UNITY OF THE CHURCH IN THE INSPIRED HISTORY
In full accord with what has been shown from the Gospel of John and from the Pauline epistles are the facts presented in the Acts of the Apostles. The disciples were born of God and had genuine faith. From deep anguish they had joy in their risen Lord. But as yet they were awaiting "the promise of the Father, which [said he] ye have beard of me. For John baptised with water; but ye shall be baptised with the Holy Spirit not many days hence" (Acts i. 4, 5). They had not yet His personal presence so as to make them one. They were living units, but did and could not yet possess the promised unity. Saints of God individually, they were soon in virtue of one Spirit to be baptized into one body, Christ's body (1 Cor. xii. 13). Meanwhile they all gave themselves, Mary &c. with them, to persevering prayer.
When the day of Pentecost was a-fulfilling (chap. ii.), the wondrous answer came. The Holy Spirit, attended by significant tokens, filled them all; and they began to speak with other tongues. Devout Jews from every nation were then dwelling at Jerusalem, who could recognise their own languages in Galilean lips telling out the mighty things of God, not in creation now, but in redemption. Nor was there only the church of God but the gospel of grace. For to those pricked in heart by the truth preached and saying, "What shall we do?" the word was, "Repent ye, and be baptised each of you in (or on) the name of Jesus Christ for remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (ver. 38). Thus was the blessing to go on, as it began; the saintly status precedes the grace which established unity and gifts Repentance unto life, and washing away of sins in baptism, were followed by not gifts merely but the Holy Spirit given.
Thus were added about 3,000 souls that day; and they persevered in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles, in the breaking of bread and the prayers. It was not a human or voluntary association, but a divine institution of unequalled character, the one body of Christ. "And the Lord was adding together [the true text] daily those that should be saved" (cf. ver. 47 with 44). Baptism was the mark or sacramental badge for the individual; the Lord's Supper, for the communion of saints as one body (1 Cor. x. 16, 17).
But beyond controversy the article of the church stood, not on the truth of justification by faith, but on the presence and action of the Holy Spirit. When this was a new thing, grace gave plain, characteristic, and irrefragable proofs. These do not seem continued beyond the apostolic era and the close of the N.T. canon, which supplied henceforward the weightier attestation of permanent authority in God's word. At first, as Christ, so also His own, had favour with all the people; for unselfish love, happiness, and holiness, all hanging on the name of the crucified but exalted Jesus, told on conscience and heart, to say nothing of wonders and signs.
But as the work grew, the Jewish rulers became exasperated and threatened in vain; for with great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. Lying was sternly judged "within" as lying to the Holy Spirit, for God was there as never before (Acts v. 4.). Signs were yet more abundant subsequently, as before the place wherein they were assembled shook in answer to their praying. Yea, their bared religious adversaries might imprison or beat the apostles, but what could be done with men rejoicing to be counted worthy of dishonour for the Name? And every day in the temple and at home they ceased not preaching and teaching Jesus the Christ. The over-whelming appeal of Stephen to the Jews, always resisting the Holy Spirit as their fathers did, drew out their hatred unto blood; and all the saints were scattered save the apostles. But thereon the free action of the Spirit in the work of the gospel went forward outside the Jews. Even Saul, who had consented in his blind fury to Stephen's murder, was called as apostle to the Gentiles (Acts ix.), and pre-eminently became also minister of the church, whose union with Christ was conveyed in our Lord's words at his conversion, "I am Jesus, whom thou persecutest."
Now no one disputes that the saints assembled at first in private houses to remember the Lord in His supper, the centre of their worship. It was expressly "at home," in contrast with the temple (Acts ii. 46); and there would they teach the disciples, if not preach more openly (ver. 42). Ere long, even in Jerusalem, they might need a hundred upper chambers instead of that one which sufficed before Pentecost. Unity does not at all depend on all assembling within a single apartment. This would make it material. It is really in the power of the Holy Spirit. Hence coming together (1 Cor. xi. 20) admits of as many localities as suited the convenience of saints dwelling sometimes in all the quarters of an extensive city. No matter how numerous the assemblages might be, scripture (i.e. God's mind) regards the saints as the church met together for the same purpose. One Spirit, not theirs but God's, created and maintained the unity for the manifestation of God's glory in Christ. Hence we never hear of "churches" but solely of "the church" in a city as in Jerusalem, Antioch, Corinth, Ephesus, etc.; though we read of "the churches" of Judea, Galatia, Macedonia, Asia, etc.
The notion however of "churches" only on earth, contrasted with "the church" in heaven, is not only unfounded but opposed to the word of God. For this reveals, not alone the fact of local assemblies up and down the earth, but that the saints there are members of one body, in which they are set by God according to His will for His glory. That some are no longer alive but gone to be with Christ in no way clashes with the living fact; for the Spirit came down here to establish the unity. Even among men the regiment abides the same, though individual soldiers are there no more. Independency is therefore the direct negation of that unity of the saints in one body here below, throughout manifested once, which each and all are responsible to manifest, though it be now manifested only by few. There was but one communion on earth according to the Lord's will and the apostles' teaching. A christian (when godly discipline forbade not) was member of the church everywhere; a pastor and teacher was Christ's gift wherever he might be. "God set" gifts in the church. Scripture recognises no such thought as membership or gift in a church. Barnabas and Simeon Niger and Lucius, Manaen and Saul, laboured together in Antioch; but so did such as visited Jerusalem or any other place. Intercommunion was the invariable rule, and liberty, not to say responsibility, of ministry in love. It was the right of Christ, not man's.
