Assembly Characteristics - 01 Features

 Chapter 1

Distinct Features of the Assembly

1 Corinthians 1

Truth deserves repetition. Its value is inestimable, especially when it is the truth that God has given to us in His Word. Truth also requires repetition, for we seem easily to forget or depart from those truths and principles that God has established in order to preserve His people in their lives and service for Him. In view of the great importance that truths concerning the local assembly have, we might wonder why these simple truths must continuously be emphasized and re-taught, but this is evidently the case. There is always a generation of younger believers rising among us who need some form of teaching to guide them in this direction. We who are older also need to be reminded of those principles that form the basis of the practices of assemblies of saints who gather solely to the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ. So we return to the Holy Scriptures to be reassured of the validity of these principles and to be reminded of their application to us today.

The first chapters of Judges give us a corresponding condition, when after the death of Joshua, and later, after the death of the elders that outlived Joshua, a generation arose “which knew not the LORD, nor yet the works which he had done for Israel,” (Judges 2:10). Evidently, either there had been a breakdown in the conveyance of truth to succeeding generations, or those who had come after the elders failed to appreciate the truths that God had given His people. Paul emphasizes the same principle in his last letter to Timothy. We read that Timothy was to transmit the truths that he had heard from Paul among many witnesses to faithful men who would also convey that same truth unchanged to others that would follow. (2 Timothy 2:2). Therefore, we see that all truth that God has given to the saints in His Word must be reemphasized to His people, even though, in reality, those truths should produce instant exercise and obedience in our hearts. It seems that in each of us there is a tendency to depart from the truth that God has given. In addition, the principles of the local assembly must be reestablished and re-taught to younger generations because of the proliferation of the various ideas and practices identified with “church gathering” in the world around us. If it were not for this, perhaps it would not be so needful. However, because different groups surround believers, all claiming to represent and practice what should be carried out in the present day, but each displaying greater or lesser departure from the scriptural pattern, it is even more necessary for us today.

For this reason, as well as constantly to seek to encourage God's people to continue in the simple patterns of New Testament assembly gathering, we propose to look at some of the characteristics of the local assembly from First Corinthians. This profitable epistle, written to address problems in such an assembly, contains in it the principles and practices that were characteristic of the local assembly. Its truths remain today for the profit and blessing of saints who are willing to walk in its truth for the honor of the Lord. We may glean many precious truths and see early practices of the church in the historic record of the church’s beginning in the book of Acts. There are certain practices in the early chapters of Acts that we believe were never intended to continue; they were a part of a “transition period.” We include in these practices the community of property (Acts 2:44, 4:32), the performance of signs and miracles including speaking in tongues (Acts 2:4, 5:12-16), and the function of other gifts that were necessary in those days. These gifts and practices existed while the emphasis was to the Jews first and then the Gentiles, and before the completion of the canon of the New Testament. However, we find the doctrinal teaching of the local assembly primarily in 1 Corinthians as well as in 1 Timothy. Other epistles also give us teaching that emphasizes the local assembly, but these two are the primary sources of instruction in this area. Although in 1 Corinthians we see many difficulties that stimulated the apostle and which resulted in Paul writing it, it is clear that underlying the difficulties is the recognition that there was an ideal for the local assembly that the saints in Corinth were failing to uphold. The beloved apostle clearly was seeking to recover the believers to that truth so that God might restore and preserve the assembly.

If there is a definite pattern for the assembly, then we have the responsibility to discern it and to seek to conform to it. We cannot say, as some do, that there is no pattern. If we say this, then we only display a condition similar to the end of Judges, when  “every man did that which was right in his own eyes,” (Judges 17:6, 21:25). It is with the desire to preserve and to help the Lord’s people that we consider this subject, trusting it will prove to be profitable to that end.

Distinction of the Local Assembly from the Body

It is essential for us to recognize that the truth of the local assembly is distinct from the truth of the body of Christ. All believers are a part of the body of Christ from the moment of conversion, but not all are part of a local assembly. There are characteristics of the body of Christ that are not true of the local assembly, and the reverse is also the case. Confusion on these issues causes believers to lose sight of the importance of both aspects of God’s house today (1 Timothy 3:15). These truths run concurrently throughout the epistles of our New Testament and both aspects are very important. If we understand that God is presently working through the gospel to bring those who believe into the body of Christ, He is also intending that every believer should be a member in a local assembly fellowship. Believers need to examine and understand these differences to appreciate properly the unique character of a local assembly in its testimony for God before the world. We do not gather as some say, on the ground of “one body.” Neither is the local assembly a miniature of the body, but it does have the responsibility to represent the body in that locality where God has planted it.

