|Gathering Unto His Name - Distinctions|
Almost without question, no subject that can be taught about the church and the churches is more relevant to today's needs than this distinction between the church which is His body and a local church of God on earth. The "church on earth" may convey to many minds all the believers in the world at any given time, but this is not language that is used in the NT. We need to wonder why? We find it convenient to speak of ?the early church? or ?the church in the 20th century?. We even hear Christians speaking about ?the church in South America? or some such geographical identification. Why does not the NT use language like this at all? Because there are only two aspects of the church in the mind of God:
1) The great spiritual body of Christ;
2) A local expression of it, a church of God.
To be a member of the body of Christ does not automatically mean that I form part of an assembly. This is a major issue in assembly practice.
1 Corinthians 11:32 gives us a comprehensive view of the entire world in which a believer or an assembly bears testimony for God. It is made up of Jew, Gentile and church of God. In God?s reckoning, there is nothing else. Scripture does not add assemblies together and give them a name to identify them as a joint testimony. God's testimony on earth is an assembly of Christians and although there are many such assemblies, they each stand on their own golden base and the Lord in the midst is their link to each other (Revelation 2:1), and is the Center of each gathering (Matthew 18:20).
There are as many as forty differences in the New Testament between the church which is the body of Christ (often called, the universal church) and a local assembly. This is a most important truth for at least two reasons:
1. No one should be in an assembly who is not in the body, although, sadly, this sometimes happens.
2. There are many genuine believers who form a part of the body of Christ who do not form part of a local assembly.
There was a believer like this in 1 Corinthians 14:23-25. Verse 23 clearly says, "the whole church" had come together. At this meeting no one was sick or travelling away from the assembly. All were present, when a man came in who was unknown to them. He might be an unbeliever, or he might be a true believer who has not been received into the fellowship of an assembly
As he looked on, from the seat of the unlearned (v 16), he saw the divine order and recognized the truth which he had never learned before "God is in you of a truth" (v 25). Falling down on his face he "worshipped God", so he was a true believer who up to that time was not in an assembly. He was unlearned about the presence of God as the "Gathering Center" of an assembly. It is a hypothetical case, so we can't trace his next steps, but we have no doubt that such a man who was "without" would very soon be "within" the assembly (1 Corinthians 5:12-13).
In many minds, "receiving to an assembly" has behind it the thought of being received to the Lord's supper, to break bread with the believers. Actually, reception is never to the supper, but always to an assembly of which the supper is one of the greatest privileges (Romans 16:1-2).
It has been widely taught that if "a person is truly saved and is clean in life and doctrine, he should be received to an assembly." This statement sounds good at a casual reading, but for at least two reasons it does not fit the teaching of the New Testament.
The first reason is that reception is not a one-way street. If it is reception to the fellowship of an assembly, then not only does the assembly receive the individual, but the person receives the assembly and the truth it believes and practices. This is the plain truth from the pattern in Acts 2:42. A true believer may not, through wrong teaching or a lack of teaching, understand the truth of the presence of the Lord as the Gathering Center. The man in 1 Corinthians 14:23-25 had not learned this precious truth. He was saved, but he was unlearned. When he had learned that the Lord was truly in the midst of His people, he was then fit for reception.
The second problem with the statement that all true believers should be received is, "If they are strangers to us, how do we know they are true believers, clean in life and sound in doctrine?" In the earliest days of power and discernment, even when apostles were present, there was care taken as to who was received (Acts 9:26-30). How much more do we need to exercise care in a day of mixture and confusion?
The Lord Jesus taught, "By their fruits ye shall know them" (Matthew 7:20). Some have taught that this verse only applies to the false prophets that are mentioned in verse 15. The false prophets are identified by their fruits (v 16), but then the Lord's teaching widens to embrace "every tree" (v 17, 19). Many passages in the NT warn against mere words when there are not works to prove the words are true.
All we are teaching here is that time and caution can save from mistakes that may cause serious harm to an assembly. Open reception does not work. There have been times when reception of people who practiced tongues and other such disruptive activities have destroyed an assembly.
