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RUIN OF THE CHURCH.
London: J. K. Campbell, Holborn;
James Nisbet and Co., Berners Street.
The following Letters, as may be seen from their respective dates, were written some time since. They are now given to the Church, not as containing conclusions, but as suggesting some thoughts, the consideration of which may, I trust, be for blessing. I shall be thankful as any one, where my letters contain error, to have the error plainly pointed out. I am on this subject, as on many others, only a learner in the Church, and shall rejoice to know God's mind more perfectly.
Hull, Dec. 1848.
THE RUIN, &c.
Hull, Jan. 26, 1846.
My dear Brother,
As one who needs instruction, I submit to you the following thoughts, being rather willing to shew my ignorance than to remain in it. .....
My difficulty then, is respecting the work of the Holy Ghost in the Body, the Church, as this truth is connected with the ruin of the dispensation. Putting it generally, it would amount to about this;—Allowing that the original and proper state of the Church upon earth is one visible body, ruled by one Spirit; in a word, one pure theocracy: allowing, too, that the present state of division and sects is a state of apostasy and failure, the consequence and proof of the dominion of the flesh, and therefore evil: still is there not a question, (now that the Church is scattered and in apostasy,)—
1st, Whether in such a state a feeble remnant is justified in seeking the original standing of the Church as one visible body upon earth? and,
2ndly, Whether such a remnant is right in expecting that the original principle of Church Government can in such cases be acted upon by them as a visible body?
Do, or do not, such expectations practically deny the apostasy of the dispensation?
You will not, I think, misunderstand my first question. It is not whether Christians should seek or expect the original circumstances of the Church; for this is plainly impossible:—nor is it whether Christians, either individually or collectively, should seek and expect the Church's original standing before God; for of course the Church's standing there is the same now as ever:—My question is, Whether a little remnant in the midst of apostasy, coming together as a visible body, (whatever you may call it,) can, or should seek to, occupy the original place and standing of the Church, as it presented itself to the world at the opening of the dispensation, and disown, as not to be submitted to, everything ecclesiastical which comes short of this?
So with regard to my second question. It is not, whether we should now expect the same amount of power in the actings of the Spirit in the Church; for this is not supposed by any: nor yet, whether an individual may expect both the same principle, and the same amount, of power; for special and individual gift, (as e.g. prophecy,) comes in through an individual in the apostasy of the visible body:—My question is, Can the Holy Ghost's place and power in the Church as a visible body upon earth, be owned and exercised in the visible body upon earth at a time when that body in which it is to be exercised as a visible body does not exist? Or, to use the words of a brother, does not "the exercise of the dispensed power depend on the condition of the body through which it is dispensed?" (Note: Operations of the Spirit, by J. N. D., pt. 3.) I know the common answer to such a question at once is, that this view of the matter would make much of the Scriptures of none effect, or dependent on circumstances, whereas the directions of Scripture and the power of the Holy Ghost are for all ages and places of the Church upon earth. But is not this sufficiently answered by asking, as one has asked upon another question,—"are they for ages and places where the Church as a visible body upon earth does not exist?" (Note: The Ruin of the Church, by J. N. D.) Suppose the failure and ruin of the visible body acknowledged. Acknowledging this, are we right to expect corporate power?
In all this, you observe, I assume two points which I suppose are unquestioned:—1st, that there is an operation of the Holy Spirit in the body in contradistinction, or rather in addition, to His operation in an individual:—and 2ndly, that this corporate operation is in the visible, not the mystical body. The first of these, I conceive, does not admit of a doubt. Is not the second, though not perhaps quite so manifest, equally sure? Assuming then, what I believe you concede, that the corporate actings of the Holy Ghost are in the visible body down here, His actings will (as has been said in the words above quoted) be dependent on the state of that visible body; and if the visible body, as such, has ceased to exist, how can corporate action remain?
