Based on a Paper by J N Darby – ‘On the Formation of Churches’
JND Collected Writings Volume 1 (Eccleiastical 1) p 138 –
In the town where I live there are several churches – three Church of England, one Roman Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Salvation Army. There is a Gospel Hall, a ‘Free Evangelical’, a ‘Gospel Mission Church’ as well as evangelical groups gathering one in a shop and another in a local school. There may be more. Then an old CofE church was taken over by mostly Afro-Caribbean believers, and you can hear their music when we come from our meeting on Lord’s Day morning 150 yards away! They must take Psalm 150 literally. Then on Sunday mornings there is a sign outside of a community hall – ‘Peace and Love Assembly’ – whatever that is. Of course there may be more. And of course there is the little meeting room where I go. I am sure there are many devout Christians in each one.
Were these assemblies formed as a result of Godly concern as to evil working in a gathering from which it was necessary to separate, and to find other believers with whom to walk, or were they formed through Christians uniting behind a particular cause or person?
In his essay, summarised below, John Nelson Darby looked at the various church organisations amid the confusion that is Christendom. Many churches have adopted the title ‘Church of God’ formally or informally, seeking to strike a balance between keeping the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:3), and separating the precious from the vile (see Jer. 15:19).
The Lord’s Purpose in the Gathering of the Saints on Earth
The gathering together of saints into one was the immediate object on earth of Christ’s death. Salvation had always been in place; saints of the old dispensation were saved through the death of Christ. Now by the Spirit we are gathered as well as saved. That is what forms the church.
Hypocrites and evil men have crept into the church, but for that there must have been a church for them to creep into.
National churches ensued from the Reformation. Whilst the Reformation brought out more clearly the doctrine of salvation, it did not touch the question of the true character of God’s church. Instead of restoring things to their original state, it made the state the supreme authority, replacing the pope. By definition, all citizens of a country were regarded as Christians, and automatically members of the national church.
Any serious believer must realise that a national church (the Church of England for example) cannot be regarded as the complete assembly of God. People refer to a visible and an invisible church, the national church being the former and the true church encompassing all believers the latter. But scripture says, Ye are the light of the world. A city set on an hill cannot be hid. (Matt 5:14). Of what use is an invisible light? To say that the true church is invisible, is to say that it has lost its original standing and departed from the purpose of God.
Non-Conformist, or Dissenting Congregations
Can any of the dissenting Protestant churches (Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal etc) attain to what God has in mind in the gathering together in one of His children – universally or locally?
In scripture, believers were gathered in various localities. The Christians in each town or city formed one body:- the Assembly of God in ‘X’. At Corinth, for example, a letter addressed to the church of God would have found its way to a known body. There may have been many physical gatherings in private homes and other places, but they formed one body in the place. God raised up shepherds and teachers in the assembly, but they served the whole. So we have the union of all the children of God universally, and the union of all the children of God in each city or town.
According to Scripture the sum of all the churches here on earth composed the whole church; and the church in any given place was no other than the regular association together of whatever formed part of the entire body of the church on earth; and he who was not a member of the church in that place , was not a member of Christ’s church at all.
Now the unified state that we see in the Bible has ceased to exist. What should Christians do when the condition of things set before us in the word no longer exists?
Maybe we should reform it? That presupposes:
- That it is God’s will.
- That we are capable and authorised to restore it.
We recognise that we have sinned. If we set about doing what was right, by being upright out of a sense of duty, that would be self-righteousness, and not pleasing to God. Apply the same logic to the church. We, as Christians, have departed from the original state, and are guilty of that sin. If we undertake to re-establish it ourselves, it would be in the same spirit of self-righteousness, and we would not have God’s support.
Now if we set up another body, taking the name of the church of God, by definition, we would have to regard all non-members of that body as schismatic strangers to God’s church. So what we now have is a large number of partial voluntary churches in different places, with tight hierarchical centralised organisations at one end of the spectrum and loose affiliations of independent assemblies at the other. The practice of making churches with various forms, has in itself led to the separation of the thoughts of universal and local church. The idea of God’s complete church, has been lost sight of.
Can Man Restore the Fallen Condition?
The church cannot fail. The Lord said, ‘The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’ (Matt 16:18). The salvation of the elect is secure; the glory of the church will be seen in resurrection, with Satan defeated. Meanwhile God will maintain the confession of Jesus here on earth until the church has been taken away. That is not in question. Popery would maintain that it has not failed publicly, and that it is the whole church. But that line is leading to apostasy.
Publicly, the dispensation is in ruins, and in a condition of entire departure from its original standing. Persons are trying to set it up again, without any warrant to do so.
