A summary by Sosthenes of John Nelson Darby’s
On Ecclesiastical Independency
Darby observed the tendency of Christians to confuse their private, independent judgment with their conscience. My individual judgment may be as a result of my own will, and I will act independently, whereas conscience relates to God’s rights, the Word and the Lord’s authority. If I am disobedient, I am acting independently, in self-will, and am despising God’s authority.
There is only one Church of God – the body of Christ. An action in one gathering is binding on all, even if I personally have reservations about it. Scripture does not support independent churches, whether in a place or universally. Although many Christians might prefer to belong to independent assemblies, these are unscriptural, the work of Satan and positively evil, flying in the face of known truth.
If there is blasphemy in a local assembly or association with it, then I have to act. That is not independence, but I am acting in the light of the whole: “Because we, being many, are one loaf, one body; for we all partake of that one loaf (1 Corinthians 10:17 JND). We profess to be one body whenever we break bread; scripture knows nothing else.
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Personal Judgment and Conscience
It is a fatal mistake to confuse your private, personal and independent judgment, with conscience. To do so leads to chaos, confusion and disintegration. That is the trouble with Protestantism.
A father has authority. He is not infallible. But I have to respect his authority, and submit to it, even if I disagree with my father. If I disobeyed my father whenever it conflicted with personal judgment, I would be despising his authority. In fact I am putting my self-will above obedience. Indeed, in many situations – government, employment and so on, obedience is obligatory although there is no infallibility. Otherwise there would be no order in the world at all. There is blessing in doing what we know in obedience.
But if Christ’s authority is a stake, a denial of the Word, or the confession of His name, then that is a matter of conscience. I am bound to love Christ more than father or mother.
However, obeying God rather than man is not to give liberty to the human will. Scripture does not tolerate that. We are sanctified to the obedience of Christ. And this principle – our doing God’s will in simple obedience, without analysing every matter that comes up – is a path of peace. Many who consider themselves wise do not regard that, but it is the path of God’s wisdom.
Assembly Judgment and Personal Judgment
The same principle applies in the Church. Say a Christian assembly has put somebody out for evil. The assembly feels that he is humbled and repentant and restores him. I think he is not. It would be a despisal of the assembly for me to refuse to break bread with that person because of my private judgment. The same applies if the converse is true. If I think he is humbled and the assembly is not, then I have to continue humbly in prayer and look to the Lord to set things right.
I might disagree with something that arises in my Christian gathering. Who am I to impose my individual way of thinking on my brethren? If I set up my judgment as superior to that of the Assembly of God which has been entrusted to care for the Lord’s interests, I am neglecting God’s word and He will not honour me in that. Moreover, if I leave an assembly because it does not agree with me in everything, I cannot belong to any assembly of God anywhere the world. I am denying the presence and help of the Holy Spirit, and the faithfulness of Christ to His people.
Darby said: There is such a thing as lowliness as to self, which does not set up its own opinion against others, though one may have no doubt of being right.
One Assembly’s Act Binds Another
Scripture does not support the idea of independent Christian assemblies. All Christians are members of the Body of Christ. When the assembly in Corinth was called to act as to the incestuous man in 1 Corinthians 5, that assembly was responsible for maintaining things pure for the Lord, and action was taken by the whole assembly in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. The wicked person could not have been received in Ephesus or nearby Cenchrea. If assemblies acted as independent churches and received independently of one another, then they would be rejecting the unity of the body. There could then be no practical unity.
Christian unity is maintained by the headship of Christ, not by His lordship. Christ is Lord to individuals, but Head to the whole body, – head over all things to the church. (Ephesians 1:22). Therefore unity is not by lordship. Obedient, godly individuals will help to maintain it; but unity is the unity of the Spirit, in the whole body, not in multiple bodies.
As to Church unity, scripture does not speak about churches or a bond linking individual churches. Unity does not consist of union of churches. The idea of Independent churches: one body of Christians being independent of every other but united by voluntary association, is unscriptural. It is a simple denial of the unity of the body.
What is an Assembly Judgment?
If a judgment is made by one or a few dominant Christians in an assembly, not by the whole assembly, then the Lord’s place in the midst of an assembly is set aside. Individuals are acting in the flesh. It cannot be called an assembly judgment.
The saying “Obedience to first Christ, then the Church” is totally unscriptural. That is separating the two: if Christ is not in the church, then it is not the Church of Christ. It would justify my putting private judgment above that of the assembly.
What about Serious Church Matters?
If a Christian assembly supports or associates with what is blasphemous, then that is a totally different matter. I cannot be associated with that. I cannot use lowliness as to self to justify my remaining in that assembly; I would be setting aside the idea of the Church of God. I am free to act: we are a flock, not an enclosure.
What the Church must Judge
The judicial authority of the Church of God is in obedience to the word. Paul says “Do ye not judge them that are within? Them that are without God judgeth. Wherefore put out from among yourselves that wicked person.” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13) Where a person has been judged unfit for Christian fellowship, Christians everywhere are bound to respect it. Even if something had been done in the flesh, it is met by recognising the supreme authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the presence of the Spirit of God amongst the saints.
It is wrong for one Christian church or assembly to assume the competency to judge another. Otherwise that would justify independent churches. This is unscriptural and denial of the whole structure of the Church of God. Many Christians understandably prefer to be members of independent churches; it is more comfortable, and they can choose an assembly that suits them, but that is wrong. The Church is not a voluntary association; It is not formed of independent churches, each acting for itself. When Antioch admitted Gentiles, there was no suggestion that Jerusalem would not. There is one body and every Christian has the duty to maintain its unity. Self-will might wish otherwise, but grace certainly does not.
What if there are Difficulties in the Assembly?
We do not have an apostolic centre now, as there was in Jerusalem in Acts 15. But we do have the the Holy Spirit, acting in healing grace and helpful gift, and the faithfulness of a gracious Lord who has promised never to leave us or forsake us. The Holy Ghost acts in the body, maintaining its unity.
But what if the flesh acts in the Christian assembly? It may do. But what denies the unity of the Church, and splits it up into independent churches, is unscriptural, and nothing but the flesh. It is the dissolution of the Church of God. The remedy is in humble, subject minds, helped by God’s Spirit in maintaining the unity of the body and the Lord’s faithful love and care. If I cite the question of infallibility to justify my judgment over against divinely-ordained authority met by lowly grace, I am on independent lines, rejecting the whole authority of scripture in its teaching on the subject of the Church. I am setting up a system of man instead of God.
Is “Two or three Gathered Together” the Assembly of God?
If two or three are gathered together, it is an assembly, and if scripturally assembled in the Lord’s Name, an assembly of God. If it is the only Christian assembly in a place, it is the assembly of God in that place. But if souls set up an assembly, and assume the exclusive title of the assembly of God, they may lose sight of the ruin of the church. Any assembly set up by man’s will, independent of the unity of the body cannot morally claim to be the assembly of God in God’s sight. The whole independent system is unscriptural, the work of Satan and positively evil, flying in the face of known truth. Ignorance is one thing; opposition to the truth is something else.
It is alleged that because the Church is in ruins the unity of the body can no longer be maintained. So if we maintain that but gather to break bread, we are in disorder and defying God’s word “Because we, being many, are one loaf, one body; for we all partake of that one loaf (1 Corinthians 10:17 JND). We profess to be one body whenever we break bread; scripture knows nothing else.
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