THE SEAT OF THE UNLEARNED
We need to be careful that we ever act toward other believers in a humble and gracious, Christ-like spirit. We earnestly desire to have whole hearted fellowship with all who truly love His name and we should ever so live and teach that we draw true believers to the Lord Jesus and to an assembly that gathers in His name. However, it is not fellowship to invite a believer who does not understand the principles of assembly gathering to break bread. Which of us has the right to bring a stranger, unknown to our fellow believers, into the assembly for an occasional visit Is not this a violation of the very fellowship we express in the "one body" (1 Corinthians 10:16)? The "fellowship" is "steadfast" (Acts 2:42) and cannot be either occasional or casual. The table is not ours. Who has the right to invite anyone to the Lord's table but the Lord Himself? There is a place of learning, "the seat of the unlearned" (1 Corinthians 14:16).
A review of what is written on page 12 is necessary here. Some have looked back through the first 15 verses of 1 Corinthians 14 and said that "unlearned" means to not understand the tongues that were being spoken. If this is its meaning, then everyone in the assembly, including those who were speaking in tongues were ?unlearned?, and we cannot make the ?unlearned? distinct from them all. In six places in these 15 verses, we are told that nobody understood the tongue (v 2,3,4,6,9,11) and even the speaker did not know what he said (v 14). However, in verses 23 to 25, we learn that a man who was not part of "the whole church" occupied "the seat of the unlearned". In the hypothetical illustration that Paul is using, it turned out that he was saved, was able to worship God and learned that ?God is in you of a truth?.
The distinction between those who are in the fellowship of an assembly and those who are not does not rest in 1 Corinthians 14:16. There are numerous parts of the New Testament, particularly Acts 2 and the two ?church epistles?, from which we learn that an assembly is an entity, made up of a number of believers in a given place who are baptized and have been received into the assembly and continue in it steadfastly (Acts 2:41-42; 1 Corinthians 1:1-3; 1 Corinthians 3:6-16;1 Corinthians 5:12-13; 1 Corinthians10:15-22; 11 Corinthians 4:15-25; 1 Timothy 2:8-15; 1 Timothy 3:1-16).
The reason that the "seat of the unlearned" is more evident at a breaking of bread meeting is that it is the only meeting at which all partake of physical elements that are emblems of the fellowship and oneness of an assembly. Fellowship is a spiritual truth, but at the Lord's supper, it is given visible expression by the one cup and loaf and even by the circle around the table, and the separate seats for those who are not in the assembly (1 Corinthians 10:15-17).
This carefulness in reception is one of the greatest preservatives of an assembly as "a holy temple of the living God" (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 2 Corinthians 6:16). The religious world calls this practice, "closed communion", but we believe it it is a vital necessity in maintaining testimony to the name of the Lord Jesus.
SOME DISTINCTIONS BETWEEN THE BODY AND AN ASSEMBLY
These distinctions give adequate proof that an assembly is an entity, a particular number of believers who meet regularly together as a New Testament church. Being in it is distinct from being in the body. An assembly is not a vague coming together of believers wherever they happen to meet. It 15 a distinct called-out company.
These believers are known to one another and are known by the shepherds of the little flock who have been given a special charge to oversee, guard, protect and feed them (Acts 20:28).
In Paul?s words to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, there are at least four proofs of the great value God places on an assembly.
1. The Price of its Purchase: it has been "purchased with His own blood"
2. The Proof of its Ownership: "the church of God"; His name given to it.
3. The Preciousness of its members: "a little flock", under the protection of
the One Shepherd and the under shepherds.
4. The Provision for its needs: "oversight" - "feeding"
Reception to an assembly is the result of mutual desire for fellowship on the part of the assembly and the individual. When a believer from another assembly comes to visit or to reside, he is received by letter (Acts 18:2, 18, 26; Romans 16:1-3, 2 Corinthians 3:1). As in all reception, the receiving back of a restored believer is the act of the entire assembly (2 Corinthians 2:5-11). The reception of teachers and their teaching requires very special care (Acts 18:27, 1 Thessalonians 5:12). Elders are accountable for all that is taught in an assembly.
It is impossible to find all this teaching about reception to an assembly in the New Testament and then claim that any believer may come and go as he wishes. "They continued steadfastly in the fellowship" (Acts 2:42).
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