Undoubtedly there were also local charges, elders and deacons, in due time and place. In Jerusalem the "seven" were looked out by the multitude of the disciples, and appointed by apostolic laying on of hands. Scripture is silent how the elders there (Acts xi. 30, xv. 2-29) entered on their duties; but we know from Acts xiv. 23 that apostles chose them for the disciples, or an apostolic delegate like Titus (i. 5) established them where the apostle could not act. In no case was there popular election of elders. It was a task too delicate and difficult for the saints as a company; and it demanded apostolic authority direct or indirect. As the disciples contributed their money, it was fitting that they should look out dispensers in whom they confided; it was for apostles or their delegates to choose overseers or presbyters, to whom the rest could give no authority.
The apostles derived authority as well as gist from Christ, the source of both. As Christ conferred the highest and widest authority on the apostles, so did they appoint presbyters or elders and deacons in their local places respectively; the one as a spiritual charge, the other in temporal things, as is fully explained by the apostle, not to the assembly, but to Timothy in the third chapter of his first Epistle. One sees in the quotation which Eusebius draws (H. E. iii. 23) from Clem. Alex. how far the truth was lost thus early ; for how absurd to imagine the apostle John recurring to lots! a mode adopted before the Holy Spirt was given (Acts i.), as Chrysostom rightly acknowledges.
But local charge is in principle distinct from the gifts which the ascended Head of the body gave for the perfecting of the saints. Never do elders or deacons appear on any such ground. For the gifts flow direct from Christ, and are for His body wherever it may be. Nor does 1 Cor. xii. differ in this from Eph. iv., or Rom. xii. from Col. ii. And for this reason what unspeakable mercy to the saints! For the supply of those gifts which are of all moment depends on His grace and faithful care Who can no more fail now that He is on high, than when He came down to accomplish redemption for God's glory. In none of these scriptures can we restrain the church or the body to a local assembly, though a local assembly was wholly wrong if it did not represent it. The assembly on earth as a whole is contemplated; and in it, manifestly one body, the gifts were set. Hence the apostle treats it as no less visible than Jews or Greeks (1 Cor. x. 32).
This is the unity which is supposed in the very weighty scripture of 1 Tim. iii. 15. "But if I delay, that thou mayest know how to conduct oneself in God's house, which is a living God's assembly, pillar and support of the truth." Invisibility is out of the question. Responsible manifestation is the essence of what the apostle has before him and urgently presses. Nor would any other thought have been entertained, but for the practical ruin which so soon ensued, and the subsequent and deeper failure when the truth got swamped under tradition which was but precepts of men. Then began the desire to plead an invisible aggregate of saints within a visible mixed multitude, as if the church were only another Israel. The truth rather is that the church has departed from manifesting its original unity, according to the sad history of all the varied trials of man under responsibility here below. Who can see independent churches in the decree of Acts xv.? Who can limit " all the flock," or " the church of God" in Acts xx. 28, to the city of Ephesus? The R. Catholics have abused the fact of the church as a visible unity everywhere to their own mere majority and the grossest sectarianism, heterodoxy, and idolatry. This does not justify Protestants in denying responsible and holy unity according to God's institution, or claiming licence to set up churches independent one of another.
Are we then helplessly, hopelessly, bound by a chain of sin, either individually, or in our corporate place? If we turn away, as we are commanded, from those that create divisions and occasions of falling (Rom. xvi. 17), is there no way by grace to stand approved when not merely schisms but sects appear (1 Cor. xi. 18, 19)? God has answered this very difficulty in 2 Tim. ii. 19-21, which contemplates a state of disorder beyond rectifying. "Howbeit the firm foundation of God standeth, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his, and, Let everyone that nameth the name of the Lord depart from unrighteousness. Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some unto honour and some unto dishonour. If one therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, meet for the master's use, prepared to every good work."
Before the church began, the Lord had given the great assuring resource for the darkest day: "where two or three are gathered together unto my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matt. xviii. 20). In the brightest day no privilege more pregnant of blessing. We cannot expect all saints to recognize their relationship as members, and to refuse every body save the one body of Christ; but we can believe and act in faith ourselves. This is not a sect, but the way to be kept from it, while we look to the Lord, and own the ruin in loving sorrow. For without a real share in Christ's sense of the dishonour done thus to His name, knowing the church's privilege, and seeking to realise it, only ends in pride, evil, and worse confusion.
We are free, not to say bound, to remember Him in the breaking of the bread, but only in the unity of His body, and therefore receiving all that are His, save where His discipline intercepts. "He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad" (Matt. xii. 30). Undoubtedly we need the Spirit of God to guide us aright in the midst of the scatterings and perplexities of Christendom; but we have Him dwelling in us, that living in the Spirit we may walk in the Spirit, not only as individuals but keeping His unity in the bond of peace. Obedience, according to the word of God, is the safe-guard of holiness in every way: to this we are sanctified by the Spirit.
The Bible Treasury Vol. N1 page372