In this paper, Coates shows the position I should take in the Christian gathering I am attached to, and how it relates to others in the same town, and others with a similar outlook. It helps us too to see how we should behave if division comes in.
by Charles Coates (1862-1945)
It is evident that the words “local responsibility” mean something quite different in the minds of different persons. … What I understand by “local responsibility” is that saints, though undoubtedly having their place in the one assembly of God, viewed in its totality as comprehending all saints on earth, have also a place, clearly recognised in Scripture, in relation to the locality in which they reside. We read of the assembly in Jerusalem, in Antioch, in Ephesus, in Cenchrea, in Corinth, etc., etc., and we learn from Revelation l-3 that each local assembly is viewed and addressed by the Lord as having a distinct place and responsibility before Him. It is true that the one who has an ear, wherever he may be, is called to hear what the Spirit says to the assemblies. This makes clear that the assemblies are not independent of each other, but that what is said to any assembly is necessary and profitable for all who desire to have the Lord’s mind as to things. The Lord has not one mind for the assembly in Ephesus, and another for the assembly in Smyrna, but He does regard each in its own place and condition, and addresses it accordingly. Now it seems to me, that we should clearly see and acknowledge this local responsibility, as well as truth which pertains to the assembly at large, viewed in its general unity.
I fully believe that the assembly is a heavenly stranger, not indigenous to earth; not morally linked with anything in the present world system. As a matter of fact, it is on earth as the vessel of God’s testimony, and for the expression of Christ. It is in an actual company of men and women here on earth that God dwells and Christ is expressed. Scripture clearly recognises that this company in Ephesus is distinct from the company in Smyrna; they are two distinct assemblies and each is addressed by the Lord in its local responsibility and according to its local condition.
I judge that the recognition of this is not as many seem to suppose, a mere point of ecclesiastical order or formal correctness, but that it is of great moral importance, because all questions in regard to the practical walking together of saints stand connected with what is local. That is, as resident in Teignmouth, all my immediate relations and associations are with the saints in Teignmouth. It is in relation with them, that I personally maintain, compromise, or abandon the truth of the assembly. I recognise the assembly of God in Teignmouth, of which all saints in the town form part. Therefore with scripture before me – the Lord’s mind as to things – I must hold to the fact that the assembly in Teignmouth is viewed by the Lord as distinct from the assembly in Exeter or in Plymouth. That is, it has a local position and responsibility of its own.
The saints are the assembly of God, the temple of God, Christ’s body, 1 Timothy 3: l5; 1 Corinthians 1:16; 12:27. They are in this holy position by the call of God and in virtue of the presence of the Spirit. It may be said that many of them do not know or recognise the position to which they are called, and in which they are set by God. But speaking as an individual saint enlightened by God as to His will, I see what the saints are according to God, and I hold to it as the truth, even if no other agrees with me. I own the one assembly locally as well as the one assembly universally, because I see both aspects of the truth in Scripture.
Assembly order and discipline are necessarily local. It is to the local assembly you tell your grievance, In Matthew 18: l7, it is the local assembly that puts away from itself a wicked person; that comes together to break bread and so on. All this must be admitted, I think, by those subject to Scripture and we are to follow it as righteousness, 2 Timothy 2:22: that is, what is right and according to God.
I take it that it is a part of righteousness and that which faith would assuredly hold fast, that the assembly of God is to be owned locally as well as generally. In owning it, love would surely come into activity towards one’s local brethren, and we should use diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the uniting bond of peace. All this would be moral evidence that we were calling upon the Lord out of a pure heart.
Much of the difficulty of the present situation seems to me to arise from the fact that the “meeting” in a town is viewed as having some kind of corporate existence and responsibility apart from all other saints in the town. This, I submit, is really a sectarian idea and ought not to be entertained.
If but one individual in a town were seeking to pursue righteousness, faith, etc., he would necessarily have to walk alone locally, though being quite free to join his brethren elsewhere in their privileges as opportunity occurred, if no moral questions intervened as a barrier. If two or three, or twenty or thirty saints in a town were individually set to walk in the path I have indicated, they could, of course, walk together but they would not embrace in their thoughts anything less than the whole local assembly composed of all saints in the town. … Evil may come in amongst them, which they may have to judge and put away from amongst themselves. Or it is even possible that iniquity may come to predominate so much, that nothing remains for the faithful but to depart from it. …
In connection with this, does it not seem clear from Revelation 2 & 3 that the Lord must be owned as having to say directly to each local assembly? He does not commission Philadelphia to deal with Laodicea. It is He Himself who rebukes, chastens and calls to repentance.
It seems to me that if saints really held the scriptural thought of local responsibility they would not think of taking up, save by prayer and counsel, the case of saints in confusion in another town. They would press upon them to seek the Lord, and to act before Him according to their own exercises and faith in their own town. It would be no question of whether they were a “meeting” or not, but of recognising them as being of God’s assembly in another place.
Much has been said as to a case where prolonged endeavours have failed to bring about local reconciliation between divided saints. The question is asked, “How long is this to go on?” Well, surely if a number of saints, waiting on the Lord and humbled before Him, were really clear so as to be gathered to His name, He would make it plain when His time had come for them to break bread together again. I judge they would be able to show themselves to be so clear of all the past confusion, and as to their position in regard to their unreconciled brethren, that saints in other towns would have no difficulty in extending to them the right hand of fellowship. …
One word, in conclusion, as to the course, which brethren in many places have adopted, of declining for a time to receive from places where division occurs. Great exception has been taken to this course, but I fail to see on what scriptural grounds. No person instructed in the truth of the assembly would advocate going to both parties in a case of local division, but would it be wise or gracious to assume at once that every local breach is irreparable, and to decide at once which of the two parties – perhaps equally culpable – we will go with? If brethren go on with one party in such a case, they necessarily refuse the other, and thus decide the case at once. But should not patience be exercised, and space given for repentance, and healing of the breach? No principle is involved in this; it is simply a time of waiting upon God to grant local healing, if it is His will. If healing be not granted, time is needed to enable saints in other places to consider the facts and principles involved therein, of any local breach, and to wait on God for wisdom and guidance in regard to it. So, as far as I know, this is all the brethren desire, and I think any godly person would be quite willing to waive for the time his individual privilege in breaking bread, that such patience might be exercised.
Charles Coates (1862-1945)
I was given the last paragraph as an excerpt and have published it as ‘How we should React in Regard to an Assembly where there is Division’. I am indebted to two brothers in the Mid West USA, who have given me the full paper, which has been reproduced digitally, slightly abridged, here.
Sosthenes, May 2014