A summary by Sosthenes of John Nelson Darby’s
The Nature and Unity of the Church of Christ
In this paper Darby’s objective was, with God’s blessing, to show Christians how the Church can be united according to the Word of God, and how it should operate consistently. It would therefore be strengthened in its hopes and show the world clearly the power of God’s grace, leading believers to rely more on the Holy Spirit and less on human plans and co-operative schemes.
Darby looks at the way in which the public Christian Church has degenerated with worldliness, human organisation, tolerance of evil and sectarian fragmentation, running counter to the Lord’s words That they all may be one.
Church unity cannot be achieved by human compromise and confederacy. It can only be in looking to the Lord Himself, giving Him His place, by the Holy Spirit, going forth to him without the camp and being not of the world.
That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me – John 17:21
To download book (JND Collected Writings – Vol 1 Ecclesiastical 1 – p20) containing this article click here
The Truth of the Gospel
All genuine Protestant churches profess the great truths of the gospel. Receiving the gospel by faith leads to our having pure desires in love and a life for Him who died for us and rose again, a life of hope in His glory.
The Sectarian Situation of the Public Church
However, believers’ standards of unity and gathering are generally very mixed, falling far below God’s. If unity were based on human standards, God would be acquiescing in the moral inconsistency of degenerate man, sinking below the glory of Christ, without even a testimony to His being dishonoured.
Unity in the Early Church
In the early church there was unity. “The Lord added daily such as should be saved“, was when none said anything was his own (Acts 2:43-47), and their conversation was in heaven (Phil 3:20); for they could not be divided in the common hope of that. It knit their hearts together.
But soon division began about the goods of the church; for where there could be division, there could be selfish interests.
The Church in the Dark Ages
In the hundreds of years leading up to the Revelation, there had been judgments which dishonoured to God. Meanwhile the church was sinking, and utterly sank in apostasy. Indeed, apostasy and moral corruption overwhelmed the professing church.
Witnesses sighed and cried for the abominations that were done in the church. Even without much spiritual understanding and teaching, but the redemption by the Lord Jesus, they testified against the state of the degenerated church.
We are therefore thankful for the Reformation. However, this did not institute a pure form of church, but re-established “Justification by faith” in which believers might find life. Sadly, it was mixed with human activities and much of the old system remained. Whilst those involved were excellent saints, the character of the Church remained short of that which was acceptable to God.
Non Conformist Movements and Sects
As religious and world leaders were more secularly minded and alienated from God, many recognising the authority of the Word of God, separated seeking to follow it more closely. Hence arose all the branches of nonconformity and dissent.
So long as people pride themselves on being Church of England, Presbyterian, Baptist, Independent, or anything else, they are antichristian. How then are we to be united? – it must be the work of the Spirit of God. Believers should consider , “Is Christ divided? (1 Cor 1:13) whereas there is among you envying and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?” (1 Cor 3:3) Darby wrote: “There is no professed unity among you at all.”
What do we see? Both the Established and non-conformist churches are using unbelievers to gain secular advantages and honours of that world – the very world out of which the Lord came to redeem us. Are they behaving like His peculiar people? What can I to do with these things? Nothing.
Because of the diversity of sects, the true Church of God has no avowed communion at all. This is an anomaly. Individuals of the children of God are to be found in all the different denominations, professing the same pure faith; but where is their bond of union? Indeed, the bond of communion is not the unity of the people of God, but in fact on their differences.
If this is correct, we must conclude that one who seeks the interests of any particular denomination is an enemy to the work of the Spirit of God. Those who believe in “the power and coming of the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:16) ought therefore to keep separate from such activities, otherwise they are drawing back the church to a state occasioned by ignorance and non-subjection to the word. A most subtle and mental disease prevails amongst groups of Christians, especially those of higher orders. This can be illustrated by what the disciples said, “he followeth not us,” (Mark 9:38). Let us not hinder the manifestation of the church by this spirit. This line of thinking infests groups of Christians, especially those of higher orders.
Could there be a Union of Protestant Churches?
If Protestants formed a formal union, it would be impossible that such a body could be at all recognised as the church of God. It would be a counterpart to the Roman Church, but without the power of the word and the unity of spiritual life.
