A summary by Sosthenes of John Nelson Darby’s
Churches and the Church
In this paper, JN Darby introduced the thought of the local assembly and its function.
Most people, Christians included, think of churches in terms of the Anglican Church, the United Reformed Church, the Baptist Church, the Roman Catholic Church etc., and the structures, church organisations and buildings associated with them. However, scripturally the Church is the Body of Christ, and churches the expression of that body in a place. Teachers, shepherds, evangelists and other gifts apply to the whole Church. Elders (or overseers) are local. The idea of a single person, appointed or voted into a professional position is totally of man’s order and sets aside the Spirit of God.
If we believe that the public church is ruined, and governed by man, not the Holy Spirit, then we should humbly cry to the Lord. He will meet us in our need.
What is the Church?
The Greek word ἐκκλησίᾳ / ekklēsia simply means assembly – generally of citizens or privileged persons. God’s Church or assembly comprised all believers formed into one by the Holy Spirit. It is viewed as the Body of Christ and also the Habitation of God.
The Church as the Body of Christ
The assembly is the Body of Christ; – his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all (Ephesians 1:23). It is by one Spirit we are baptised into one body. The church is still being formed, and it will only be complete in heaven.
Jesus said “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it“ (Matthew 16:18). Peter understood this and spoke of unto whom coming, as unto a living stone, ye also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house (1 Peter 2:4), and Paul “in whom the whole building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord (Ephesians 2:21). The Lord continues to add to the church those that are to be saved (Acts 2:47), and He will have it in perfection. This has resulted in what some call ‘the invisible church’.
When Christ ascended up on high, He gave gifts to men: apostles and prophets were the foundation (Ephesians 2:20); then there were evangelists, shepherds and teachers. These were set in the whole church or assembly according to 1 Corinthians 12. So a teacher in Corinth could teach in Ephesus. A man with a gift of tongues spoke wherever he was, it was a gift to the whole body, to the perfecting of the saints and edifying of the body till we all grow to the stature of Christ (Ephesians 4-12:13). Christians were to wait on one another in prophesying or exhorting. Women were to keep silent in the assemblies.
The Church as the House (or Habitation) of God
There is another view of the Church, that is the House, a habitation of God, but built by people in responsibility. God did not dwell with Adam or Abraham, but He did with Israel after it was redeemed out of Egypt. He now dwells in the house of the living God, by the Holy Spirit, consequent on Christ’s redeeming work on the cross, His resurrection and ascension. The house is where the Holy Spirit dwells – a habitation of God through the Spirit,” (Ephesians 2:22).
That is in spite of the fact that man has built a lot that is not of God. Paul says “As a wise master-builder, I have laid the foundation, but let every man take heed how he buildeth thereon (1 Corinthians 3:10). That means that there can be a lot of things which were not sound structurally – wood and hay and stubble, fit only to be burned. However, God has not yet executed judgment, but this is why, when He does judgment must begin at the house of God (1 Peter 4:17)
That is how the church or assembly is depicted in scripture.
What are Churches or Assemblies?
In New Testament times, Churches were local. Believers could not meet all in one place so there were assemblies in each town or city, each forming God’s assembly, the unity of the body, in that place. There was one church in Corinth, one in Thessalonica, Jerusalem or Ephesus; in Galatia, a province, there were several. Wherever there was an assembly it could be addressed as such. Paul could write a letter unto the church of God which is at Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:2), and that was to the whole assembly in that city. It could be small or large, from ‘two or three’ to hundreds or thousands. Elders or overseers looked after God’s flock.
They did not have church buildings – they met in houses. The Most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands (Acts 7:48). Many houses must have been used, but there was just one assembly in the place and elders related to the whole assembly in the place. The Christians that composed it were members of the whole body, not the local one, the only membership seen in scripture being of the whole of Christ’s body.
Elders (called bishops in KJV, but the word means ‘overseer’) were local. Qualifications were needed: blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach (1 Timothy 3:2) , Gift was not essential, though the ability to teach was desirable. They were elders in the one assembly of God, in the place in which the Holy Ghost had made them overseers (Acts 14:23; Titus 1; Acts 20:28
The State of Churches Now
Churches are totally different now. Although the Lord still speaks, and those who have been raised up may minister as God has given them the word, man has organized them according to his fancy. The thought of Church of God has been forgotten save for owning some ‘invisible church’ to which the Lord is faithful. This is sad, because if it is to be the light of the world, how can it be invisible? It may be more visible when persecuted for there people give their testimony under extreme conditions.
Publicly the church has sunk into popery, or eastern orthodoxy, or Protestantism. In the latter governments have set up national churches. For some time after the reformation people were coerced into certain churches, but later there was religious liberty. This led to the setting up of independent or non-conformist churches, but nobody thought of anything other than systems of organized churches, humanly united. The unity of the body of which we were all members and that the Holy Spirit was here, the gifts being given by Christ, and those with them bearing responsibility for the whole church; all this was wholly forgotten and left aside. Truth as contained in scripture as to the Church and the presence of the Holy Spirit was ignored.
In the establishment, episcopal authority is deemed to be passed on by succession. Furthermore, they claim to make people members of Christ by baptism of water – totally unscriptural, instead of seeing that one Spirit are we all baptized into one body. (1 Corinthians 12:13). Baptism is to the death of Christ.
Even outside the episcopal system assemblies are formed by men who appointe or vote for a man, or woman, at their head. Sometimes this causes a division. People regard themselves as members of this so-formed church or assembly – a body organised by man and acting humanly. They may be members of Christ or not: what counts is that they are members of a particular assembly. The way this is done varies but the Holy Spirit is totally left out of consideration. From beginning to end, all action is of man.
What is more, the assembly has a single church leader, be it a vicar, pastor or minister. That person, often salaried, will think of it has his flock, not the flock of God. If gifted, he may be a preacher, but he preaches in his church; his gift is constrained to one place. He may even not even be converted, but he has been educated for the ministerial profession and ordained. His object is to increase the congregation, especially of well-to-do people who can contribute to the church’s funds and influence. If he does not succeed he may be dismissed or forced to resign. God’s constitution for the church has ben substituted by man’s and the Holy Spirit’s power and order is ignored, if it is believed on at all. The results – let us not even talk about them! The miserable consequences are well known in the church and in the world too.
The Scriptural View of Churches
In scripture there is no thought of a membership of a particular church, or a vicar, minister or pastor of a flock peculiar to him, and no thought of a voluntary assembly with its own policies or principles. There is God’s church or assembly, not man’s churches. If Paul wrote a letter “To the assembly of God in x”, where would it be delivered now? No such body exists because churches have set aside the Word, the church of God and the Holy Spirit.
There are evangelists, shepherds and teachers. But they should exercise their God given talents wherever they happen to be, not in a nominated church where they are appointed or chosen, and certainly not amongst ‘their flock’. Gifts are for the whole church.
How should a Christian view the State of Christian Churches?
When questioned, the answer from Christians who appreciate what is right is often, ‘That is how it is’. Godly, conscientious people are conversant with the state of things, and may acknowledge the principles that we have seen. Their groans are heard. But the system makes them powerless. They are hindered by the fear of man, and the desire to be pleasing to men. Paul said if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:10). Exercised souls need to act in faith trusting God, by His Spirit, to rule and bless His own house.
Darby asks the simple question: Is the existing order of things scriptural or anti-scriptural? … Happy is he who follows the word, and owns the Spirit, if he be alone in doing so. The word of the Lord abides for ever, as does he who does His will.
J.N. Darby (1800-1882)
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