Some examples of those differences include the fact that the body of Christ includes every born again believer from the day of Pentecost until the rapture (1 Corinthians 13:13, Ephesians 4:4), whereas it is apparent that not every such believer is in a local assembly. There is no public testimony, no reception into, no discipline in or putting away from the body of Christ; there certainly are all these practices in the local assembly (Philippians 1:27, 1 Corinthians 5, Acts 9:26-28). There are no distinctions between believers in the body of Christ, but there are distinctions in the local assembly (Galatians 3:27-28, 1 Timothy 2:7-15). Many other features could be cited so that we might realize that there is a difference that we must understand.

Notice first, relative to the local assembly, that in 1 Corinthians the assembly was called the “church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1:2). We know that this term is used of an assembly in a particular locality (Acts 20:28, 2 Corinthians 1:1), but not of the entire Body of Christ. This is true even in 1 Corinthians 15:9 and Galatians 1:13, where Paul speaks of persecuting the “church of God,” for those whom he was persecuting were part of the assembly of God at Jerusalem and those scattered from it. This expression suggests that

An Assembly is His Possession

It is “church of God” because He has claimed it for Himself, and it should visibly and practically display subjection to His authority and will. The Lordship of Christ is to be yielded to personally even as His Headship is to be displayed corporately. Ideally, the assembly is to be comprised only of those who have been redeemed by the precious blood of Christ and who belong to Him, and because of this, they willingly seek to carry out His will. Understanding this truth preserves one from assuming that one may introduce into or do anything in the assembly that man may think is acceptable or which does not explicitly recognize God’s right to control. The assembly of God is not mine or yours, it is God’s. Some of the attitudes and practices of the Corinthian saints were contrary to this principle and were causing division in what was to be His assembly. If they had realized the solemn importance of this truth, that the assembly belonged to Him, they would have been more careful in their behavior. To realize this would go far to preserve each one of us from presuming in anything that might be done in the local assembly of God.

An Assembly Knows His Presence

If it is “church of God,” then there can be the precious realization of His own presence in the midst of the gathered people of God. It is a place where He desires to meet with His people. This follows the truth expressed in Matthew 18:20. His promised presence is realized as His will is obeyed and His saints have been gathered into assembly testimony by the work of the Spirit of God. The “gathering unto His Name” does not define only what happens when an assembly is engaged in a meeting, but more than that, it has in view the continuing testimony of the assembly in that place. The gathering is the result of the work of God to plant that assembly, and we, as believers, have been brought into it and are thereafter gathered unto His Name. His presence is a continuing part of that testimony and should be recognized in every aspect of our lives for Him.

This gives us no cause for any boasting or pride. Surely it should humble us to realize how little His presence is known and recognized among us. But it is a privilege and a responsibility that should give purpose and encouragement to us as we seek to be more in fellowship with Himself according to His own Word. The realization of His own presence should control our lives and inhibit the flesh, whether in our daily lives or in the assembly meetings. If we were truly more conscious of the Lord in the midst, surely we would have more spiritual exercise, more care and reverence, and would allow less of those things that detract from the realization of our Lord’s presence among us.

An Assembly Displays Uniqueness

In Corinth, there was only one place that was called the church of God. Many were the places of worship around them, and multitudes attended those places religiously. But even as in Ephesus, where there was only one place recognized by God as “house of God, the church of the living God” (1 Timothy 3:15), so it was in Corinth. That placed a certain character on it that made it unique from all the rest. They were different, and were not afraid to be so. The assembly is not called to conform to the pattern of the religious ideas of men around. It is not a part of the religious world and is not intended to become part of it. There is to be a unique and different character in the assembly, and we should not feel compelled to fit in with the rest. We have a personal responsibility before God to walk in the light that He has given us in His Word in view of the day when all will be revealed as He has seen it. If assemblies try to adopt the religious ideas and practices of the world, they will lose their distinctive character and effectiveness. We receive much criticism, some of it deserved because of our own failure, but it is also only to be expected from those who do not understand the Divine principles of gathering.

There are those in our day who are advocating that the assemblies return to the mainstream of evangelical denominationalism, and become one group among many, to be recognized and to work with those who also claim to be maintaining God's truth. To do so would be to forsake the principles that we seek to maintain from God's Word, and would only further lead to the extinction of those assemblies that seek to remain faithful to the truth of gathering. May the Lord preserve us from those tendencies and maintain us in faithfulness until He comes!