To apply this to our own case. 1 Cor. 12, 14 give us directions respecting the visible body. We act on the direction as though the power existed. But is a direction sufficient when power is wanting, and can the power of the visible body exist, when the visible body as such is gone? This is my difficulty. I doubt not that I may have in measure wrongly apprehended it; but as it stands before me it seems to ask this;—Is not a visible body, (call it "a gathering" or what you please,) seeking the Church's original place before men, (i.e. as one visibly united community,) and to stand in that place in its original principles as a pure theocracy, when the visible body has through apostasy long lost its place, and even as a visible body its existence; when the Spirit's rule has been given up, and the flesh substituted in its place;—Is not this the sin of pretending to something we have not? Is it not denying the apostasy, and therefore, though in another form, the same error as that reprobated when seen in making Churches? Making Churches, or remaking Churches, on the original plan, only supposes ability to take the Church's original ground on earth. Does not our disowning anything but the original ground practically amount to the same thing? In principle at least are they not the same? If we say we will own nothing but the apostolic pattern, both as to the communion and rule of the Church,—that is, not only that everything but the original pattern is apostasy, (for this is plain,) but that nothing but the original pattern is to be submitted to,—do we not assume a possibility of getting the Church's original standing, and carrying out its original principles? The Dissenting and Established Church-makers, I know, assume this under another form: but in either case is not the leading point one and the same, viz., the assumption of a power which, from the failure of the visible body, has ceased to exist?
I repeat then my question;—Can a remnant in the total apostasy of the visible body, and when the dispensation has visibly fallen, take the original place, or act on the original principles on which the visible body was founded? How would the illustration in J. N. D.'s tract on the "Ruin of the Church," (p. 8,) and the statement which follows it, bear upon the question? He says, "a return from existing evil unto that which God at the first set up, is therefore not always a proof that we have understood His word and will, &c." Is this any answer to my question?
Do we learn anything from the analogies of the Jewish dispensation? Take a case or two.
First, Israel was at the commencement a pure theocracy, and one undivided people. After awhile they sinned and apostatised by asking a king, thus putting man into God's place. Yet God having owned this power, though in anger, like all other power it was power of God, and as such not to be despised or resisted. Would this be any ground for a Christian to argue that though the visible Church in its original constitution was a pure theocracy, yet that now, since other powers have been set up, (though the setting up of those powers is the mark of apostasy,) we ought not to expect the original constitution of the body, with which the dispensation began? Would it be right to say, that just as an Israelite in the days of Saul would have erred, had he endeavoured to order a visible body from out of Israel as a pure theocracy, (though the fact of there being a king like Saul was itself the mark of apostasy,) so a spiritual Israelite when the spiritual Saul has come in, would be in error to attempt to gather a remnant of the spiritual Israel on the original principles of the fallen dispensation? The question is not, whether the true remnant are justified in going out into the wilderness to David:—this is plain enough:—but whether, when there, they would do right in endeavouring to manifest the first standing of the dispensation, or to expect its original principle of power in its rule, communion, service, &c.?
Take another case. In process of time, Israel, which had been originally one body, becomes, through the sin of its rulers, divided. In this state—a state of sin and judgment—would it have been right for an Israelite to disown both divisions, on the ground that they were each in apostasy,—Judah in having caused the division, Israel in having set up idols? In such circumstances, would a true son of Abraham have been right in refusing to submit to either, and in endeavouring to gather together a separate visible body on the original principles of the dispensation; and would his reformations have been accounted nothing, if they came short of the standing Israel had first occupied?
Take but one other case. In later days when evils had multiplied, the temple was built by Herod, and guarded by Roman soldiers; the high-priests were appointed by an Edomite, and Edomites were reckoned Jews. In a word there was an entire breaking up of the distinctive character of Israel as God's own peculiar people. At this time many reformers arose, who told the people of Israel that they ought to be subject to none but God, and persuaded them not to submit to the Romans, for that such submission was disobedience and sin. Of this number was Judas of Galilee, who in the days of the taxing drew many after him into the wilderness, under the idea that they might take the original standing, and act on the original principle of the dispensation. I do not speak of their fate; but I ask, Was not such a course as this sin, inasmuch as such pretensions practically denied the apostate state of Israel? But then comes the question, Is not a Christian, refusing to own anything ecclesiastical as bearable except the original principles and standing of the dispensation, doing, in principle at least, something analogous to these false reformers of Israel?
