Which Epistle Are You In?

Even the most superficial reader will appreciate the significant contrast between the first and second epistles to Timothy. In the first, the house of God is in order, with details provided of the officers required for the maintenance of godliness in that house (see 1 Tim. 3: 1–15). In the second epistle, there is a foundation which remains firm, but also that which has degenerated into a great house, filled not only with vessels to honour, but also to dishonour (see 2 Tim. 2: 19, 20). Significantly, we read no more about elders or even deacons (some translate as ministers). The individual, instead of looking to what is official to maintain what is due to God, is left to act himself. Hence: "let every one who names the name of [the] Lord" is to "withdraw from iniquity" (v19). The cause of this change in the apostle’s outlook is not given to the reader explicitly but we do know that Paul was grieved that "all who [are] in Asia, of whom is Phygellus and Hermogenes, have turned away from me" (2 Tim. 1: 15, my emphasis). Of course "every scripture [is] divinely inspired", and we can surely find both epistles "profitable for teaching" (2 Tim. 3: 16)—but the question that must be answered is, what is that teaching? Some think that it is their duty to build again according to the divine model outlined in the first epistle. Others hold that no prospect of recovery is held out by the apostle in the second epistle, and consequently their duty is to recognise the public breakdown and behave accordingly. Each must face the question for himself: unless I have abandoned any pretence of following Scripture at all, then I must either be acting according to the first epistle or according to the second. The question for reader and writer alike is simple: which epistle are you in?

   Now the apostle John makes several references to that which the saints had had "from the beginning" (1 John 2: 7 etc.) and it is clearly essential to get back to first principles. However, it does not follow from this that you can reproduce to an exact degree the so–called ‘early Church’. The book of Acts, for example, is clearly transitional, and while the kingdom was still being offered to Israel, the message was accompanied by signs and wonders. That situation no longer applies, and ceased to apply within the time frame of the NT. The popular idea that Acts 2 marked a complete replacement of the old order by that which is new is simplistic nonsense. A careful reading of Scripture will show that Israel was only gradually set aside over the process of several years, and, in correspondence with this, the full thought of the Church as the mystery was not introduced until comparatively late. Those who boast of getting back to Pentecost need to be challenged, because they are essentially trying to rewrite the record given to us by the Holy Spirit. A very simple example will suffice to show the very real dangers of ignoring ecclesiastical history (both inspired and subsequent).

   One of the characteristics of the first Christians was that "all that believed were together" (Acts 2: 44). Primarily, of course, the writer is speaking geographically—all the believers were in the one place—but it also refers equally well to their formal unity (at least initially). The NT knows nothing of denominations—it speaks of a "within" and an "outside", and classes all men as belonging to either "Jews, or Greeks, or the assembly of God" (1 Cor. 5: 12; 10: 32). Hence when Paul came to Jerusalem, he did not have a choice of ‘churches’ to go to but "essayed to join himself to the disciples" in that place (Acts 9: 26). In a very real, practical sense it was one company. Those conditions no longer exist. Indeed, the seeds of the break-up were already evident when Paul wrote to Corinth where the saints were saying "I am of Paul, and I of Apollos, and I of Cephas, and I of Christ" (1 Cor. 1: 12). Things today, are, of course, much worse (facilitated in large part by the abhorrent falsehood that God provides a variety of ‘churches’ for the believer to choose from). Sadly, instead of holding their heads in corporate shame (as all should do), the response of some to this appalling situation is to arrogantly set themselves up as the Church in its ‘original’ character, and expect everyone else to come to them! Satisfied with their own judgment as to their corporate character, these have their own reward. But the fact of the matter is that Christians today are scattered, and nobody has the right to make the exclusive claim that they are "of Christ" (1 Cor. 1: 12), or even that they alone are gathered to the Lord’s name (see Matt. 18: 20). Fellowship today is mutual, in which like–minded Christians simply agree to walk together (see 2 Tim. 2: 22), and avoid making any corporate claims, recognising that these properly belong to the Church as a whole. If God recognises only one company—His Church—then so must we. Those who strive to set up their own corporate model, complete even, in some cases, with elders and deacons, have lost sight of this fact. The simple truth is, if you do not take account of the changed circumstances, you will be building something pretentious and unsuited to the present day. When Judah returned from the captivity, they could not restore everything. Some things (unless God intervenes) are lost forever.

   There are other practical implications. Early in the Church’s history in the NT, we read that the church in Corinth had been so blessed that they had "come short in no gift" (1 Cor. 1: 7). Now travel down the centuries of time to the conditions of today. If Corinth could be told that, representatively, "ye are Christ’s body, and members in particular" (1 Cor. 12: 27) what could be said of any of the multitude of sects, schisms, chapels, meetings, fellowships and denominations that mark Christendom today? Corinth was the local representation of Christ’s body in that place, complete with all the members and their gifts required to accomplish God’s purposes in the city. The same can never be said of a mere aggregate of a few believers out of the many in a town. We cannot get round the problem by saying that Corinth was unusually blessed in gift—although that was certainly true. If other churches in other cities had fewer gifts then this lack probably applied primarily to the so–called ‘sign’ gifts (which were temporary)—but, in any case, they all had all that God had given them. Today, that is not the case of any company, and there is necessarily a degree of impoverishment. This ought to be reflected in what is done: do as much as you can, but do not pretend to ability that you do not have, and be prepared to pray for the blessing of gift that you see in exercise elsewhere.

   Christians should always go about their business in a modest and lowly way, but the ecclesiastical conditions of the present moment place upon us a special requirement to "walk humbly with thy God" (Micah 6: 8). Daniel (although personally pure) made what he calls "my confession" and fully associated himself with the errors of his people: "we have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled" (Dan. 9: 4, 5). The public position of today has not come about by accident, and foolish talk of ‘New Testament churches’ is to disregard the government of God. God has placed us in the second epistle of Timothy, and we should humbly accept that sobering fact.