unholy watchwords of bitter strife. And so a pattern of further and further division results. Of course I am well aware that some insist that their only creed is the Bible, and it were good if this were true. However, a tree is known by its fruits, and an unholy history of division over the slightest technicality is evidence of a presumptuous spirit at work that seeks to lord it over the consciences of others. A creed does not have to be written to be a creed.
The unhappy effect of all this is that many Christian companies are in terminal decline, as division results in ever more fragmentation, with many a soul being so discouraged as to give up the collective idea altogether. More resilient persons may well carry on, sincerely convinced in an Elijah–like way that they are the only ones not to have bowed the knee to Baal, blissfully unaware that some of their favourite teachings (which they think they see confirmed in Scripture) are built on an initial foundation of misinterpretation and human ideas. Nor do they see that their ‘voice of the Church’ has little appeal to Christians elsewhere, and, indeed, that their very insularity has made them deaf to what God is doing in other places. At the same time, there is much puzzlement as to why the returns from the Gospel preaching are so sparse, and why Acts 2: 47 (“the Lord added [to the assembly] daily those that were to be saved”) does not seem to apply in their own situation. But why should it? The company in view in that Scripture is characterised by persevering (a not insignificant word!) in “the teaching and fellowship of the apostles” (v42). What we have today is really quite different. Sure, the apostle’s doctrine is almost always referenced, but the thing that is really insisted upon is the statement of faith (written or unwritten) that those seeking fellowship must sign up to before they gain acceptance. It is not enough to believe the Bible—there must be acquiescence to the ‘voice of the Church’ or the door is shut! Why would God bless that? Such an attitude provides no allowance for spiritual growth and ignores the apostolic precept that each is to be “fully persuaded in his own mind” (Rom. 14: 5). How futile to think that it is an indication of our own spiritual power if “of the rest durst no man join them” when we totally ignore the fact that the very same passage also says “but the people magnified them; and believers were more than ever added to the Lord” (Acts 5: 13, 14)!
Yet let us not be dismayed. God and His truth remain the same. Certainly the voice of the Church has had the practical effect of shutting the Lord out but His word to His people remains “Behold, I stand at the door and am knocking; if any one hear my voice and open the door, I will come in unto him and sup with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3: 20, my emphasis). Collective revival always begins with this individual revival—a revival in which the Bible is restored to its proper place of authority within the soul. Seeing as it is His Word, it is then that we shall begin to hear His voice in living power. That, dear fellow–believer, is the only route to true spiritual revival and to power in testimony to the lost. May these things be true of each one of us!