Because of man’s sin, believers have been scattered. Has there been anybody who has undertaken the apostolic office of re-establishing things on their original footing, and in so doing, re-establish the entire dispensation, apprehending the divine will, having by the Holy Spirit the power to accomplish the task? Of course not. He may have desired to, but like David in building the house was not able to do so.
What can be Done?
Bless God that the Word and the Spirit still remain in the church. May the church lean on that.
I do not have the competency to re-establish the first condition of the church. I humbly feel the real condition of the church, and this preserves me from activities which are unauthorised by the word.
I have to accept that the condition of the dispensation at its close will be just the reverse of what it was at its opening. Sadly, the wild olive tree which had been grafted in, has now been cut out (See Rom. 11:22). But there can be a revival. Nehemiah saw the fallen condition of Israel, and that they were in great distress. He did what he was authorised to do – not more. He did not re-make the Ark or the Urim and Thummim, or imitate the Shekinah. Neverthless we are told in that he had blessing such as had not been ‘since the days of Joshua’; (Neh. 8:17) because he was faithful to God in the circumstances in which he stood.
God has left faithful Christians sufficient directions for us to follow. And the Spirit of God is with us to strengthen us in the path of true obedience.
How it Can be Done.
The Spirit of God, foreseeing all that would happen in the church, has given us help and warnings. He tells us that there would be perilous times, and tells us that we should turn away from certain men. (See 2 Tim 3:1-5) We cannot break bread with all – maybe just with two or three gathered to His name. Indeed the Spirit gives us even more precise directions: he that names the name of Christ should depart from iniquity. Where I find iniquity, I must leave it – I am in the great house (the Christian profession) but I must purge myself from vessels to dishonour so as to be a vessel made to honour, fit for the master’s use. And the man of God is exhorted to follow righteousness, faith, love, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart. See (2 Tim 2:19-22)
Planting of Churches
There is an expression that is current now (not in Darby’s time) as to the planting of churches. Those involved draw on Paul’s instructions to Timothy and Titus as to church order and see it in terms of choosing elders, deacons etc, even buildings. Pastors, teachers, and evangelists are gifts which have their places in the unity of the body, and are exercised wherever God has graciously given them.
So a ‘planted church’ from another nearby one presumes that there was no assembly of God in the target locality. This is almost never the case.
How are we to meet then?
To do nothing is not an option. But before doing anything we must feel deeply the ruined state of the church, and act with less presumption and more diffidence.
You say , ‘I have separated myself from evil , because my conscience disapproves what is at variance with the word’ That is good: now assemble together. Jesus aaid, ‘For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.’ (Matt.18:20). However, if you organise a church, choosing a president or a pastor, and by implication claim to be the Church of God of the place where you live, I question your commission to do this. I see no trace in scripture of the churches having elected presidents or pastors. It is said that such appointments are necessary to maintain order. Such order, being constituted by the will of man, will soon be seen to be disorder in the sight of God. If there are but two or three who meet together in the name of Jesus, He will be there. Otherwise the appropriate scripture is, ‘He that gathereth not with me scattereth’ (Matt 12:30). If God raises up pastors (that is persons who shepherd, not an official position), it is a blessing. But ever since the day when the Holy Spirit formed the church, we have no record of the church choosing pastors.
We must acknowledge our weakness and dependence upon God. God is sufficient for His church. Despite the ruin, power is available. Call upon Him. He can raise up whatever is needed for the blessing of the saints. He will do that – have no doubt about it. Acknowledge the authority of Christ, the great Shepherd of the sheep. He rules as Son over His house, whose house are we, and the Spirit of God is the sole power in the church. Anything else is pretence, and is under the domination of man. There is no promise in favour of the system by which men organise churches, but there is the promise of the Lord’s presence for those who ‘assemble together’.
We need to humble ourselves before the Lord, as we separate from that which we know to be evil, bearing with those persons who continue ignorantly as to the evil, though I may have to leave them. We must lean upon Him who is able to do all that is necessary, without assuming to do more, ourselves, than the word authorises us to do. Such is the position, humble it may be, but it is blessed by God, even if it is despised by men
1. The object to be desired is the gathering of all God’s children.
2. The power of the Holy Spirit can alone effect this.
3. There is no need to wait till that power produces the union of all, because we have the promise that, where two or three are gathered together in the name of the Lord, He will be in the midst. Two or three may act in reliance upon this promise.
5. A commission from man to preach the gospel is a thing unknown in the New Testament.
6. The choosing of presidents or pastors by the church is also altogether without warrant in the New Testament. The choosing of pastors is an encroachment on the authority of the Holy Ghost, who distributes gifts according to His will.
7. It is clearly the duty of a believer to separate himself from every act that he sees to be not according to the word.