What is the Church, and in what sense is it now in ruin?

or, the Church cannot be Reconstructed

Based on a reading with J N Derby, London September 1847

Scriptures read: 1 Timothy 3:15, 16; 2 Timothy 2:19-22

J N Darby (1800-82)

Many dear brethren have understandably been troubled at the expression “the ruin of the church”. They jealously hold that the church cannot fail, and in one sense this is correct.  However, we must distinguish between God’s purposes and the present situation where a man is placed in responsibility. As regards the purpose of God the church cannot be ruined, a testimony for God on earth it is in ruin.

We may ask, ‘Is there a church now on earth or not?’

Well, we may say ‘Is there an army or not?’ Suppose an army is not destroyed but scattered to the four winds, there is still an army, but also there is not an army: it has lost its corporate character.

We might think that we cannot do anything about the ruin: we should just ignore it, satisfied that we are saved by grace.  We are content to live in the ruin.  That demonstrates a lack of faith in God’s promises.  I should feel it to be a very sad effect if the expression “ruin of the church” were to dishearten a soul about the operation of the Spirit in bringing blessing to the church.

God’s purpose is unfailing, so the Church cannot fail as it exists in God’s purpose.  It follows that there are the resources in God to meet the circumstances of every Christian.  Knowing this we can look beyond our failure and the simple application of faith to the working of God’s power and blessing to glorify Christ.  Having the Spirit of Christ I cannot rest in the thought that a Christian is secure in Christ, with a present relationship with Him: I must and endeavour to instruct and exhort him and lead him on.

Thankfully, the Lord is awakening in the souls of many saints everywhere the question – “What is the church of God, and what is its relationship with Christ?”  At the same time they are being awakened as to the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Satan opposes this using past testimony to hinder the present.  We get tired; our minds get distracted but the Lord always has the upper hand.

There are many saints, sound in the faith, who are not prepared to accept what the church of God is as set forth in the word of God. If it is meant that all the saints ever saved will in the end be in company in glory, in redemption and life through Him, and they call that the Assembly of God, I have no objection. The second Adam will have all around Him in glory, as the first Adam had all around him in sin.  In our place we have both privileges and responsibilities.  The Church of the living God is brought into the testimony by the Spirit of God and has a special relationship to God.

The church of the living God is the body of saints formed on earth in unity with Christ in heaven as the Head, by the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven to form them into unity with Christ at the right hand of God.  Some say that this includes all saints since Adam. But the Lord said to Peter, ‘On this rock I will build my church’ (Matt 16:18). If there is to be a testimony the church must be visible, so now it is formed of those who are alive at the present time.

We read in Ephesians that God has set Christ above all principality and power in the heavenly places, consequent on his death and humiliation. The church is in association with him in heaven.  Christ is the righteous One in glory. God has set up a people in union with Christ as their head by the power of the Holy Spirit, formed of Jew and Gentile.  We now have to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

When I look at the Church in glory, I look at it as a body securely and infallibly perfect in God.  When man fails, God brings in an alternative. Adam failed; God brought in Christ. Israel failed; God brought in the assembly.  The Jewish priesthood failed and we see the same thing in the public church. But God fulfils his thoughts in a kingly priesthood.  In the Church I see the bride of Christ engaging an affectionate relationship.

So what do we mean by the ruin of the church?  Who will shew me the manifestation of the unity of the body of Christ? I cannot find it; but I can find saints that will be saved, manifest tokens of His faithfulness, ‘For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst’ (Matt 18:20) – what blessing!  Israel failed before and after the captivity. Nevertheless, His attitude towards His people never changed.  He said, ‘Fear ye not’ (Isa 44:8).

Now bringing it down to our day we find divisions and disagreements among Christians. Does this mean that Christ loves the church less, or is less powerful?  That sorrows us, but we are not to be discouraged.  A truly humble man is not discouraged because he knows his nothingness.

Some years after my conversion I looked around to find where the church was, but I could not find it. I could find plenty of saints better than myself, but not the church set up with power on the earth.  Then I say the church as thus set up is ruined: I could not find a better word for it. The church was founded on the earth in the spirit of the new covenant, and if it fails, there is no judgment as there was with Israel as a nation. No judgment has been executed on the Church of God: we must not confound ruin with cutting off.

Obedience is the only thing in which a Christian should be rigid, it would keep us from latitudinarianism; and there should be nearness to Christ which would keep us from sectarianism.  Sectarianism is getting an interest in a little circle round ourselves

At home and abroad I find this question, What is the church of God? One says, The church is visible. What is its testimony?  Is it to Christ its heavenly Head, separate from sinners?  Another says, It is invisible. It is only invisible because in sin. The false church is visible; the true one invisible.

When in the early 1800s, a few exercised Christians separated from mainline churches, they did not take any official standing.”   Blessing followed and numbers increased. Then trouble came in, and so that their little group became their circle, not the church of the living God. People say, we have been too narrow, we must mix up a little. I cannot be that. ‘If I build again the things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor’ (Gal 2:18). I desire the Church’s entire separation to Christ to whom she belongs – espoused as a chaste virgin. My feet in the narrow way – my heart as large as Christ’s.

The Church of God is responsible in walk and affection towards God, the conscience acknowledging the ruin. ‘I remember thee, the love of thine espousals’ (Jer 2:2).  Note that this is not love for Israel but the love of the state of the people. We have one sole object before our souls, Christ’s coming. If I have the spirit of the bride I shall desire the Bridegroom.  ‘The Spirit and the bride say, Come’ (Rev 22:17).

The question arises as to how much one should  labour and pray for the restoration of the public church.  Ministry is not reconstruction.  I should feel disappointment at the thought of reconstruction: if I have the Spirit of Christ I should be sensible of the loss of suitability in the bride to Him, and wish to become fitted for Him.  The bride is looking for the Bridegroom and will seek to be purified for Him through “the washing of water by the word” (Eph 5:26), as she ought to ne.  We are for Him alone.

Reconstruction is not the object of pursuit. E man might have a desire to be in God’s service.  Howeever, if he has not entirely God’s object, he will succeed, but it will be something else, like the real thing, but quite another thing. Paul had to admit that he did not succeed when he said, ‘All seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s’ (Phil 2:21).  When a man has God’s object, and is thoroughly working for God, he must be a man of sorrows. Paul never got the faith of his fellow labourers nor the church up to his own.

Now I must guard against any thought that I undervalue order. Subjection to the Spirit of God is shown in subjection to what the Spirit of God gives.  I am not pursuing that as an object; I am looking for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Still, I do not doubt but that all my service to the saints down here will come in as ministry.