No meeting, which is not framed to embrace all the children of God in the full basis of the kingdom of the Son, can find the fullness of blessing, because it does not contemplate it – because its faith does not embrace it.
Protestants have often professed to the Roman Catholics that their unity in doctrinal faith. Why then is there not an actual unity? If they see error in each other, ought they not to be humbled for each other? If there was diversity of mind, instead of disputing on the footing of ignorance, why not wait in prayer, that God might reveal this also unto them? Yet I well know that, till the spirit of the world be purged from amongst them, unity cannot be, nor can believers find safe rest.
Unity is the glory of the Christian Church; but unity to secure and promote our own interests is not the unity of the church. It is confederacy, and a denial of the nature and hope of the church and not the Lord’s work.
Non-sectarian Christian movements
The people of God have found a sort of remedy for this disunion in the Bible Society, and other missionary ventures, giving a sort of vague unity in the common acknowledgment of the word, or of of desire and action. In many instances the genuine cravings of a mind actuated by the Spirit of God has been behind it, and doubtless partially afforded testimony to what the Church was.
How God sees the Disunity in the Christian Church
Sensing our immense distance from genuinely exhibiting the purpose of God in His church, we ought to be thankful that He still deals with us. It should lead us also to seek Christ’s current mind, so that our path may be according to His present will, rather than our own.
It was God’s purpose in Christ to gather into one all things in heaven and on earth; reconciled unto Himself in Him; and that the church, by the energy of the Spirit should be the witness of this on earth. Believers would know therefore that all who are born of the Spirit have substantial unity of mind, so as to know and love each other, as brothers and sisters. What is more, they were so to be all one, as that the world would know that Jesus was sent of God. But this is not all. Sadly this has not been fulfilled in practice, and in this we must all confess our sad failure.
Are believers happy with the current state of the Church? Clearly not. Do we not believe that it has, as a body, utterly departed from Christ? Has it been restored so that He would be glorified in it at His appearing? Is there not a practical spirit of worldliness at variance with the death and coming again of the Lord Jesus as Saviour.
Darby said “I shall seek to establish healthful principles: for it is manifest to me, that it must flow from the growing influence of the Spirit of God and His unseen teaching; but we may observe what are positive hindrances, and in what that union consisted.”
The Self-complacent Christian Church
Christians are little aware how the spirit of the world prevails in their minds and how they seek their own, not the things of Jesus Christ. While the spirit of the world prevails spiritual union cannot subsist. Believers think, because they have been delivered from secular dominion, that they are free from the practical spirit which gave rise to it; and because God has wrought much deliverance, therefore they are to be content. In this state of self-complacency, the springs of grace and spiritual communion dry up.
We have learned to trust in too much in the outward ‘Temple of the Lord’, adorned with goodly stones and gifts, and have ceased to look to the Lord of the temple. We have almost ceased to walk by faith. The unclean spirit of idolatry may have been purged out; but the great question still remains, whether there is the effectual presence of the Spirit of the Lord.
The original State of the Christian Church cannot be restored
Those who parted the Saviour’s garments among them could not rend that inner vest – which was inseparably one in its nature. That has fallen into the hands of those who do not care for Him, the Lord will never clothe Himself with it again.
The Christian’s Call
Should believers to correct the churches? Darby says, “I am beseeching them to correct themselves, by living up, in some measure, to the hope of their calling. I beseech them to show their faith in the death of the Lord Jesus, and their boast in the glorious assurance which they have obtained by it, by conformity to it – to show their faith in His coming, and practically to look for it by a life suitable to desires fixed upon it”. Let believers testify against the secularity and blindness of the church; but let them be consistent in their own conduct. “Let your moderation be known to all men.” (Phil 4:5)
The Practical Way for the Christian Believer
We as believers can see in ourselves things that are practically inconsistent with the power of Lord’s return. We are conforming to the world, showing that the cross does not have its proper glory in our eyes. However, we can be thankful that we have a way marked out for us in the word.
Our duty as believers is to be witnesses of what we believe. God says “Ye are my witnesses” (Isa 43:12) in His challenge to the false gods; and as Christ is the faithful and true Witness, such ought the church to be. Of what then is the church to be a witness? – against the idolatrous glory of the world. How? by its members being in practical conformity to His death, with a true belief in the cross, crucified to the world, and the world to them.
