John Nelson Darby’s Paper on Church Breakdown and Sectarianism in Christendom
“The Faith once delivered to the Saints” – A summary by Sosthenes
In this paper, John Darby notes that whatever God sets up perfectly, main ruins. This applies equally to Christendom, we see the public ruin of the church. Despite church breakdown, it remains the Church, and it is for us to be faithful to the Lord whilst accepting our part in its public failure. We are in the last days and the Lord’s coming is imminent, so we are exhorted to earnestly contend for the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude v.3).
Despite the public situation, we need to have a conscience as to what is evil, and keep close to the Lord, We must heed the Holy Spirit, judging evil, and resting the word, not the teachings of men. We must be prepared to act alone or with just a few. Then we can then get a view of God’s work. So we should know what God’s mind is for us on our path, individually and collectively. And we can trust in God, not in our own reasoning – in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength:” (Isaiah 30:15)
Trusting in God
As Christians, God in grace has put us on a path, both individually and collectively. It is important therefore for to know where we are on that path and what God’s mind for us on it. Our circumstances may vary, but God’s principles never vary. While God’s thoughts do not change, we need spiritual discernment to see where we are, and how we can go on with God, without departing from the great principles laid down for us in God’s Word.
God said to a rebellious people, under attack in Hezekiah’s time “in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength:” (Isaiah 30:15). The people were being called “not my people” (Hosea 1:9). God’s mind never changed as to His people, but they were protected during Hezekiah’s time. Later they were to experience judgment. Still, those who trusted would be preserved.
Man spoils what God sets up
In Adam, Noah, Aaron, Solomon and Nebuchadnezzar, God set up something good. Man spoilt it. That is because of his poor human nature. We must bear this in mind this when assessing our position, otherwise it will become our own ruin. We cannot plead God’s faithfulness and promises in order to sanction evil.
As God carries on, a remnant is preserved in tune with Him. So just before the Lord came there were small numbers – Zacharias, Mary, Simeon, Anna – they were awaiting redemption. They knew one another and were intelligent too as to the Lord’s entry. Meanwhile Israel rejected Christ when He came.
There was soon Failure in the Early Church
If we look at the Church, God’s assembly on earth, in the early days of the Acts of the Apostles, 3000 were converted in one day. All had one heart and one mind; they had everything in common, and the place was shaken where they were. The power of the Spirit of God was there.
Evil got in when Ananias and Sapphira made things out to be different from what they were. But because the Spirit of God was there, these two fell dead and fear came upon all, both inside and outside. However, that line of corruption has continued, so that even before the close of scripture the whole profession was mixed up with the world, and judgment was called for. Just look at the church now, the Roman Catholic system included!
Have a Conscience about our Position in the Church
Due to a lack conscience, most do not have a sense of the condition that they are in, and also how God is working. To be intelligent spiritually, as being part of the professing church, we need a sense of our condition.
We may have to act Individually
Abraham acted alone – Look to Abraham … I called him alone, and blessed him, and increased him (Isaiah 51:2) . Being little was of no consequence. God blessed him; He will bless us still more.
The Church teaching? – and the Holy Scriptures
The Church’s teaching? People say the church teaches this and that, but who is that? The church? What do they mean? We never see the church teaching. The church does not teach – it is taught; individuals teach. But remember that there is no inspired person in the church now to teach with absolute authority. So for authority we must turn to the Word of God itself. We must learn from Peter and Paul.
Paul reminds Timothy of the things he had learned – the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation (2 Timothy 3:15).
The scriptures are the direct authority of God; they determine everything. Meanwhile we have His Spirit to communicate things. We have ministry too, which is a help. But it is a poor thing if we look only to men as guides.
We are in the Last Days –and it is a time of Judgment
It is on the authority of scripture that we know that we are in the last days. Unfortunately many people do not appreciate that. Being in them requires us to have a judgment as to the general condition around us. What so many do, even if they have right feelings as to the condition, is to shelter in what they regard as the church’s teaching, a wrong principle as we have seen.
We see from scripture that the Church has departed from God, and ruined what He set up. That was already happening when Jude wrote: it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude v.3).
For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17). In Ezekiel judgment was to start at God’s house – begin at my sanctuary, (Ezekiel 9:6).
As to the last days John said, Even now are there many antichrists, whereby we know that it is the last time. (1 John 2:18). God has born with the state of the church for centuries: it has not improved. Now God is calling souls to Himself in grace (as He did Israel).
Our hearts should take notice: what was set up so beautiful in the power of God’s Spirit – what has it all come to? It casts us on the strength that can never fail!