Such are a few of the thoughts which have crossed my mind in connection with the question with which I commenced this letter, and as practically affecting another question, viz., What is the standing the true remnant ought to seek after? Whether it is God's will that a saint should separate from evil, is no question; but it does appear to me worth considering, how far he should take for the sole ground of his imitation the original standing and principles of the visible body when the dispensation opened. It does not appear to me a question, whether we should call Babylon Israel. It is no question with me whether the existence of Sauls and Herods, and the divided kingdoms of Israel are evil. Nor is it a question whether the sects of Sadducees and Pharisees are proofs of ripened apostasy. Nor is it a question whether we should personally cleanse ourselves from the evils such rulers and divisions produce. Nor is it a question whether we ought or ought not to make another body or party separate from the mass of Israel, to which we give the name of Israel. All this I think would plainly be evil. The question is,—Are a little remnant, under such circumstances, right in seeking as a visible body the original ground of the dispensation, and in expecting that the original principles of Church Government can in such a case be acted out?
I will not here go into the consequences which may be supposed to flow from such thoughts as the preceding, nor into the defence which might be made for them, because I am not making a system, but rather simply expressing a few of my thoughts. As to the objection, that such views as these would make obedience to Scripture depend on circumstances, I have already noticed it; and the answer which is there given may just shew the way in which, as it appears to me, objections of this sort may be sufficiently met.
Ever yours, &c.
Hull, Sept. 26, 1846.
My dear brother,
. . . . . . . . . . . .
You remember perhaps that some months ago I submitted to you some questions respecting the Church and its visibility, which about that time were being forced upon my own attention. Those questions, as they first occurred to me, appeared to involve us in inconsistencies. We are, thought I, of all men the witnesses of the failure of the Church; and yet do we most of all men practically deny it, if we now attempt to take the original standing of the Church, or to act on its original principle of government, as a visible body.
Accordingly I asked you the two following questions:—
1. Whether in the present state of apostasy a feeble remnant is right in seeking the original standing of the Church, as one visible body upon earth? and
2. Whether such a remnant is right in expecting that the original principle of Church government can be acted on by them as a visible body?
Your answer to these questions, though in part bearing on what I asked, were not a reply to my difficulty, and convinced me either that I had not properly expressed what I wished to ask you, or else that you had not exactly apprehended me. Thus your statements that—"the Body still continues, because it depends on the existence of the Head, that in this Body the Holy Ghost is supreme and will be so to the end, and further that we cannot give up the 'till we all come,' of Eph. 4 while we own the faithfulness of Christ,"—all this and much more of a similar kind, though most true and quite assented to by me, did not seem to touch my questions, which I intended to refer to the visibility, not to the vitality of the one body. Will you therefore permit me to repeat my questions, though for greater clearness under a slightly different form? You will thus see what my difficulty is.
It has been observed (Note: See the Tract, "Gifts of the Spirit remaining among the saints." By J. N. D.) and I believe most truly, that there is a difference between the gifts in 1 Cor. 12 and Eph. 4. The one class, "tongues, miracles, &c.," being what may be called sign gifts, connected with the visibility of the body; the other class, "pastors, evangelists, teachers," gifts very different in character, connected, not with its visibility, but with its vitality. The former, it is I suppose conceded, have failed. The latter, inasmuch as they are connected with the life of the Church, so they can never fail, let the Church, as a thing on earth, be where or what it will. God will in Babylon as much as out of it, have children begotten and fed. In other words preaching the Gospel and teaching believers will continue, as they have continued, let saints be where they may; because these are the gifts connected with the vitality of the body of Christ. But will there be ability to keep together a visible body by the energy of the Holy Ghost, (call that body "a gathering," or what you please,) when the energy of the Holy Ghost for keeping up the visibility of the Church is wanting, in other words when the gifts of 1 Cor. 12 are for the most part gone?
This is the question. As "Brethren" so called, our testimony in our way of meeting has been in connection with the visibility of the Church, rather than its vitality, and this on the ground of the ability of the Holy Ghost even yet to rule and order a gathering. It seems to me that "a gathering" is a visible body; else why and how do we exercise discipline? I ask, How can we get on as a visible body without the gifts for the visibility of the Church? Is not the ruling or keeping together of a visible body to be done by the gifts connected with the visibility of the Church, rather than by those gifts which are connected with its vitality? And are not these former gifts gone?
Such is the difficulty which has been pressed on me by cases of discipline, a difficulty to which as yet I have found no satisfactory answer, unless it be an answer to say, that the consequence of such views must be extremities for which we are not prepared, on the one hand a submission to Popery, on the other an entire giving up of anything like a visible body of any sort.
j. b. bateman, Printer, 1, Ivy Lane, Paternoster Row.
(Editor's note: The J. N. D. referred to in these letters is John Nelson Darby.)
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