If we are not living in the power of the Lord’s kingdom, we certainly shall not be consistent in seeking its ends.
Two or three are gathered together in His name
Where two or three are gathered together in His name, (Matt 18:20), there is blessing; because they are met in the fullness of the power of the unchangeable interests of that everlasting kingdom in which it has pleased God, the glorious Jehovah, to glorify Himself. He has been pleased to make His name and saving grace known in the Person of the Son of God, by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the name of Christ, even two or thrr enter (in whatever measure of faith) into the full counsels of God. They are “God’s fellow-workmen.” (1 Cor 3:9). Therefore whatever they ask is done, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. (John 14:13). As we seek the Lord’s glory of the Lord we will find personal blessing.
In the Lord and His Death on the Cross we find Christian Unity
In the Lord alone we find unity. He declares, “I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will drawn all men unto me: this he said signifying what death he should die.” It is then Christ who will draw to Himself by being lifted up from the earth (John 12:32). So we find His death is the centre of communion till His coming again. In this rests the whole power of the truth and nothing short of this can produce unity. Otherwise He that gathereth not with him, scattereth Matt 12:30).
The Lord’s Supper is the Symbol of Christian Unity
The outward symbol and instrument of unity is the partaking of the Lord’s supper – for we being many are “One bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.” 1 Cor 10:17 And “For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come. (1 Cor 11:26). Therefore the essential and substantial unity, to be seen in glory at His coming, is conformity to His death, because that is how the glory was brought about. The Lord’s death is the sole foundation on which a soul is built for eternal glory.
Unity of the Spirit
There are two things in seeking unity, which we have to consider.
- Are our objects in our work exclusively the Lord’s objects?
- Is our conduct the witness of our objects?
Have we faith in these things? How shall we show it? By acting on these directions of our Lord: If any man serve me let him follow me, and where I am, there shall also my servant be. (John 12:26)
Unity of the Christian Church, is the unity of the Spirit, and can only be in the things of the Spirit. It therefore can only exist between persons who seek to be led by the Spirit of God
So there can only be Christian unity if the Spirit of God brings God’s people together. And it can only be achieved as they follow the Author and Completer of faith, looking for His return.
Let us go forth to Him
The children of God can but follow one thing – the glory of the Lord’s name, according to the way marked in the word. They have nothing else left, but as He, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, “suffered without the gate, to go forth to him without the camp, bearing his reproach.” (Heb 13:!3)
But what are the people of the Lord to do? Let them wait upon the Lord, according to the teaching of His Spirit, and in conformity to the image of God’s Son, by the life of the Spirit. Let them go in the footsteps of the flock, as the good Shepherd feeds His flock. And if this way seem dark, remember the word of Isaiah: “Who is among you that feareth the Lord, that obeyeth the voice of his servant, that walketh in darkness and has no light? Let him trust in the name of the Lord, and stay upon his God.” (Isa 50:10)
A Plea for the Church
The Lord Himself says, “That they all may be one; as thou Father art in me and I in thee, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them, that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.” (John 17:21-23)
May we as believers consider this word, and see if the Church shining in the glory of the Lord, and fulfilling that purpose for which bit was called. Do we look for or desire this? or are we content to sit down and say, that His promise cannot be fulfilled?
If we cannot say, “Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee,” (Isa 60:1) we should say, “Awake, awake, put on thy strength, arm of the Lord; awake, as in the ancient days, as in the generations of old” (Isa 51:9)
“Surely the eye hath not seen nor ear heard what He prepareth for him that waiteth for Him”. (1 Cor 2:9)
J.N. Darby (1800-1882) – Dublin 1828.
John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), an Anglo-Irish evangelist, was led to the fierce conclusion that all churches, as man-made institutions, were bound to fail. The believer’s true hope was the return of the Lord Jesus Christ. With others Darby gathered in a less formal way, free of clergy and human structure, founded on a desire to be separate from unholy organisations.
Darby, after resigning his curacy in the Church of Ireland, became a tireless traveller, talented linguist and Bible translator. His influence is still felt in evangelical Christianity.
For more on this servant of the Lord please see JN Darby – Biographical Note