The Lord Judging the Churches
In Revelation 2-3, Christ addresses the seven churches in Asia. He was not speaking to the churches as Head of the body, though He is always that, but as looking on them in their responsibility to maintain His interests down here on the earth. This was Christ walking in the midst of the candlesticks, judging the state of the churches. The Churches had to listen to what He had to say. What had they made of the blessings that had been entrusted to them? For example, to the young assembly in Thessalonica (Thessaloniki) the Bible speaks of works, labour, faith, love, patience and hope; but to mature Ephesus it is just works, labour and patience – faith and love were missing. Indeed in Ephesus the spring was missing – judgement was needed, and the candlestick would be removed if they did not repent. Hence the faithful were exhorted: He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches. (Revelation 2:7 etc).
The Public Ruin of the Church
Christians were losing their place. “All seek their own, not the things that are Jesus Christ’s.” (Philippians 2:21) , but they did not cease being the church. Nevertheless it says, “In the last days perilous times shall come; for men shall be lovers of their own selves and so on; (2 Tim. 3:1-2). Evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:13). There is the professing church, such as it is, and things would return to the level of heathendom. Mere formality was leading to infidelity or superstition and it was clear that this is how things were going.
The Church has failed publicly in being the epistle of Christ. It is not a question of apportioning blame or attacking persons, because we are all involved. Things were set up so beautifully in the power of God’s Spirit – what have they all come to? It has not ceased to be the church of God. But the state of the Church has to be judged. But grace fits the condition.
The Answer to the Church’s Condition is in Jesus
Christ is as sufficient for the Church now, as He was at when He first set up the church in its beauty and blessedness. We have to look at His word and see what His mind is, whilst not hiding our eyes from the state we are in. There is power to overcome in the midst of evil.
Things get mixed up – the good and the evil go on together. The wise and foolish virgins slept together, but things changed at the words ‘Behold the bridegroom cometh’ (Matthew 25:6). The Lord’s coming is imminent. Our relationship with God is to be more than our testimony to men, otherwise we will break down and fail. We must renew our strength. We must remain in that which was from the beginning. If that which ye have heard from the beginning shall remain in you, ye also shall continue in the Son, and in the Father (1 John 2:24). The great secret of Christian life is our intercourse with God by the Holy Spirit. And that makes nothing of ourselves.
When the children of Israel failed in Joshua’s time, they had to get back to Gilgal – complete separation from the world. But the angel of the Lord went to Bochim, the place of tears. This means that as well as being separate, we should feel the situation.
All that will live godly in Christ Jesus will be Persecuted
It does not say that every Christian will be persecuted, but all that will live godly (2 Timothy 3:12). The world will not stand a man showing the power of the spirit of God. It drew out the enmity when Christ was here, and it does now. All those who seek to be faithful to the Lord in days of departure can expect that.
Seeing the Church Here
I see what God set up; I see the unity of the body, and Christ as the Head. That is what the Church was to be on earth. Jesus said “Upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18). It is Christ’s building, and that building is going on still. It is not finished. Paul says of the building, fitly framed together groweth unto a holy temple in the Lord. (Ephesians 2:21). Now that is what Christ’s work is – men call it the invisible church.
We are building, and if rightly, on the foundation laid by Paul. If I build with the wrong materials wood, hay, stubble my work will be destroyed. But Hades gates will not prevail. 1 Corinthians 3:12 .
The Work of the Holy Spirit
As an individual I find that the secret of power of good against evil, outside or inside, is the presence of the Spirit of God, – the Word being the guide. Paul said to some going on badly, “Do you believe, beloved friends, that your bodies are the temples of the Holy Ghost?” ( 1 Corinthians 6:19). Then what kind of persons ought we to be?
It is the same collectively, “know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16 ). The presence of the Spirit gives power for real blessing – whether in the church or the individual.
Now, we have true and full redemption; the Holy Spirit dwells in those who believe. We can be the expression of what Christ was Himself when He was down here. When a person is really a Christian, God dwells in him; he is sealed with the Holy Spirit, who is the power for all moral conduct. If we really believe this should not we be in subjection and not grieving the Spirit?
Things which are inconceivable to man are revealed unto us by God’s Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:9). The Spirit of God and the spirit of the world are always in contrast. What God has revealed is in spite of our state, and this includes our apprehension of the Church in these days of ruin.
In 1 Corinthians 2 the Holy Spirit is seen in three ways
- Things are revealed by the Spirit;
- Things communicated in teaching by the Spirit;
- Things spiritually discerned – received by the power of the Spirit.
I cannot have my private judgment in the things of God. The moment I get my own thoughts into divine things I start judging the Word of God. Not accepting God’s word in Scripture is one sign of the evil of our times. But if I own the Word of God, brought by His Spirit, I hear what God says to me: it judges me; I do not judge it. It is the divine word brought to my conscience and heart, and who am I to judge God when God is speaking to me? But it has to be the Word of God – what was inspired at the beginning, and nothing else.
If I were to say I understand and judge the Word of God by itself, I am a rationalist – it is man’s mind judging the revelation of God. But where I get God’s mind communicated by the Holy Ghost, spiritually discerned, I get God’s mind. God has given us the wisdom and power to meet the state of ruin in which we are now, just as at first when He set up the church. That is what I have to lean upon.
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